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Staging provocation

Al-Masry Al-Youm caught up with Mahmoud El Lozy, professor of theatre at the American University in Cairo (AUC), to discuss staging Tawfik El Hakim’s “The Thief” at the new campus in New Cairo, it’s theme of corruption, the use of comedy on-stage to create a false sense of security and the all-important “finishing stage” in a production.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: “El Lis” (The Thief) by Tawfik El Hakim is the first full length Arabic production to be staged on the main stage in the new campus. How did you feel about that going in?

Mahmoud El Lozy:  There’s a lot of frustration because everything we do here takes more time. Everyone comes by bus and, given how long the bus takes, nine hours are consumed for a four hour rehearsal. We couldn’t do a dry tech [fixing the sound and light cues] on Friday, so we had to do a dry and wet tech [a dry tech with the actors] on Saturday. The commute just draws everything out and is exhausting.
We used to start our performances at 8pm [in the campus] downtown, now we have to start them at 7pm, which isn’t convenient for those working in the city. We tried having two matinee performances as some sort of adjustment, but by coming here we’ve turned everything upside down.
Theatre is an urban phenomenon. Historically, everywhere, people come form the suburbs to go to the theatre. We’re reversing the trend. That’s why they call it “a night on the town,” with dinner, etc. Now you’re asking people to leave town to come here, but there’s nothing around us. When people leave the theatre and they want to have dinner, in a proper restaurant, not a fast food outlet, the closest place is an hour and a half away from here. By the time you get downtown after the play’s done it’s 11pm, the night is over and you’re exhausted.

Al-Masry: How’s “reversing the trend” affected attendance for the productions that have been staged at the new campus?

El Lozy: Our attendance has been going down since we [the performing and visual arts department] moved our main stage productions from the Wallace theatre downtown to the Falaki main stage, which was in a building in a side street and on the second floor – the Wallace at least had an entrance on [Mustafa Mahmoud] street with a sign and a box office. There were people in AUC, students and faculty, who didn’t know where the Falaki main stage was.
The new campus main stage is like a fortress in the middle of the desert. We made a tremendous effort last year to bring an audience to the main stage production – publicity, buses from Tahrir, etc. – and people came. But my suspicion, and what I’ve heard from other people is that they came out of curiosity, to see what it’s like. But many people told me they won’t be coming again. And inviting people from the industry, directors and actors, we tell there’re a play on in AUC, they say “yeah, of course we’ll come.” Then we say it’s in New Cairo and they say “forget it.” It’s difficult to make an assessment as to how it’s going to change, but it will change and it’s going to take a few years to see exactly how.

Al-Masry: Is it discouraging?

El Lozy: Not exactly discouraging. But you have a theatre with a certain tradition and you uproot it and move it somewhere else and it’s a different terrain. You don’t know how it’s going to respond to the environment and vice versa. Some people are very optimistic, they say “everyone is going to move to Qattamiya, this will be the new place; we have all these people in Rehab City and Qattamiya, they‘ll come.” But we’ve yet to see that happen and I don’t think the people living in Rehab City and Qattamiya will be interested in attending theatre and music events, I don’t think that’s their scene. I think if they go out they’ll go to City Stars and see a film. I think the diversity of the cultural terrain downtown is much more vibrant, more dynamic. You don’t want to be limited to friends, family and alumni students as attendees, you want to be broader than that in how you cast your net, and what kind of people get interested.

Al-Masry: Turning to the play, why “The Thief”?

El Lozy
: I read it a long time ago, when I was in the United States doing my PhD, in 1981. I came across a collection of plays by Tawfik El Hakim called Masrah El Mugtama (Theatre of Society, 1950). Some were one act plays others were full length plays. They were social plays and these are the El Hakim plays I like most. I don’t like the so-called philosophical plays, like “The People of the Cave” for example, which are practically impossible to stage, they’re very heavy-handed.
“The Thief” I thought was interesting. It was written in classical Arabic, because at the time they had to be if the authors wanted to get them published, and its subtitle in the collection stated that it was “..inspired by businessmen.” It’s a sort of social, moralistic melodrama – very heavy on the melodrama, very heavy on the moralizing. But I also saw a lot of humor in it. It has a very melodramatic ending which I wasn’t happy with and long sermonizing passages about values. I said to myself there’s something interesting in it – I liked the theme of corrupt businessmen.

Al-Masry: Sounds timely..

El Lozy: (Laughing) Your words not mine! It had something there about corruption in business and corruption in morals. There’s a big scam in it – a land that gets resold several time and the use of fictitious companies. Corruption at every level that in turn corrupts young people. The text also equated being corrupt and seizing opportunities with being wise and intelligent and rational, which I found very interesting. As well as the idea of values, what to do and what not to do, looked at as old fashioned.
I wanted the play to be in colloquial Arabic so I asked Zeinab [Mubarak, a former student with experience in translation and dramatic writing] to translate it. She did, as well as an English version for the faculty, and did a very good job. I cut something like 20 pages, speeches that were lessons in morality, I got them out of the way to keep the action going. And I also cut the ending, which is going to make a lot of people very upset with me.

Al-Masry: Is the play in this production resolved?

El Lozy: No, I didn’t want it to be resolved. What I basically did was cut the denouement because I found it superficial and arbitrary, and gives you a false feeling that everything will be alright and that divine providence operates in such a way that good is rewarded and bad is punished, which I wasn’t convinced by. I wanted to end on a question. So dramatically it looks like the play that suffers from coitus interruptus! But I’m fine with that. I’d much rather the audience gets up and asks “why this ending?” and have them discuss it.
But I’m also doing it in such a way that I’m giving false signals throughout the play. There’s comedy in the play and I’m making use of it. El Hakim is a comedic playwright and people don’t realize that, they think El Hakim has to be serious. I highlighted the comedy and created a sense where people feel it’s going to end well. There’s even a moment where I do what’s like a pastiche from an old melodramatic film, with the music and everything. It’s appropriate for the moment and puts people in the comfort zone of “we’ve seen this before in the cinema.” Then we pull the rug from under their feet and don’t give them the ending they expected. (Bursting into laughter) So they feel betrayed and hate you!

Al-Masry: Tell us about your approach as a director for this production.

El Lozy: Stylistically, we did it like old Arabic black-&-white film. Watching these films makes you feel comfortable – you feel like you’re going to have fun. The world is stable and makes sense. We don’t have any colors, just red. Otherwise there’s just black and white. When I told Nermine Said, the costume designer, about the idea, she mentioned sepia, and fading yellowish browns. But we decided on black and white, and shades of grey. She noted that the tarabeesh (fezzes) would then have to be black. But I said no they should stay red, and that’s when we decided on the use of the color, because there was also mention of blood in the basement and a reference to a woman’s fingernails being as red as the blood of her victims.

Al-Masry: How does this production rate for you compared to the others you’ve directed over the course of over 20 years?

El Lozy: I don’t know. Putting on a play on campus, where you have to cast students, you’re always choosing your actors from a very small pool. It’s difficult to get a cast where all the actors are equally strong. What you try and do is bring the ones that are weaker up to certain level and make them learn something. I mean, this is educational theatre. I think this is a solid cast, though. They hold themselves well together as a group.
My own way of rating, I don’t consider the final product, which matters, as much as the process. I’ve been in plays where members of the cast have made my life miserable. What I remember from productions is the process – was it painful or enjoyable? It was enjoyable doing this production, despite the circumstances of the new surroundings. It’s been a great group who like their parts, take direction well and take abuse well. (Laughing) No, I don’t abuse them, I just make fun of them; I like to tease them, I give the boys girls’ names, and vice versa. It’s been an upbeat group with a good spirit of cooperation.

Al-Masry: What’s been your most and least favorite part of this production?

El Lozy: It’s not one scene or one thing in particular, but something I always try and work on in productions is what I call the “finishing stage.” It happens very rarely and you don’t always get an opportunity to get there in university productions where you barely have the time and people are always working. It also requires a lot of dedication in a culture where “that’s good enough” is dominant and those who try and excel are looked at as troublemakers.
The “finishing stage” is where…I’ll use sports imagery, like when a football team is in top form, they play very efficiently and very fast, and they can vary rhythm. They’re in control of the rhythm and they can find each other and play dynamically with a minimum of effort. Like a difficult ballet where the effortlessness in the performance of it is part of the aesthetic, and its beauty and effectiveness.
And it isn’t like we don’t have moments of it in this production, but where we don’t it’s obvious. I always want the people [the cast and crew] to reach the stage where they’re in control of the tempo and rhythm of everything. And everything is precise. The actor isn’t struggling to deliver the line based on his capability that day, the words have been memorized in the muscle, in the breathing. Like Hamlet’s advice to the player: “Suit the action to the words and the words to the action,” that’s what it means.   



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