My City…My Revolution’: Turning an Academic Essay into a Performance Piece

Scholar and theatre artist Nesreen Hussein is raising funds for an unusual performance: One that turns an academic and personal essay into a multilayered, ongoing theatre event:

The first performance of “My City, My Revolution” is set to open at Rich Mixin London on Jan. 23, 2015. It promises to synthesize physical performance, visuals, text and video, weaving “autobiographical and historical narratives that stem from the experience of an Egyptian woman living a revolution that redefines her relationship to two cities: London and Cairo.”

The performance is based on Hussein’s “Cairo: My City, My Revolution,” published in Performance and the Global City (2013), a collection edited by Kim Solga and D.J. Hopkins.

Hussein answered a few questions about the project over email.

ArabLit: How does an academic essay — embedded in memoir  — become a performance text?

Nesreen Hussein: This is one of the challenges I’m dealing with in this performance, which is how to creatively negotiate a text that is originally intended for an academic context. However, as you suggest in your question, the essay uses an autobiographical narrative — my experience of living the beginnings of the Egyptian revolution between London and Cairo — as its point of departure, which is what I’m investing in and pushing further, using this narrative as a vehicle to put forward broader ideas and to engage other narratives and stories. Narrating the personal experience in the essay uses a language that has a visual emphasis, which contributed to my interest in recreating that text visually. The essay lends itself easily to visual interpretation, and it will be adapted to be more suitable for a theatrical frame — it won’t be used directly as it is.

AL: When did you decide you wanted to make it into a performance piece? At what stage in its creation or reception?

NH: Writing that essay was a long process that went through different stages. It started in 2012 with an attempt to write a scholarly article for an edited book about the relationship between performance and modes of protest and resistance that took place in Tahrir Square at the early stages of the 2011 revolution. But I found it difficult to achieve a level of distance necessary to maintain a fully objective scholarly stance at the time. Tahrir, and all that it stood for, was so close to me personally and emotionally, and acknowledging that closeness was my only way to access the process of writing about this topic. That’s how my experience about the revolution and about Tahrir became central to the essay.

Articulating that experience then led to wider historical narratives about the history of activism in Egypt and the genealogy of urban transformation in Downtown Cairo, before and during the 2011 revolution. So it became a dialogue between the personal, the political and the historical. When I finally finished writing the essay, I became interested in the form that emerged from that process, which was not entirely planned when I started writing; it gradually grew through the writing process. And after hearing the responses of friends and colleagues who read the essay, I’ve realized how visually evocative it is, and also how it engaged different readers and triggered their own contemplation about their relationships to their cities, to their ideas about “home,” displacement and belonging. So I’ve decided to push that potential further in a performance piece.

AL: Why a combination of forms — video, text, visuals, physical performance? Have you written a script that holds it all together, or is that in progress?

NH: Such a script is in progress at the moment, but the decision to use a combination of forms is also driven by what the essay evokes for me. This is how I imagine it in my mind’s eye: as a multilayered text that manifests itself visually and spatially through video, physical performance and verbal text. Some images and moments there might be best interpreted in one medium or the other. On an artistic level, I’m interested in experimenting with different ways of telling a story visually, without relying entirely on verbal text.

AL: There are two others on your creative team: Mahmoud Hamdy and Vanio Papadelli, the first in Egypt and the second in the UK and Greece. How are you working together with them?

NH: We are working collaboratively. Mahmoud is a talented Egyptian visual artist and graphic designer with a unique visual style and an interest in experimentation with image, sound, and typography. He also has a strong position towards the 2011 Egyptian revolution, having been actively engaged in the momentous event since its very beginning, from the frontlines at some points. Mahmoud’s experience of living in Cairo is also interestingly positioned alongside my experience of living between London and Cairo, which is something we are exploring in the creative process.

Vanio is a gifted established performer from Greece with whom I’ve worked in the past. She has a strong artistic identity as a practitioner, and she’s created autobiographical performances using physical theatre sensitively as a mode of storytelling. She also experiments with mediums such as video and site-specific performance. Vanio and I share similar attitudes towards some of the broad issues raised in the piece, such as how we relate to our cities and to our homes.

Vanio and Mahmoud will contribute to the storytelling, employing their skills and mediums of expression. Their contribution will also open up the narrative and respond to its complexity. This is the first collaboration between the three of us, which is something we are excited about. Mahmoud is based in Cairo, while Vanio and I are in London, which adds an enriching, but also challenging dimension to our collaboration, and it’s partly why we’ve launched the crowdfunding campaign, to try to bridge the geographical gap on some level.

AL: How do you navigate what is “Ahdaf’s” and what is “yours”? I assume she’s aware of your project?

NH: Yes, Ahdaf Soueif is aware of the project (and I’m grateful for her generous contribution to our crowdfunding campaign). The essay is not directly anchored in a reading of her memoir Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, but engages with it as a reference point. In some aspects, both the essay and the performance are partly inspired by Soueif’s negotiation of the personal and the historical/political in that memoir as well as in some of her other works of literature, such as In the Eye of the Sun. Especially the latter novel, which is anchored in autobiography, had a large impact on me when I first read it a few years ago. It spoke aptly to my experience as a young Egyptian woman shaping and negotiating her identity while living between two socio-political, cultural, and geographical landscapes, which happen to be Egypt and England in both Souief’s case and mine. The impact of that novel stayed with me since then, and is slowly (and perhaps subconsciously) becoming more and more manifest in my work.

I guess on one level reading that novel made me more aware of the constant tension embedded in my life experience, and that is articulated in my essay and the performance. So while Soueif’s work is one of the threads interwoven in the fabrics of my work, both are not the same, and the distinctions are clear.

AL: Why now? Are people telling you, “The time for revolution has passed…”?

NH: People are saying that, anyway! Which is a view that I do not share. But it’s not why I’m doing this now. I think that now felt like the right moment for me for reasons related to the journey of my creative practice. Also, the essay and how it engages with something I care deeply about triggered that decision, and representing such an essay theatrically posed a challenge that I wished to take. It’s also important to say that the piece is not only about the revolution, nor is it only about my experience. The revolution is always there, it’s present and continuous, it’s a provocation that opens up a series of questions about our ‘selves’ which we are trying to confront in this personal, but also open piece.

AL: What comes next, after the Rich Mix performance? How do you establish a network of participants, and what will they do to carry it forward?

NH: The Rich Mix performance is a work-in-progress that will be developed further, with the aid of larger funding, which we hope to secure after this first showing. We are then aiming to share it in Cairo. I’m also hoping to use this performance in the future as a starting point that builds around it a series of wider modes of engagement to look at the key issues of displacement, belonging, and our urban experiences in an age defined by mobility. It’s still early to decide the specific forms of those modes or what the participants will do, but I think it’s important to push the project beyond the particularities of the performance and see it as an open forum that engages other voices and experiences. And I believe that the subject matter demands and allows for this kind of open inclusive engagement.

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