Theatre festival for children to brighten Cairo's art and culture scene

Ati Metwaly, Sunday 9 Mar 2014

Between 12 and 18 March, Hanager Arts Centre will hold the Hakawy children's theatre festival. Ahram Online talks to Mohamed El-Ghawy, the main dynamo behind this unique initiative

Poster of Hakawy festival. Artwork created by one of the artists on AFCA's board (courtesy: Mohamed El-Ghawy)

"Children have the right to attend the town's artistic and cultural institutions, both with family and school, in order to discover and experience what the area offers them," is one of the eighteen principles enumerated in the Charter of Children's Rights for Arts and Culture, created by the European Network for the Diffusion of Performing Arts for Early Childhood.

This motto is also used in the promotional material of the upcoming Hakawy festival, a fascinating one-week event for children in Cairo. The city of over 20 million inhabitants has a dynamic arts scene yet there is insufficient interest in providing children with good quality theatre productions. This is about to change.

For one week, beginning 12 March, Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children will fill the theatre and gallery of the Hanager Arts Centre located in the Cairo Opera grounds, with theatre performances tailored for younger audiences. The festival is one of the many artistic activities of AFCA for Arts and Culture, an institution which has a mission to educate children and young people through art and culture in Egypt. Hakawy also falls in what can be considered the "festive season," two months – March and April – filled with many festivals across the city. Hakawy is definitely a distinctive gem among them.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, AFCA organises a large number of art education programmes. "We try to educate children and young people through theatre, visual arts, music and singing, dancing and even cooking," Mohamed El-Ghawy, founder of AFCA and the Hakawy festival, tells Ahram Online. "Throughout the whole year AFCA goes to schools, to associations working with children, holds programmes tailored for small groups, families, individuals."

Mohamed El-Ghawy
Mohamed El-Ghawy working on educating through arts with children (Photo courtesy: Mohamed El-Ghawy)

As he finds a few minutes to sit down in Hanager's gallery, El-Ghawy's eyes constantly run across the place, his mind is obviously preoccupied with the final preparations for the festival. There is a lot to look after including checking on the ticketing system which is being introduced to the festival for the first time this year, or details such as ensuring that 16 rollup advertising signs are sent to Cairo International Airport. The rollups, El-Ghawy's cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism – one of the many supporters of this festival – aim to boost Egypt's image to people landing in Cairo where they are welcomed with an advertisement of a valuable artistic activity, international theatre troupes performing for children.  

And indeed, for Egypt, Hakawy festival is probably one of the most important artistic activities held throughout the year simply due to its values, which go beyond the mere artistic content and are expressed through the targeted audience, children, systematically ignored by too many governmental and independent organisations.

Hakawy festival is about storytelling through a variety of tools. The first edition was themed simply "storytelling" hence the festival's name "hakawy," the Arabic word for stories. In 2012, the festival's second edition looked into stories through language and education; a year later, the festival relied on musicality and rhythm. This year, Hakawy tells a story through body movement and dance.

The festival will see productions from the USA, UK, France, Netherlands, Germany and Egypt. "We have Frogz from Broadway, where children will be able to meet frogs and many other animals," El-Ghawy explains. Though he hoped to stage Frogz at the Cairo Opera House's main hall, he enumerates a series of difficult demands from the opera itself that made him abandon idea of involving this institution.

Frogz, a Broadway show by Imago Theatre

El-Ghawy continues talking about the festival's programming. At times he reveals bits and pieces from the performances; at others he tries to contain his bubbling enthusiasm.

"Yummm from the UK talks about children who love food; they dance with food. In Uccellini, a French performance that is suitable for the youngest viewers [marked in the programme: starting from 9 months] the protagonist is a painter who paints and dances," El-Ghawy explains.

He also points to Madcap from Netherlands, a performance that presents the process of life by contemporary dance. "Contemporary dance is a new and unusual experience for many children. By bringing this play, I try to prove that this art form can be equally engaging for children as other tools are."

Among other interesting productions this year is Paradieskinder, a coproduction between AFCA and German Consol Theatre. "The performance is a result of one year study visits in Germany and Egypt where the team explored gender issues working with children as well as researchers and specialists."

Another play born from direct interaction with children for many months is Amal Bokra (Tomorrow's Hope), produced by AFCA with the cooperation and support of several parties. The production is addressing viewers over ten years old. "We looked into children's true stories. We brought a choreographer to help them express harassment, food problems, long queues, revolution through dance; we provided a singing teacher to help them express those and other issues through music, and so on," El-Ghawy explains.

Youmm by Tell Tale hearts from UK. (Photo courtesy: Mohamed El-Ghawy)

Though AFCA produces some performances, El-Ghawy hopes that Egypt will see the emergence of many independent theatre troupes that will give their time to children. This year's festival will also see a production by children from Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Art School, a certificate programme for underprivileged children, providing them a space for creative expression and an initiative which El-Ghawy finds to be rare and as such especially important.

Projecting optimism as he talks about AFCA and the festival, El-Ghawy's know-how, experience in arts management, courses he took internationally, including extensive summer courses at Washington's Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts, are entwined with his continuous study of Egyptian children's realities and their needs. As such Hakawy festival is not just a collection of international troupes performing their works consecutively throughout one week, it is the result of sustainable interaction with children, a fervent approach to theatre, and research for the best values AFCA can offer to young audiences.

El-Ghawy's enthusiasm already bore fruit in previous editions of the festival, where huge numbers of adults and children flocked to the theatre, often fighting their way in between the crowd. One cannot forget the excitement and impatience of the youngest attendees standing in long queues in front of the theatre's hall and sporadic skirmishes between the parents who wanted to seize the best place for their children.  

This year it is expected to provide even higher interest and thrill to children of all social strata. And this year El-Ghawy decided to increase the number of performances of each play. As he fine tunes the festival, he already lays plans for the festival's 5th edition in 2015: "Le conte célèbre will be next year's theme. We will bring the best known stories including Snow White and Pinocchio," El-Ghawy reveals, adding that he also hopes to bring troupes from distant cultures, such as Asian theatre for children. In parallel, El-Ghawy plans to infuse the arts scene -- in Cairo and beyond -- with more frequent international and Egyptian theatre performances for children, throughout the year, not necessarily linked to the festival's week.

3rd edition of Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children, 2013. Aga Boom performance (centre), Outta Hamra performing in front of Hanager Arts Centre (left and right) (Photos: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

Tickets for the Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children can be purchased at the Hanager Arts Centre. The ticket price is LE5 (less than 1 USD). The organisers underline in the promotional material: "If you want to allow access to underprivileged children, you can buy more than one ticket and leave them at the box office." With support of UNESCO, AFCA will also provide free buses for children from underprivileged locations.

Check the complete programme of the festival here


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