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Home-Made Theatre (1998)

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It was all very theatrical – not in the derogative ‘male’ sense of the word, but in the feminist definition of theatre as “an engaged dialogue, built on mutuality and intersubjectivity, operating by enactment, not mimesis, and rooted in everyday life. “Even the space itself seemed to change character: it was no longer a real room in a research center run by academics and experts, but an imaginative empty space, in Peter Brook’s sense, where “the personal became the aesthetic” (in Sue-Ellen Case’s words), as well as the political. In this space, the women present became a community of ‘performing dramatists’ (as distinct from ‘authorial’ playwrights) who collectively created, out of the dialogue between personal experience, the concrete realities of daily living, and art (Wertenbaker’s text), an improvised ‘performance script’ specific to that evening. Unlike traditional ‘authorial’ dramatic texts, it was not mimetic, aimed at lasting repetition, nor did it claim “a beauty independent of any particular or finite significance; “it was transient, tentative and contingent – what Case would describe as a “dialogue of present time, caught up in the movement of history and development, without the secure fourth wall of formal closure,” that is, an ongoing, changing dialogue without final resolution.

What added to the excitement of being caught up in a fortuitous performance unawares was a combined feeling of freedom and secrecy. It was as if we were an underground theatre group giving a performance the censor would never condone. I found myself suddenly remembering the Czechoslovakian playwright Pavel Kohout who (as British playwright Tom Stoppard who dedicated his play, Cahoot’s Macbeth, to him tells us) was, together with the well-known actor Pavel Landovsky and many writers and actors, prevented from pursuing their careers during the last decade of ‘normalization’ which followed the fall of Dubček. According to Stoppard, “it was Landovsky who was driving the car on the fateful day in January 1977 when the police stopped him and his friends (including Kohout) and seized the first known copies of the document that became known as Charter 77.” A year later, Kohout wrote to Stoppard announcing the opening of a Living Room Theatre “with nothing smaller than Macbeth.” He described his LRT as “a call-group. Everybody who wants to have Macbeth at home … can invite his friends and call us. Five people will come with one suitcase.” Two months later, he wrote to Stoppard: “Macbeth is now performed in Prague flats.”

It was perhaps the presence of Basiouny, which reminded me of Kohout and his Living Room Theatre. A month earlier, around the beginning of May, she had staged a performance at a private flat in downtown Cairo. The owner of the flat, Maher Sabry (a young theatre artist of diverse talents who has just published a collection of poetry) had refitted one of the spacious rooms into a rehearsal space. For nearly a year, he gave Basiouny free use of this space to develop, in collaboration with eight performers (five males and three females), a performance piece called What Do You Want To Be When You Grow ‘Down’? As the punning title indicates, it was a journey through memory (not unlike the ones undertaken by the Women and Memory Center) -an attempt to uncover and rediscover the world of childhood without the traditional romantic trappings and fictions attached to it. Many activities were used as keys to unlock the gates of memory: doodling and scribbling on the walls (carefully covered with drawing paper by Sabry) was one of them; another was storytelling, done individually or collectively. In one rewarding exercise, Basiouny would start a story and then ‘throw’ it to one of the performers who would carry it along a bit further before ‘throwing’ it to another, and so on, until everyone had had a turn at developing the story. The few privileged friends who were allowed to attend the rehearsals found them more exciting than the final product, which came across as a collage of movement, mime, music and songs based loosely on the theme of childhood.

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