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Documentary Theatre in Egypt: Devising a New Play in Cairo

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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.

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