Letter from Egypt - Theatre maker Nora Amin reflects on how the performing arts were challenging the pandemic or succumbing to it
by Nora Amin
April 29, 2021. In the global memory of performance, the year 2020 will be remembered as the year when we discovered that to survive, we must transform. Although a clear fact throughout the history of humanity, transformation re-emerged as a new realisation and a new practise that has to be developed on a daily basis. For theatre and dance artists around the world, it was necessary to convey the message that arts and culture contribute to the humane immunity system, that there must be innovative ways of holding on to them so as to hold on to the essence of our humanness and livelihood.
The struggle to hold on to our humanness became a central point in many artistic expressions around the world. In the Egyptian performance scene, the debates around what theatre is, how to deal with online solutions as an alternative to physical attendance, and how to handle physical restrictions, were in the centre of any public statements and discussions. Instead of focusing on the possibility to create alternative solutions, with the creative flow that it can trigger, many of the theatre makers spent time criticising any alternatives, and complaining over the threat that such alternatives might be destructive to theatre.
For the sake of keeping the machine working?
Within an overall socio-cultural reality in Egypt, where usually everything is negotiable and – possibly – compromised, the question of what is really "necessary" was always brought to the public attention. Those who lost income – due the curfew that was imposed in March and April 2020 – claimed that such measures were not so much needed. Others – who accepted that curfew – ended up questioning the necessity of closing down theatres while the spectators could just wear masks and feel safe. Such questions risk to undermine safety and the “necessary” protection of human life. Nonetheless, many people still argued – sometimes against the state’s decisions – if we really should suspend the program of live performances, and how long should it last, rather than embarking on a potentially rich question about how much the lives of spectators are valued, or how much they are objectified and used for the sake of keeping the machine working.
With the background of the ancient Egyptian civilisation being obsessed by death – as it manifests in the huge amount of tombs including temples and the pyramids themselves – the current Egyptian culture is not afraid of dealing with mortality. Contrary to many countries around the world, the Egyptian society lives with the facts of the daily mortality rate – due to the pandemic – as normal facts of life. With genuine religiosity, and unique resignation to what is labelled as “Fate”, the Egyptian public impression about confronting the pandemic was not so much related to panic, as much as it was related to a new field of negotiating possibility: the possibility to continue as we were before on every level, and the possibility to shift behaviour in order to save what can still be saved. This negotiation extended to the theatre and dance field, overshadowing the essential topic of – possibly – re-examining the relation towards spectatorship as a microcosm of the public relation towards humanness and the dignity of human life, a topic that could have enriched the Egyptian performance scene by inviting perspectives and discourse directly related to the meaning, value and dynamics of spectatorship, within a performance culture that has paid very little attention to the positions of spectatorship versus the stage as central and representing a discourse of authority.
A nostalgic sensation of gatherings
Similar to many countries around the world, the venues of the state-owned theatre closed temporarily during the spring curfew and the following partial lockdown in Egypt which extended to cover the fasting month of Ramadan, before re-opening again in the summer with new rules of spectatorship: the required distance between spectators has to be respected, everybody should wear face masks, and disinfectants should be made available. The permitted capacity of theatre venues drastically shrunk, nevertheless theatre artists were happy to resume their work again as if embracing the denial of the existence of the pandemic and pretending that nothing has changed. The minister of culture, Dr. Ines Abdel-Dayem, paid special attention to use outdoor performance spaces taking into consideration that they would offer more safety due to the natural and continuous ventilation.
The outdoor performance space in front of Hanager Arts Centre became a vital area for outdoor performances. The special summery weather of Cairo – which usually extends until October – made it possible to create a vibrant program there. While nothing changed in the content or style of the performances – which were mainly produced before the pandemic and during 2019 – the feeling of outdoor performances in the Cairo Opera premises brought back a nostalgic sensation of gatherings, along with the desire to celebrate, something that could seem quite contradictory with the pandemic emotional mood of insecurity and constant fear of the others. Creating outdoor performances once again in 2020 seemed like a return to the breath of life, especially that it came right after the removal of the partial lockdown as if it was a symbolic way of healing and mending the fragmented togetherness that was affected due to the pandemic.
Hybridity as a (not only) an ideal choice
The restrictions imposed by the pandemic in 2020 extended to international travel, which impacted all the international theatre festivals around the world. This brought us to appreciate the mobility we once enjoyed before the pandemic, it also brought us to re-examine the power of the physical encounter between theatre makers and audiences across the world. Almost all international theatre festivals either had to postpone their current edition to 2021 or were obliged to replace it by an online and digital encounter. Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre opted for a hybrid edition where the international performances and competitions were replaced by digital and online encounters, while Egyptian performances took place physically under the required measures.
Although the debates – even conflicts – regarding the online performances are still vivid until now, with one side claiming that online performances are actually films and not performances, and another side arguing that they are shot as staged performances which is totally different than scripted films, one could not ignore that the decision of implementing that hybrid edition of CIFET was unavoidable. On one hand, it was impossible to hold the festival with physical attendance from international guests and performances in September 2020, and on the other hand, it seemed also impossible to cancel this year’s edition while almost all international theatre festivals are going for an online alternative. The hybridity was an ideal choice. The Egyptian spectators could still enjoy their mobility and physically attend Egyptian performances, and the international audiences and artists could still interact and participate via the online tools. Nonetheless this divided the sections of the festival’s competitions, into online competitions and live – only Egyptian – competition.
Extending the bridges of communication across the globe
"Performing Arts Now: Necessity?" was the title of the online one-day conference of CIFET gathering artists and scholars from Denmark/Italy, Germany, Lebanon, Kenya/Canada, Korea, Morocco and Egypt. I had the pleasure to conceptualise and curate the conference. It addressed the diverse performance formats that were created during the pandemic in order to respond to the variants and conditions of preserving life, while confirming the continuation of communication and of interaction – although virtually – as being the closest human modes to the physical encounter. In this sense the online conference was an opportunity to extend the bridges of communication and exchange among performing arts practitioners and scholars across the globe.
For several of them, the suspension of performance activities was an opportunity to examine a history of privilege and stage colonisation, therefore making space for a critical discourse that can support a new chapter of our performance cultures after the pandemic is over. Although Nullo Facchini (Denmark), Nina de la Chevallerie (Germany) and Omar Abi Azar (Lebanon) were each located in a country that is distant to the others, the three of them shared the urge to reflect on the powerful potential of rituals within performance, hopefully bringing back the feeling of togetherness and the human bonding after the pandemic. It was an opportunity to expand the meeting beyond the restricted physical space of a conference room, and create an inspirational network of immediacy and urgency on a transnational level. This opportunity emerged thanks to the restrictions of travel and public gatherings, it was an opportunity born out of restriction, an openness produced by obstruction.
A whole generation suddenly departed
The feeling that currently occupies the Egyptian performance scene is a feeling of continuous loss due to the huge number of artists that passed away because of the pandemic. It seems as if a whole generation has suddenly departed, a generation of theatre teachers, pioneering actors, expert theatre directors and academic figures. Again, with our tradition of coping with mortality, we did not stop and question what this collective loss means for the balance of our field, and for the dynamics of continuity. We did not stop either to appreciate the possibility of performance to support the healing of loss via the togetherness of the spectators, and via a potential focus on performing the imbalances of our social fabric and the necessity of human dignity. It seems to me now that what is needed the most is to stop and question, and to honestly examine our history of performance, the positions of spectatorship and of authority, and above all to question how we can transform via critical discourse: to transform the danger of mortality to an opportunity of re-birth, to reverse fear into creativity.
Nora Amin is an Egyptian author, performer, choreographer, theatre director and scholar. Founder of the nation-wide Egyptian Project for Theatre of the Oppressed and its Arab network, and of Lamusica Independent Theatre Group where she choreographed and directed forty productions. Fellow of the Academy of the Arts of the World (Cologne), fellow of the International Research Centre for Interweaving Performance Cultures (FU), Valeska-Gert guest professor for dance sciences in cooperation with DAAD and AdK (FU). Expert in cultural management, and mentor at PAP/LAFT, and at Flausen+ Bundesnetzwerk. Her most recent publication is "Tanz der Verfolgten" (MSB, Matthes& Seitz).
This article is part of a cooperation between the International Research College "Interweaving Performance Cultures" at Freie Universität Berlin (editors: Clara Molau, Antonija Cvitic) and nachtkritik.de (editor: Elena Philipp).