Eagle Dream in Dream Hope Wish Desire. Photo: Ahmed Tarek Hassan.
Articles, Reviews, Volume 8

Documentary Theatre in Egypt: Devising a New Play in Cairo

Documentary Theatre in Egypt: Devising a New Play in Cairo
By Jillian Campana and Sara Seif
Arab Stages, Volume 8 (Spring, 2018) 
©2018 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

An original Documentary Theatre play created by American University in Cairo (AUC) students and their professor premiered last year in Cairo. Dream Hope Wish Desire shares the stories of numerous Cairenes from different backgrounds and socio-economic classes as recorded through a series of almost 60 personal interviews conducted by members of a special topics class, Collaborative Documentary Theatre Making.

Students like Ezzat Abdelnour, a Business major, Sara Seif, a Marketing major and Ahmed Hamzawy, a Psychology major enrolled in the Collaborative Documentary Theatre Making class last year because they were interested in connecting to the wider Cairo community by learning about the experiences and feelings of people with circumstances different from their own. Additionally, Hamzawy’s dreams of pursuing a career in Psychodrama lead him to take the course. Seif was interested in exploring the transformative power of live performance and storytelling and in looking at ways of using the art form to explore social issues in Egypt and Abdelnour was excited about the possibility of performing a character based on a real person. The course also offered the students a new approach to theatre-making and a chance to devise a production for the final slot in the AUC performance season.

Professor Jillian Campana has been making Documentary Theatre work in the US, Sweden and India since 2004, and was interested in exposing AUC students to this collaborative and social playwriting process in part because of the way the form asserts the ideas and experiences of persons who have not been given a popular voice. The process also offers a straightforward way for multiple playwrights to collaborate effectively. Documentary Theatre and its cousins, Verbatim Theatre, Ethnodrama, and Docudrama, make use of interviews and other non-fictional literary sources as the primary text of a play script and have become increasingly popular as a way of devising new works. Documentary Theatre also draws upon the tenants of Participatory Action Research, a form of research in which social researchers operate as collaborators with the communities and groups they are studying in order to activate change. AUC students, curious about the blend of Theatre and social research, had heard of or seen post-revolution Egyptian performances that captured the voices of everyday people and that made use of non-fictional stories gathered either informally or through interviews but they had not been exposed to the process first hand. Students had seen performances like Tahrir Monologues, which has been performed in many iterations both in Egypt and abroad and which shares the reactions Egyptians have had to the 2011 revolution. According to a 2012 El Ahram newspaper interview with project founder Sondos Shabayek, Tahrir Monologues offers a way for people to share, “what happened to them, not what happened” during the revolution. The students in the class were also familiar with the work of actor-director-playwright Dalia Basiouny, whose play Solitude links Sept 11, 2001, with the recent revolution and who used stories of Egyptian women as source material, and they knew about the 2015 play Zig Zag created by Laila Soliman who used historical archives to re-tell stories of Egyptian women who were raped by British soldiers in the early 1900’s.

The Collaborative Documentary Theatre Making course began by looking at the fields of Applied Theatre and the Theatre for Social Justice movement to understand ways in which the art form can be used to investigate issues and to build community. Once the students were exposed to the variety of ways in which theatre can educate, effect change and demonstrate identity, they studied several examples of Documentary Theatre and Verbatim Theatre to understand the variety of structures and the types of topics these forms can encompass. The class also explored their own stories by participating in a series of Theatre of the Oppressed and Playback Theatre exercises designed to share experiences and reflect upon personal issues. Students dove into these storytelling processes, eagerly sharing personal anecdotes from their own lives. Several hours were spent exploring their individual stories which not only brought the students together as an ensemble but also gave them the experience of being the teller of a story and taught them a lesson in ethics. By sharing their personal experiences and having their precious moments re-enacted or retold by their peers, they learned how important accurate, truthful and empathetic representation was. After engaging in this work as participants, students felt ready to emotionally and ethically capture and represent the stories of others.

Wedding Dream in Dream Hope Wish Desire. Photo: Ahmed Tarek Hassan.

The class turned its attention to creating an original play. They began the process by choosing the topic to focus on the play. Students brainstormed and listed potential areas of social interest focusing specifically on issues and problems pertinent to the people of Egypt. Their list which included topics like mental illness, domestic violence, arranged marriage, and familial repression grew long and the conversation tense at times, but the members finally agreed to a central focus: personal and societal dreams and hopes, a popular topic of interest in post-revolution Egypt. The class formulated research questions around this topic ranging from the abstract, “What do you think hope does for people?” to the personal, “Describe your biggest hope for your children.” Questions were open-ended, and participants were encouraged to deviate from the questions posed, “What else can you tell me about hope?” and “Is there anything else you want to say about this topic?” were asked at the end of each interview. After narrowing down the questions students practiced their interview skills with classmates, friends and family members to help them gain a sense of ease during the interview process.

As the students became accustomed to the topic and to conducting interviews it became obvious that part of the story they were sharing might revolve around their own fears and reactions to the process and to the information they were receiving. In one early class conversation they decided to document their own words by recording class conversations:

SARA: What if we interviewed people about their hopes and dreams… here in Egypt… With different backgrounds and stories… I love it…

ADHAM: We’re going to go out and talk to the people of Cairo about hope and dreams?

HAMZAWY: I’m nervous.

DANA: I’m afraid to ask people to talk-

AHMED: What if they say no…

ADHAM: I can talk to a guy I know at my shisha shop!

HAMZAWY: Can we ask people in our families?

DR. JILLIAN: Let’s avoid people we know well.

EZZAT: Why can’t we just interview AUC people?

ADHAM: That’s not reality. We need to talk to people from all different walks of life.

LAILA: Strangers?

DANA: Strangers? On the street?!

Despite their initial nervousness, the students were inspired by the rich forms and techniques they had earlier studied in the class, and after the mock interviews they sought out people they did not know. To find the potential interview subjects some students used contacts they had with NGO’s, others went to shops and gathering points in various neighborhoods including a tailor, a music store, and various shisha cafes. One young woman interviewed her housekeeper’s friends and family and Campana went to El Mugamma, the government agency in Tahrir Square. Twice a week during this monthly interview process the class discussed what gaps were present in the collection of interviews. Since the goal was to collect stories from persons of disparate backgrounds and to represent gender, class and age equally, these bi-weekly check-ins helped the class to make sure they were not privileging one group over another.

The El Mugamma Scene in Dream Hope Wish Desire. Photo: Ahmed Tarek Hassan.

Sara Seif cherished this part of the process because she felt she gained new insight into the wide variety of perspectives within her city. Other students were excited by the new way of developing a script and looking at the character. Prior to this experience, the class members had always started a production with a finished script and so the process of generating new material through interviews was inspiring. They also expressed a sense of responsibility: toward the people they were interviewing and the topic as a whole. In their first interviews the students felt anxious because of the potential unpredictability of the interviewees responses, but the earlier mock interviews helped to mitigate their nervousness and to ensure the co-creators took particular care to make certain no one felt coerced into talking and that all interviewees were comfortable having their answers used as text for the play. For the most part, the people they asked were quite eager to talk to them and at times particularly captive audiences were discovered such as taxi drivers who had a safe and private space to talk and willingly shared their feelings.

AMIRA: What’s your dream?

TAXI DRIVER: Ha ha, dream? People like us don’t dream, it’s well-educated people like you who have the luxury, who dream… You. You are the hope.

AMIRA: Don’t you hope for something?

TAXI DRIVER:  It won’t come true. But I want justice.

AMIRA: Justice?

TAXI DRIVER: Yeah, I want this country to be fair and just.

AMIRA: What do you mean?

TAXI DRIVER: There’s no equality. Nothing is fair. What is possible for you is not possible for me.

Once the interviews were collected, they were translated into English, if need be, with the help of a translator and then recorded in entirety on a google document that all class members had access to. With approximately 70 pages of text from the almost 60 people interviewed, the class looked for ways to effectively share the multitude of voices collected. The main ideas that emerged from the interviews were: 1) a common language used to describe hope (dream, wish, desire, faith, goal, expectation, yearning); 2) the juxtaposition between those with hope and and those without hope and how economics plays into this; and 3) the different types of hope (fantasies, goals, hope for the country, hope for the individual). With this in mind the process revolved around finding moments from the interviews that spoke to one of these key ideas: language, contrasting opinions about hope and the different types of hope the people of Cairo have.

The Taxi Scene in Dream Hope Wish Desire. Photo: Ahmed Tarek Hassan.

One of the major themes that emerged, a lack of hope, both surprised and disturbed the class. Examples of this are echoed from a variety of the participants, like the young Uber driver, “I have no time to have a dream! I’m almost 40, never been married, I went back to living with my parents, and I work as a driver with a car that isn’t even mine! I don’t have time to pursue a dream.” And the older gentleman who works 80 hours a week, “No Egyptian has any hope.” Mid-way through the reviewing and editing process the students began to feel disillusioned, “I thought people would be more hopeful – or have bigger dreams….” said Abdelnour and his classmates agreed. The answers they were getting saddened the class, and for many of them who are relatively sheltered from the economic hardships of Egypt, caught them off-guard. The lack of hope not only felt discouraging but they worried about producing a depressing play. For Sara, the project, at this point, felt doomed. She felt she was uncovering the miserable state many people in Cairo live in and she recognized the enormity of the problem: lack of hope due to lack of opportunity. Sara and her peers wondered if these stories would resonate with the audience or depress them. Their classroom conversations at this point were rich in content and provided more material for the play so rather than rejecting the lack of hope they saw amongst the interviewees, the student co-playwrights accepted the reality and embedded their own reactions to the interviews into the play:

ADHAM: Most people probably lack hope in some areas, but have hope in others.

JILLIAN: Yes, it depends on a lot of things.

SHETY: Like what?

SARA: Age, gender, definitely class, socio-economic status. How much money somebody had probably effects their dreams…

BADRAN: Yeah, like the hopes and dreams of the average AUC kid are a lot different than the hopes of the guy who drives your taxi.

Once they reckoned with the scope of the topic instead of trying to change it, the class was able to begin to shape the play. They added more monologues and short scenes they recorded and to create a through-line, and some comic relief, the students used their class discussions which had been recorded as a frame for the stories of the people they interviewed. Shifting back and forth between “classroom scenes” and “street scenes,” as they came to be called, allowed for the moving back and forth between the responses of the interviewees and the co-creators’ feelings, questions and ideas about the answers they were receiving.

SARA: When we first decided to do this play we chose our topic from a long list. And a lot of our original ideas were depressing.

AMIRA: And we thought they would be too hard to watch…  so we chose to focus on hope.

ADHAM: But then when we asked people about their dreams and hopes, we found there weren’t a lot. It’s discouraging to see that the problems of Egypt have gotten in the way of the people achieving their dreams.

HAMZAWY: Maybe their hopes just went underground?

LAILA: I’m choosing to believe people have hope.

JILLIAN: You know I went to El Mugamma.

BADRAN: What? Where?

JILLIAN: The government building in Tahrir.

EZZAT: Why did you go there?

JILLIAN: To renew a visa. There were hundreds of people, refugees, workers of all kinds, people wanting to be here… here in Egypt. (In Arabic) I met a woman from Syria. She spoke to me about hope.

(The lights shift and we are transported to El Mugamma. All actors become the people at Mugamma. They rush center stage and crowd to get to the lighted processing window. They push against each other. It is very crowded. All speak in Arabic.)

GOVERNMENT WORKER: (Stack of papers in hand, speaking monotonously and unhurried) Ahmed Ibrahim.

FIRST PERSON IN LINE: (Shouting loudly) Ahmed Ibrahim???

SECOND PERSON IN LINE: Ahmed Ibrahim!

THIRD: …med…brahim…

FOURTH: Ahmed, Ahmed,

FIFTH: Where from?

GOVERNMENT WORKER: Palestine

SECOND: (Shouting) Ahmed Ibrahim. Palestine

(The last in line raises his hand and they all crouch so that he can be seen by the GOVERNMENT WORKER. He waves frantically. The GOVERNMENT WORKER passes a yellow card to the FIRST in line who passes it to the SECOND and so forth until and it is passed back to AHMED IBRAHIM.)

YOUNG WOMAN: (Speaking to JILLIAN in English) Where are you from? You speak Arabic? Ha okay. I speak English. Not good…. Really? Oh, thank you. I don’t…I can’t remember…words (Putting her hands to her head and muttering in Arabic). I’m from Syria. Syria. You know Syria? (Surprised) There’s a war there. Very bad.

The addition of the co-creators as characters in the play worked well and served to both balance the harsh reality of some of the stories gathered and to offer the students a way to grapple with the things they were learning. The end result was a 70-minute play, Dream Hope Wish Desire, which explores the hopes all the participants, including the interviewers and the interviewees, have for their selves, their families and their country.

Shisha Café in Dream Hope Wish Desire. Photo: Ahmed Tarek Hassan.

The students expressed apprehension as they opened the show at AUC’s New Cairo campus. As both performers and creators, they reported having mixed emotions including a fear that it wouldn’t be good enough, nervousness about portraying real people, but also a sense of ownership over the theatre-making process. After opening night, their anxiety ended. The audience, including their families, friends, professors, classmates and other theatre-goers expressed approval and admiration. Parents and grandparents said the play felt authentic and truthful to the life experiences they had witnessed. Friends and professors told them that the play spoke to them on many levels. “It was great to hear what people really think, I felt like a fly on the wall of the shisha café,” said one audience member and another, whose own story was shared in the production said, “I loved seeing myself on stage. That’s exactly how it happened.”

As an American University, the language of instruction at AUC is English and as such 3 out of the 4 of the plays in the annual season are performed in the English language. Because of this most of the interviews had been transcribed from the original Arabic into English so that the production could be in English. A few weeks after the show closed in New Cairo one of the students, Adham Kassem, suggested the show be revived in Arabic and presented at a downtown theatre in order to expand the audience base. In many ways the production at AUC, though successful, felt instructive and educational to the class members.  As Kassem put it, “The play is about the Egyptian people; it’s for them, so that they can watch it and reflect on their own lives.” His classmates agreed that it would be more powerful to perform a play about Egyptians in Arabic and so they set about lobbying to have it performed at the Falaki Theatre in Tahrir Square. “I want people to watch and see their lives,” said Kassem, “and it will give us an opportunity to reach out to a bigger audience.” The AUC campus is situated close to the Tagamo section of New Cairo which tends to have a younger and more economically mobile population. In downtown Cairo, there is a wider range of ages and socio-economic classes represented, and the class members hoped that more families, mature audiences and members of the middle class could attend. All students agreed to re-work the play and Sara Seif spent the summer of 2017 reviewing the original material in Arabic and working to translate the text back into Arabic before the cast reconvened in August and moved the show into the Falaki Theatre for September performances.

Through word of mouth, the September production gained a large audience. The co-creators felt the play made more sense in Arabic and reflected the reality of Cairo more clearly. “At the Falaki” said Kassem, “we had something to share, something to say.” After the show was over, students discussed the experience. They talked about their learning experience, their discovery of the power of the art form and their interest in how Theatre can give voice to under-represented people. “People want to see stories that are relevant to them, and they also want to be represented.” said Seif. Her peers agreed that the project helped them to understand theatre in a completely different way and to own up to their responsibility to represent all voices and to potentially effect change through storytelling. They weren’t sure how much telling their stories affected the interviewees but they knew how much they had been affected by what they learned from their fellow Cairenes. “Theatre,” Seif remarked to her classmates, “is often the strongest agent to touch people’s hearts and minds.”

Jillian Campana is a Professor of Theatre at the American University of Cairo and a Professor of Integrated Arts Education at the University of Montana. She studied at Cal Arts and NYU and holds a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies. Her work studies how drama is used as a tool to build community and identity. She has developed programs all over the world including at the Swedish rehabilitation facility, Framnäs Folkhögskola, where theatre is now used as part of the rehabilitation program for brain injury survivors, at International Justice Mission in India for victims of human and sexual trafficking and in the US with military veterans who have PTSD. Her work has been honored at the Kennedy Center and her book, Acting Successful: using performance skills is everyday life, is used as text at several universities. She has done a TEDx talk in Mumbai, India, where she ran a theatre company that focused on social, political and cross-cultural work and where she taught acting in Bollywood’s Film City. She is the director and producer of the film and the PBS documentary The Puzzle Club.

Sara Seif is a senior student at AUC majoring in Marketing and minoring in Theatre and Community Development. She has been acting on the stage since she was four-years-old and has had roles in Alice in Wonderland, Othello and in the Arabic translation of Measure for Measure.

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Logo_Publications

Arab Stages
Volume 8 (Spring 2018)
©2018 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Hazem Azmy, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Ruijiao Dong

Assistant Managing Editor: Alexandra Viteri Arturo

Table of Contents

Essays

  • Theatre Elsewhere: The Dialogues of Alterity by Sepideh Shokri Poori
  • Contemporary Arab Diasporic Plays and Productions in Europe and the United States by Marvin Carlson
  • On Ajoka: An Interview and In Memoriam by Fawzia Afzal Khan

Reviews

  • A Space to Meet and Share: A Corner in the World Fest 3 from Istanbul by Eylem Ejder
  • The Wind in the Willows Makes It to KSA by Areeg Ibrahim
  • Documentary Theatre in Egypt: Devising a New Play in Cairo by Jillian Campana and Sara Seif
  • Boundaries of History, Memory and Invention: Laila Soliman’s ZigZig in Light of Absence of Egyptians’ Right to Freedom under Information Law by Hadia abd el-fattah Ahmed
  • The Yacoubian Building Onstage: An Interview with Kareem Fahmy by Catherine Coray
  • Theatre Everywhere: How A Small Lebanese Village Transformed for Blood Wedding By Ashley Marinaccio

Plays

  • The Unfaithful Husband by James Sanua (Ya`qub Sanua), translated by Marvin Carlson and Stefano Boselli
  • Secrets of a Suicide by Tawfia al-Hakim, translated by Maha Swelem
  • A Knock from the Stork by Mostafa Shoul

www.arabstages.org
arabstages@gc.cuny.edu

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

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