Rules challenged as Tunisia street theatre grows in influence

Sunday 19/03/2017
Part of a performance titled Zamkan, which tackles the history and issues of Amazigh in Tunisia. (Fanni Raghman Anni)

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.