Outa Hamra and Clowns Without Borders (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)
To bring a smile and get a chuckle out of a person may seem like an easy task, but in the places Outa Hamra (Red Tomato) usually visits, this can be more of a challenge.
Outa Hamra is by no means a traditional theatre troupe. Aly Sobhy, Diana Calvo, Hany Taher and Jakob Lindfors spend their time creating, rehearsing and performing several types of shows that have a clear mission: using social theatre to create change.
They do not perform in grand venues and you won’t even find them in one of the growing number of alternative theatres that dot Cairo. Instead, you’ll find them on the pavement, at a local youth centre or next to a field in an obscure village.
Most recently, Outa Hamra spent two weeks in Aswan and Cairo putting on a street clowning show with some members of Clowns Without Borders from France. After a workshop that brought the two troupes together in January, they put on several shows in villages in Aswan and areas in Cairo such as the Juvenile Correctional Facility and Gezirat Al-Dahab, an island in the Nile in southern Cairo. The shows featured music, dance, jokes and a magic show.
The festive spirit of the two troupes was contagious on Gezirat Al-Dahab. Local children and adults enjoyed the show, clapping, smiling and singing along. The children were so excited that they were impossible to keep in control. But the performers of Outa Hamra are used to that level of enthusiasm and were able to calm them down without stopping the performance or breaking out of character.
"This tour was very important for us," Lindfors tells Ahram Online. It was through a series of workshops hosted by Clowns Without Borders between 2009 and 2010 that the four members of Outa Hamra met and started working together and this was the first time the two groups had collaborated since then.
"We found that the four of us had a similar vision. Outa Hamra is a direct result of this experience," he explains.
Once it was established in early 2011, the troupe put together a performance called “Yes Chief” which was a reaction to the political happenings in the country at that time. Essentially a satirical piece on the idea of absolute power, one clown starred as a revolutionary, one as a dictator, another was afraid and the last as the opportunist who follows power. The roles kept reversing throughout the show so that the hero became the dictator and the dictator became afraid. "Which is what happened later!" Lindfors laughs.
Later in 2012, the troupe secured funding from the British Council and the Spanish embassy to create its show “Transformers" and take it across Egypt on a tour. Performed dozens of times, "Transformers" is audience interactive, and the troupe has adapted it to streets, youth centres and other spaces and festivals such as Hakawy Festival and Hal Badeel.
"Street clowning is very flexible, so it's better to keep the performance open for improvisation," Lindfors explains. The group is working on a new street clowning performance and hopes to start touring with it later this year.
Once the troupe performed in a marginalised community that lived in the Osman Buildings on Wahat Road, grim concrete structures in west Cairo. The inhabitants were varied -- immigrants from the Egyptian countryside, residents that had been displaced from the neighborhood of Doweika after a rock slide in 2008 and, more recently, Syrian refugees.
For Lindfors, the experience offered a moment that has since come to define what the troupe is capable of. At the time, the UN was working on a project in the community to build cultural bridges between the Syrians and Egyptians. It was decided that the easiest way to do this was through the families' children, with parties to bring the kids together. Lindfors and his troupe were invited to perform at a school.
"Local teenagers arrived and they were a bit tough with us and with everyone else. A man in his 30s, who was quite aggressive, was especially tough with us and at one point we all felt scared. The situation was tense with this man. However, when we started the performance the situation changed. People relaxed, the teenagers started being our assistants in controlling the crowd. Everything changed for the better."
"At the end of the performance we saw the violent man, with a huge smile on his face, dancing, I couldn't believe it. I really understood that the work we were doing can make a difference."
"Clowning in public spaces can change societies. If you give people a chance, they will be happy."
Working with Refugees & youth
For Outa Hamra, social theatre is a strong tool for communication, social development and conversation about important issues.
The group has performed one of its shows, "Going to the Neighbour's House," more than 60 times over the last three years throughout Cairo in cooperation with Psycho-social services and training institute in Cairo, an organisation that provides psycho-social training and services to refugee communities.
A collaboratively written performance by Egyptians as well as refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and Iraq, "Going to the Neighbour's House" uses music, comedy and stories based on real experiences to shed light on the issues and difficulties that refugees face in Egypt.
Set on the holiday Sham El-Nasim (Egyptian Easter), the performance opens with a group of Egyptians meeting a group of refugees in a public park and takes off from there. There's a discussion afterwards between the audience and the actors.
"We are not just there to teach [the audience] a lesson, but we want them to feel that we are interested in what they are thinking," Lindfors explains. "More than once the audience has expressed that they were not aware of these realities and then offered solutions to the issues."
According to Lindfors, audiences often commented that watching a play performed by people from seven or eight different countries, with different religions, languages and cultures, creates a beautiful mood and sends a message of peace within itself.
"That wasn't the intention, but people picked up on it," he says. "This is what we want to achieve, people not thinking of the differences between them but of the opportunities."
"Going to the Neighbour's House" has been performed in youth centres, universities, public libraries and high schools in areas with a high density of refugees such as northern Maadi, Hay Al-Ashir, Ezbet Al-Hagana, Ard Al-Lewa and Ain Shams. The most recent performance took place on 2 February in a youth centre in Ain Shams.
For the past two years, the Outa Hamra troupe has participated in training workshops with Playback Theatre's Ben Rivers and Sayda Trujillo, two drama specialists who are based in Jenin, Palestine and often come to Egypt to train actors.
Playback Theatre is an interactive theatre approach that functions as a tool for community building, trauma response and cultural activism. During a Playback event, audience members are invited to share their personal stories and sit back and watch actors and musicians weave their accounts into improvised theatre pieces.
After extensive training, Outa Hamra put on its first performance last December to a community of Syrian refugees in 6 October City. Audience members shared various stories about bombings in Syria and the fear of returning to a ruined city once the war is over.
"In Playback you need to keep going back to the same audience to build trust," Lindfors explained.
Outa Hamra also worked with UNICEF last year on a project with street children and is working with Save the Children this year on a project within the Egyptian government's Juvenile Correctional Institute for youth aged 14-19. Later this month the troupe will perform a play that it developed with the institute's teens.
"The process is therapeutic in itself," Lindfors says. "They discover their talents, know themselves, learn to control their emotions and learn that they can do something beautiful together in a group."
"We always hope that this experience will have an impact on their lives later," he says. "We know it's not measurable, but it's always our hope."