Nora Amin in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

Nora Amin, an Egyptian theatre director, performer, chorographer, and theatre educator. In 2000 she founded Lamusica Independent Theatre Group in Cairo and has since then brought about 36 theatre, dance and music productions. She launched The National Egyptian Project for Theatre of the Oppressed in 2011, and its Arab network in 2012. Nora and Rivka met in Berlin, where both were guests in the German’s Foreign Office’s scheme “Visitors’ Project”.

RJ:  You direct, choreograph, dance and act: which of these do you most enjoy and why?

NA: They are all one action for me. I enjoy them all equally.

RJ:  How easy is it for women in Egypt today to direct and perform?

NA: Very easy indeed.

RJ:  Your 2013 production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People received rave reviews that must ruffle a few feathers.  Do you feel any pressure to stop or change your work?

NA: Never.

RJ:    Do you travel with your productions to other Arab countries? If yes, which ones and how were the plays received?

NA: We visited Libya under cooperation with Arete Foundation, the first NGO for the arts in Libya after their revolution, it was a historic event by all means. Khaled Mattawe and Reem Gibriel are making history with their cultural endeavors. We felt at home and completely relevant with our “Enemy Of The People”. We also visited Morocco with “The Egyptian National Project For Theatre Of The Oppressed” for two consecutive years, in cooperation with the Assilah children and youth festival, and I can say that the 26 children we worked with, and the performances we gave there, constitute a genuine experience of mutual learning and expansion. I also performed in Jordan with the  Hakaya festival, in the Damascus theatre festival in 2009, in Tunisia at the Sousse festival for the arts, and gave workshops in Lebanon and Sudan.

RJ:    Is the audience in Egypt more receptive to political theatre than in Europe?

NA: I would not specifically use the word “receptive”, but I can say that the audience in Egypt are used to making the connection between the kind of theatre they watch and the political conditions they live under. We should always remember that this Egyptian audience is also made of the crowd that went out in the streets in millions to protest and make a historic revolution. Citizens who can connect and collaborate in order to make change and have an impact would be of course an “active audience” compared to the silent obedient passive audiences – if such audiences exist- who have been trained to disconnect the arts from the political actions and impact.

RJ:  How easy was it to be an independent director in the Egypt of 2000?

NA: It was not easy at all. Now that I look back after 15 years of work and 35 productions, I think what took me that far was my creativity that gave the work a specific signature which gradually made a name and a reputation for the group, and this guaranteed our survival. I also think that my capacity as an executive director of the group, doing all the administrative tasks, fundraising, marketing, booking venues and making tour plans, has served the group and my artistic endeavors to the maximum. I guess without this administrative capacity we would have been stuck a few years after the launch.

RJ:  How has the regime change in Egypt affected your work as director? Has the regime change had any impact on the nature of the productions you decide to stage? If so, how?

NA:  All my work is organically connected to the realities we live in. Therefore whatever theatre or dance I create they would be speaking to our conditions, whatever those conditions might be. I also think of my company and myself as militant artists, those who carry a direct social responsibility towards their societies and believe that art can contribute to change and to the progress of our lives. In this sense, you can say that I was always focused on criticizing the status-quo, whether it be political or social or cultural. I created the award winning “An Enemy Of The People” in 2012 during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to criticize the concept of the democracy of the boxes [?] and introduce the concept of liberal democracy, I used Ibsen to stage a musical political drama that became the most popular theatre production in 2013 while most of the performing arts activities were on hold. We performed the piece for 60 nights in different locations in Cairo and Alexandria, and toured with it in Libya, Norway and Denmark in August/September 2013 and we were the only Egyptian ensemble theatre company traveling extensively while the West was very suspicious of our new wave of revolution to eliminate Morsi and keep the Muslim Brotherhood from ruling.

RJ:  In 2011, you launched The National Egyptian Project for Theatre of the Oppressed. Could you tell us something about it?

I wanted to contribute to the growing change in Egypt by offering training workshops and outdoor forum play performances that work on changing the mentality of the oppressed on a national scale. As Augusto Boal – my mentor and the master of this methodology – taught us, it is not enough to remove the regime, we citizens would bring back or recreate the same oppressive system unless we change ourselves. I trained 500 theatre activists coming from 30 cities in Egypt, in cooperation with the organism for cultural palaces of the Ministry of Culture, and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. We managed to create the first national network for theatre for change in 2012 but the unstable security situation had a negative influence on the frequency of our work.

RJ:  In 2000, you set up Lamusica Independent Theatre Group in Cairo, what inspired you to do so at the time?

NA: After seven years of working as an actress in lead roles at the Hanager Arts Centre (UK), as well as being a founding member of The Cairo Opera House Modern Dance Company since 1993, I realized that I needed to introduce a new form of theatre that would invest all the performer´s physicality compared with the mainstream Egyptian theatre was totally focused on verbal expression. Lamusica Independent Theatre Group was in the beginning a place where I could research the potential physical language I was opting for, in relation to biographical experiences, improvisation, physical metaphors and the stage as a space for opposition and resistance to oppression. The phases of exploration, laboratory work, and experimentation resulted in a specific style of physical theatre that integrates verbal expression within the organic body of performance. Our first production, “The Box Of Our Lives”, an original play of devised theatre that I wrote and choreographed, remains emblematic of our signature style.

RJ:   You produce, perform, and travel extensively. In which country do you feel most at home and why?

NA:  In my homeland of course. I would also say that I feel most welcome and appreciated in Germany, it is a country where I have learned a lot and where I have developed many genuine friendships and collaborations. Among those I can mention are Eva Balzer at “MeetMimosa” and the German Centre of The International Theatre Institute.

RJ:  Do you think that political theatre has a future in North African countries?

NA: I believe it has a future everywhere in the world.

RJ:  What projects are you currently working on?

NA: I am focused on writing for the next few months, trying to document all the work we’ve been doing since 2011 and its connection to political transformation.

RJ:   What are your aspirations for the near future?

NA:  I hope that Egypt can adopt a clear strategic plan for the development of all sectors, and of course I wish that this plan would involve the arts sector as well. I dream of a national mandate for culture, and I dream of a system of education that integrates the arts and employs a pedagogy that liberates children from the mentality of the oppressed.