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Friday, 22 November 2019

Cairo Int'l Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre versus its audience

The 26th edition of the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (CIFCET) took place between 10 and 19 September

Nora Amin, Saturday 28 Sep 2019
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The Fantasticks, a US musical performance, was presented at the opening ceremony of CIFCET. While the main hall of Cairo Opera House was filled with the mostly invited audience, The Fantasticks appeared to celebrate the USA as this year’s guest of honour at the festival – that is why the festival opened with an American performance – but it appeared to speak to the wrong audience.

A very well made, almost iconic performance that talks about the journey of life, good and evil, love and loss, friendship and adventure, and much more, The Fantasticks seemed like a tribute to American musical theatre for the young – nothing more.

Playing for more than three decades, the performance is a masterpiece, no doubt. The question is whether it is a masterpiece in the context of CIFCET, which focuses on experimental and contemporary theatre. In my opinion, it was neither experimental nor contemporary. A well made production does not necessarily mean that it is experimental or innovative, and belonging to the American musical repertory definitely means that it is not a product of the current contemporary moment. I have no issue with the performance itself, but rather with its selection for CIFCET, and specifically for the opening, which is supposed to be relevant to the event as a whole.

A long performance that immediately feels like it is addressed to an audience of youth and teenagers played to a full house of mature artists, critics, scholars and theatre makers, and that left me with the sense that, as spectators, we were regarded as infantile.

While totally believing in the possibility of youth performances for older spectators, and agreeing that we all have a child within us, I do not agree with mixing categories and passing on performances without respecting and examining spectatorship. I believe that any festival has to take into consideration the kind of spectatorship that it embraces, the age range, social and educational background, cultural orientation, gender distribution and political convictions. Ignoring spectatorship is like organising a festival for one’s own sake. Presenting performances that do not match the principles of the festival or its mission statement is like deforming the festival’s identity. This is not to be taken lightly.

Another show where the same issue exits is the Brazilian performance that was presented at Al-Salam Theatre. Although a very clever and captivating performance, it is labelled in its own country of production as a youth performance. Again, this is not a judgment of the quality of the performance, it is only a clarification of its category of spectatorship. And it is necessary to understand that youth performances are not in any way less interesting or less artistic than adult performances.

To be specifically made for children and youth only means a certain focus on topics that are of relevance to this age range, and a certain attention to the pedagogical discourse behind the performance itself. If the festival curators decide to change the category of a youth performance into another category because it is “such a good performance”, that may insinuate a false understanding both of quality and of age categories.

I would also like to draw the attention to the fact that the adult spectators’ enjoyment does not legitimise presenting a youth performance within CIFCET. I truly wonder about the policies and criteria that regulate the work of the selection committees of the festival. I certainly do hope that there are some rules and regulations, or guiding principles, for the selection of international, regional/Arab, and Egyptian performances. This is definitely the responsibility of CIFCET management and not that of the committees which are changing on a yearly basis.

For instance, I was speechless for a long time after I watched the Iraqi performance at Miami Theatre. Although it is not labelled in its own country of production as a youth performance, to my eyes it fit that category so well. A performance that is largely based on video projection cannot be presented as a theatre performance, because a theatre performance must rely on live performance as its main foundation and act. The performance’s creators presented it as shadow mime theatre. In fact there is nothing experimental in shadow theatre unless one creates a special signature that brings innovation through experimentation to this field, and none of that existed in the Iraqi performance.

 Having a video projection is not enough to call it experimental shadow theatre. Video projections are really so old now as a tool, they clearly belong with traditional theatre. Moreover the single performer who was on stage – and who accounted for the two categories of “performance” and “mime” – had a minor role when it came to the examination of the identity of the performance and its aesthetics. His appearance seemed functional in order to have the full equation of “mime/shadow/performance” rather than emerging out of an intellectual or artistic necessity or discourse.

I believe that when using traditional tools and sources in the world today – overwhelmed by technologies as we are – we need to ask ourselves what those tools and sources mean. We need to go first on a journey to re-examine and re-understand the visual culture of today and its rapport vis-à-vis the human condition, before embarking on an experiment to re-invent our performance heritage.

When a scary number of spectators were holding up their mobile phones throughout the duration of many performances, one cannot avoid the question of the impact of technology over theatre. It is not a question of the technology of the performance itself, but rather of the technology of spectatorship. Such a technology that is gradually replacing the human gaze and the human connection – the basic foundations of a theatrical and performative act – with the screen of a smartphone. The human spectator prefers now to register the moment rather than living it.

The human act of witnessing has been transformed into a media storage fact. The human eye does not look to the stage anymore, instead it looks towards the screen held by hand. Everybody watches their own performance screen. They bring the whole stage into the tiny dimension of a handheld device, re-creating the performance into a digital flat picture, killing theatre.

In a full house of artists, intellectuals and journalists, watching this exceptional moment of the mutation of live perception, and its delegation to digital flat spectatorship, is very scary. What kind of spectatorship do we have now? Who are the spectators? Are they only “festival audiences”? Are they only “peers” viewing each other’s work? Are they “screen holders”? And what might “spectating” (the Arabic term furja) be?

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