In early July, Culture Minister Ines Abdel Dayem appointed Gamal Yakout president of the 28th Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET, 14-19 December). Though this is Yakout’s first time as president of Egypt’s most important theatre festival, the celebrated Alexandrian theatre maker is hardly new to the scene. Originally a graduate of the Faculty of Commerce and overseeing a textiles business, Yakout has nonetheless made numerous theatrical achievements.
In 2011 he earned his PhD in directing and production, having studied for a masters in his forties, and he teaches at the Faculty of Arts, Alexandria University, the Higher Institute of Child Arts (part of Academy of Arts) and other institutions across the country; he also gives workshops for adults and children in the fields of acting, directing, playwriting, storytelling, and theatrical production – all over the Arab world. Yakout’s acting career kicked off in early 1980 but he soon shifted to directing, contributing over 70 plays many of which garnered awards at, among other events, the National Theatre Festival. He founded his own theatre troupe Creation Group, and in 2008, he founded Alexandria’s Theatre Without Fund Festival, an event over which he had presided until this year. His studies which include musical theatre in the UK, and Avignon Theatre Festival in France, are topped with the accumulated experience working with independent troupes.
As CIFET’s president, Yakout replaces Alaa Abdel-Aziz who presided over the festival’s 27th round, which took place in 2020 under the challenging conditions of a global pandemic at its peak. Abdel Dayem’s announcement also named Mohamed Abdelrahman El-Shafei and Saeed Kabeel artistic directors, and listed an impressive coterie of theatre people as the festival board: Hoda Wasfi, Abu Hassan Salam, Ayman El-Shiwi, Ahmed Megahed, Yehia El-Taher, and Hazem Shebl.
To understand the weight CIFET places on its president’s shoulders, a little history is in order. The Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre was launched in 1988 on the initiative of then culture minister Farouk Hosny. Taking place annually in the first week of September (with a few roynds moved to October), over the years the festival expanded in size, inviting an ever growing number of international troupes and guests until it became a lavish, high-budget event.
By the 2000s quantity began to undermine quality, however, and in 2011 it was interrupted by the revolution. With the cultural scene undergoing all kinds of transformations, it was clear that the CIFET as we had known it could no longer return. After a five-year hiatus, however, the festival was finally relaunched in 2016 as a smaller event without a competition as the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (CIFCET). Following much debate the word “contemporary” was removed and the competition restored under Alaa Abdel-Aziz. The 2020 round was anticlimactic, however, since the international shows were only shown online.
With CIFET’s next round scheduled for December and many countries slowly allowing international travel again, the role of Gamal Yakout seems even more challenging. He is in charge not only of a major festival in Egypt and the region but also of the first (competitive) round of that festival to be held following a debilitating shut-down. As the theatre scenes asks more and more questions, pressure on Yakout is mounting.
“We are very ambitious and hopeful,” Yakout says, stressing the handpicked board’s support. “The pandemic is not over and we’re taking into account difficulties in travel and other restrictions that are still in place in many countries. But this will not discourage us as we aim to focus on quality and not quantity, keeping health concerns in mind. Unlike previous rounds, which lasted for 10 days, this time the festival will take place over only six days, providing the best truly experimental performances with a stage. The only advice I am giving the viewing committee is to prioritise quality, even if this means we end up with a small number of performances. Our aim is to present up to 12 international and two Egyptian performances in the competition. A couple of performances will be also presented in CIFET’s non-competitive segment.”
It is worth adding that the festival has already released a call for submissions with 7 August as the deadline, and international troupes have begun to respond. Yakout continues that while the viewing committee prepares to review the submissions, he is already laying plans for CIFET to reach numerous Egyptian cities, an approach different from that of previous rounds which were held in Cairo (with only a very occasional performance staged in some other city). But Yakout’s “horizontal strategy” aims to make performances and workshops available all across the country.
As a specialist who dedicated a significant portion of his life to theatre for children, did Yakout consider incorporating children’s performances into the festival? “To be honest,” he says, “I did not have a chance to think about this issue in depth.” The proposal hangs on educational and social issues that might conflict with the idea of experimental theatre. “It needs more time to study, but I do hope future editions of CIFET can have a section for young audiences.” The idea of a dedicated children’s theatre festival is also on his mind.
Among this year’s organizational challenges, Yakout says, is one major change: “I want to reassess the awards system. This is not a conventional festival, so the awards don’t have to be granted in a traditional way, putting successes in boxes: best actress, best actor, best director, etc. During the festival, we might be surprised by amazing theatrical solutions that deserve an award but do not fall under the traditional award protocols. I’d rather set up a number of awards to be given depending on what we see. We might find that a theatrical component – video mapping, communication between the actors, music, choreography, etc – deserves an award, or a combination of components, but maybe no actors or directors will stand out. I want to have the freedom to award what is exceptional. I am thinking of how to allow the festival to evolve. After all, it is an experimental festival.”
Yakout is considering setting up a total of ten awards to be given by the jury to any exceptional creative component in a play. This approach might prove shocking to some, but its benefits are immeasurable.
As Yakout continues to explain, the festival will also include workshops and seminars tailored to the development of theatre practitioners and those who want to enter the field. Regarding workshops, however, Yakout thinks in even bigger terms. “This festival is a creative organisation and its operation cannot be limited to the few days’ programme. We should be present throughout the year.” Plans, which Yakout feels should be feasible, include continuing to invite theatre specialists to educate artists and the public.
CIFET is after all a unique international event stressing the experimental concept, which does not reflect a specific time or place in theatre history but rather a flexible dynamic. What was new or unconventional at the time of Alfred Jarry is no longer new in the West. Over a century or so, the avant-garde’s conceptual revolution that began then has given way to new approaches to texts and the relation with the spectator. With all kinds of cultural, technological and conceptual variables, this makes the term confusing and raises the question of parameters.
“There is definitely a big problem with the terminology,” Yakout agrees, “since experimental theatre has many definitions, each correct in its own way. To me, the only one solid truth about experimental theatre is the concept of departing from what has already been done.”
Yakout goes on to argue that the idea of experimental theatre is not static. The form surprises us with what is unexpected, what is novel, whether in acting, directing, music, sets, technology, relation to the audience, or any other element. “What was experimental on the CIFET stage in the early 1990s might be classical today. For example, experimental theatre makers make use of new technological inventions, setting them within their artistic concepts. Experimentation has many different layers; it’s an ocean of endless possibilities.”
For Yakout, as the world keeps moving forward and developing, so does experimental theatre. He points out that “the creator experiments with the audience as well, hence you may find that what is traditional to one audience is experimental to another.” With local, regional and international companies submitting their fare, the festival has yet to decide on the stages to be used.
“We thought about regular theatres of course,” Yakout explains, “but there are other unconventional venues such as the Amir Taz Palace, Bayt Al-Suhaymi, the Saladin Citadel, open-air theatres in Cairo, Alexandria or other cities. However we cannot decide on the venues before deciding on the performances as each of the chosen plays will fit a specific location.”
Regardless of location, however, each year CIFET sees large audiences queuing up at theatres where the halls are often filled to capacity before everyone has a seat. Yakout is considering online ticketing or registration to avoid large crowds, as well as a special committee to be in charge of this aspect of the festival’s organisation. “I am fully aware of the problems at entry points, and we will definitely have a solution to avoid tensions and allow those who are interested to get in.”
Together with his passion for the theatre, Yakout’s business background makes for a powerful recipe for realizing all those ambitions and reviving what is arguably the most important theatre festival in the Arab world. It is probably the Avignon Festival that presents the most useful model for Yakout’s project of using creative business skills to the benefit of theatrical practice. His combination of interests and accomplishments not only qualifies him to head CIFET but also promises to benefit the festival itself.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.