Ahmed El Attar, Egyptian Theatre, and the Belonging of Global Artists within a World of Sociopolitical Frenzy Part I (2016)
By Salma S. Zohdi
Over a year ago, I interviewed Egyptian theatre maker, Ahmed El Attar, as part of my research for my MFA thesis. In our conversation we delved into many factors that have an effect on theatre making, especially that of Egyptian theatre. Various themes informed our conversation; the role of artists within times of political turmoil, his beginnings as a theatre director and his journey from an artist to also becoming one of the most active cultural operators and producers to two major festivals in the region. We also spoke about his process, and how Egyptian theatre is conceived within a global lens.
Our conversation has been at the back of my mind ever since, and after graduating and joining TCG, I realized that a theatre mind like Attar’s, one that is currently thriving in the global theatre scene, needs further investigation. After our first encounter, many things that we discussed piqued my curiosity and made me determined to go back and re-converse with him, not just to know about his upcoming works, but to know how he views the current role of artists in this ever-changing world we live in. But the main driver that made me reach out to meet with him again, is my interest in knowing where he thinks the global artist belongs especially after the events of Trump’s election and Brexit. I was particularly intrigued about his perspective on these events because of something he stated during our first interview in regards to how the current Egyptian administration is “closing on itself”. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between what he said about Egypt and what’s been happening in the West the 2nd half of 2016. So I went back during my annual visit to my hometown, Cairo, and met with him to pick the brain of a theatre maker who naturally thrives as an artist in a world that is now new – in terms of socio-political territory – to many theatre makers in America. A world with which he is very familiar.
But before getting to the topics we discussed during this year’s interview, it’s only fair that I present the highlights of the first interview. After all, those highlights not only inspired this second interview, but also informed it.
Ahmed El Attar’s beginnings, projects, and festivals: the transition from a theatre director to a cultural operator and festival producer – Attar is a veteran of the independent theatre movement, primarily through his theatre company, Temple Independent Theatre Company. However, that’s not his only accomplishment. - Besides the successes of Temple, Attar launched three projects in the course of 20 years, which directly aided the development of the cultural backdrop of the downtown theatre community.
It all started with problem-solving. His entrepreneurial mind set him off to start a project that resolved perhaps one of the most pressing issues that faced the independent theatre community at the time: the lack of space. He described it as a very specific need:
“In 2004, I had a big production called Mother, I Want to Be Millionaire, which was at the Berlin Theatre Festival (Berliner Festspiele), a huge, prestigious festival. It was a big cast, a big set, a ton and one-half set, and a huge crew. It was a production by Berliner Festspiele, and we had the production money to do the work we wanted to do, so I got the designers I wanted, I had money to pay for everything and the actors were well paid, but the only thing that was missing was a place to rehearse,” said Attar. “Accordingly, we were rehearsing in my living room downtown, and that’s when the idea came to my mind. At that time, I thought if I was probably the only one getting the most funds to produce theatrical works in this entire region, and I was still facing this issue, then what about the younger generation or other companies who don’t even have personal resources? That’s where the idea of SEE [Studio Emad Eddin] came from so that people could at least have a place to rehearse their works,” he added.
Attar indeed succeeded in achieving his goal. Studio Emad Eddin, SEE, in the heart of downtown Cairo, has opened the doors to many young theatre professionals by just giving them space. SEE is a cultural hub where artists meet, network, rehearse, and participate in workshops and trainings. From these workshops 2B Continued came to life, which is a festival that provides students the facilities, resources, and production capacities to undergo and execute their projects, based on the learnings gained from the workshops
A few years after the inauguration of the bi-annual 2B Continued, we saw the birth of Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), Egypt's only multidisciplinary contemporary arts festival that takes place in Downtown Cairo. It invites and presents works of local, regional and international music, theatre, dance, visual arts, literature, and film artists from all over the globe. This one of a kind convening in the Arab world takes place for three weeks between March and April each year, presenting at multiple sites in downtown Cairo.
The role of an artist and the process of a theatre maker wearing many hats – Attar stated that he always felt that an artist can hold a role within society, which goes beyond creating art, yet, pursuing this role is not imperative:
“I don’t think it’s a must, I believe that for the artist, just doing art is enough. They don’t need to do anything else, they don’t need to be engaged politically, they don’t need to be social activists; they don’t need to think about poverty. They have just to do what they know best because art for me contains everything, art is social, is political...it’s everything. It doesn’t have to be engaged to be political, art is political by definition, and is social by definition. But I also think that those artists who have the capacity, not necessarily the capacity meaning the desire, but also the capacity in skill, should utilize those extracurricular skills to benefit society.”
Because of this, he prefers to keep his functions as a theatre director and a cultural operator separate: “When I speak about keeping those two functions separate, I mean each occupies a different part of my brain. When I’m working on a piece, I’m tormented, there is suffering in giving birth to something, I’m a slow creator, meaning that I can take a year and a half to create something, sometimes longer. But when I’m programming or running an institution it’s different, because you are building an audience, you want to make numbers, and you want to bring people in. It’s a lot more structured as you are reaching targets. It’s not a mathematical thing. That said, forcibly, as a programmer, part of me wants to put on works that address socio-political issues, the reality of things, where are we now. But at the end of the day, I’m drawn towards that pure artistic product that gets to you – that I feel it’s going to get to you. That’s the hope while programming.”
Arts within a terrified society that closes in on itself – “Right now we are in a society that wants to close itself off from the world. And as an Egyptian, and an Arab, this is the biggest mistake. This is the biggest mistake we’ll make in history, and it will take us down much worse than before. Because historically, Egypt – even during Nasser’s time and the hardest times – is one of the countries that got occupied the most in the world, and it's because we are centralized and we have the oldest civilization. So in its best form, people came here to study and experience the country. This is one of our biggest strengths. Even Nasser invited Arab royalty to come and study here. But the Egypt that is now closed and scared of everything around it is not an Egypt that can survive. A lot of people talk about the fact that Egypt’s national security is inevitably outside of its borders - Egypt cannot survive within its borders, especially when it closes its mind like this. Egypt is a land that consuls and forms federations with its neighbors and other nations. So closing it will prevent it to expand, not geographically, but mentally.”
He then discussed why it was/is essential that Egypt open its door to Syrian refugees: “The Syrians should’ve came here, instead of going to Germany. They would’ve helped lift up the country, because they are more refined culturally and more educated than us,” he said. “In the turn of the century, Syrian immigrants always helped the enlightened ages in Egypt – and in other countries like America and South America. They brought theatre to our region; they helped open the National Theater and helped open the first big Egyptian national Newspaper (Al Ahram), which is now celebrating its 140 year [anniversary]. It’s a huge downfall for us. Because not only do we not have a vision, but also we have a very terrified vision of the world and we are closing ourselves from the world and we are going to suffocate, and not even allow our own people to get out.”
An Open Mind at every Rehearsal – “I was reading a compilation book about rehearsals and a director was quoted in the book saying that every time he comes into rehearsals, he comes in as if he hasn't done anything before, as if, this was his first rehearsal. I strongly relate with this, which you come in at every rehearsal as if it's your first day, with an open mind. It's the difference between theatre and let's say advertisement, or art and advertisement. Of course there's an element of art in advertising, but it's not the same, because you have a predetermined result that you want to get to. What I find in art is that there is no predetermined result,” he said.
His Creative Journey – “The whole point is that you go through a journey, and then of course you can imagine something, but the end product that you end up with is very different from where you started. I'm saying that because coming with a predetermined notion about what you want, how you want it – it could be any notion ex: new media, using videos, etc. etc. – won’t work and you shouldn't go in with this mindset, because these things come organically. You can start off wanting to work with video, but then throughout the development of the project in the rehearsals, you realize that video doesn’t have a place, and you chuck it out. But if you are coming in with that premise, then what happens is you're stuck with something that is not organic or dramaturgically sound to that particular piece. For me, whatever the project needs – regardless of the artist's preempted imagination – is what matters. Because you need to integrate elements that serve the narrative and make sense within a storyline or the context. So that’s my answer to the integration of any element in my projects, whether social media, new media, anything. Contemporary theatre isn't about technology, and not about getting out of the black box, it’s about the way you work that particular project. I see a lot of works that are technology heavy but isn't integrated dramaturgically well. On the other hand, I see other productions that have no tech at all, and work even better as contemporary works. So it's not about what you use, but rather how you use the elements that serve your story.
Set design, relationship to space and the use of Plexi glass to manifest the class divide presented in his award winning play The Last Supper – “Actually, the first thing that I always have in mind is the space. The first thing that came to me [for The Last Supper]is I knew there was dinner table…[and] then I thought about the Da Vinci set up. I collaborated with a brilliant set designer, where we talked for almost a year about these kinds of ideas. Then when the rehearsals start happening, I don't' yet have a full script, so I send him bits of script, then he joins the rehearsals with his own ideas. So the Plexi and the floor, and all that is all him, based on what I told him. And because we have such an affinity - personal, artistic, and intellectual - usually what he proposes fits with what I have in mind. But the first thing I choose is the space. For example, Mama is in a living room. Now how this living room is set, I have no clue or how it will look like, I don't even try to find that out, because that's not my role, and I leave that to the set designer - to his creativity, which enriches mine.
This marks the end of the first part of this story. The interview, that resulted from this conversation presented, will be published on July 27th, 2017.
Ahmed El Attar is an Egyptian independent theatre director and playwright, Ahmed El Attar is the artistic director of D-CAF and Falaki Theatre, as well as the founder and manager of Orient Productions, Temple Independent Theatre Company and Studio Emad Eddin. With several degrees under his belt and having received recognition and awards from institutions worldwide, his work has been performed all over Europe and the Arab region. In 2005 El Attar was chosen by the Arabic edition of Newsweek as one of forty-two personalities who’ve influenced change in the Arab world. In 2010, El Attar received the prize for best theatre text from the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development for his play ‘Life is Beautiful or Waiting for My Uncle From America’. His latest play ‘The Last Supper’ was in the official selection of the 69th edition of the Avignon International Theatre Festival (2015) and the Festival D’Automne in Paris (2015) making it the first Egyptian play ever to be programmed in both festivals.
Salma S. Zohdi is a Dramaturg based in New York City. Until recently, she was the Communications Associate at Theater Communications Group. She is a Columbia University Dramaturgy MFA graduate and a recipient of two international fellowship awards from the American Association for University Women. She also holds a MA in English & Comparative Literature from the American University in Cairo. When she lived in Egypt, she was an Assistant Director in the Egyptian feature film Al Kobar (trans. The Bigshots), she then joined Alumni Community Theatre as their PR & Marketing Manager. She worked as a producer, teaching artist, stage manager, playwright, dramaturg, translator, and assistant director. Highlights from her work in Egypt include: The Marriage Proposal, Jack or the Submission, The Dinosaur Play, ART, Waiting for Godot, and El Gaw Gameel (trans. The Weather is Nice). Her credits at Columbia University include: The Next War, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, UNDROWN’D, and The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Over the summer of 2015, a reading of her original play, Disposable Promises, was staged at Columbia University. In 2016, she got her first off-Broadway credit as the Arabic translator for Classical Stage Company's production of Nathan the Wise. In 2017, she dramaturged an evening of “Arab Classic Plays” at The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center.
FIRST: DCAF 2017, Press Conference, Marriott, Cairo, Photo by Mostafa Abdel Aty
SECOND: Dooms Day, El Warsha, DCAF 2017, Cairo, Photo by Mostafa Abdel Aty
HEADSHOT: Ahmed El Attar, Photo by Mostafa Abdel Aty
BLOG SALON CURATOR
Ruth Margraff is a playwright and writing program chair at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Margraff's plays, poetry and opera works include Anger/Fly; Three Graces; Temptation of the Fresh Voluptuous; Cafe Antarsia Ensemble; Seven; Stadium Devildare; The Cry Pitch Carrolls; The Elektra Fugues; Night Vision; Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon, Voice of the Dragon 1,2,3; Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling; All Those Violent Sweaters; Red Frogs; Night Parachute Battalion; The State of Gristle; Centaur Battle of San Jacinto; Wallpaper Psalm. Her work has been performed at various festivals and venues throughout USA; UK; Canada; Russia; Romania; Serbia; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Greece; Turkey; Slovenia; Czech Republic; Croatia; France; Austria, Sweden; Japan; Egypt; India, Azerbaijan. She is recipient of numerous awards from institutions including Rockefeller Foundation; McKnight Foundation; Jerome Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Theater Communications Group; Fulbright; New York State Council on the Arts; Illinois Arts Council; Arts International; Trust for Mutual Understanding of New York, CultureConnect.