Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The "History of the AUC Theatre" Radio Documentary

History of the AUC Theatre


9 Dec. 2009

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The American University in Cairo’s Theatre Department has been up and running for more than 20 years creating magic on stage and producing generations after generations of talented actors, directors, designers and producers. The theatre has carved its place in the Egyptian theater arena capturing the hearts and minds of audiences from different ages and backgrounds with plays that may remain etched in their memories for years after. Our reporter Nermine Amer talks to theatre graduates and professors about what made this art establishment what it is now.

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(nat. sound of footsteps on stage followed by “Are you watching closely?” (:8))

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(documentary music fades in)

Do you want to know how one of the most prestigious theatres in town has evolved over the years? It all began when C. Worth Howard, head of the English department in the 1920s strived to emphasize the importance of drama in the study and understanding of the English language and as a creative tool for self-expression. Leila Saad, who was studying English & Comparative literature at AUC in the 40s and is a current Theatre professor at AUC talks about the art before the theatre department was established.

SAAD: “we were constantly putting on productions… major productions… it was under the English department, yeah” (:5)

The first play was performed by young men, students of AUC, in the dorms in 1926. At the time many students had joined the endeavor presenting performances, while the boys played female roles when necessary. The world of the theatre gradually expanded, plays were often presented in assemblies, ceremonies and for the public. Students managed all that had to do with the productions, from constructing scenery to costumes to ushering and selling tickets. Howard, the English language department head that encouraged this, became very popular among students and an AUC theatre house, Howard Café, was named after him. And the success of his endeavor led to the founding of the College Players student club, which was later named “The Masker’s Club”. Mahmoud El Lozy, theatre professor and AUC graduate, class of 1976 remembers how it all started.

LOZY: “The earliest thing that I know of, in the 60s, there was a club, it was a student’s club, called The Masker’s Club…and uh…it was a faculty member in the 60s and it went on until the late 80s until they created the department, what they had was, it was a faculty member from English department, was the director of the theatre, having some administrate position and he would direct one play per semester and teach a course per semester either of drama.. dramatic literature, Shakespeare, or acting.” (:36)

The Masker’s Club was active until the late 1980s when the theatre department was finally established. The first stage to hold AUC’s major annual productions was the Wallace Theatre. Wallace held productions for more than 20 years until the theatre was moved to the New Falaki building in 2001. Sherif Nakhla, theatre graduate, class of 2003, who was a student around the last 3 years of the Wallace before they shut it down talks about what made Wallace so special at the time.

NAKHLA: “The Wallace had seen so much theatre and so much drama and so many, so many people must’ve gone on so many personal journeys in that place so it has a very kind of spiritual tone to it and the… people that taught us used to act there and everything” (:15)

The Wallace theatre moved to the New Falaki building and was renamed “The AUC Falaki Mainstage”. Even though the New Falaki theatre offered better technical facilities and could hold more seats for its audience, students who got attached to performing in the space and the atmosphere of the Wallace had initially found it hard to cope with the move. Nakhla shared with us his own memories of the move.

NAKHLA: “ So when they closed it down, it was with “Grease”, I remember, and, and I was in that play, we were striking the last set and it was something that was kind of emotional for everybody, and, and when we went to the new Falaki and even though it was crisp and clean and efficient and it was hard to get used to, and I was actually in that play, too, the opening play, I think it was “Comedy of Errors” and it was a better place to learn technical theatre but the Wallace was an intimate space and you just kind of feel it when you go in there” (:33)

The activities of the “Howard café” were also very popular among students and theatre lovers. Theatre students and people interested in showcasing their talents would meet there and perform sketches and short plays every week. The faculty was very supportive of the idea and encouraged students to pursue it.

LOZY: “it was basically a group of students who were doing sketches, and short plays and things they’ve written and also music, musical performances, I mean any kind of performance oriented events and we decided that ok we’ll let them have it, they wanted to be, at first, a club that meant to be under the supervision of the Office of Student Affairs and Student Union and they would censor them and they would perform I think every other Tuesday and it was called Howard café because they served coffee and brownies and little biscuits and stuff like that” (:31)

How the theatre students were perceived by the people around them did not really change through out the years, they are still seen as the crazy, eccentric and weird group. Saad talks about how they were seen in the 40s.

SAAD: “Perceived as strange and different because it’s not for everybody but that doesn’t stop people from pursuing their dreams” (:10)

Lozy talks about how theatre people during the 70s and 80s were looked upon:

LOZY: “I mean in the 70s, it was just like you know we were sort of weirdoes, we were sort of like eccentric, we were not really serious but since it was an extra curricular activity, it was ok because it was no major, I think later on in the 80s, then it became more of a sort of ‘these are the sinful people’” (:18)

Even Dalia Kholeif, who’s a young theatre graduate, class of 2005, shared similar sentiments. In a few words she described how her group thought they were seen by others at her time.

KHOLEIF: “We were always seen as the weird, crazy people” (:8)

Even though the Theatre community was seen as a closed one and was perceived by some as eccentric and strange, it did not stop people from other majors from participating in its productions and activities. Kholeif says that the theatre brought together people from different backgrounds.

KHOLEIF: “I remember during my time, I had a lot of friends who were acting in plays and they weren’t theatre majors or minors, they were for instance mechanical engineering majors, psychology, mass comm.” (:14)

Political and social issues in Egypt have had an effect on student actors and directors throughout the years. It was sometimes an inspiration to many and theatre became in a way a medium in which they communicate their feelings, fears, likes, dislikes and concerns about what’s happening around them. Nakhla talks about how their surroundings affected him and his theatre group.

NAKHLA: “ Our theatre group were very active around 2001, and that was the time when a lot of protests had started to begun and basically there was an obvious public awareness all around the world and I happened to be studying theatre and journalism and the time so maybe I was thinking about it in kind of working around these themes more than theatre students but I think there was a general kind of inspiration and influence from what was going on at the time” (:33)

AUC has moved in 2008 to Kattameya outside Cairo, which created controversy on how this could affect the productions’ viewership. Some believe that the plays will cease to attract large audience simply because it is so far from the center of the city as meanwhile other old-hands like Saad think it won’t really make a huge difference because true theatre lovers would follow the theatre wherever it goes.

SAAD: “I don’t think it affected, I think people who really want to see the theatre, come to the theatre and if it’s good theatre, they’ll come to it, and we’re making things much easier by having tickets available at the downtown bookstore and bus services from Tahrir and back for all performances” (:20)

The Theatre department continues to produce a season of plays, sponsors student directed plays and hosts visiting productions in its three theatres, The Malak Gabr Theatre, Gerhart Theatre and Howard Theatre.

Nermine Amer, A-U-C News.

(Music fades out)


Mahmoud El Lozy

Leila Saad

Sherif Nakhla

Dalia Kholeif


Soundtrack from the movie “The Prestige”

& “Death is the road to awe” by Clint Mansell.

To download an mp3 version of the audio documentary click on the title of this post OR follow this link:

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Medea: A Perfect Tragedy (Part 2 of 2)

“… [A]nd that action complex in which the change of fortune involves a recognition or a reversal or both” (Poetics).

Aristotle believes that the plot of a tragedy must involve recognition (Anagnorisis) which is a shift from ignorance to knowledge which leads to friendship/ close blood ties or hostility of happy or unhappy people. It also must involve a reversal (Peripety) which is a change from a state to its exact opposite without conflicting with Aristotle’s law of necessity and probability (i.e. logically, this action had to happen or is likely to happen) (Poetics). In Medea, a perfect example of a peripety is evident. As Jason is about to get the refined upper class life he had wished for with his new bride Glauce, with the hope of living happily ever after, suddenly all is taken away from him through the interference of one vengeful and bitter Medea, who had planned to kill the beautiful Glauce and her father. There is another reversal when Medea is about to slaughter her children; Medea was first extremely happy and accomplished for successfully poisoning Glauce and her father King Creon but her mood/tone is suddenly and completely tarnished by a sad and gloomy air when she remembers that it’s time to kill her own children. Recognition in Medea seems unclear but Medea’s minute of uncertainty (of whether to kill her children or not) can be considered a sort of recognition. At this point she grows weak and is completely ignorant/unaware of what she is saying or what to do but just the thought of leaving her enemies unhurt and people laughing at her for it (her reputation) makes her shift to knowledge, with insisting determination to continue her plan and slaughter her children with her own hands.

“I cannot bear to do it. I renounce my plans. I had before. I’ll take my children away from this land. Why should I hurt their father with the pain they feel, and suffer twice as much of pain myself? No, no, I will not do it. I renounce my plans. Ah what is wrong with me? Do I want to let go my enemies unhurt and be laughed at for it? I must face this thing. Oh, but what a weak woman even to admit to my mind these soft arguments.” (Medea 1018-1026)

One can also look at this scene in a different –even paradoxical view- to what is formerly suggested, because again the elements of tragedy are subtly featured in this play and are open to interpretation. As recognition can be seen when Medea is completely unaware/ignorant of what she is planning for (killing her children), her uncertainty whether to kill them or not is a result of knowledge and a sudden realization. In a moment of sanity, Medea seems to realize the magnitude of what she is about to do, and of the possible life-changing consequences of her actions. This shift to knowledge makes her weak and in a way brings her back to ignorance but this time her ignorance, in the sense of overlooking/ignoring the present knowledge, is voluntary. In other words, after moving from ignorance to knowledge, Medea makes a conscious decision to ignore the facts and instead act on her plan despite of all the possible misery.

Aristotle also believes that a scene of suffering is one of the elements that the tragedy’s plot must have. A scene of suffering exists in Medea when Jason sees the blood of his children appearing from under the doors of the room where Medea slaughtered them. In this scene, Jason is engulfed by a piercing agony and a feeling of great misery. This scene near the exodos has a very important role in arousing pity and fear through a brief display of the conclusion of Medea’s plan.

Mimesis (to imitate an action) with accordance to the law of probability and necessity is seen in the play Medea, when the central character seeks revenge and wants to destroy Jason. She instantly makes a plan to achieve this, in a way compelling Jason to draw out similar feelings of agony and hurt (Medea was hurt when Jason betrayed her by taking a new bride). Aristotle believes that one of the formal elements of tragedy is dialogue (actors speaking in verse), dialogue too is used in Medea when for an example Medea asks Augeus, king of Athens to promise to protect her in Athens in return for a cure to his sterility.

“Swear by the plain of Earth, and Helios, father of my father and name together all the gods…that you yourself will never cast me from your land, nor, if any of my enemies should demand me, will you, in your life willingly hand me over.” (Medea 730-735); it is a dialogue and it does have a poetic feel to it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Medea: A Perfect Tragedy (Part 1 of 2)

Zeus in Olympus is the overseer of many doings. Many things the gods achieve beyond our judgment. What we though is not confirmed and what we thought not god contrives and so it happens in this story.” (Medea 1390-1394)

If one judges by Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, then Euripides’ Medea is a perfect tragedy and Medea’s character fits perfectly with the characteristics of a tragic hero. Although Aristotle did highlight elements of weakness in Medea, criticizing certain plot aspects, it is still arguable that Medea conforms to his definition of a “perfect tragedy,” in so many ways. However, interpretation is a key in approaching such a text, where the features covering the requirements of Aristotle’s tragedy are rather subtle and are subject to argument.

Aristotle believes that a tragic hero is either an aristocrat or someone of elevated social class like royalty; the hero’s personality has a flaw that negatively affects their judgment resulting in their tragic fall (Hamartia). For the story to be realistic the hero isn’t morally too good or too bad, the tragic hero accomplishes to excite the feelings of pity and fear in the audience (Catharsis). Medea does match all these characteristics for she is princess of Colchis and a sorcerer. Medea’s flaw is her being extremely passionate. Her passion greatly empowers her; her love for Jason, her jealousy towards his new bride Glauce (the daughter of Creon king of Corinth) and her rage at his betrayal are the basic elements that drove her to her doom. Medea possesses heroic qualities like her willingness to do anything for the sake of Jason, and like later when she confronted him and sought revenge in the name of justice. But these qualities still do not make her too virtuous because Medea’s intelligence, courage and pride are essentially manifested in cruel actions; violent, murderous and tricky. The play’s tragic end successfully elicits pity and fear (Catharsis). Fear is spurred through the idea of a mother killing her own flesh and blood, Medea murders her children in order to destroy Jason and break his heart, in the end leaving him with nothing to value. Pity is elicited for how Medea paves the way to her own misery; by destroying everyone that is dear to her including her own children, pity for how her fury has led her to madness.

Medea fully conforms to Aristotle’s tragic structure in another sense. The Prologue, for instance, (followed by Parados which is the entrance of the chorus) is presented in the play’s opening by the nurse who summarizes with grief the past events that led to Medea’s current – and rather piteous- state. Then, the Episodes/Dramatic Scenes that show the whole development of the story’s plot and central character. In between episodes, there is a choral ode/song by the Chorus who in the play represent the women of Corinth. The chorus is like commentators to what is happening, it sometimes talks directly to Medea through dialogue either sympathizing with her or trying to advise her not to slaughter her children. The Exodos, the last scene after the last choral ode, is Medea’s glorious exit. She departs in a large chariot pulled by dragons, a queen in her own right, leaving behind a miserable Jason drowning in his own loss.