Amr Gamal: Theater In Wartime
After years of stagnation and interruption in theater, specifically in Aden, but more generally in Yemen, the director and playwright Amr Gamal along with a group of youths is hoping to revive the theater in Yemen, and return its pulse.
In 1995 commercial theatre, which had been common in Aden, stopped as a result of the 1994 summer war. The city’s stages were robbed and destroyed, including the national theatre which was shut down after it was sabotaged – returned as a weak carcass to its owners. Although starting over was very difficult, close to impossible, Amr Gamal, the founder of Khaleej Aden Theatre Troupe, has begun a new chapter in the city’s theatrical story, with diverse and valuable work.
In this exclusive interview, Amr Gamal talks more about the journey of Khaleej Aden Theatre Troupe since 2005, and the reality and future of the theater in Yemen.
al-Madaniya: Could you please tell us about the reality of theater in Yemen during the current war, and in Aden in particular?
Gamal: To tell the truth, theater in Yemen today is in dire straits. Before the war, theater was already in a poor state except for some rare attempts here and there. The only theatrical experience that has lasted, performing for ten consecutive years, is the Khaleej Aden Theatre Troupe. We have performed a play annually to thousands of viewers under many difficult circumstances, such as seeking financial support and lacking infrastructure.
Since the war began, difficulties have increased as mass theater needs security to ensure the safety of spectators. But with a general decline in security and increasing numbers of militants and extremist groups, creating a theatrical season is very difficult and dangerous. In addition, convincing companies and business investors to finance a play in this unstable situation and economic crisis is very difficult.
al-Madaniya: What does theater mean for Yemeni people? Does their vision change over time and circumstances? What did it mean to them in the past and what does it mean now?
Gamal: Yemeni people love the theater, and it’s considered a favorite activity for many people. For example, theater was a constant part of people’s lives during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Theater was normal and accepted by people. Then it stopped as a result of wars in the 1980s and the 1994 summer war. However, when it returned in 2005 with the Khaleej Aden Theater Troupe, the audience returned quickly because the culture of the theater was a part of them as it had been for successive generations, not only in Aden but also in Taiz, Ibb and Sana’a. Yemenis’ vision of theater does not change: they did love it and still love it.
al-Madaniya: What about the role of the theater in spreading awareness and Yemeni issues? Did you touch upon these issues? And if so, how and when?
Gamal: Theater is the father of all arts. It was described like this because of its importance among people. Theater is considered the main means to spread awareness and reflect Yemeni issues in an indirect and comic way. Unlike other societies that prefer plays that differ from reality, the Yemeni public is keen to watch a play that carries ideas from the heart of reality and discusses local issues satirically.
International organizations and civil society organizations have become aware of this and started during the last ten years to support short plays that examine a particular issue in all their projects. There have been about ten short plays offered weekly concerning various issues from the reality of society.
al-Madaniya: You described Yemenis as people who own the spirit of art and creativity. So, tell us about Yemeni playwrights and their effect in the theatrical work?
Gamal: There are not many playwrights now, but there were quite a few in the golden period of theater, pre-1990s. After the nineties, the number of playwrights reduced, to a large degree because of the stagnation and frustration that has prevailed in the hearts of most theatre workers. In 2005, with the emergence of the Khaleej Aden Theater Troupe, the situation improved again and some writers returned to write plays. Unfortunately, they quickly withdrew because of the lack of support from festivals, although there were some rare attempts by youths. In fact, the play writing crisis is not confined to Yemen, but has extended to Arab theater during the past two decades because theater is not supported in most Arab countries.
al-Madaniya: Theater is a bold art form, especially when it targets corruption in a comedic manner. How do you see the role of censorship here? How does it help or hinder the theatrical performance?
Gamal: Actually the state’s lack of interest in theater has been reflected in censorship. Often we are not controlled by the state; however, there is self and community censorship. As playwrights we know our limits and to what degree we can dare to raise a political, social or religious issue, or even question old or unfair customs and traditions. We know where to start and where to end so that we don’t endanger ourselves to the state, wider society or extremist groups. We must self-censor in order to express our thoughts in a way that keeps everyone safe in theatrical work.
al-Madaniya: The Khaleej Aden Theater Troupe had a great role in reviving the theater after years of being suspended. Tell us about this experience and the suffering you experienced, as well as the achievements?
Gamal: 5 May 2005 witnessed the establishment of Khaleej Aden Theatre Troupe, which debuted with my very first written and directed play, Aiyla.com/family.com, part of Laialy Aden’s Night: Second Theatrical Festival in 2005–2006. After this, along with the striking success of the play in the festival, the members of Khaleej Aden decided to proceed commercially, which was the troupe's biggest challenge, as since the 1994 summer war Aden’s stages had been destroyed, leading to the suspension of theater for years.
As a result of the post-war circumstances of Aden, Khaleej Aden had to seek out alternative spaces for their public performances. After a long search, they chose the stage at Cinema Hurricane, sitting in the heart of Crater, to be the main stage for all their plays.
Members of Khaleej Aden worked with the cinema’s management to come up with a system to manage the commercial theatre business, because of the absence of experience and support from the government. From seeking advertising all the way to searching for sponsors and looking for partners from companies and organizations, we finally ended with preparing the location from scratch, so that it is fit for a theatre performance.
During this long journey, Khaleej Aden was able to create a pioneering experience in running a theatre, to successfully lead by example all the other troupes that were later founded, as well as the old troupes from before 1994 that were supported by the state.
The audience for Khaleej Aden’s first play was 350 people; then the number increased significantly until 2008, when the number of attendees exceeded 800 people for most performances.
Since 2005 until today, Khaleej Aden’s plays keep being performed, with growing public admiration year after year. The performances were not limited to Aden; we presented many successful public performances in Sana’a. The troupe also left the borders of Yemen to be the first Yemeni troupe to perform in Europe, presenting its famous play Ma'ak Nazel in 2010 in Berlin, Germany. Ma'ak Nazel was the turning point for Khaleej Aden. It was inspired by the German play Line Number 1, and was produced by the German House of Culture and Cooperation in Yemen in cooperation with Khaleej Aden.
Moreover, our work varied: we produced serials and comedy programs, such as Fursa Kheera/Last Chance in 2013, which was hugely popular and became the essential Adeni drama on the small screen.
al-Madaniya: What are your expectations for the future of the theater in Yemen and in Aden? Can we say that we are still in the year 1995?
Gamal: The future of the theater depends on the end of the wars and a return to stability in the country. Unless this happens, the role of the theater will remain minor, with no leading role to offer enlightenment as should be the case.
The art form known in Aden – before all the Arab peninsula countries – as the father of arts is theatre, with Aden considered the source.
According to the historian Bilal Ghulam, theater came to Aden by chance in 1904, brought by Indian troupes, consisting of musicians, singers, actors and a large number of pets and birds: “Their performances dazzled people in Aden which led to the establishment of the first Adeni theater in 1910 by public school students.” Ghulam continued, “They performed a play named Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare on a small stage in the Crater area in Aden.”
Ghulam says that since then admiration of theater increased, until people in Aden created their own great theatrical history: “In the beginning the theater depended on foreign plays translated from Indian and English plays, and then it developed to prepare historical and Arabic novels for the stage.”
For Ghulam there are many factors pushing theater forward in Aden, including highly educated people and the spirit of humor that characterizes the people there. Some of these cultural differences were shaped by British occupation. “Unlike the northern regions, women acted with men side-by-side since the beginning of theater. However, in Sana'a the women appeared on the stage in the seventies, which led to the alienation of some people from this art,” he explained.
Ghulam added that in the 1940s, theater started to spread to different places in Aden, using small and portable stages. The 1950s and 1960s saw the golden period of theater, where many troupes appeared, most famous at that time being Masafee Aden troupe. Moreover, the plays discussed national and social issues, which made the British colonial authorities block some plays when they realized their influence on people.
After the departure of the British, theater began to develop more quickly and formal theater buildings appeared. The most famous was the National Theater, which lasted until 1994; then it was destroyed, leaving ruins.
Amr Gamal is a theater and television writer and director from Aden. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology from the University of Aden in 2007. He formed the Gulf of Aden theater group in 2005. Since then, he has directed ten public theater plays, five television series, and a number of documentary films. In 2010, his play Ma'ak Nazel became the first Yemeni play to be performed in Europe.