Cairo Int’l Festival for Experimental Theatre: Staying on course despite all odds

May Selim, Thursday 7 Sep 2023

In its 30th edition this year, the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (1-8 September) is forging a path between numerous challenges while presenting 19 plays in its official competition.

Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre

 

Organized by the Ministry of Culture, the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) is among the most important artistic events in Egypt’s cultural scene.

Founded in 1988 by former Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny, the first 22 editions of CIFET grew in size and number of troupes invited. By 2010 – the last edition before it was suspended due to political instability – the festival’s programming featured some 40 shows. Back then, the festival spanned over 10 days. The number of days has been limited to eight for this year’s and last year’s editions.

The festival returned in 2016, chaired by director Sameh Mahran. The festival went through a makeover, and came back with a few rather successful – though smaller in the number of troupes – editions. The competitive character of the festival was also abandoned.

The competition was restored in 2021, but the festival gradually started losing its charm. The last two editions, directed by members of a specialized committee formed by the Ministry of Culture, were unable to keep up with the label of 'experimental' or even ‘contemporary’ theatre. The number of shows decreased, as did the number of participants.

The current edition, which began on 1 September, once again marks the return of Sameh Mahran as the festival’s president, replacing Gamal Yakout who headed CIFET in two previous editions. 

The new management had only six months to prepare international and varied programme. An almost impossible mission! 

A restricted budget, unchanged since 2016, added insult to injury, given the Egyptian pound’s depreciation.

In addition to keeping the festival’s shortened duration (eight days), the festival reduced the number of shows, training workshops, and conferences.

This year, the official competition is only showcasing 18 shows. On top of this, their selection “was made by a local committee, and not international as before,” explained Mahran. 

“We tried to retain quality works, but unfortunately, we had to face several constraints. Some troupes around the world agreed to present their pieces, but asked to be paid. However, entry to the festival is free, with no sale of tickets. Additionally, most troops make their schedules at the beginning of the year. We addressed them in March which for many was too late,” he explained.

The costs of accommodation and flights was yet another burden given the devaluation, he added.

Usually, the festival selects a quality foreign show for its opening, one that also participated in the official competition. However, this time, the organizers chose to present an Egyptian musical show, Charlie. The show is directed by Ahmed El-Bohey, who is also a member of the selection committee!

 
Arab guests
 

In this year’s edition, the festival introduced a segment called “Made in Egypt” offering two to three-day long workshops for young talents.

Director and cultural entrepreneur Ahmed Al-Attar held sessions on fundraising, Nadim Meisner and Nora Amir discussed extended rehearsals, while Dalia Sabour tackled the playback theater. Luke Lehner focused on the art of drawing characters, Ramzi Lehner on theatrical improvisation and Yasmine Farrag presented the movement of the body on stage. 

The relatively short duration of these workshops does not allow for a deep introduction to the topics but rather gives just a few basic ideas to its participants. 

The conferences are limited to regional issues: experimentation in the Gulf and Maghreb countries, in Iraq and the Levant, Arab artists in exile, and the challenges of experimentation in Egypt. 

The members of the jury, as well as the honourees, are mainly Arab artists, with the exception of Gabriela Luca (Romania), Asiimwee Daborah (Uganda), and Giles Foreman (England).

 

Glimmer of hope?
 

Despite the unfavorable circumstances, certain choices still provide a glimmer of hope. Some shows, through their originality and the relevance of the subjects covered, introduce an air of optimism.

The Palestinian troupe Ishtar, which is already very successful, is returning with the play Ventolin. This monodrama, written and directed by Iman Aoune, evokes the history of the Palestinian people through the monologue of a young girl in which she questions her identity and her personal history.

Using clever lighting and sober decor, the troupe transformed the stage space into a fairly narrow elevator cabin. Imprisoned in this cabin, blocked between the floors of a hotel, the young girl speaks to people who haunt her memory, but also to the public.

 

Puppet shows carve out a nice place for themselves in this edition, bringing together three plays for adults, evoking major humanitarian themes. 

The Tunisian show Ma Yrawash (Blackout) is an adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck's work The Blind. Written and directed by Mounir Al-Argui, the play was performed by the troupe of the National Centre for the Art of Puppetry. On the stage, we find the actors in black who play with the puppets, all expressing old blind people. 

The Yerevan Puppet Theatre troupe from Armenia is one of the festival's regulars. In an intimate atmosphere, it presents the story of the American writer of German origin Charles Bukowski, based on an adaptation by Marieta Dovlatbekyan. The puppet in question is just the alcoholic writer himself, reciting his poems and remembering his old loves.

The Nodar Dumbadze youth theatre troupe from Georgia, performed a new version of Othello by William Shakespeare. The troupe's puppets presented their identities, their cultures, and their stories. Through the clothes and few accessories on a small stage, the play is well situated in its historical context. 

Indeed, the 30th edition of the festival comes with some interesting content, despite the challenges and drawbacks. We are still waiting for the better editions to take place in the upcoming years. 

*This article was originally published in Al-Ahram Hebdo (French), edition of 6 September 2023.
Translation to English: Ati Metwaly. Additional editing: Ahram Online.

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