Observations on the Cairo International Festival for “Contemporary and Experimental” Theater
On the artistic responsibilities of presenting an arts festival, and moving away from modernism

I followed the talks preceding last year’s decision to rename and restructure the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre sceptically. There was a lack of discussion about the basic concepts, discourses and structures that shape and drive what’s currently known as international contemporary theater.

The new title, Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theater, and unfortunately later the program, from September 20 to 30 this year, confirmed my doubts.

Internationalism in contemporary theater is no longer a matter of just exchanging local works across borders. It has become a main pillar of the field: from exchanging experiences and specialists, discussing and developing theoretical and applied visions, to creating effective cooperation networks and cross-border co-productions. This can be seen in the huge number of works generated by multinational troupes. Anyone who fails to understands this, or does understand it but has no tools to create a distinctive and internationally attractive local space for communicating with the world, cannot lay the foundations for an international festival worth the name.

After a five-year hiatus, the Cairo International Festival returned with a new title and new staff this September. It was also, sadly, loaded with substantial problems that easily could have been largely avoided.

The title problem

In the pre-festival press conference, festival director Samih Mahran said he couldn’t “deny that, linguistically speaking, the terms ‘contemporary’ and ‘experimental’ collide: the contemporary concept is a temporal measure, and the experimental is a procedural measure.” This suggestion that “contemporaneity” is a word meaning “now,” whereas “experimental” means “attempting to innovate” indicates confusion about international contemporary theater.

Contemporaneity and experimental are concepts, not words. A concept is a conceived state or phenomenon based on an ideological system formed over time to determine its shifting meaning. This means that when citing a concept, one should be aware of its history and ideological structure, as well as resulting practices.

The concept of experimental theater is linked to modernity, as it originated with avant-garde theater in the late nineteenth century, becoming an antithetical pole to the bourgeois intellectual, social and aesthetic values prevailing at that time in theater. The avant-garde’s greatest achievement was having enough intellectual and creative energy to break boundaries and standards restricting theater back then, reintroducing the fundamental question of what theater is.

Regardless of how we choose to explain the relationship of experimental and avant-garde movements to modernism, right now — after the eclipse of modernism as a prime perspective in arts — they no longer make up a pioneering approach contemporary theater. They have been buried by accumulated ideas, theories and intellectual, philosophical and social views, as well as new methods and practices, in accordance with the vast and violent changes our world has undergone since the late nineteenth century.

The concept of the experimental persisted after the modernist view receded, but today its use is ultimately limited to a theater that remodels modernist discourse through contemporary forms and techniques. In other words, the experimental movement is now a traditional movement in international theater. A traditional approach to theater is not transformed into something else just because it comes from abroad — it might of the highest standards in terms of craftsmanship and technique, but that doesn’t make it contemporary.

The concept of contemporary theater incorporates a system of visions, theories and practices initiated to examine and theorize new theater phenomena, with various methodologies and new visions of reality, that began appearing in the late 1960s and temporarily subject to labels like “post-modernist theater” or “contemporary experimentalism.”

The first to offer a serious examination of these phenomena was German theater studies professor Hans-Thies Lehmann in his book Postdramatic Theatre (1999), which became the basis for various extensive studies on contemporary theater. Examining new theater movements, Lehmann used their shift away from dramatic textual sources as a focal point. Having matured over decades, they are now the leading trends in international contemporary theater, in terms of their ability to attract social and theoretical activity, and develop practical tools and education.

To understand Egyptian theater activities as “contemporary,” not in a linguistic sense but conceptually, and for Egyptian theater to become part of the contemporary international debate, which it is able to and deserving of, a set of principles must be acknowledged. Most importantly, the requirement of evolving intellectual and practical tools and standards that both interact outside a modernist ideology and intersect with and historically correspond to local conditions. This is because contemporaneity cannot be used in a harmonious context with modernism. When talking about contemporaneity, those who reject post-modernist ideas (often before understanding them) need to find a conceptual alternative based on an intellectual system open to discussion. Sitting on top of the collapsing monument of modernism and talking about contemporaneity has become futile — and detrimental.

The problem with the festival’s new title then is not linguistic. It’s a conceptual problem pertaining to the use of the word “contemporaneity” without considering the substance of contemporaneity in theater and what it takes for theater to be part of the contemporary. Did those leading the press conference address these essential issues? Do the festival staff really see these concepts as mere words? If that’s not the case, how did these two conflicting concepts come together under the same umbrella, and why? These questions are the festival team’s core responsibilities, and they should provide answers.

The program problem

The festival program was a discordant mix of works lacking connection, a declared vision or a compelling discourse relating to our contemporary reality. They were mostly works from the periphery of international theater, working on rephrasing modernist ideas and aesthetics. This is fine. The problem is the fact that the festival failed to take ownership of the space available at the Ministry of Culture to offer international contemporary theater.

The program on the festival’s website didn’t reveal the names of participating troupes; it only referred to works’ titles, and you had to do your own research to find out whatever you could about them. There was no curatorial text by the (anonymous) curator to explain the reasons and ideas behind the selection, or what statement CIFCET was trying to make to the world through it. There was no mention of what distinguishes this festival from other international festivals. The festival said nothing about anything to local and international experts or informed viewers. Anything that was said was along the lines of “we have some international stuff here, come and see it,” or rhetorical phrases like “culture brings people together” and “the Ministry of Culture offers the latest attempts in experimentation worldwide on a silver platter” — a remarkably erroneous statement.

This leads me to one objective the festival organizers did aim at, as mentioned in the press conference: the role of the international festival to inspire local theater to overcome its extreme traditionalism. While this is a noble and significant objective, unfortunately nothing in the festival actually pointed in that direction, because the program adopted a traditional discourse. It’s important to understand that not all theater productions performed in our contemporary era are necessarily contemporary. Contemporary works set out from a contemporary theoretical vision, using contemporary methods and praxis.

The specialization problem

Assigning theater directors and playwrights as curators for theater festivals and theaters has become unproductive, because programing today is a practical discipline requiring vast and multifaceted efforts and a specific language. An academic discipline called curatorial studies introduces knowledge of the intellectual and practical structures of this language, which is vital to build the structure of a festival. This includes finding ways to deal with the specialization of knowledge, and identifying the artistic and administrative decision-making centres, all of which need to be clear and declared. Since the structure operating CIFCET was not declared, you have to infer it yourself.

Making structures public is important for many reasons, most notably because specialists and the general public should know who’s artistically responsible, and what their thinking process was when putting the program together. What international, local, societal and political trends concerned him or her, at a time full of major events? Which contemporary intellectual tendency was he/she inclined toward while creating the program? How does CIFCET want to address the world? All this should have been enclosed in a curatorial text.

Artistic responsibility means communication between the curator and local, regional and international specialists and viewers — before, during and after the festival. It means an ability to penetrate ongoing discussions in and outside the field — if the festival, as an institution, aspires to have an effective voice in Egypt and worldwide.

It could be concluded that the festival was run by an administrative director, followed by a “viewing” committee, as mentioned on the official page. But what does “viewing” mean here? Did this committee view works and suggest some of them to a manager who had final say? Was the selection based on votes? We don’t know. It could be also inferred from the press conference that the festival administration had sent an open call to theater workers “worldwide,” encouraging them to send video materials of their work, which is unacceptable.

This approach to building an international festival program cannot be taken seriously, because it means festival officials didn’t have tools enabling them to take any initiative. In other words, the festival doesn’t have enough specialized knowledge to select creative productions that correspond to its intellectual and social vision. For this to happen it is necessary to have a clear artistic vision; specialists that follow international trends eagerly and with awareness; individuals and groups, in and around the festival, who are connected with significant international networks; and a broad, intimate interaction with the real hubs of local contemporary theater.

Unfortunately, all this makes CIFCET so weak that it cannot be objectively criticized. One can only point out the abysmal epistemic gaps surrounding it, like I have done here.

Let us remember that Cairo does have an international festival that can be described as important, led by people who are adequately specialized and up-to-date — D-CAF, of which theater is a vital part. Did CIFCET officials take a look at D-CAF? Did they meet and talk with the people in charge of it?

This kind of knowledge, specialization and trend-tracking also exists outside D-CAF, in various individuals. Did anyone think of including one of them? It should be expected, especially when talking about an international contemporary festival, to make every effort to mobilize and include those with experience and knowledge.

The verdict any observer familiar with international contemporary theater would reach concerning CIFCET would be a lack of vision, specialization and trend-tracking. This is a festival that sets itself on the remote side lines of this international field, and it is all the more painful because the Egyptian human potential to do so much better exists.

The problem of Egyptian/Arab theater isn’t about weak lighting or sound systems, scenography, script or even direction. It’s about how detached it has become from developments in visions of theater since the 1960s. More precisely, it’s about the ongoing reliance on modernist experimental ideas and methods, now burdensome and untended.

There are two ways out of this dilemma: Festival officials could drop the “contemporary” addition from the title, focusing only on the experimental, or they could immediately start seeking out the specialized knowledge required to deal with contemporary theater professionally and with a clear vision — which is totally feasible.

There is a third option, of course: to continue claiming that this festival incorporates contemporaneity. But this is inadvisable, especially on an international level.

Translated by Amira Elmasry

Natik Awayez 

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