A few weeks ago, Cairo Opera house visitors were surprised to find a huge iron fence surrounding El Hanager theatre. The prominent art center, dear to the hearts of many young theatre creators, is officially closed for reconstruction and development.
Since 2006, many of El Hanager’s activities have been suspended for alleged security reasons. Following the ghastly fire at the Beni Sweif Culture palace in 2005, many theatres were shut down because they lacked safe fire exits and fire management plans. The ministry of culture adopted a systemic plan to the re-open these sites once they were provided with the necessary safety measures under the supervision of the civil defense department.
However, El Hanager suffered a continuous postponing of its re-opening. Except for a few plays backed by the personal initiative of the center’s director, Hoda Wasfi, the center has been practically absent from the theatre scene for three years. In 2007, the Cultural Development Fund (CDF) announced that LE 10 million had been allocated to the restoration of El Hanager following a direct decision from the minister of culture Farouk Hosny.
“This plan stopped with the arrest of Ayman Abd El Moneim, the former head of the CDF. Now it is taking place under the supervision of the General Service Apparatus of the Armed Forces. It is expected to take one year,” a CDF spokesman told Al-Masry Al-Youm on condition of anonymity. The present head of the CDF was unavailable for comment.
“In one year, a lot can change; people may come and go, which I personally don’t wish to see happen," says Hani Affifi, a rising Egyptian theatre director, adding that Wasfi’s experience in running El Hanager is quite unique. "She was requested by UNESCO [to establish the theatre],” he says, referring to the opportunity and performance space El Hanager provided young theatre creators regardless of their education or cultural background. He noted that El Hanager held workshops and courses in almost every area of theatre speciality, hosted artists from around the world and functioned as a training center for independent artists whose only qualifications were talent and enthusiasm.
Wasfi acknowledges the probability of change. “I am considering quitting after the re-opening to give a chance to younger generations. I have been in this place for almost eighteen years, it’s time to have some rest and focus on my other responsibilities and duties,” she says. Wasfi says the rumors that the ministry of culture intended to remove her are unfounded, affirming that it’s her personal preference to leave El Hanager.
Many members of independent theatre troupes fear a decline in El Hanager’s performance if Wasfi quits. “Let’s admit that without El Hanager and the enlightened vision of Dr. Wasfi my generation would have still be a group of amateurs performing theatre on the streets”, asserts Abir Ali, director of Al Mesaharaty independent theatre troupe. Both Ali and Affifi agreed that, starting from 1994, Wasfi overcame the bureaucratic mechanisms of the ministry of culture and provided budgets and full support for the independent groups.
“El Hanager is the only governmental theatre that approves of our groups and puts their names in the plays’ publicity [material]. If you’re an independent group member performing in the government’s theatre, they remove the name of your troupe from the banner, leaving only the name of the production entity that falls under the umbrella of The Artistic House of Theatre”, explains Affifi. In 2006, Affifi won the special jury prize in the first Egyptian national theatre festival for his play “I am dead now, ” which was produced by El Hanager.
Many theatre groups that emerged in the nineties like Al Kafela, Al Mesaharaty, Al Haraka and Theatre Atelier were embraced by El Hanager. The center hosted six successive independent theatre forums and funded many productions of these groups, challenging their utter marginalization by the ministry.
“Real creativity lies in independent theatre because those are the only people who work out of passion and for artistic purposes. They are not employees, they have a free spirit and we should offer them training and performance spaces. I’ve petitioned ceaselessly to provide them with one of the historical buildings of the ministry of culture,” says Wasfi.
Wasfi liberated El Hanager from the official employment of artists in state theatres. “In El Hanager, unlike other state theatres, you never find yourself compelled to work with the state employees because they receive monthly salaries. This completely impedes the creative process and excludes the independent artists possessing talent and working on upgrading their tools,” contends Affifi.
“It’s a center to produce an artistic creator,” says Ali, who praises Wasfi’s support for creative projects presented by unknown young talents, providing them freedom and facilities in addition to good viewership, “She turned the place into a popular theatre where people come not to watch stars but to enjoy high quality productions made by talented artists who possess a point of view and have something to say.” Ali won the prize for best new author in the national theatre festival in 2009 for her text “Viva mama, ” also produced by El Hanager.
“My fear is to leave the place to someone who does not appreciate its moral and cultural stature. If a young director thought to profit from the reputation of El Hanager to achieve a personal advantage it will endanger its constitution and progressive mechanisms of action,” Wasfi argues.
Currently, El Hanager is under reconstruction. The development plan includes a hall for showing films and a new cafeteria.