The cultural democratization experience : Egypt and the Compagnie indépendante El-Warsha
by Brigitte Rémer, sociologist, cultural management specialist, consultant in international cultural policy
Much regarding Egyptian theater remains unknown. This practice was revealed to Occidental scholars during Bonaparte’s expedition in Egypt in 1798. It is in the 19th century that occidental theater falls under the Egyptian influence.
After the 1952 Revolution in Egypt, Nasser organizes the cultural sector under the Soviet model and aims that Egyptian citizens receive free access to culture. He reinvigorates the construction of the Palais de la Culture, while closely tracking the media and legislative bodies. There is no official recognition of the artist in society, no contracts, no theater companies – except for those funded by the government.
Hassan El-Geretly was the director of Egypt’s first Théâtre Expérimental du Caire, before founding in 1987 the Compagnie indépendante El-Warsha. His primary goal is to establish a powerful relationship with the Egyptian audience. As such, he presents plays that discuss contemporary challenges in Egyptian society, and in turn question traditional forms of theater. Due to restrictive laws and censorship, El-Geretly establishes El-Warsha as a for-profit company, with shareholders. El-Geretly mission was to create a diverse and loyal troupe, as most projects were inscribed in the long-term. Inspired by folklore, traditional sayings and street slang, El-Geretly wanted to establish dynamic and high-energy performances.
In order to ensure the troupe’s independence, El-Geretly turns toward international foundations for funding: for years, the Ford Foundation and the SIDA (Swedish International Development Agency) Foundation allowed the company to thrive and remain independent. El-Warsha fought to remain distinct from government agencies. Furthermore, the company successfully achieves the democratic mission to widen its audience. The company’s headquarters are in a Cairo apartment, which acts as both a rehearsal room and a performance space able to welcome 60 audience members. The apartment also contains a recording studio and offices, the true heart and soul of the company: “a life and work project” according to El-Geretly.
At its inception, the company decided to revisit some classical plays from the West, through an Egyptian lens. El-Warsha puts on plays by Dario Fo and Franca Rame, which portray the complex relationship between men and women. Peter Handke is also a source of inspiration for the company, as his play Le pupille veut être tuteur exhibits the dominant-dominated relationship between teacher and student. The company also presented two plays by Harold Pinter, The Dumb Waiter et The Lover, in Arab dialect, as well as Kafka’s In the penal colony. El-Geretly adapted Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, by inserting contemporary texts, mocking elitist Egyptian cultural practices. This play marked the company’s true artistic emancipation. As of 1992, El-Warsha began writing its own plays and distancing itself from the occidental model of theater.
Consequentially, the company turns to Egyptian heritage for inspiration, and forges connections between traditional texts and contemporary productions, always emphasizing the Nation’s rich history. As such, Egyptian heritage can be honored and sustained. To begin, the company revisits the gestures of the Banu Hilal tribe, authors of epic poetry recited over several days. El-Warsha also explored stick fighting as a martial art, Tahti, performed during social gatherings (weddings, births, or victory celebrations). El-Warsha is inspired by the rhetorical and choreographic qualities of these two traditions and applies them to enrich their theatrical esthetics. The company thus incorporates a variety of gestures, rhythms, chants, and percussions in its performances – an oratorio is born from a common vibration on stage. These plays are anchored in the ritualistic and epic theater, similar to those of Ariane Mnouchkine and Peter Brook.
El-Warsha adapted Romeo and Juliet in a more intimate setting was rendered more accessible to an Egyptian audience through contemporary cultural references. The company also put on a satirical cabaret, Les Nuits d’El-Warsha, inspired by the Egyptian tradition of musical theater post-WWI. The company further turns to the tradition of storytelling; El-Warsha gathered folk stories in the Berber language, which were then translated into contemporary Arabic, German and, French: this trilingual translation was performed in Contes du Désert, entre passé et présent, l’oasis de Siwa. This play is a compelling example of Egyptian oral history and imagination.
Today, the company pools its inspirations from contemporary events, and is particularly interested in questions of female rights and war. El-Warsha revisits the Greek classic, The Trojan Women, which offers a voice to the defeated women of war. This tragedy is examined in light of the 6-day war in 1967, the Kippour war in 1973, and the ongoing war in Gaza; the text gives precedence to the female testimonial, tragic, yet perseverant. The company led a series of interviews, which were the foundation of a contemporary epic play, Le Caire sur la main – Halawet el Dounia. In the immediate aftermath of the Tahrir revolution in 2011, the company collected testimonies of the events, articulated into yet another play, Zawaya, which translates to “angels”. El-Geretly’s goal is to provoke thought and reinvigorate political discourse.
Finally, El-Warsha is a collaborative company, producing international plays and presenting abroad, namely at the Avignon Festival in 2014. The company organizes storytelling and artisanal workshops, to allow practitioners to exchange artistic skills on a national level. El-Geretly is at the head of the Hakaya networking movement in charge of these exchanges that foster professional development. The company thus also has a pedagogical mission, for children and adults, and works closely with local non-profit organizations: cultural creation and civic action thus go hand in hand for the El-Warsha company.