28th Cairo Int'l Festival for Experimental Theatre opens with an exhibition and a play from Germany

Ati Metwaly , Wednesday 15 Dec 2021

The 28th edition of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) opened yesterday with an exhibition held at Adam Henein Hall of the Hanager Theatre and a play from Germany staged at the Balloon Theatre.


The opening of the ‘Cairo International Exhibition of Unconventional Avant-Garde Stage Design’ took place at 5pm in the presence of the festival’s president, Gamal Yakout, Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem, scenographer and main motor behind the exhibition Hazem Shebi, alongside numerous other figures from the Egyptian artistic community and the festival’s guests.

The event was followed by the festival’s management and troupes moving to the Balloon Theatre where the play ‘Deals with God’ — which was performed by a German troupe —was staged to a large audience.

The exhibition is an important step in Egypt’s theatrical movement and the CIFET’s history. 

As clarified by Hazem Shebl, an award-winning Egyptian scenographer and also a member of the festival’s Supreme Committee, “this is the first such event taking place in Cairo. The exhibition presents scenography from 20 countries around the world.”

The display is based mostly on large photographs in addition to a few stage-design physical components, all presenting works that shed light on set, light, and costume designers’ contributions to their local and international theatre movements.

The selection of 56 designs was chosen from a total of 106 theatres submitting their works. The final works were chosen by a committee headed by Shebl and other renowned theatre practitioners: AmrAbdalla and Mohamed Saad.

Works from Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Hungary, Lebanon, Palestine, Japan, Brazil, and other countries testified to the numerous visual approaches to texts and movement, as expressed by their creator’s skills.

Some set and light designs present plays based on international classical texts — from Shakespeare to Jean Cocteau — while others serve the performances that capitalise on local literary gems or ideas emerging from the theatre makers’ minds.

Some designs attract viewers with their minimalistic approach to stage, where one object or lighting can create a multitude of scenes and emotions, while others show fully developed sets that embrace the actors in their presentations.

At times, we can see modernity marrying the technological solutions as they remain detached from a temporary and geographical location they represent, while at others draw from a specific country’s traditional elements while underscoring their belonging to a given text, theatrical expression, and their creators.

In other words, all designs speak of the boundless creativity of the Egyptian and international designers whose theatrical practice continues to shape the meanders of theatre in the Arab world and internationally.

With a great collection of works and photographs coming from all around the world, this year’s exhibition is an opportunity to explore the many fruits of this unique art form which undeniably serves as an important pillar of theatre.

As Shebl explains, similar exhibitions have been held in Cairo — such as those that took place in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018 — however, they focused on Egyptian designers and were not necessarily linked to CIFET.

The 2020 edition of the festival could not accommodate the exhibition due to pandemic and it is finally this year that the CIFET’s 28th edition was able to embrace this initiative.

Not only is this exhibition an important component of the festival but also, for Shebl, it is a rewarding achievement. He recalls his late professor, Egypt’s renowned set designer Ramzy Mostafa, who has contributed greatly to his development.

Mostafa was one of the founders of the International Organisation of Scenographers, Theatre Architects, and Technicians (OISTAT) in Prague, in 1968.

Since its founding in Prague in 1968, OISTAT operates as a global network for “specialists, practitioners, educators, and researchers who shape, challenge, and imagine elements, events, and environments for the live performing arts,” as stated on their website.

Mostafa introduced Shebl to OISTAT’s activities and nominated his work for display at the Prague exhibition in 2003. After years of interaction between the young student and OISTAT, in 2017, Shebl became the organisation’s vice president and its Executive Committee member. 

Shebl’s career in theatre goes back to 1987 and includes designing sets and lighting for university plays as well as national theatre productions. Between 1989 and 1994, Shebl was the set designer in the production section of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union. He was then technical director at the American University in Cairo’s Department of Performance and Visual Arts until 2006.

He was awarded the Fulbright scholarship to continue his studies in the USA. Shebl also won the prestigious Encouragement State Award for the best stage designer in 2004.

His decades-long activity in theatre saw him working with many renowned directors, such as Essam El-Sayed, Hanaa Abdel-Fattah, Khaled Galal, among many others, creating set and designs for their plays, which were staged at many Egyptian theatres, including the National Theatre.

Following the exhibition, the theatre practitioners and its aficionados moved to the Balloon Theatre, where Gamal Yakout and Culture Minister Ines Abdel-Dayem opened the 28th edition of the CIFET.

The evening also included presentation of this year festival’s activities, plays participating in the official competition and on the event’s margins, jury and honorees.

It is important to add that this year, the festival honors Egyptian directors Essam El-Sayed and Hassan El Geretly, as well as Khalid Al-Tarifi (Jordan), Naji Al-Hay (UAE), and scenographer and costume designer Jean-Guy Lecat (France). The jury of the competition is headed by Sameh Mahran and includes renowned Egyptian and international artists such as: Jawad Al Assadi (Iraq), Olivier Dubois (France), Mia David (Serbia), Namir Salmun (Spain-Syria), Zenon Kruszelnicki (USA), and Hisham Gabr (Egypt).  

As revealed by Yakout, a total of 285 performances – 118 from Egypt and 167 from international troupes – have been submitted to the festival this year. The committee has chosen 14 international performances to take part in the competition, including two from Egypt, to be performed across Cairo stages.

The CIFET’s intellectual axis includes a number of seminars alongside publications tackling the theatrical movement in Egypt and the region. They will be presented during the festival’s days.

Also among the important projects presented by the management during the opening was the Experimental Theatre Club, a new initiative developed by Yakout and which embraces nine plays by the Egyptian theatre makers from numerous governorates. The performances are staged in Cairo, Alexandria and in the cities where they were produced.

The 28th edition of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater (CIFET) takes place between 14 and 19 December.

The festival usually takes place on the first 10 days of September, but this year it was rescheduled to be in December due to restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Also, the new date was set in order to avoid any conflict with the Carthage Theatre Days (Carthage Journées théâtrales de Carthage), which this year take place between 4 and 12 December. 

The 28th edition is presided over by Yakout, with artistic directors being Mohamed Abdel-Rahman El-Shafei and Saeed Kabeel. It bears the name of Fawzy Fahmy, a late renowned Egyptian theatre academician, who for many years served as president of the Cairo’s Academy of Theatrical Arts and also headed the festival’s many editions in the 1990s. Fahmy, who has been the event’s honorary president in its 27th edition (2020), passed away in October.

The speeches were followed by an opening performance titled Deals with God (Germany). Based on choreography and physical expression, the performance talks about “the human urge to worship and need to follow a power that protects human weakness and finally to surrender to this power,” reads the play’s brief. 

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