El-Warsha theatre troupe: Of art and resilience in Egypt

Amira Noshokaty , Monday 8 Feb 2021

Egypt's oldest independent theatre troupe is at risk, but the founder is as resillient as ever


El-Warsha, Egypt’s oldest independent theatre troupe, is facing the risk of stopping its performances due to financial difficulties, but the 33-year-old independent troupe is as resilient as ever.

#El-warsha_must_go_on was the headline of the Egyptian cultural sphere over the past two weeks.

Meanwhile, founder and director Hassan El-Geretly seems quite resilient and optimistic.

“Maybe art makes you more resilient,” he smiles, adding that “El-Warsha is a theatre company as well as an institution. So now the institution is carrying on with its contracts with civil society’s holistic development and education.”

Throughout the years, El-Warsha’s collaboration with civil society grew stronger as they fought against terms like “art for development.”

“You see, we were more thinking of ‘art as development’,” noted El-Geretly.

Founded in 1987 by director Hassan El-Geretly, the troupe has focused on reviving classic gems from folk heritage – storytelling, sira recitation, stick arts, folk singing and classic musicals. Talented actors such as Abla Kamel, Ahmed Kamal, Saied Ragab and many more were members of El-Warsha troupe. El-Warsha also collaborated with the last and late Sira poetSaid El-Daw.

The art of shadow puppets was also practiced in El-Warsha and integrated in its plays in collaboration with the three masters of the trade: Hassan Khanoufa, Ahmed El-Komy and Hassan El-Faran.

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire,” goes the saying, and this is precisely what El-Warsha does. Safeguarding intangible heritage is exactly what they do. They create their own modern plays like Al-Ghoraf Al-Saghira (small rooms) play. They create their own adaptations of heritage plays such as Youm El-Qeyama (Dooms Day). And of course, their revival of the concept of Cairo’s music hall. And the best part of all that is the young talents that are trained by and join El-Warsha year after year.

“The theatre company is about the creative process; it’s about how art is connected to development because it gives people morale to face life and be resilient. It develops their imagination so that the future is not a replay of the past,” argues El-Geretly, adding that this sort of impact needs special quantification.

“The funders always want to know how many people are reached and what the impact is, yet it is impossible to count these people because we have a cumulative effect. You train 20 facilitators who in turn reach at least 400 others, who then reach however many kids. So, you have to accept that when you are supporting art you are moving in the right direction in terms of development and education,” he explains.

Among the inspiring projects of El-Warsha, in collaboration with The Jesuit and Brothers Association in Minya, is the founding of the Drama and Arts Centre. Funded by the Netherlands Embassy, the centre gave the children of Minya theatre, filmmaking, animation, modern dancing, and pantomime for the past 25 years.

“I have known El-Warsha ever since I was in the third grade,” remembers Roger Anis, a photo journalist who grew up in Minya and attended workshops on theatre plays, storytelling, cinema and shadow puppets.

“What I gained most from El-Warsha is that it nourished my imagination by training us to improvise stories and always think outside the box. I believe that maybe now El-Warsha has financial difficulties, but it is still very rich with the artistic skills and knowledge of its troupe, and if it uses it in training it can be its means for sustainability,” said Anis.

Another new and equally inspiring project is one implemented in collaboration with Tanwira Association for arts and culture, the first of its kind in Qena governorate.

“Funded by the Netherlands Embassy, the project aims to safeguard the art of stick dancing among young people, and young girls were interested in joining for the first time in the history of stick dancing,” explained Amal Hashem, the founder of Tanwira.

“And so, in this crisis, we should be thinking of the new Warsha, and not El-Warsha. New artists have joined us, we have new people who are responsible of the company like performer Bahaa Tolba, who is now a member of the board of the company. We trained up to 90 people last year.”

“We are looking for solutions that are outside the box, solutions that have partnerships, intersections, collaboration, and that bring our audience and friends in more, where we can exchange services rather than using cash,” El-Geretly said.

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