Rules challenged as Tunisia street theatre grows in influence
Tunis - Six years after the revolution, Tunisia’s streets have undergone a radical cultural transformation. Once viewed as restrictive and precarious, these public spaces are now a major site of artistic expression, particularly for street performers.
One of Tunisia’s leading street theatre groups is Fanni Raghman Anni, (Artist Against My Will), a collective aimed at promoting street art as a forum for artistic, cultural and political expression.
Founded in 2011, the collective provides training and workshops for young people in marginalised neighbourhoods. They were awarded the Arabic Award for Peace and Creativity in Cairo last November.
“Our work stems from our awareness of the marginalisation of young artists in poor neighbourhoods and our faith in their right to practise citizenship and defend their freedom of expression,” said Seifeddine Jlassi, Fanni Raghman Anni’s president.
The collective reaches youth from all walks of life. Street theatre gives them a positive outlet for their energy and attention.
“As we formed out of a group of young people, we wanted to develop and adopt an artistic approach that would encourage young people to occupy the streets and promote an alternative culture in the streets,” Jlassi said. “The aim is to develop young talent and defend youths’ right to free expression.”
He added: “We chose to work on street art because we believe the only way to communicate with all social classes as a group is to perform in the places that are part of their daily routines, like the streets, the markets, the transportation stations. That is how we can reach out to them.”
Street theatre was a rare sight before the 2011 revolution and Fanni Raghman Anni faced an uphill battle in breaking the traditions of stage-bound theatre.
Its members have been harassed by the public for their controversial messages and they have faced issues with law enforcement. During a 2013 performance in El Kef, 19 members of the collective were arrested after a squabble with Salafist protesters. Initially arrested to ensure their protection, the members of the collective were later accused of “assault on good morals”. The performance, titled Guetlouh (They Killed Him) was a tribute to prominent Tunisian leftist Chokri Belaid, who was assassinated earlier that year.
“It is hard to ask the audience to accept new genres that are highly experimental,” said Jlassi.
“Our work is also controversial as we deal with different taboos… At times it feels like society refuses to face the reality it denies in art. It takes time to see some change but as long as we avoid extremism and violence, we will manage.
“We will remain faithful to the real role of street art, which is to protect our newfound freedom of expression, and promote new outlets for repressed ideas and thoughts. We want to decolonise Tunisians’ ideas and thoughts.”
Following in the steps of Fanni Raghman Anni is K’Art-Na, a theatrical street group that has been touring Tunisia by bus since last September. Equipped with props and sound equipment, K’Art-Na’s bus has trekked through various regions of Tunisia, stopping to provide workshops and performances. The group offered workshops to more than 150 participants in six southern towns in 2016. They also presented 14 shows during the journey.
The project is directed by theatrical artist and actor Chokri el-Bahri, who said his aim was to train marginalised youth in different theatrical forms — from visual comedy to pantomime to commedia dell’arte.
“Street theatre is about leaving the restrictions of the conventional space of theatre behind,” Bahri said. “I used to work in a theatrical company that performed in theatres and not all theatres had technical conditions favourable for shows. That encouraged me to go to the streets instead of limiting myself to the restrictions of the stage.”
“There are villages and towns in interior regions where they don’t have a theatre or any access to culture,” he added. “That is where our role comes, to bring culture in the form of street art, which does not need a pre-fixed space.”
K’Art-Na’s work also delves into controversial topics, such as immigration and racism. Troupe members said they hope that by bringing the subjects into the public square, they can raise awareness among younger generations.
Bahri called his experience of travelling across Tunisia “enlightening”.
“Working in the main street of downtown Tunis is nothing like working in the courtyards of El Kef or the market place in Kasserine,” he said, “I was surprised to discover that people in rural regions are more open-minded than in big cities.”
Bahri said K’Art-Na is playing an important role in providing young people with interactive cultural activities and events.
“Our bus was the centre of attention,” he said. “We presented our work in the markets and in the city’s communal place where people gather for the weekly market. We also changed the space depending on our target audience, women or men.”
Bahri added: “Even when we talk about security issues, the streets have their own conditions. A stambali show, for instance, requires a certain dance aspect. We talked about racism, access to culture and the importance of art in society. Some shows were about illegal immigration. Each of these themes required a different theatrical vision.”
Bahri’s approach seems to be resonating in Tunisia, as the genre is attracting more participants and fans.
Through the innovative work of Fanni Raghman Anni, K’Art-Na, and other emerging groups, street theatre is having a growing influence on Tunisia’s artistic landscape. Not only is it challenging the rules of classical theatre and attracting marginalised youth, it is creating a new outlet for creative minds to flourish.