The ongoing National Theatre Festival that runs between 19 July and 8 August offers a large assortment of plays, 37 of which participate in the official competition.
This year, the festival expanded on several levels. Along with troupes from Cairo, nine governorates present their productions and an increased number of awards are available that have doubled in monetary value in comparison to past editions.
No doubt, those developments come as good news for many troupes that still struggle with numerous obstacles in their theatrical production processes. And while for many troupes operating under the Ministry of Culture life is not always a bed of roses, the challenges seem much bigger for theatre practitioners located far away from Cairo.
Ahram Online spoke to directors who work with troupes in nine visiting governorates, who voiced the many obstacles they face when working in theatre locally. In most cases, directors working with actors in the governorates are not dedicated to one troupe only and normally circulate across a number of troupes. This hampers prospects of creating a continuous artistic development.
Soon we discover, however, that the challenges get bigger. From the southern town of Shalateen to the north coast of Marsa Matrouh, Egypt’s theatre directors present a long list of problems, on top of which are limited budgets, limited spaces, and even limited freedom of the choice of plays.
Anaconda theatre troupe from Qena governorate (Upper Egypt) came to Cairo with the play The Handcuff. (Photo: courtesy of the troupe founder Abdel Rahim Atta)
In the conversations, thin budgets are among the most recurrent obstacles mentioned by the directors. No matter how passionate they are and how much they hope to give art to local societies, when working in the governorates they remain completely at mercy of the culture ministry’s administration and its policies.
When a troupe has national status (confered by the ministry), it is privileged with the highest budget, which translates to EGP40,000 ($4,500) for the production of one play. However, this already small amount is in theory.
Ashraf Al-Nouby, director of The Waterwheel, a play from Marsa Matrouh, explains that a series of complicated administrative regulations reduce significantly the final sum.
“Part of the mentioned budget is conditioned by the requirement that crew members should be employees of the Ministry of Culture. This is a very tough condition to meet since Marsa Matrouh’s troupe doesn’t have anyone from the ministry on board. As a result we lose up to EGP15,000 [$1,700],” El-Nouby clarifies.
“At least 70 percent of the remaining amount is consumed by the wages of the technicians and administrative staff, the actors, all of whom are expected to work for four months. We often end up with a couple of hundred for the production itself, which leads us to buying very poor materials for the costumes and the décor.”
He adds that not only in Marsa Matrouh are most of the materials at least double the price than in Cairo or Alexandria, they are often of a much lower quality and do not survive through many performances.
The actors’ wages are not encouraging either. El-Nouby clarifies that in governorates, an actor is paid EGP7-10 ($0.7-1) per rehearsal and EGP10-12 ($1-1.2) per one night of performance, with the condition, set by ministerial regulations, that the total wage for an actor over the span of four months not exceed EGP140.
El-Nouby adds that the touring directors who are employed under the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces are paid EGP2,000-4,000 ($225-450) for the same amount of time, “a small amount for a person who is completely detached from his family.”
“Even if you are surrounded by brilliant and passionate team, those realities make it impossible to give justice to the passion of people who make theatre," El-Nouby says.
For a troupe from Shalateen, which came to Cairo with The Nights of Songs and Gold, it was their first participation in the National Festival.
Director of the play Mohamed Fouad says that “last year I was asked by the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces to establish a theatrical troupe in Shalateen. We worked very hard to do this and to convince people in such a remote area to be part of it. The target was to enhance the national feelings of local residents. We held workshops that resulted in a performance that reflected local traditions and customs. We have done all this with a net sum of EGP15,000 ($1,700). Despite the great success of the play, we could not promise sustainability. How can any young man keep attaching his life to theatre when he is paid EGP120 ($13.5) for a few months of work?"
With very tight budgets, travel beyond their towns is impossible. Abdel Rahim Atta, the founder of Anaconda theatre troupe from Qena governorate (Upper Egypt), came to Cairo with the play The Handcuff.
“There was no budget granted for the transportation and accommodation in Cairo. We have 15 crew members and very limited resources. What helped us is a good relationship with the governor and other officers in Cairo and Qena who extended support in one way or another. Other than that, we can never afford touring," he comments.
Lack of venues
The Shadow of a Man, by Sohag Cultural House of El-Monshaa, directed by Khaled Atallah. (Photo: courtesy of the director)
Beyond budgets, in many governorates theatre troupes do not find space to rehearse and perform.
In a recent interview, the head of 9th National Theatre Festival, Nasser Abdel-Moneim, revealed that following a fire that claimed many lives in Beni Suef Theatre in 2005, 80 percent of stages across Egypt were closed by the Civil Protection Department that operates under the interior ministry, and left that way.
Understandably, the closures jeopardised and largely froze the operations of many troupes.
In Marsa Matrouh, for instance, the administration of the non-operational cultural palace and the director have to find alternative locations for rehearsals.
In Qena, troupes often rehearse and perform in the front yard of the cultural palace that was closed in 2005 and that is being renovated since two years.
Mostafa Ibrahim, director of Ahmed Bahaa El-Din Theatre House in Asyut governorate, who participated in the festival with the play The Donkey Show, told Ahram Online that the troupes usually work in avenues and gardens surrounding closed cultural palaces.
“It is not like in Cairo where there are many private and non-governmental cultural spaces and stages. Far from the capital, it is a hopeless situation. The Ministry of Culture does not proceed with maintenance or renovations. There is even no budget to bring those stages back to life,” Ibrahim comments.
He also points to the lack of interest of businessmen and many institutions that support art in the capital but never look into the governorates. “They do not care about cultural development; they care about their appearance [in the capital] and money. We are ignored by both the culture ministry and non-governmental players. How can young people across Egypt remain hopeful, energetic, and enthusiastic when they don’t have the access to express themselves through art?" Ibrahim asks in a bitter tone.
But the list of obstacles faced by theatre practitioners outside Egypt’s big cities continues with a series of regulations set on the staging of plays.
Ibrahim explains that any play produced by the ministry has a limited number of performing days (5-10) depending on the location’s availability and the troupe’s position in the official ministerial ranking. National troupes benefit from the highest number of performing days.
Khaled Atallah, director of Sohag Cultural House of El-Monshaa, which participated in the National Festival with the play The Shadow of a Man, mentions that the situation was different only a few years earlier when the troupes performed up to 30 nights.
“Not only the new limitations are discouraging, they also limit the local audiences from attending. In some governorates, like Qena for instance, many locals are not even aware that there is a theatre troupe. We end up performing for families and friends, or in front of the juries. This is what theatre is about," Atallah adds.
The Donkey Show by Ahmed Bahaa El Din Theatre House in Asyut, directed by Mostafa Ibrahim (Photo: courtesy of the director)
Censorship as an expensive burden
The choice of texts staged by the troupes raises yet another set of questions.
In the National Theatre Festival we noticed that two troupes, from Cairo and Asyut, chose the same text by the German playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
On the other hand, there is an obvious tendency of staging the same texts by Egyptian playwrights time and again. The latter phenomenon can be explained by censorship placed on the texts of Egyptian playwrights.
According to all the theatre directors from governorates interviewed by Ahram Online, the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces has a list of Egyptian plays that are blessed by the censorship authorities, those that have already passed through the lengthy bureaucratic procedures of approvals.
Mohammed El-Adl, a director from Zagazig, a city in Lower Egypt, came with a troupe performing The Revolution of the Dead, a play by the American playwright Irwin Shaw. When speaking of the new Egyptian dramas he said, "that it is practically impossible to work on a play that is not listed [by the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces]. At the same, writers and plays wait for years in the queue to be included in the list.”
El-Adl further explained that in the case the director wishes to work on a text by an Egyptian playwright that is not on the list, he has to go through the daunting — and expensive — censorship procedures by himself.
“And what if after all that effort and money invested the director’s choice is rejected? It is easier for us to pick a play that is hassle-free,” he concludes.
With all the obstacles, one wonders how troupes in governorate far from Cairo or Alexandria manage to practice theatre at all.
The new generations that join theatre movements every year keep expressing themselves, hoping that change will eventually take place.
All directors say they wish for someone to hear their voice and give them a hand so that the enthusiasm and energy of many young theatre makers can be well directed.
A troupe from the southern town Shalateen came to Cairo with the play titled The Nights of Songs and Gold, directed by Mohamed Fouad. (Photo: courtesy of the director)