INTERVIEW 'Egypt's independent theatre demands a state subsidy': director Abir Ali

May Sélim, Tuesday 8 Sep 2015

Egyptian theatre director and cultural activist Abir Ali talks about the recent award she received, her work with Upper Egypt's artistic communities, and shares her views on the situation of the independent theatre

Abir Ali
Abir Ali (Photo: Al Ahram)

Abir Ali, Egyptian director and founder of the independent troupe Al-Messaharati, has recently received Ezzedine Gannoun Memorial Theatre Award, for her production of a play based on George Orwell’s 1984. Dedicated to the memory of the renowned Tunisian theatre actor and director who passed away in March this year, the award has been launched by the Beirut-based Al Mawred Al Thakafy (Culture Resource).

Al Ahram Hebdo (AH): What made you apply for the the Ezzedine Gannoun Memorial Theatre Award?

Abir Ali (AA): At first I didn’t think of applying... in fact I submitted my proposal at the very last minute, without much hope. And I just got lucky. The awarded amount of USD 10,000 will cover half of my next production's fees.

I always have art projects in the pipeline: I'm directing, hold theatre training and playwriting workshops, etc. I always search for the funds, I suggest projects to the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, local theatres and cultural censers; I address the European institutions. Several of my theatre projects principally aim at aim at the development of society through art. These projects are often preliminarily approved by the Ministry, but then abandoned.

AH: And why choice of a play based on George Orwell's 1984 as your upcoming creative endeavour?

AA: Honestly, 1984 was not my first choice. I was considering working on the Radwa Ashour's trilogy Granada. I am also working on another text, this time based on Spartacus. When I read 1984, I didn't see it would fit for the theatre, not to forget that the main topic of the novel is very different to those I usually approach in my adaptations.

It was my friend, Amal Al-Marghany who encouraged me to look into 1984 with a new eye. I thought of giving it a different dramatic treatment, one that would involve a lot of visual factors, such as pantomime, screens on the stage, etc. The whole drama is embedded in an Egyptian dialect and simple language, a procedure that will allow me to translate better the idea of exclusion and continuous monitoring which is omnipresent in the novel. Rehearsals will begin in October, and the performance is expected to premiere in January or February 2016. I am currently discussing a cooperation possibilities with theatres such as Hanager or Falaki.

AH: Tells us more about workshops that you recently held in Upper Egypt

AA: Those were two projects, Said-Turge and Now and Here, both held in cooperation with the Swiss Institute Pro Helvetia. The institute aims at raising awareness of the Swiss literary texts. I already work with youth from the Upper Egypt in the spheres of their talents development while creating the independent theatre troupes.

Said-Turge is a programme launched in 2013. The title is a combination of words Said (Upper Egypt) and "playwright". It is a one-year training workshop in which a director and a playwright cooperate. At the end of the year they present their finalised project. I guide the participants who adapt a chosen text by a Swiss author. At the end of the first programme, in 2014, 9 texts have been staged and toured across Egypt.

The second project, Now and Here, is an exercise in adapting the Swiss theatre plays by 14 young artists from the Upper Egypt. The The final texts will be sent to Pro Helvetia and two winners will be given a prize of 20 000 and 15 000 LE

AH: As an activist working for the promotion of independent theatre, how do you assess the crisis that the independent troups experience lacking support from the the Ministry of Culture?

The movement of independent theatre in Egypt has long been seeking support of the Culture Ministry, in vain. Last year, the former Minister Gaber Asfour has created a fund for the independent theatre troupes, an initiative which was supposed to provide them with the financial and logistical support. So far nothing has been seen from the fund. Last week, the General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Culture has promised to revive the initiative.

Our focus is to receive support for the productions and equipment, for the European professionals who could provide trainings for the Egyptian technicians, and for the website that would become a database of independent theatre in Egypt and a YouTube channel that would broadcast our shows. As the new season opens, the independent troupes also hope to resume the activities which were suspended last year due to the lack of funds.

Putting in mind that the Ministry of Culture should support the independent theatre makers with the same strength as it does towards its own theatres, we have a right to demand a state subsidy. At the end of the day we do theatre for all Egyptians.

This interview was first published in Al Ahram Hebdo, Al Ahram's French language weekly publication

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