International children's theatre in places of political unrest – focus on Egypt

In the lead up to attending the Hakawy International Children’s Theatre Festival in Cairo I learnt that a lot of people cared about me, which is always nice to know, isn’t it?  I know this because so many of my friends and colleagues said to me, ‘Cairo! Are you sure it is safe to go?  Do be careful won’t you!’  ‘Are you insured?’  I don’t normally get so much attention when I go away, but then again I don’t always travel to places of political unrest.

Like most work situations I find myself in, there is no tick- box risk assessment that actually fits the specifics of the situation. You need to use your own initiative and research the situation. The kind of skills you learn from a childhood full of play rather than test papers!

Anyway, I assessed the risks to myself and other company members and then, taking account of the risks, we went to Cairo!

Egypt, as most of us know, is at a point of huge political upheaval and social change but what many of us don’t realise over here is that one of the main drivers of the 2011 revolution was culture. The revolution that started in Tahrir Square was not just a political protest but also a cultural protest demanding a change to the autocratic state to one of a ‘free thinking’ society.

This makes me think of the changes of emphasis within our own education curriculum which is arguably moving away from encouraging free thinking! There has been a shift away from the critical thinking encouraged by creative practice of yester years to the more autocratic curriculum which dictates learning outcomes as if they were a prescription. Egypt, however, is meanwhile embracing the rich creative territory that we are leaving behind!

One of the many outcomes of the 2011 revolution was The Hakawy International Children’s Theatre Festival – the first edition was in June 2011. When people stop the routine of their daily lives on mass, and occupy a space as large as Tahrir square, it means that people, in very close proximity, are going to talk, and that talk is going to bring about change. Children were not excluded from this conversation. Friday was family day at Tahrir square during the revolution. On this day spontaneous activities, stories, music and camps made Tahrir square not just the place to stage your protest but also the place to share those ideas with your children … Naturally it follows then that children’s right to culture should follow on from that revolution.

There is a buzz in Cairo at the moment. A buzz in the arts and cultural scene, and the arts are helping to fuel many Egyptian’s need for change and greater democracy. Nowhere is that more felt than at AFCA, the organisation behind the International Hakawy Festival, that is wholly embracing a creative approach to education and recognising its value for children and families.

“AFCA arts and culture is an independent organization that believes that the arts should be essential components of the education of every Egyptian child.”

It seems somewhat ironic to me that when Cliodhna Noonan gave her account of the state of early year’s education in Egypt via Skype, at the Earlyarts Unconference 2010, we were all delighted that Egypt was very much at the beginning of a long journey in its approaches to creativity in early education. However in 2014, post 2011 revolution, Egypt is now a lot further along the path of creative teaching and learning whereas we, at least in England, are having to take backward steps towards an increased sense of schoolification of the early years.

We weren’t the only international guests in Cairo in March 2014, invited by Mohamed El Ghawy, to be part of the international programme.  There were also companies from USA, Netherlands, Germany, France and of course Egypt! Each company brought a unique perspective of children’s theatre: USA – a rich spectacle of amusing visual episodes originally created in 1979, Netherlands – sublime insights of Dutch lives and friendship through dance, Germany/Egypt – crafted dramaturgy and a playful look at gender, France – performance art to seek and make visible what unites us for nine months plus, Egypt – brought skill, celebration and collaboration to the fore with the greatest display of children’s acrobatics in performance that I have ever seen.

The shows were heaving, with more chairs being brought to accommodate the expanding numbers of families and children. What was really refreshing to see was a true integration of wealthier intellectual/middle class families and under privileged children side by side in all the shows. I have seen many wonderful post show play sessions when we have toured Yummm! in the UK, but I noticed a real difference in Cairo.

Whereas in family shows in the UK, families often kept their play within their own family unit, in Cairo the play was much more dispersed. Children led the etiquette by joining in other children’s games, whether it be balancing plates/cups or using them percussively and the adults followed suit. The audience got mixed up in their play and it was less easy to identify family units. They were not rude intrusions, there was an atmosphere of positive acceptance, fun and genuine shared play. The kind of play that makes every theatre maker, educator or parents’ heart sing!

It seems to me that the spirit of the 2011 revolution is very much alive in children’s theatre in Cairo.

Natasha Holmes is the Artistic Director of Tell Tale Hearts and an Earlyarts Advisory Board Member.  After working as a performer for some of the country’s leading children’s theatre companies, Natasha founded the highly regarded international company, Tell Tale Hearts in 2004, devising and delivering visual theatre productions exclusively for children. Each new production is researched with a group of nursery or school children, ensuring that the final show is not just age appropriate, but is made with the children’s collective creative input.