Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The "History of the AUC Theatre" Radio Documentary

History of the AUC Theatre


9 Dec. 2009

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


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.

(fade in music)

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

(music fades down)

(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:

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love it! Absolutely brilliant. Love Lozy's and Laila's voices too -- it's like they're speaking to you from another era. Sometimes I wish I was one of them generations; the avant-garde, the ones who started it all. Mabrouk!! X