I’d heard of Lazem Masrah from members of Alexandria’s cultural scene several times since the festival started in 2012, but unfortunately I never made it to any of the events.
Then, in March, I received a Lazem Masrah press release saying, “We are hoping that this year will be the finale of our struggles, and the struggles of independent and contemporary theater. However, it may also be the grand finale of our initiative and, if so, we hope that it has inspired other initiatives to continue the path of the passion of theater.”
This prompted me to track down the festival’s founder and artistic director, Adel Abdel Wahab, to ask about what led up to this statement. We were both tired after a long day when we sat down to chat at a downtown Cairo restaurant, but the talkative 33-year-old theater director quickly regained his energy as we discussed the forum’s four editions, reflected on the independent theater landscape, and reminisced about the sit-in at Alexandria’s Beram al-Tonsy theater back in 2013.
Rowan El Shimi: Why did you start Lazem Masrah?
Adel Abdel Wahab: In 2012 after the revolution, there was no theater being produced. Everything was reacting to the events – some of it was superficial and some was celebratory. Everyone was busy with protests and daily political events and attention was given to other things. I felt for a moment that theater might disappear. Graffiti was in the spotlight, and street performance as well.
When I saw Laila Soliman’s performance at the time, No Time For Art, I found the question [implied by the title] relevant and very important for that moment. It was a documentary theater piece about three people who were imprisoned – actor Aly Sobhy, who was arrested in the protests, a convict who escaped when prisons were opened on January 28, and a conscript in training when the revolution happened. This was the first time I saw stories from the revolution being used on stage. I had also been working on a performance called Time of Shadows since 2010, which I showed in 2012, on the anniversary of the revolution, at the Bibliotheca. I felt something was bubbling.
I saw other performances, such as The Choir Project, which is between theater and other art forms, and Nora Amin’s The Egyptian Project for Theater of the Oppressed, which showed me that there is an urge for political theater. This urge to own this term collectively felt important, especially in 2012, since the political situation was getting very complicated in both Cairo and Alexandria, with streets being blocked by [security] walls and people moving further and further away from theater. In Alexandria, it was even harder to work since there are fewer theater spaces available. The Jesuits was too concerned about safety to work since it’s run by a church. The Bibliotheca wasn’t available since there were strikes and protests against Ismail Serag Eddin, its director.
The thing is that I had been working for a while with what I now refer to as political theater, but I wasn’t calling it that before 2011 — I didn’t believe it was right to call it that, although there are many successful examples around the world of politically oriented works. Seeing these examples in Egypt and getting more exposure to similar performances around the region, I felt we needed to have a regional political theater forum.
RS: How did it develop from that urge?
AA: For the first edition in 2012, it was really difficult to find funding. Due to a limited budget, we focused on hosting only Egyptian performances. We tried to have other Arab artists participate with talks. Syrian actress Hala Omran was able to make it, but Libyan director Walid El Abd was not issued a visa.
The audience was quite limited. We had maybe 500-600 people throughout the nine-day festival.
RS: Where were you hosting the performances?
AA: Since there aren’t many theaters in Alexandria, not many were enthusiastic about the idea of political theater — especially in the tense climate of that time. We ended up hosting it in a private school’s theater, the French Institute, and on the street.
The first edition was really about showcasing all of the independent theater productions that dealt with the revolution.
RS: Did something happen during the performances, or did a certain comment from an audience member stick with you, to make you feel like that it needed to continue and grow?
AA: Well, first off, there wasn’t a forum of theater at that time in Alexandria. This was the main prompt to start Lazem Masrah. This, along with the first edition itself and the political landscape at the time, made me want to host another edition, in Alexandria. In 2013, it was too complicated, so we made the following edition in 2014. Luckily I had a partnership with the British Council, so we were able to host readings by writers from the region and also international artists. We also had funding from the Goethe Institute for that edition and all the following ones. The festival expanded beyond the political into working on contemporary theater in a broader sense, to engage audiences with new forms of theater. It’s not just about politics as a topic, but also about sophisticated artistic content.
In 2013, I went to a theater festival in Denmark to meet practitioners and select performances, not just for the 2014 edition, but for others. For example, the Danish troupe that came in this last edition, I had seen in that festival.
The 2014 edition was one of the festival’s best. There was enough funding for it and we also spent a significant amount of time working on details. It was also the year it became an international forum. It included three shows from Europe, as well music performances that were related to our theme, such as a hiphop show by Revolution Records, and a show by Abdallah Miniawy and Ahmed Saleh in El-Cabina. The Choir Project also participated, and their show was completely sold out, with 800 seats. The idea was to activate several spaces and spread out the festival.
The third edition’s theme was the public — the public that took to the streets from 2011 till that moment, not just in Egypt but all over the world. In that timeframe, we saw a large increase in street protests as a means to express dissent and wanted to explore whether the theater audience is different after these street experiences [in terms of behavior]. [Read about its events here.]
That edition was also when we really became a team, not only in terms of coordination, but also on a curatorial level and conceptual level.
RS: I’m curious about discussions with audiences. Did people find political theater important? Much of the relationship we form with theater in Egypt is through plays we watch on television that are essentially comedies. There are very few theaters generally, and the independent theater movement does not produce that many shows. Most people don’t really get many chances to see alternative theater.
AA: We depend on Facebook for marketing, and most of our venues are small (except for the Bibliotheca). In Alexandria, March is a very rich month in terms of culture events, so the audience that makes it to our festival are people who are truly interested in the topic.
In 2016, we only had one performance, Grand Finale by Danish troupe Batida, performed once inside the Bibliotheca and once outside on the Plaza. This was not a very political performance, but a performance by a very professional troupe that have been working since 1985. We also found the name of the show suitable, since this might be our last edition.
RS: What I understood from the announcement was that the forum is coming to an end. Is it actually ending or are you just thinking of ending it?
AA: This year we had a large program and I contacted a lot of funding organizations and applied to all the open calls. But there is a scarcity of funding opportunities and there are more and more art festivals and initiatives. There is a real crisis. This is especially true when hosting Egyptian performances. I can make partnerships with European donors to host European performances, but if I want to invite an independent performance from Cairo, how can I fundraise for it? Most foreign cultural centers won’t give me funding to host an Egyptian performance. It is the same issue for regional performances.
Also, Alexandria is marginalized. There is another theater festival that takes place in the city called Theater with No Production, which happens in government-run spaces. Most of its founders have ties with the Culture Ministry, so they’re able to secure locations and some funding. It’s great that this is taking place and has been running for six editions.
So what I was able to do this year was host a performance. When we were establishing a political theater festival at a time where everyone in Egypt was entrenched in politics, the logical conclusion is that all funders should support this initiative. However, in spite of our efforts, this did not happen. My guess to why it didn’t is that we are in Alexandria and because there is already an established network of initiatives and donors with little room for newcomers. Alexandria is always being compared to Cairo. Cultural events in Alexandria are compared to cultural events that receive millions without putting the context [of Alexandria’s smaller scene] into consideration.
RS: Are you planning to continue for 2017?
AA: I’m working for 2017. I have a full program that I had planned for this year that can be carried over. We are working to develop the structure, to find an office space to work from and host workshops.
RS: Are you thinking of any alternative funding structures to foreign cultural donors?
AA: We aren’t, because at this moment in Alexandria, I don’t think theater can bring in money. Second, the content we are presenting has to be supported financially but with no conditions. This is why we cannot work with the Egyptian state. Not just due to censorship and possible clashes, but because it doesn’t make sense. The forum has to be independent and collectively run. We don’t have rigid structure.
RS: Can you give us an overview of the theater landscape in Alexandria?
AA: Around 2000 was when we started seeing several independent theater troupes in Alexandria. Before this there were maybe one or two groups in the 1990s, which was the same period that there was a real scene happening at the [state-run] cultural palaces. I entered the scene around 2006. There was some production at this time. But in 2011, it became apparent that there were not enough spaces and production was limited. In the phase before the revolution, it was mostly a closed scene with artists seeing other artists’ work. Jesuits was a special case because it used to host performances from abroad, but not many from Alexandria used to perform there. After the revolution, when changes happened in the management of the Bibliotheca, Alexandrian troupes started gaining access to it. Some became really successful and drew large audiences.
Recently, the Bibliotheca also started hosting a contemporary theater festival, which was a positive step forward. There is still a problem in the scene in terms of production though, and theater is seen as a hobby. Few people actually develop and build it as a career, which is a problem across art forms. That could be manageable if the surrounding conditions are professional, such as working in a professional space, having critical discourse around your work from peers and critics, proper documentation — this is what is not happening. Finally, the link with the outside world – whether within Egypt or abroad – is missing, in terms of seeing other performances, having Alexandrian performances show outside of the city or even having critical writing on our shows. When it comes to showing in the region, this is mostly controlled by the Culture Ministry, so it’s the troupes that are connected to the cultural palaces and government-run theaters that participate. In Europe, there are a lot of changes right now due to immigration and everything that is happening, so there is space to collaborate there in terms of political theater.
RS: A lot of what you’re describing sounds similar to Cairo. Do you think the independent theater scene is very different in Alexandria?
AA: It’s different in the sense that even though the same problems persist, there is more opportunity [in Cairo] since the market is larger. There are more spaces, more competition, and more effort. There are opportunities for people to be attached to the scene. There is stability somehow, with consistent production and discourse, so the scene at best develops, at worse stays the same. But when you have gaps, with few activations here and there, it doesn’t allow for building, for development.
RS: Somehow the spirit of Lazem Masrah reminds me of the takeover of [central Alexandria’s] Beram al-Tonsy Theater in June 2013 ahead of the June 30 protests, when culture workers took over the theater for several days.
AA: What happened at Beram al-Tonsy was really the result of the accumulative effort of the work of a generation of musicians and performing artists who have been part of the scene since 2005. This scene, which is small and where most artists knew each other, decided to take over a governmental theater and run it. It was completely different to what happened at the Culture Ministry takeover in Cairo. At the end of the day, the majority of the protesters at the Culture Ministry sit-in were either artists or cultural workers affiliated with the ministry and it was done with the blessing of ministry employees. In Beram al-Tonsy, there was resistance from employees. When we finally took over the theater, it was really about what could be done, how we could run the space as an independent arts space. We had many discussions about decentralizing culture and the ineffective policies governing culture in the city. For 10 days, there was a free space with people flocking to see the performances outside the theater.
RS: I came twice while I was in Alexandria that week. It did have a different feel to the one in Cairo. It was young and felt like a real squat. What I mean when I say it reminded me of political theater, is that there was a kind of activation of a space. It’s also performative to an extent, the act of taking over a theater — you won’t get to keep it forever. This temporary state was known to everyone within the context — it was happening amid Tamarod, June 30, etcetera, and we didn’t know where it was going at the time, but we were at least aware there was a large political shift happening. In that context, the idea of a group of independent artists taking over a governmental theater becomes a performance in itself, yet the public watches the events unfold on a totally different level [from a normal performance].
AA: Of course. The scene is small in Alexandria, but people are really loyal, despite the little opportunity they have. The group consisted of us as independent artists and some employees from the Culture Ministry, but ones that are also in touch with the independent theater movement. The sit-in was hardly covered by the media although it was a real occupation.
That was probably the last collective event in Alexandria. It was dispersed. Thugs were sent over and there was a large confrontation that took place. Some people were seriously injured, although thankfully no one died.