INTERVIEW: Sameh Mahran, president of Cairo theatre festival on Egypt's return to the international theatre scene

Nahed Nasr, Saturday 24 Sep 2016

Sameh Mahran, president of the ongoing Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre, talks to Ahram Online about this year's edition and its challenges, as well as hopes and plans for the future

Sameh Mahran
Dr. Sameh Mahran, president of the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

The 23rd Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (CIFCET), 20-30 September, returns with a new name and vision.

The festival revives a tradition established before it came to a halt for five consecutive years.

Ahram Online talks to Sameh Mahran, president of the festival and former president of the Academy of Arts.

Ahram Online (AO): The Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) was founded in 1988, and as its name indicates, it focused on the experimental theatre genre. After a five-year hiatus, the festival returns with "contemporary” added to its name. Does this reflect a change of mission?

Sameh Mahran (SM): Not at all. Internationally speaking, the term “experimental theatre” is no longer used. It reflected experimentation as a unique feature of theatrical productions that emerged during a specific time — the era of science that is based on observation and experimentation. Today, this kind of experimentation became a fundamental feature in all theatrical practices. In previous years, there was a need to emphasise this “experimental” concept. Now it has become a matter of fact.

AO: So the change of the name is not so much conceptual as procedural?

SM: When we were thinking of relaunching the festival we had two main ideas regarding its name in mind: either to turn it simply into an “international theatre festival” which would be all-audiences inclusive, or to keep the original name – that includes the term experimental – but add to it a broader term.

I belong to the first group who thought that we need to have a festival for all theatre audiences and not only for intellectuals. We wanted to stir up the still waters, to attract the audience that walked away from theatre and refresh in them this need to see plays on real stages.

Eventually, we have reached the compromise that is seen in both the festival’s name and its vision.

AO: A number of state-run festivals were frozen in 2011, among them the most prominent example being the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF). However, while it did not take the film festival long to eventually return to the scene, the theatre festival’s return was much harder. Why did it take five years to bring the festival back?

SM: It needed determination and persistence, and a team that consisted of a number of renowned names in Egypt’s theatre who always showed great enthusiasm. It was in fact directors Nasser Abdel Moneim and Essam Elsayed, as well as myself, who fought very vigorously for this festival to come back.

The festival has played an important role and its absence from the international artistic scene was a big issue. Remember that other countries that also went through the revolutions in 2011 did not necessarily suspend their cultural activities. For instance, the International Festival of Carthage, Tunisia, continued uninterrupted.

Arts and culture are as important for the development of our country as food and milk.

AO: Though it is a big event to see the festival’s return, this concept is probably not sufficiently visible in the general media. Should we address this question to the festival’s media and promotional departments?

SM: We began working on this edition of CIFCET two years ago. However, until last month there was no fixed budget given to this event. A lot of our work was done on a voluntarily basis: the website, collecting applications, arranging workshops, and even inviting guests. It was a difficult kickoff and there are many points that are still to be resolved.

However, eventually, the Ministry of Culture set a fixed budget of LE5 million for the festival. You can imagine that with inflation, increasing travel costs and other prices, this budget is really limited.

Another obstacle we faced during the preparatory stage was linked to the performance spaces. Several of state theatres are under renovation. Had we had more spaces and more budget, we would have been able to invite more troupes.

Hence, as you see, it all boils down to the budget.

AO: Similar issues were cited during the National Theatre Festival that took place between 20 July and 8 August. Is there a general remedy to this problem?

SM: I think that one of the many things that should be done is establishing dynamic theatre spaces in areas such as 6th of October City, Kattemeya, and New Cairo. On the one hand, these areas have the fast-growing population and a lack of art venues, and on the other, many parts of those areas are economically privileged and as such, having theatre around such “financial centres” can help boost the economy of less advantaged areas.

AO: The 23rd edition of the festival is without a competitive element, while in previous years, CIFET was a competitive festival. Does this decision result from financial limitations?

SM: Not at all. Many of the most prestigious theatre festivals in the world do not have competitions. The perspective of the festival is based on collaboration, exchange of experiences, and communication. The festival aims at democratising culture and rebuilding cultural bridges. A competitive part has nothing to do with such objectives.

AO: Four out of six honourees of this year’s festival are from Africa and the Middle East. Why this focus?

SM: We ignored Africa for a long time, and we now need to regain our connection with the Arab world and Africa. On the other hand, however, the Asian theatre movement is very important. In general, we wanted to deliver a message that CIFCET is open to all cultural experiences, diverse contexts, and different creative realities.

AO: What about the troupes that refused to participate in the festival, citing different reasons of their withdrawal, such as security?

SM: First, there was huge exaggeration and inaccuracy in the media about this issue. 

Second, as you know, some countries question the security situation in Egypt, which immediately makes the troupes – and their supporters – believe it is not safe to participate.

From our side, however, when some countries refused to support their troupes on that basis, we backed them here so they can still join the festival.

We want to prove that Egypt is a safe country. One of the messages of this festival is to fuse the views expressed by politicians with those promoted by intellectuals and cultural practitioners.

AO: The festival presents 30 plays and half of them are by Egyptian troupes. Isn’t it a high ratio for an international event?

SM: One of the festival's goals is to provide a foreign audience a panoramic view of theatre in Egypt. The international troupes, guests and artists should have the opportunity to exchange experiences and to have a deep insight into Egyptian theatre. It is also very encouraging for our young artists.

AO: And how is the audience feedback so far?

SM: Egyptians are thirsty for theatre and they had enough of much ado about nothing that is given to them through TV talk shows. I can see there is an interest. In fact, this raised interest in theatre was already obvious in the last months. For example, my latest play was intended to be staged for one month only, but due to the high interest, the performance days were extended to 60. People are coming back to theatres and I am very optimistic.

AO: The festival has signed a new protocol of international cooperation with the International Theatre Institute (ITI). What are the benefits of this agreement?

SM: The protocol is a framework of the general principles between Egypt and international network. The suggested projects to be implemented within this protocol include several additions to that network such as adding an online educational and informative portal about Egyptian and Arab theatre players, a comprehensive online encyclopaedia of our playwrights, a database for international theatre schools and educational resources (that Egyptians could benefit from), information about workshops, initiatives to translate theatre-related texts, etc.

The bottom line is that we hope to connect Arab dramatists to the world, and also to reintroduce Arab and Egyptian theatre to the world. I am very optimistic about this cooperation.

AO: Does this protocol also help as a financial resource for theatre production?

SM: No. The ITI is a non-governmental and non-profit organisation. The main area of support lies in expanding knowledge, networking, and connecting dramatists with international opportunities. Gaining experience and knowledge is a very important aspect of the development of artists and the theatrical movement.

AO: What are the future plans for the festival?

SM: The festival had a great international reputation, built over more than two decades. We now try to revive this reputation. We added more elements to it, such as workshops.

In this edition, we don’t have anything related to theatre literature, so I hope we can manage to introduce 150 of the most recent books on theatre to the next edition of the festival.

The festival is led by a group of experts and many enthusiastic young people. We hold brainstorming sessions, reflect and evaluate what is happening this year, and look into what is needed for the next, and so on.

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