Young Theatre in Morocco
von Ahmed Massaia
Erschienen in: Recherchen 104: Theater im arabischen Sprachraum – Theatre in the Arab World (12/2013)
Moroccan theatre, although still very young, has passed through several phases since it started up in the mid-1950s. Professional troupes, as well as a large number of amateur groups, enlivened the Moroccan stage for several years before Moroccan theatre tailed off in the 1980s, despite the emergence of independent groups, some of which were made up of young people who had trained abroad. As a result, the public authorities at last felt obliged to respond, and created the Institut Supérieur de’Art Dramatique et d’Animation culturelle (ISADAC). Thus, they ensured an excellent academic education for theatre and in this way acknowledged its proper importance.
The young graduates from ISADAC were tasked with developing new aesthetics and forms of communication. They wanted to experience theatre as an adventure, firstly existentially, then artistically and aesthetically. The first students graduated in parallel to considerable democratic advances in terms of human rights (such as the freedom of expression), the reform of rights for women, the creation of the Institut Royal de la Culture Amazighe, the Royal Institute of Berber Culture (IRCAM) — measures which led to a changeover of political power in 1998 and a new left-wing government. These democratic advances worked in favour of young theatre-makers, as it led to the setting up of many incentives to create and propagate theatre work. There were funds to set up theatres and to finance productions as well as funds for artists themselves and for their social security cover. The clear and permanent identification of a theatre season, crowned off with a Festival National du Théâtre Professionel in Meknès, put the finishing touches to these measures to strengthen theatre. The Moroccan stage was thereafter enriched by numerous companies, either made up of former students of ISADAC, or from Berber theatre, or reconstituted from former amateur theatre troupes.
From the mid-1990s onwards, there was an amazing aesthetic and ideological diversification of Moroccan theatre, mainly instigated by former prize-winning students of ISADAC. Some troupes opted for awareness-raising theatre, even as they continued to put on experimental shows occasionally: these included Théâtre des amis, a group led by Saïd Amil and Latéfa Ahrrare, Théâtre Aquarium led by Naïma Zitane and, to a lesser extent, Appinumm in Chefchaouen. Others chose Moroccan cultural heritage or popular culture as their main emphasis, and produced shows that were closer to Moroccan society and its different socio-economic components. This was the case with Théâtre Appinumm in Chefchaouen, with Tensift théâtre, Ibdae Drama and Sahat Annas in Marrakesh, and Fadae Alliouae Lil Ibdae in Casablanca. Others still were not scared to shake out the old, at the risk of offending a large section of the public and certain sections of the media, to break taboos deep-rooted in a society which was still conservative, despite appeals to modernity. This was the case with Théâtre Chamates, led by Bousselham Daïf in Meknès, then with Théâtre des amis, Aquarium again, and Dabateatr led by Jaouad Essounani, one of the larger-than-life directors in new Moroccan theatre.
These companies argued in favour of a citizens’ theatre in which provocation would lead to daring conversations, breaking taboos that were deep-rooted in Moroccan society. Alongside this multiplication of troupes essentially made up of young people, there was another dramatic phenomenon, until then non-existent, that emerged and allowed groups working in Arabic to convert to Berber theatre. In 1997, a number of playwrights of Berber origin, under the direction of Mohamed Dasser, created the troupe Izourane du théâtre amazigh, a company which inaugurated a genre of theatre that, from the outset, explicitly sought to promote theatre in the Berber language, and which was followed by other companies around Morocco.
Alongside this aesthetic diversification brought about by the young theatre-makers, some groups dared to touch on subjects that were until then deemed to be taboo in Moroccan society. These provoked immediate controversy because of the aesthetic choices they proposed. This contemporary experimental theatre was shaped by a desire to disrupt the order of things with a new aesthetic, and a crude language, that broke taboos and accepted ideas. It was inaugurated by Bousselham Daïf who, with other graduates from ISADAC, founded Théâtre Chamates in Meknès in 1997. He then led a regional troupe from Meknès, Tafilalet, with the same members as the Chamates troupe. His first productions were immediately successful, and he was awarded several prizes at the Meknès Festival National du Théâtre Professionel.
Bousselham Daïf quickly made a name for himself on the Moroccan theatre scene as a young producer with well-researched subjects and a very daring aesthetic. Although the minimalist aesthetics used on stage by the playwright and producer were marked by experimentalism, with a cabaret-style in the foreground and a use of language that was both poetically-touching as well as crudely-shocking, he successfully established himself as a promising young theatre-maker, notably with the plays Rass Al Hanout and Naâl Errih, which he produced for the 1998–1999 and 1999–2000 season with Chamates theatre. He had a similar success with Jasmine and Night and Day, two shows he created for the 2001–2002 and 2004 –2005 seasons for his local troupe. These plays featured two brilliant young actresses: Latifa Ahrrare and, above all, Fatima Atef, his favoured actress, as well as a young graduate from ISADAC, Hicham Ismaïli.
The other enfant terrible of new Moroccan theatre is Jaouad Essounani. After graduating from ISADAC, this young producer and director of the Dabatheatr troupe opted for adventure and staying off the beaten track from the start. After he left ISADAC, Jaouad Essounnani set himself a challenge: to make theatre at whatever cost. He was convinced that in terms of art, social and religious limits often act as a brake on creativity. He promised a different kind of theatre, one which was based on experimentation and interculturality, as he also knew that this was the only way to enrich the possibilities of artistic expression. He put on his first show Crashland, One Night in 2004, the same year the troupe was created, in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut in Rabat, using actors of different nationalities (German, Algerian, French and Moroccan).
Jaouad Essounani did several internships in Europe, including one at the Royal Court Theatre, which provided him with plenty of practical experience and important contacts. He then returned to Morocco even more determined to change theatre and to help in the artistic education of a public that was still not used to this type of expression. He changed his style and wrote a second play, The Candle based on Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. The show was well-received by the public and critics alike. It was selected for the 8th Meknès Festival National du Théâtre Professionel and was nominated for several prizes.
Several years later, a collaboration was born between the playwright Driss Ksikès and Jaouad Essounani. Together they put on Homage! then Il/Houwa with great success. Following on from this, Ksikès and Essounani paired up again for a new show, 180 Degrees, which also deals with existential questions. The characters on stage belong to a society that is being evolved and which becomes more and more entangled in the most absurd contradictions.
180 Degrees doesn’t actually tell a story, rather it presents stories taken here and there from daily life. In his unconventional production, in which experimentation takes precedence over traditional styles of theatre, the director is holding up a multi-faceted mirror to the audience. In looking into it, the spectators have to ask themselves existential questions and at the same time become a voyeur without being aware of the fact. The characters in the play have no names. Why would they have names in this excessively dehumanised world that the play presents to us? The characters are anonymous, because they are exactly like us. Frequently they resemble us, but they are also the opposite of what we would wish to be. That is because the declared objective of the playwright and director is to confront us with the dialectic of illusion and reality, symbolised by the incessant swirling of a woman wearing a burqa.
Out of this collaborative theatre project, set up by the playwright and the producer, another ambitious and original project was born. The two men devised a project combining animation and theatre with the support of the Institut français in Rabat, that offered them Salle Gérard Phillipe theatre space for the production. Dabatheatr became “a perpetual laboratory where writers, producers, musicians, dancers, actors and all types of creators meet to make multi-disciplinary populist theatre”, according to the project’s publicity material. This multicultural troupe is attempting to work professionally and places great importance on communication and exchange. In the first week of every month, the Gérard Phillipe theatre is a meeting space for art and encounters of all kinds. In the first week of every month, the troupe puts on theatre and dance shows and concerts and organises training sessions. The week is crowned off with Theatre News — short plays based on current socio-political events.
While Théâtre Aquarium, founded by Naïma Zitane, the other ‘trouble-maker’ of Moroccan theatre, from the outset defined itself as a type of awareness-raising theatre for women’s rights, it also has also succeeded in touching on issues that are deemed to be blasphemous by certain sections of the public. The shows put on by Théâtre Aquarium are becoming more and more explicit in the provocative intentions they reveal. Women’s Stories, Poppies and Red + Blue = Purple explicitly defend the personal status of women with more or less blunt and open intent. But with Dialy — It’s Mine, an adaptation of the Vagina Monologues, Théâtre Aquarium overstepped acceptable limits for a society that refuses to say out loud what it thinks silently. Aquarium was vilified by detractors on social media for having said the unsayable, despite some support. It was the same for Théâtre des amis’ production Capharnaum. The show was criticised because Latefa Ahrrare dared to wear a swimsuit on stage. Freedom of expression is wishful thinking in a society that is still fighting for the reinforcement of democratic ideals. Only once this society succeeds in freeing itself of taboos and clichés, will creativity be able to finally bloom and prosper.
Translation from French: Karen Tucker