Director Ahmed El-Alfy’s Cairo-London theater production company hopes to bring audiences a more realistic portrayal of East and West.
By Eman Omar
photography by jamie Scott-Smith
In one of the classrooms on the roof of The GrEEK Campus last May, director Ahmed El-Alfy of London-based El Alfy Theatre Company set his stage for Afashtak, his own translation and adaptation of Gotcha by British playwright Barrie Keefe. Despite being foreign and written more than three decades ago, the play perfectly captured the ugly state of public education in Egypt; showing the sense of loss, lack of ambition and feeling of inferiority among middle- and lower-class students in public schools.
Unlike the traditional theater Egypt is used to, El-Alfy, who studied at AUC himself, and other young directors are now experimenting with more “up close and personal” styles, using basic props, costumes and music and depending mainly on a strong script and good acting as well as unconventional stage settings. Afashtak opened with a 16-year old boy, feeling neglected and almost anonymous despite having spent five years at his school, walking into a classroom to see two of his teachers in a compromising situation. He sees his chance to finally take his revenge on them as symbols of a system that has abandoned him for years, by locking them inside the classroom and torturing them psychologically.
El-Alfy had never thought a future in theater would become his calling. He took a chance with acting during his days at AUC, and while working in the Gulf and in Asia he found himself being drawn to the art, which transformed into a passion for directing. After switching career paths and studying theater in England, El-Alfy realized that art was a chance to relate culture and cross boundaries between people. Through El-Alfy Theatre Company, El-Alfy seeks to bridge the gap between British and Arab cultures by producing and directing contemporary plays that tackle common issues between the two cultures. Edited excerpts:
I never thought about acting as a profession, but I continued to act in productions at AUC. I moved to Dubai in 2004 where I began working in shipping. While there I began looking around for plays to audition for. Some time later I was transferred to Hong Kong and, although I really enjoyed my job, I found it hard to blend in. It was like living in the movie Lost in Translation and I was not happy at all. I left my job a year later and came back to Egypt to explore different fields of work and to try and find what I really loved doing. That’s when I played the lead role in a Harold Pinter play, but I began to miss my shipping career and returned to Hong Kong to work.
While I was doing the Pinter play, a friend of mine asked me if I had ever considered directing. She said, ‘you have it in you, you always go so deep into character.’ I hadn’t thought about it before, but I decided to give it a shot, and I chose a Pinter play called The Dumb Waiter. I loved Pinter’s style, he really inspired me.
Back in Hong Kong, I almost forgot about theater, but from time to time I would apply for productions. One day I got an email from the American Community Theater saying they were looking for directors. So I applied, and when they asked which play I wanted to direct I suggested the same play by Pinter. They saw that I was passionate about directing and they decided to take a leap of faith with me. After that, someone contacted me from the Italian Chamber of Commerce about an Italian festival and asked if I could direct a play by an Italian playwright. I chose Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. The production was seven or eight nights and it was completely sold out. My first play had two actors, and this one had 13 actors. It was completely different; it was a great learning curve for me.
Was that the turning point for you? When did it change from a hobby to a profession?
An actor from my first play called me and asked if I was interested in directing a play called Orphans by Dennis Kelly. He said he had read it on the plane and felt that it was my cup of tea and I just had to do it. Kelly was a top-notch British playwright and the play talks about racism and violence.
By then I had become more seasoned, and more experienced as a director. Before the production we had this crazy idea to tell Kelly about our production of his play and to ask him to write us an opening note for the performance. It was a joke, but one day at work I decided to look for Kelly’s agent and sent them an email telling them that we were producing his play for the first time in Asia and that I would like him to come and see the play. A few days later, I got a response that said Kelly would be happy to accept the invitation and watch the play.
Thankfully, Kelly was very pleased with the performance. Before he left we chatted for a while and he asked me about my career. I laughed and told him I was in the shipping business and that directing was just a hobby. He was surprised directing wasn’t my job, and said that I should consider doing it for a living. He told me that I need to surround myself with people who were better than me so I could learn and develop.
I started looking for master’s degrees in theater, and applied to three universities in England. I quit my job because I was fed up. I was 30 years old by then, and I remember my dad telling me I was foolish, but there was no way back for me, I had to make it.
For several months and in preparation for the interview, I sat down in a French cafe in Hong Kong and read all of Shakespeare’s work. I bought books about theater and directing and kept reading. After a long and hectic interview process, I was accepted to all three schools I applied to, and I chose Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.
What gave you the idea to start your own theater company?
It was triggered by my master’s dissertation, which [tackled] how Arab and Egyptian plays weren’t being exposed to English society as much as they should be. I tried to figure out why that is, how they were being translated and how cultural elements were being transferred without affecting the original script.
In London there were European plays and sometimes Latin, but rarely Arabic. No one had taken the initiative to expose Egyptian culture properly. I thought it would be nice to start something with a different edge. Since I came from a business background I would fit well in a producer’s shoes. I also have the culture and felt it was a good adventure to start.
What was El-Alfy Theatre Company’s first production?
I read the Comedy of Oedipus by Ali Salem, whose work is banned in Egypt for political reasons. He had written this play in the 1970s, and it was a good adaptation of the tragedy of Oedipus, the man who married his mother and killed his father. The idea of having a comedy made out of a tragic story is very strong, and it was set in the time of the pharaohs as well, so the mix was just hilarious, a farce comedy actually. It was my first attempt at directing a political piece. This play was about a dictator coming to power. It involved the military, the people and government; but it wasn’t done in such a way that says who’s wrong and who’s right, everyone has their story; and it was up to people to side with whoever they wanted.
I did the same in Afashtak, a play about public education. It’s well known that education in Egypt has poor standards. Some people walk away from the play feeling sorry for the student — the ‘oppressed’ — and some people sympathize with the teacher or even the school principal — the supposed ‘oppressors.’ When they give their point of view, you can’t help but relate to them. I can’t dictate who’s innocent and who’s the bad guy.
So you aim to expose Egyptian culture in England through theater, but how do you do that?
It’s about the right adaptation. If you look at the few plays translated and produced in Egypt, you might find Molière or Shakespeare, but there’s nothing contemporary. So, it’s natural that we don’t understand their culture as much as they don’t understand ours. I’m trying to bridge the two by doing an English play that looks and feels relevant to Egyptians and at the same time produce an Arabic play in England adapted to English. Maybe something we suffer from, they might suffer from as well. The company started in late 2012. In Egypt I started on a small scale and I didn’t want to do a massive extravaganza; people are not ready for theater to be mainstream; we have to take baby steps. The play in Egypt broke even, which was fantastic. We had sold-out nights, and the last two nights we had to add chairs and some people had to stand and watch.
What was the reaction in Egypt?
I saw people who don’t usually go to the theater come to the theater, which is an achievement. We also had people from other theater groups, people from the United Nations, teachers from public schools, high school students; I even invited people from the street to come and watch. This is what we’re trying to do, [bring] all those people together and get them to relate to the same thing.
So what’s next?
Our next project will most likely be a play by Tawfik El Hakim in London, but we haven’t decided which one yet. In Egypt we are planning a collaboration event. It’s basically several evenings showcasing a series of short plays by different directors and writers doing different styles. I want to bring different talents together; actors shouldn’t confine themselves to the same theater group. That is why I keep saying we are not a theater group, we’re a theater production company. We’re also planning a play that will be performed in Egypt, called “El Marwa7a” [The Fan], which I’m a big fan of. et