From people to people: Egypt’s Nahda Arts School boosts expression with community theatre

Nahed Nasr, Wednesday 24 Aug 2016

The Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre aims at enhancing local communities through performances on streets and squares across Egypt's villages and towns

Nahda Arts School
Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre peforms at Al Azhar Park, August 2016 (Photo: courtesy of Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre)

How to develop a theatre that moves closer to the people, one that reflects their lives, and one where boundaries between the artists and their audience are erased?

Two Egyptian theatre-makers, Moustafa Wafi and Riham Ramzi decided to provide their answer to those questions through practice. In 2013, they established the Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre (NAS), a school that offers one-year programmes which shape the community theatre performers.

Operating under the El-Nahda Association for Scientific and Cultural Renaissance of Jesuit Cairo, a part of the theatrical skills development, NAS is centred on developing human capabilities and enhancing local communities through performances on streets, squares and other public spaces in villages and towns.

As the founders explain, the project is created by the people and to the people, hence the Arabic abbreviation NAS, which is the equivalent of “people” in English.

One such performance took place in Al Azhar park last week, when NAS celebrated the graduation of its second group of students. Families gathered in the park were surprised to find a group of young performers – men and women, actors of different generations and event nationalities – showcase their skills.

Nahda Arts School
Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre peforms at Al Azhar Park, July 2016 (Photo: courtesy of Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre)

The performance was a culmination of one year of work, during which the participants acquired skills such as singing, acting and circus arts and through them enacted stories taken from the everyday lives.

While the large crowd gathered, cheered or sat on the lawns to watch the performance, Moustafa Wafi explained to Ahram Online that it is possible to produce interesting and popular low-budget performances, which easily connect with the Egyptian people’s local realities and provide them with spaces to enjoy art.

“We want to show to people that art is easy to make and that it can be also done with limited capabilities. All you need is to learn the methods,” he added.

Wafi further enumerates several other values he finds in the community theatre, a theatre format that does not need special lighting and does not follow the text nor the director in its strict sense.

“In the community theatre, performers are the leaders and creators of the show. They are not mere tools through which the director or the playwright present their vision. When performing on the street they have the freedom to adapt the scenes according to the specifics of the unfolding moment. In many ways, they ought to be experts in improvisation as well. This theatre is rich very rich in creativity and does not require high budget. It is an ideal model for all communities.”

Nahda Arts School
Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre peforms at Al Azhar Park, July 2016 (Photo: courtesy of Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre)

Community theatre school

Though NAS was founded in 2013, the idea of the community theatre practice goes back to 2011 and was partially triggered by the revolutionary movements and “millions of Egyptians that gathered in the streets,” Riham Ramzi, co-founder and the executive coordinator of NAS, points to the momentum that opened doors to many artistic activities done by the people and for the people on the streets.

“Soon after that, in 2002, when Moustafa Wafi became in charge of the artistic activities of El-Nahda Association for Scientific and Cultural Renaissance in Jesuit Cairo, and he wanted to do something different, he wanted to break boundaries between artists and the local community,” Ramzi explains.

However, instead of establishing one troupe that would perform on the streets addressing the variety of audiences, Wafi and Ramzi thought of creating a school for community theatre, a body which would give birth to generations of community theatre creators.

Yet, the school needed a concrete curriculum and methodology. The team started by contacting other similar schools across the world to learn about their practice. They also initiated discussions with some of the foreign and local experts in Egypt to structure a complete project that can successfully meet their aspired target.

“The idea of the school was new and we wanted the curriculum to adopt all modern trends of community theatre, including theatre of the oppressed, object theatre, contemporary dance, etc. We wanted to include elements of Egyptian street theatre which in itself has rich history in the country. Hence, the target was to have this blend, absorbing what is original in our local culture and integrating what is trendy in the world,” Wafi explains.

Nahda Arts School
Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre peforms at Al Azhar Park, July 2016 (Photo: courtesy of Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre)

The school welcomes everyone interested in arts and community theatre. New students are required to pass the entry test though. The programme lasts for one year, however the students keep the close link with NAS even after graduating.

The final curriculum comprises of practical and theoretical components, with training methods flexible enough to be constantly revisited and remolded by the trainers.

“Having students from different backgrounds helps you gradually identify the most effective teaching methods, and consequently improve your model year after year. And while we provide basic methodology, we hope that eventually, the students will carry the new theatrical trend across Egypt”.

Wafi also points to another challenge NAS faced in terms of finding groups that would be interested in shaping and practicing this art form while following the vision set by Wafi and Ramzi.

On the one hand people who were already involved in traditional theatre showed little interest in the community theatre while on the other hand, the thematic content did not seem appealing to the civil society activists who aim at delivering specific messages through art.

“We are not using art to deliver messages inundated with human rights issues. Our message is simply joy of art,” Ramzi asserts. “Our experience showed that our best students are those who target their local community through art projects,” she added. “We also initiate different exchange opportunities for our graduates as to expose them to new experiences and a variety of realities,” he adds.

Nahda Arts School
Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre peforms at Al Azhar Park, July 2016 (Photo: courtesy of Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre)

Effect multiplication

The school has already moved towards sharing their experience. NAS builds a local network for street theatre troupes in Egypt, and develops partnerships with other schools, institutions, and troupes across the region.

Wafi explains that “since we aim at creating a theatre movement, we pay a lot of attention to the continuous development. We do not expect our graduates to receive support from either governmental or independent bodies, so we try to maintain the ongoing relationship with them. Whether they decide to establish their own street theatre troupes, or continue their studies abroad, we try to support their choices or direct them towards opportunities,” Wafi explains.

Ali Ismail, a part-time engineer, is one of NAS school’s second year graduates. He underscores the benefits he drew from many workshops and new techniques he was taught.

“Before hearing about NAS, I had already been involved in a few experiments in street theatre, and traditional theatre too. At NAS, we follow a very different concept of theatre, a community theatre that draws on the social issues that make up the everyday lives of people. There is much room for improvisation and interaction with the audience,” he comments.

With the support of NAS Ismail launched his own street theatre project.

“I am working with Sudanese refugee children in the impoverished district of Arbaaa Wa Noss in Nasr City. I try to pass to them the techniques of the community theatre. We have been working for five months and I am happy to say that these kids are now more capable of expressing themselves and tackling some of their everyday life challenges. There is also a lot of interaction from the local audience; they share their feedback. When those children perform, they attract attention on the streets, people watch them from balconies, kids giggle and point at the performers. It is such a rich experience and a good source of positive energy too,” Ali adds.

Nahda Arts School
Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre peforms at Al Azhar Park, July 2016 (Photo: courtesy of Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre)

Another graduate of NAS school, a 25-year old pharmacist Lelian Fayez has always dreamt of a career in theater.

“After graduation I began working in a pharmacy and I found myself locked in daily routines. Joining NAS helped my dream see the light. Studying at NAS involved a lot of hard work but it helped me discover my inner source of energy. I learned to breathe with all my body. I also learnt how to develop a scene from a personal story, unfold its layers and turn it into a storyline that touches everyone,” Fayez explains adding that it took time for her family to accept her involvement in the community theatre.

Today, Fayez is a member of Al Khaial Al Shaaby street troupe. Recently she has been selected to participate in a circus troupe in which, together with trainers from Egypt, Germany and France, she will put on a performance that will tour several governorates. During the summer months, she also holds small-scale performances in public schools, organised with fellow colleagues and she hopes to give a series of community theatre training workshops for the students of those schools.

“Young people should not wait as long as I did to practice theatre and learn to express themselves,” she comments.

While the graduates of NAS embark on projects of their own, the school also reaches out to communities in the most distant governorates. Wali reveals that their upcoming plans involve the launch of the first community theatre festival in Aswan, in February 2017.

Organised in collaboration with the General Organization for Culture Palaces and other civil society organisations, the event will bring together different street theatre troupes from all over Egypt. This project will provide performing spaces, which constitutes another major challenge for the school.

Nahda Arts School
Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre peforms at Al Azhar Park, July 2016 (Photo: courtesy of Nahda Arts School for Social Theatre)

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