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Sunday, 24 September 2017

'I go to the theatre to play with the space': Prominent Egyptian scenographer Hazem Shebl

He is the first Egyptian artist to be nominated vice-president of the International Organization of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians (OISTAT)

May Selim, Friday 25 Aug 2017
Hazem Shebl
Scenographer Hazem Shebl [centre] (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby) and four photos of his set design from different theatre plays.
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His picture is never present on theatre billboards like those of stars, but instead appears i small letters in the corner--yet it is always a sign that the show is worth watching, and certainly benefits from great lighting and decor.

The artist in question is stage designer, lighting designer and scenographer Hazem Shebl, who was recently nominated vice-president of the International Organization of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians (OISTAT).

“This nomination comes crowning a fourteen-year-long career,” says Shebl with pride. The artist is delighted with this new post and excitedly recounts his professional journey.

“This organisation was founded in 1968. Egypt was often represented in its quadrennial conferences and exhibitions, in Prague, by artist and design professor Ramzi Mostafa.

Mostafa, who was in charge of selecting Egyptian artworks, technicians and scenographers, invited me to participate in 2003, with the play titled The Storm. The international conference of scenographers and designers, organised by the international organisation World Stage Design, is held in alternation with this quadrennial. All these organisations help with networking and communication, allowing openness and exchange,” explains the designer.

In 2007, Egyptian participation at the quadrennial was very weak. According to Shebl, the situation was going from bad, to worse. “The people in charge at the Ministry of Culture paid little attention to this sort of artistic manifestation. No one cared to offer young theatre designers or technicians the chance to broaden their horizons,” says Shebl.

The call for applications for the 2011 edition of the quadrennial was held in October 2010. Shebl, who wanted to participate, spoke to the Ministry of Culture, calling for their support to form a delegation representing the country.

El-Selim Wa El-Thaaban (Snakes and Ladders)
El-Selim Wa El-Thaaban (Snakes and Ladders) directed by Khaled Galal, scenography Hazem Shebl (Photo: Al-Sayed Abdel-Qader)


“The ministry officials turned a blind eye. After the January 2011 revolution, the situation was critical. After raising the question with a friend on Facebook, the head of foreign cultural relations, Hossam Nassar, offered to help us. The minister of culture, Emad Abou Ghazi, also encouraged me to continue preparing the file for Egyptian participation. In June 2011, I gave a speech at the quadrennial, and was received with a thunder of applause. I felt like a resuscitated pharaoh. It was right after the revolution, and everyone looked onto us with admiration. After I presented the projects of my fellow designers, Egypt was admitted as a permanent member of the OISTAT,” recalls the artist.

Shebl, along with a group of young scenographers, has since regularly represented Egypt at this prestigious event. A year on, Shebl founded the Egyptian Scenographers & Theatre Technicians Centre, the first of its kind in Egypt.

The artist likes to be described as a “designer.” “No word can describe exactly what I do!” he says. “Frankly, my job is too complicated.”

He is not only in charge of lighting, he also brings together all the other elements. His work as a scenographer thus constitutes an integral part of the staging.

“Scenography is the art of organising scenic space. In Egypt, only Walid Aouni can be described as such, because is among the few people who handle of the creative details: decor, lighting, movement, costumes, etc,” adds Shebl, who recently decorated the children’s play Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

“I go to the theatre to play with the space”, he says with a smile.

Despite being 50 years old, Shebl has the soul of a child. When he talks about sober and inert scenic space, his eyes sparkle, reflecting the joy he feels working behind the curtains.

“I never wanted to become a star nor a director. I cannot work like them. It is very difficult,” he explains. The son of stage and television actor Gamal Shebl, Hazem never wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“Growing up, the theatre was always a familiar place. I often accompanied my father. During the intermissions, I would go backstage and greet my father’s friends. In 1978, at the Bairam El-Tounsi theatre in Alexandria, actor Choukoukou was performing in Zoqaq Al-Maddaq. I saw that the same star who made the audience laugh on stage was crying backstage. My father told me that Choukoukou had lost his wife the previous day. It was hard for me, I understood that the constraints of his work were intolerable. Furthermore, I could not take part in such long rehearsals, nor in a show that took place every day. I am not cut out for this type of work,” says Shebl, whose work is done once the show premieres.

Midsummer Night
Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Khaled Galal, scenography Hazem Shebl (Photo: Al-Sayed Abdel-Qader)

As a child, Shebl was fascinated by construction games like Meccano and Lego.

“In middle school, I was especially interested in spherical geometry. I wanted to pursue my studies at the faculty of engineering, but since I obtained mediocre results in school, I was admitted to the faculty of literature. I felt suffocated and kept asking myself ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

At the time, the Higher Institute of Theatre, at the Academy of Arts, offered preparatory courses for its admissions exam. Encouraged by his father’s friends, Shebl took a design course. “I chose design because all of our studies were related to space.”

His sketches and creations garnered much attention. As a second-year student, he worked as a designer on the play War and Peace, directed by Al-Sayed Khater. The play, which was presented in Cairo University, addressed the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“It was my first professional experience. Among my sketches, I drew a map of the Arab world in the shape of a hexagon, with triangles that opened to form David’s star, the symbol of Zionism”, recounts the artist. The idea was simple, original and provocative. Yet Shebl did not know how to bring it to life, and asked his friends for help.

“My friends made a list of all the required materials. I spend my time drinking juice while they were at work, bringing my design to life.”

Each new play constituted a new challenge for the young student. Upon graduating, Shebl was hired to work as a designer on national television, a great and practical entrance into the field. Yet he always found the theatre more appealing.

Leila
Musical Leila directed by Hani Afifi, scenography Hazem Shebl (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

“Regardless of my age and professional level, I am always eager to learn. I follow every possible workshop to grow and discover new materials.” His designs are often unusual and dazzlingly beautiful.

Shebl pursued his studies at the institute while simultaneously working as a designer on a play directed by Hamada Choucha. At the time, the Higher Institute of Theatre nominated some of its young creators to participate in the festival of Avignon.

“Our show was selected, but no one on our team spoke French or English. We were set to travel for ten days, and with the help of our Syrian friends, we were able to manage. Back in Egypt, I decided to learn French. This trip constituted a real turning point in my career, because it allowed me to broaden my horizons, without apprehension.”

Shebl studied the language at Cairo’s French Institute, and was able to pass the eighth-level exam. However, the day they announced the results, he did not feel lucky.

“I had an interview the next day, to work as technical director at the American University in Cairo. After studying French for two years, I no longer had a word of English in mind, but God saved my life: I was interviewed by a Belgian man who accepted to speak to me in French.”

His work at the American university allowed Shebl to closely unravel the secrets hidden behind the curtains, and stage technicalities, as well as learn all the technical terms in English. Furthermore, he dedicated himself to design and decoration, and was often solicited by directors for the originality of his work. “I simply wanted to work in design,” he says.

Today, he works on numerous National Theatre productions and with student troops, or on plays produced and aired by satellite channels. He also teaches at MSA University and Ain Shams University, teaching his students how to play with space, as he does himself.

Shebl dreams of holding the next edition of the World Stage Design conference in Egypt, in 2021. He has already prepared his candidacy folder and will soon reach out to the necessary organisations. The bets are on.  

Snow White
Snow White directed by Mohsen Rizq, scenography Hazem Shebl (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

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