New generation of artists shut out from Egypt’s theatre scene

August 20, 2017
Looking for support. A scene from “Yome An Qatalo El-Ghena’a” at the National Festival of Theatre in Egypt. (Provided by Amr Hussein)

Cairo - Veteran theatre profes­sionals sparked a con­troversy in Egypt’s drama circle by cancel­ling the Best Playwright Award that was to have been pre­sented during the National Festival of Egyptian Theatre in July.
Conservative artists, who have controlled Egyptian state theatre since the 1960s, argued that there has not been an Egyptian play­wright talented enough to deserve the award for decades.
Playwright Mahmoud Gamal, who was in the running for the prize, said the award’s can­cellation was an example of Egypt’s older genera­tion of artists belittling younger ones.
“This development means that the older gener­ation is simply denying our existence,” Gamal said.
Twenty plays were considered for top awards at the festival. Two of the plays — “Cinema 30″ and “Yome An Qatalo El-Ghena’a” (“The Day Song was Murdered”) — were writ­ten by Gamal. The latter play was selected for best play, best director, best settings, best musical score and best lighting awards. Two ac­tors in the play were nominated for the Best Actor Award.
“How could it be possible that the author of such play is not consid­ered worthy of getting the best au­thor award?” an angry Gamal asked. “I am disappointed because the claim that none of us are talented enough to win the award is unfair.”
Gamal, who is in his 30s, has won the Best Playwright Award twice in the ten years since the festi­val started.
Younger Egyptian theatre artists have long complained about the control older genera­tions exercise over the cul­tural scene. Playwrights, actors, direc­tors, musi­cians and lighting specialists say they have little chance of progress­ing when older artists, who have dominated the scene for decades, refuse to give them the space they deserve.
The theatre industry in Egypt has been controlled by a handful of playwrights, actors, directors and specialists, who receive state sup­port and keep the new generation of artists at bay.
Independent artists such as Ga­mal undergo a long period of strug­gle before they are given a chance to assert themselves or receive sup­port from the Ministry of Culture. They must fend for themselves to shed light on their work and many have quit in frustration.
“Members of the jury tend to ig­nore young playwrights and art­ists, although the theatre is badly in need of new blood,” said theatre critic Hend Salama. “Juries always contradict themselves by insisting to have novel works but then fail to support those works or even en­courage their authors.”
Art specialists said they feared the very existence of Egypt’s theatre was in jeopardy. While new works are not receiving support, works by traditional artists lack novelty and dwell on overused themes and ideas.
Gamal said that he was denied the best playwright award because “Cinema 30″ was critical of authori­ties. In the play, Gamal implied that governments envy artists because of their ability to reach the minds and hearts of the public.
Gamal said members of the fes­tival’s jury relayed to him that they would not consider a play critical of the authorities.
“They believe that we have a dif­ferent perspective, which is why they are ignoring our work,” Gamal said, “but they are trying to intimi­date us for being different.”
Director Ahmed Abdel Fattah quit his work in the theatre and became a school teacher after losing hope to improve his conditions.
“I really lost faith in a better to­morrow,” he said. “As a family man, I had to secure an income to meet the needs of my children.”
Abdel Fattah said he recalled spending a tremendous amount of time and effort over weeks and months to prepare new shows, only to be denied the right to perform in state theatres. He was given the op­tion of staging the show in private theatres but that required funding he could not afford.
“Artists who are allowed to per­form at state theatres have con­nections, they are not the most tal­ented,” Abdel Fattah said. “Doors were shut to people like us, simply because we did not have the right connections.”
Abdel Fattah said he directed his first play at the age of 14. Now at 30, he is out of the theatre directing business.
“I have already lost enthusiasm. The only platform I have for now is a Facebook page where I post short scenes just to stay active. Naturally, it doesn’t satisfy my ambition as an artist,” he said.