Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

El-Warsha: Pioneering Independent Theatre in Egypt

El-Warsha Theatre Troupe has played a pivotal role in the development of Egyptian theatre, steering it towards greater independence.

A Photo published on 7 March 2021 at the Facebook Page of El-Warsha Theatre Troupe.

Youssef M. Sharqawi

The El-Warsha Theatre Troupe has played a pivotal role in the development of Egyptian theatre, steering it towards greater independence.

Throughout the twentieth century, Egypt saw the emergence of several acting workshops and theatre groups that influenced the direction of theatre.

These noteworthy contributions include the Naguib al-Rihani Troupe, established in 1916; the Zainabi Acting House, founded in 1907 by comedian Ali al-Kassar; the Ramses Troupe, founded by artist Aziz Eid; and Tholathy Adwa’a El Masrah, consisting of actors al-Deif Ahmed, George Sidhom and Samir Ghanem.

These troupes substantially influenced Egyptian theatre, ushering in transformative changes and progressively evolving the landscape leading up to the establishment of the El-Warsha Troupe.

In 1987, Hassan al-Geretly founded the El-Warsha theatre troupe – still active today – in Egypt. It was the first independent theatre troupe in Egypt.

Over nearly four decades, the troupe embarked on a distinctive journey marked by exploration and experimentation, deviating from traditional norms in Egyptian theatre.

It is widely acknowledged as a trailblazer in the realm of independent theatre in Egypt, with a repertoire that encompasses a diverse array of genres, including international theatre, folklore storytelling, operettas, tahtib (stick-dancing), and various other forms.

Garage to Stage: The Beginnings

Per the Glossary of Dramatic and Theatrical Terms, El-Warsha or the workshop denotes the designated space for conceptualising and preparing theatrical scenes. Moreover, it encompasses the venue for theatrical rehearsals, auditions and the honing of an actor’s craft, aligning with the practices associated with theatrical pioneers.

The term “workshop” in the context of theatre resembles the setting of crafts workshops, where precision and skill are imperative. In essence, it refers to a room or building akin to those utilised to repair and refine mechanical and other artefacts.

While discussing the origin of the name, Hassan al-Geretly affirmed this designation. He elaborated, “I used to live above a garage, and I would observe the collaboration between the apprentice and the master in the workshop, with everyone converging around a single car. The structured and methodical work in an automotive technical workshop served as the inspiration for the name.”

When Hassan al-Geretly founded his troupe, the term “workshop” was not commonplace, and acting courses were not widespread.

He introduced the term as an innovative expression, previously unknown, symbolising the start of exploration and collaborative creativity. Exploration and experimentation have persisted for decades, shaping the El-Warsha Troupe’s identity, following the changing tastes and transformations experienced by al-Geretly himself.

Hassan al-Geretly’s Journey

The El-Warsha Troupe is rooted primarily in the experiences of its founder, Hassan al-Geretly, in Egypt and abroad.

Hassan al-Geretly, an alumnus of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, graduated with distinction in French Drama and Literature. He then worked as an actor at the Centre Dramatique National du Limousin in France after obtaining a postgraduate diploma in cinema from the Sorbonne University.

During his tenure in Limousin, al-Geretly established a professional theatre troupe called “Les Tréteaux de la Terre et du Vent,” which engaged in theatrical endeavours for five years, from 1975 to 1980.

During the same period, al-Geretly was involved in various initiatives focusing on the intersection of theatre and education. Concurrently, he embarked on tours that took him to the National Theatre Centre in Egypt and various Arab countries.

Reflecting on this period, al-Geretly remembers, “While in France, I consistently maintained a connection with Egypt, closely monitoring artistic and theatrical developments. As I honed the craft for which I travelled abroad, the decision to return to Egypt began to crystallise, strengthened by a growing sense of homesickness.”

Hassan al-Geretly vividly recalls the first scene he performed in that marked the start of his artistic and theatrical journey:

“At nine, I was strolling in the school garden when my teacher Fatima summoned me to the music hall. There, I found a pretty girl extending her right hand while a boy stood with his back turned, displaying signs of displeasure. The teacher asked me, ‘Would you kiss Souad’s hand?’ I said yes. Then the teacher explained that Souad represented Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, and I portrayed Khedive Ismail during the opening of the Suez Canal.”

Al-Geretly recollects, “Since that day, I have not stopped kissing Souad’s hand.”

In 1982, Hassan al-Geretly returned to Egypt and worked at the State Theatre for a while. At the same time, he was an assistant director to the renowned Egyptian director Youssef Chahine.

Upon the advice of the Egyptian writer and critic Louis Awad, al-Geretly decided to join the official theatre institution. He was appointed director of the first experimental theatre in Cairo in 1988. Bureaucracy, however, proved to be a source of frustration for al-Geretly.

So, he focused on independent theatre from the early 1990s onwards, aligning his path with the El-Warsha Troupe that he founded in 1987.

Hassan al-Geretly sees himself as a “facilitator of theatrical practice.”

His deeper engagement with directing began during his studies in Bristol, where his enthusiasm for the craft intensified as his interest in its theoretical and historical foundations expanded.

Al-Geretly’s dissatisfaction with previous directors stemmed from a perceived inability to evoke the actor within himself. Prompted by this realisation and driven by his keen interest in a play’s structural intricacies, encompassing elements such as set design, he considered the roles of director or dramaturg.

Notable Works and Milestones

According to al-Geretly, the primary function of the El-Warsha Troupe is to train its members and others while producing plays showcased in Egypt and during tours across Arab and international stages.

The troupe actively engages with independent artists throughout the Arab world, offering support to independent companies. Their diverse activities include administration and translation, specifically addressing the shortage of translators with cultural expertise.

A significant facet of the El-Warsha Troupe’s mission is the revival of the role of storytellers. Other than in the Brechtian style, the emphasis lies on storytellers who communicate in everyday people’s language.

The El-Warsha Theatre Troupe aims to articulate the unspoken and amplify the marginalised voices in the Arab world. Consequently, the troupe addresses taboos prevalent in the Arab region and supports independent art in diverse forms.

The foundational members of the El-Warsha Troupe include esteemed actors such as Ahmed Kamal, Abla Kamel, and Sayed Ragab. Their performances initially featured adaptations and translations of foreign works, exemplified by two productions: Yemoot el-me’allem by Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke and Noubet Sahayan by Italian playwright Dario Fo.

This early period of work relied on adaptation, translation and dramaturgy of foreign works. It later extended to collaborative efforts in the production of Gilgamesh in 1988, marking a milestone as the first dance play by an Egyptian troupe.

Subsequently, the troupe engaged in the Egyptianisation of the trilogy Ubu by French writer Alfred Jarry, alongside productions such as In the Penal Colony by German-language novelist Franz Kafka and works by British playwright Harold Pinter. Notably, their exploration of the Ubu trilogy culminated in the creation of Dayer Dayer in 1990, which achieved sustained success over two years.

The El-Warsha Troupe showcased this play at the Avignon Festival in 1990 and the Zürcher Theatre Spektakel in Zurich in 1991. Additionally, the troupe represented Egypt at the Carthage Festival in 1991.

Following this phase, the El-Warsha Troupe shifted its focus towards productions deeply rooted in popular culture, drawing inspiration directly from it. Noteworthy works include productions such as Ghazir al-Layl, Ghazl al-Amar, Halawet al-Donia and Mahmoud Darwish, Poet of Troy, among others.

Al-Geretly reflects on the evolution of the El-Warsha Troupe’s work, underscoring the significance of the second stage:

“The most pivotal phase for us is our exploration of Egyptian folk heritage. After a dedicated period focused on reassessing Western cultural heritage, upon our return from Europe, we engaged in a meticulous examination and immersion into our heritage and explored everything related to acting, the actor’s body, space, scenography, decoration and dramaturgy. We started this phase by compiling stories from Professor Fattouh Ahmed Farag, spanning al-Sinbillawin, al-Sira al-Hilaliyya, Al-Mawawil stories, tahtib, dance and shadow play.”

The foundation of the El-Warsha Troupe rests in practising all aspects of theatre. Al-Geretly affirms, “There is no facet of the Egyptian people’s imagination or what is commonly referred to as folk culture that we have not delved into. This includes tahtib (stick dancing), various forms of singing, mourning, jests, Pharaonic love songs and more.”

Shifting Times

The establishment of the El-Warsha Troupe can be interpreted as a response to that time’s prevailing ambiguity and identity instability, positioning itself as both an artistic and political statement.

The development of the El-Warsha Troupe unfolded during a period marked by profound transformations in Egypt across various domains.

The troupe navigated the dominance of commercial theatre in the private sector, contributing to the renaissance of Arab and Egyptian theatre through, for example, its involvement in the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre, with Hassan al-Geretly playing a role in its management.

The troupe later bore witness to the emergence of an independent theatre movement that coincided with the rise of independent arts and the adoption of new production methods, ultimately culminating in the events of the January 2011 revolution and extending beyond.

The El-Warsha Theatre Troupe has navigated and endured approximately four decades of Egypt’s intricate political, economic, social and cultural changes.

On November 19, 2022, the troupe celebrated its 35th anniversary in an event named “A Night for the Whole Family” under the banner of “El-Warsha Nights.”

Fanack Water Palestine