'We need a cultural strategy from the state': Head of Egypt's National Theatre Festival

Nahed Nasr, Sunday 24 Jul 2016

Nasser Abdel-Moneim talks to Ahram Online about this year's edition and the state of Egyptian theatre and the cultural scene

Nasser Abdel-Moneim
Nasser Abdel-Moneim (Photo: Al Ahram Weekly)

The 9th National Theatre Festival, which features dozens of plays staged on 14 Cairo stages, opened on 19 July and will run until 8 August.

This year nine new governorates participate in the festival, a fact which becomes an opportunity to look at the wider context of Egyptian theatre.

Ahram Online met with festival president Nasser Abdel-Moneim to discuss this year’s event, its developments, the challenges he faces, and the position of Egyptian theatre today. 

A theatre director himself, as well as the head of the Cultural Production Department at the Ministry of Culture, this is the third consecutive year that Abdel-Moneim has run the festival.

Ahram Online (AO): This year's National Theatre Festival is named after Nour El-Sherif, the late star known to wide audiences mainly for his cinema and television series appearances. Why this choice?

Nasser Abdel-Moneim (NA): Nour El-Sherif was among the top graduates of his class at the Higher Institute of Theatrical Arts, and later on he lectured at the same institution. A prominent theatre actor and director, he was always linked to theatre even if the viewers know him mainly from cinema. He always hoped to focus on theatre more. He passed away shortly prior to last year festival and we promised the audience we would name this one after him.

AO: This year’s honourees list consists of prominent theatre practitioners like Abdelrahman Abo Zahra, Abdelrahman El-Shafei, Farida El-Nakkash, Fawzia Mahran, Mohamed Enany, Nagy Shaker, Nabil Moneib, and Nour El-Sherim. But there are also many independent theatre players whose names are still missing. Why is that?

NA: I do not see this distinction. Theatre practitioners are theatre practitioners, and they contribute to the field and its different forms whether as actors, writers, directors, and so on. The last edition of the festival was named after Khaled Saleh who was one of the independent theatre pioneers during the 90s, and a leading figure in university theatre. Most of the stars have the same background.

AO: At the opening ceremony you descried this year's festival as the most geographically diverse edition yet. What is the significance of this diversity?

NA: The participating plays were chosen through the competitions led by several cultural bodies in Marsa Matrouh, Shalatin, Qena, Sohag, Assiut, etc. The idea that several plays from the governorates made it to the festival this year testifies to the positive cultural mobility which comes despite the fact that there is no cultural justice in terms of facilities, activities and funding offered to those locations. And yet, they manage to produce theatre and we need to recognise those efforts.

Nagy Shaker
Nasser Abdel-Moneim honors artist Nagy Shaker during the opening ceremony of 9th National Theatre Festival (Photo: courtesy of the National Theatre Festival facebook page)

AO: What are the main challenges that the troupes outside the capital face?

NA: For starters, the budget constraints are enormous. For example theatrical troupes under the state theatre departments receive an amount which is as small as EGP 1,500 LE (approx. $170) to produce a play. Many of them produce theatre only for competition reasons. In all those challenges, how can theatre improve?

On the other hand, many spaces are closed. Eighty percent of stages all over Egypt have been closed since 2005 and the fire that claimed many lives in Beni Suef Theatre. They are closed by the civil protection department that operates under the Ministry of Interior and left like this.

AO: Is there a chance that the festival will expand towards the governorates and brings plays to the audiences there? Wouldn’t it help boosting the cultural commotion?

NA: It would, definitely, but again, it needs a budget. Expenses incurred by travel and performing outside Cairo are really big. Such an initiative requires cooperation with the Ministry of Local Development and the governors. We have been discussing this since the last edition, and the only thing we hope to be able to implement is to organise tours for the prizewinners. We are working on this option together with the Cultural Development Fund.

AO: Some critics suggest that the National Festival of Theatre should set its own selection committee to watch all the plays submitted to the festival, instead of accepting the prize-winning plays from the several competitions led by other committees. What do you think?

NA: The play is not a movie, and it is very difficult to watch it on a CD or a DVD, you need to watch a play on stage. On the other hand, it is not practical to have one selection committee watch all the plays all over Egypt during the year. The committee members usually include academics who have work to do during the year. Finally, financially speaking it is also very challenging.

Maybe smaller committees selecting the best plays for the festival is not an ideal mechanism of choice, but it is the best one we have right now.

Samiha Ayoub
Actress Samiha Ayoub during the opening ceremony of 9th National Theatre Festival (Photo: courtesy of the National Theatre Festival facebook page)

AO: And why do you say it is not ideal?

NA: There are several independent and amateur troupes who submit their plays on CDs and DVDs to the festival administration. Sometimes the bad shooting and sound spoils a good play and the professional shooting and sound makes a modest play looks better. Hence the judgment is not always 100 percent fair. Again, this is all linked to the resources and capacities we have at hand. Maybe in the future we will be able to put in place a more appropriate mechanisms, who knows.

Yet, despite those disadvantages, I can assure you that the participating plays of this year are really unique, especially those produced by the university and the province troupes.

AO: The festival's opening ceremony revived the same polemic that resurfaces each year. Several theatre practitioners, particularly independent players, and cultural figures, expressed disappointment at not being invited to the event. The answer always points to “the lists of invitees are not updated.” Is there a way to address this situation?

NA: This is normal since the festival administration has nothing to do with the list of invitees. We work with the bodies operating under the Ministry of Culture entities and the lists are prepared by the Cultural Development Fund. Many invitations are distributed to the different cultural entities and stages and they are responsible for the distribution. It only needs more collaboration from all bodies involved.

AO: During the festival, the theatres are crowded; there is major interest. Yet, the situation is completely different during the rest of the year. Why all those empty chairs in Egyptian theatres at other times of year?

NA: I am not in a position to answer this question, but it needs to be studied. I think our theatre is going through a crisis and it is trying to recover. After 25 January 2011, the main stages in the heart of the city were closed and the festival was suspended for two years.

Only starting from 2014 have we had a relative stability and it will take time to recover. Theatre-going needs to be a wider spread habit. It is great that we have audience during the festival yet we also need interest during the year. The whole theatrical culture needs a change.

Abdelrahman Abu Zahra
Actor Abdelrahman Abu Zahra during the opening ceremony of 9th National Theatre Festival (Photo: courtesy of the National Theatre Festival facebook page)

AO: What about the role of school and university theatres? And since you are one of the pioneers of street theatre, don’t you think that this practice and move to governorates can help creating change?

NA: It is very hard to boost creativity without freedom. For instance, after the 25 January Revolution we expected that there would be more acceptance of street theatre. Yet instead, we face many obstacles now.

When we were students we would move from one province to another with our street troupes. Now, the security measures are very tough for street art, making it almost impossible to implement larger scale projects.

Regarding school theatres, I believe that we have a huge problem in the entire education system. How can we talk about school theatre and encouraging students to practice art when the school stages are being used for all other purposes, including space for private lessons.

The challenges faced by university theatres are not any smaller.

The question we should ask is what the Egyptian state expects from theatre and does is care about theatre at all?

I believe that culture is not among the priorities of the state, and this is reflected in everything, including education, arts, and culture. During the 1960s, culture was a national project. The state would send artists abroad to learn and to gain experience to transfer it back to their country. Now this is not the case. There needs to be a cultural strategy.

AO: One of the challenges that theatre's creative people face is an inability to have their own texts performed on the stage. There are a few writing competitions, however, during which talents surface, yet still most of the theatre-makers choose foreign texts to work with. What are your thoughts and can this situation be changed?

NA: We need a stronger relationship between the competition results and the production. There should be protocols between the state theatres and the competition administrations so the prize-winning plays see the light.

On the other hand however, writers should be encouraged more. Usually the playwrights receives a very low fee (approximately EGP 5,000 or $560) when their plays are staged, while the contracts bind them to a specific cultural body for 5 or even 10 years, during which his play cannot be performed anywhere else.

This situation is a creativity killer and it makes writers feel insecure. It makes sense that many talents choose to write for instance for television series, where they earn multiples of what they get for a play.

AO: Do you think there is a chance for the Egypt theatre’s situation to improve?

NA: This will not happen unless our cultural entities have their own vision and projects for development and improvement. We rely on individual initiatives, many of which succeed. However, there is no cultural long-term, no comprehensive strategy from the state. I believe this is how everything goes in Egypt.

However, I have to say that young people are still on the frontline and they are trying to tackle all those obstacles. This is the bright side of it all because young people are the future. The National Festival of Theatre is there to reflect the efforts of those young people.

Renowned actors and artists, honorees of 9th National Theatre Festival (Photo: courtesy of the National Theatre Festival facebook page)

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