Tunisian playwright Youssef Bahri and the social role of theatre

Youssef Bahri keeps abreast with the theatre of the Gulf countries in general but has a specific affinity with theatre practice in the UAE.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Tunisian playwright, dramaturge and novelist Youssef Bahri. (Al Arab)
An eye on challenges. Tunisian playwright, dramaturge and novelist Youssef Bahri. (Al Arab)

Tunisian playwright, dramaturge and novelist Youssef Bahri is a well-known theatre figure in the Arab world. He is quite familiar with the art form, whether through his participation with theatrical works at festivals or as a member of their juries. He is a theatre critic and instructor at the University of Sousse and has published several studies on theatre, cinema and literature.

In an interview with The Arab Weekly, Bahri discussed the role of theatre in Tunisia and the Arab world in general. Since the beginning of the practice of theatre by the Greeks and through its theoretical understanding in Aristotle’s “Poetics,” the role of theatre has become more diversified. Theatre, Bahri said, plays a social role that includes “inciting” audiences to become aware and enlightened but there isn’t a single path to “raising consciousness and enlightenment.”

Bahri advocates for a decentralised approach to the promotion of theatrical culture. The purpose should be to take theatre to the people and spread its practice to various social and age groups and to different regions of a country, he said

In Tunisia, most cities, villages and communities lack spaces suited for theatrical performances or for theatre practice, let alone well-equipped theatres, he noted.

The same is true of secondary education and university institutions. Opportunities for people to come into contact with theatre or to practice it and understand its role are rare in most regions of the country. It does not make sense in this context to talk about theatre’s role in raising awareness or in enlightening audiences.

Bahri bemoaned the fact that theatre practice in Tunisia is basically confined to a handful of halls along two streets in Tunis. He was critical of the state approach in building a centralised cultural venue in downtown Tunis, which he describes as a closed “ghetto” even if it is called “the City of Culture.”

Instead of building theatres in various parts of the country, the government allocated a separate hall to “regional theatre” within the “City of Culture,” Bahri said.

Bahri contended that most of Tunisia is at the pre-1909 stage when the first made-in-Tunisia play, “Sincere Brotherhood,” was produced and performed.

“I have no ready-made proposals for how to progress with the whole of ‘Arab theatre,’” Bahri said. “There are problems in theatre in every country that need to be examined locally and require specific solutions.

“In each country, we find problems of training, of production, of financing, of distribution, of appropriate legislation and regulations and of theatrical output, et cetera, that do not resemble the same problems in other countries.

“Theatre requires legislation, personnel, funds, infrastructure, distribution platforms and product valuation. In most Arab countries, we do not know whether there are policies specific to theatre promotion or just orientations or simply the presence of some theatre activity without any planning and vision.”

Bahri said he keeps abreast with the theatre of the Gulf countries in general but has a specific affinity with theatre practice in the United Arab Emirates. “I have a better knowledge of this theatre,” he said, “and I’m part of its momentum.

“Theatre in the UAE is not just putting on stage activities and plays. There is a vision [guiding it] and programming mechanisms and qualified implementation that give its output credibility. This is particularly evident in Sharjah, where new concepts are being applied to the organisation and structure of the theatre.

“Festivals, for example, have attained high levels of quality and they are connected, ranging from the desert to the city and from theatre for children to the Sharjah Theatre Days and others.”