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'Theater is about direct communication with audience': Egypt's National Theatre director Youssef Ismail

Ismail also presided over the 13th edition of the National Theatre Festival which closed on 2 January

May Selim, Monday 4 Jan 2021
National Theatre
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Despite many festivals moving their activities online, Youssef Ismail, the director of Cairo’s National Theatre, decided to hold the 13th edition of the National Theatre Festival on the stages.

Also presiding over the festival, Ismail included 28 troupes in the event’s programming, showcasing their work between 20 December 2020 and 2 January 2021 on the stages of Cairo’s theatres, welcoming the audience free of charge.

At the entrance to each theatre, sterilisation gates were installed. Wearing a mask was compulsory and social distancing was guaranteed due to the special arrangement of the seats.

“Usually, the National Theatre Festival is held in the last weeks of June, but due to the first wave of the pandemic, we postponed it to December. We preferred that it be a physical event, since theatre is based on direct communication between the actors and the public,” Ismail told Al-Ahram Hebdo.

The director added that this edition of the festival also has a special weight, since it falls on the 150-year celebrations of Egyptian contemporary theatre.

“When we speak of ‘contemporary’, we mean a form of theatre conforming to Aristotle’s theories. Meaning that any show following a dramatic unfolding must have a beginning, subplots, and an end. Before 1870, there were several theatrical forms in Egypt such as shadow theatre, puppets, Ibn Daniel’s maqamat, Ancient Egyptian theatre, theatre linked to religious rituals, etc. They still exist, yet are not classified as contemporary theatre,” Ismail clarifies.

While celebrating 150 years of Egyptian contemporary theatre, Ismail decided to dedicate this edition to the “founding fathers of theatre.”

When speaking about the significant figures of Egyptian theatre, Ismail mentions names such as Yacoub Sanoue, Galal Osman, Abdallah Al-Nadim, Mounira Al-Mahdiya, Ali Al-Kassar, Youssef Wahbi, Georges Abyad, Ahmad Chawqi, Tawfiq Al-Hakim, and many others.

“The year 1870 was marked by the works of several theatre pioneers, the founding fathers of contemporary Egyptian theatre. We can enumerate almost 20 creators, actors, playwrights, and directors, whose photos appear on the poster of this edition.”

As Ismail explains, one of the festival’s goals is to frame and highlight the history of Egyptian theatre.

“The National Theatre was built in Ataba Square in 1868. Next to it, there was another theatre which was built in 1969, modeled on French comedy; it was meant to perform lyrical and musical works. Verdi's Opera Aida was first performed on the stages of this theatre, on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Currently, this theatre is the main office of the Egyptian Post. History is there in front of our eyes, impossible to ignore. Rather, it should be cherished from generation to generation,” Ismail says.

“I wanted to organise a really special edition of this year’s National Theatre Festival, but we were limited by the restrictions coming with the precautions linked to the pandemic.”

Held under strict precautionary measures, with 50 percent audience and the requirement of wearing masks, the festival took place in an almost intact form. The only alteration that took place was moving the festival’s closing ceremony to 2 January instead of the previously planned 4 January, and this is a response to the increased number of COVID-19 infections across the country.

“We still managed to stage most of the performances, hold conferences, highlight the role of Egyptian theatre pioneers. Some panel discussions addressed purely Egyptian theatrical forms, which date from before 1870,” Ismail added.

This year the festival distributed numerous awards, many of which were already presented in the past edition.

“We have chosen to change the rules of the critics competition. This year, we held two distinct competitions: That of critics and that of theatrical research. The first is open to journalists or critics who have published a 1,500-word article in print or online media. The second welcomes candidates who have signed an academic paper of 10,000 words. We canceled the Best Dramatic Text award, because we assume that the Best Performance award is given to a work that has good dramatic structure,” he concludes.

*This article was originally published in Al Ahram Hebdo, in French, 30 December edition. Additional edit: Ahram Online.

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