The involvement of legendary Egyptian comedian Adel Emam in a reality TV show carrying his nickname “Al Zaem Academy for Acting” has led to a heated debate on the present and future of acting education.
The project has been heavily criticized in the media for exploiting young dreamers, who want to earn tons of money through Emam and his related associations of fame, stardom, and talent.
Emam, who is allegedly being paid US$5 to 10 million for the show, inaugurated the project with a large ceremony organized by the new Jordanian satellite channel, Lord. A diverse group of actors and actresses attended the opening ceremony, offering their support to Emam and giving credibility to the event, after the producer Hussaml el-Ghamry accused Lord of stealing his ideas for the show without his permission.
The show replicates the format of other reality TV competitions in the Arab market, such as "Star Maker" and "Star Academy" but focuses on acting instead of singing. Emam and committee comprised of Youssef Maati, screen playwright; Mervat Amin, actress; and Hassan Attia, art professor, will chose two of the show’s 12 contenders to participate in an upcoming Adel Emam film.
“When you see the big budgets assigned for such a show and its publicity, you can only guess how much money these companies make from thousands of applicants (application fees are LE100 each) vying for a chance,” noted Ola el-Shafei, an art critic and journalist. “Bad intentions should be suspected, I have to say, it exploits poor people dreaming of becoming stars,” el-Shafei explained.
Movie critic Nader Adly agreed with el-Shafei, adding that Egyptian youngsters trying to survive in very harsh economic conditions are victims of such programs, because they are searching for the easiest way to make money and earn fame without using much effort. "Only football and acting bring money and stardom, but they require good fortune," Adly stated.
The idea of acting studios in Egypt began in 1975 under the direction of Egyptian actor and coach Ahmed Kamal. He worked with Nabil Monif to establish the first studio outside the control of the Theatrical Arts Institute and the Arts Academy. "We need more than 50 institutes and the official entities have realized this; however, private workshops and studios have more freedom to propose creative exercises and to allow the trainees to express themselves freely," said Kamal. He added that the methods used by the official institutes lack flexibility, and the professors and students must struggle with an old-fashioned bureaucratic system that impedes their creativity.
Ahmed Kamal, Ahmed Mokhtar and Mohamed Abdel Hadi pioneered the concept of training up-and-coming actors for performances in experimental and independent theaters.
“A couple of months before the rehearsals, experienced actors like Ahmed Kamal and Ahmed Mokhtar or directors like Hassan el-Greitly of ‘el-Warsha’ troupe, used to train the actors on a certain acting method like Stanslavsky’s or Myer Hold’s or modern dance, depending on what the piece called for,” said Sayed Mahmoud, an art critic and journalist. Mahmoud claims that Abla Kamel (who worked for el-Warsha troupe in the beginning of her career) and Yosra el-Louzy both profited from the theater acting workshops.
Kamal, Mokhtar and Abdel Hadi all invested their time and experience in the Actor Studio, which was established by the movie star Mahmoud Hemeda in 1996. “It was the first studio that works on a daily basis to truly impact he way actors perceive their job. We aimed to develop their imaginations and help them explore their capabilities, talents and their inner self. Now, there is a certain quality in our trainees, and the artistic field approves of this,” stated Kamal.
Mohamed Abdel Hadi also established his own studio with a focus on training junior actors to play parts in commercial cinema movies. According to Mahmoud, cinema producers hired Abdel Hadi to work with certain actors for a couple of months before shooting, or they would take five or 6 trainees from his studio for their movies.
Abdel Hadi’s studio played a crucial role in casting and training the actors for films like “Afarit el-Asfalt” (1996) and “Gannet el-Shayateen” (2000) by director Osama Fawzy. “Excluding this studio, the rest of the studios and workshops remained in the middle between independent and amateur,” said Mahmoud.
Later, other studios like that owned by the famous comedian Mohamed Sobhy began to provide other training options for young actors. Through this studio, actors like Mona Zaki and Hany Ramzy had their first parts in Sobhy’s play “Bel Araby el-Fasih” in the 1990s.
Last November, producer Mohamed el-Adl established Hollywood Academy in which trainees are taught by such stars as Mona Zaki, Ahmed Helmy, Khaled el-Sawy, Ghada Adel and others. Adl also brought professors from Hollywood to give short-term courses lasting 2 to 3 weeks.
However, some art critics believe such short-term training is not very beneficial. “Unless they go through the complete process for at least a year with the professors, where they learn from them, perform in their theaters and acquire a satisfying cultural background, it is nonsense,” Nader Adly said.
Differing from Adly, Shafei said she is not against any attempts to train professionals. “The majority of our actors, with time and unremitting work, become short of fresh emotions and expressions. They look the same in all dramatic situations and you can expect their reactions. Of course, they badly need to develop their tools and refresh their performance,” said Shafei.
However, critics agree that personal connections and networking are the best methods for actors in the TV and film industry to get ahead in Egypt. The majority of producers and directors have groups of actors who are close friends, who appear frequently in their productions, regardless of whether they fit the role or not, said Shafei.
Despite having the biggest film industry in the Middle East, the system still functions haphazardly, she said, adding that it lacks directors like Youssef Shahine, who used to tour the institutions and theaters searching for real talent.
The problem is that those who are experienced are reluctant to transfer this knowledge to younger generations, said Kamal. “In Egypt, we believe in preserving ‘the secretive code of the profession’ instead of ‘experience transfer’, which is key to development.” He added that he is glad to have five young coaches working beside him in the acting studio.
The big names like Adel Emam, with a long history of acting in cinema and theater, should have established a real acting studio to share his experience with young talent, rather than falling for financial temptation, Adly concluded.