Egyptian Spring

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Prof. Dean Panttaja spends sabbatical teaching and designing at the American University in Cairo

by Mim Fields

In the play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the young lovers escape into a forest
where they encounter unfamiliar people
and strange customs, and in the process 
their perceptions and feelings about themselves and the world around them change.

For Department of Theatre Arts professor and chair, Dean Panttaja, the same could be said of his recent sabbatical in Egypt where he spent a semester teaching at the American University in Cairo and designing the scenery and lights for AUC’s spring production of the same Shakespearean comedy.

Panttaja chose to return to Egypt after a previous, but much shorter experience designing for AUC’s production of “Rosencranz and Gildenstern Are Dead” in 2006.  At that time, the campus what right on Tahrir Square - arguably what would become the physical center of the Egyptian revolution. However, in 2009 a beautiful new main campus was constructed in what is known as “New Cairo.”  Panttaja was not only curious to see how AUC and Egypt had changed, but he also wanted to take on new personal and professional challenges.

“As an educator I was interested in how my teaching style would translate to Egyptian students, how my creative work as a theatre designer would be impacted, and how my experience as an arts and educational administration specialist would benefit. Finally, as a "third culture kid" - having spent most of my childhood raised in Tokyo, Japan, I wanted to see if I retained the skills to live and thrive in a foreign country with the ease I had as a child & young adult.”

On teaching, Panttaja says that AUC students are much like students at the University of Idaho.

“AUC is the largest and most prestigious English speaking liberal arts university in the country.  The student body is predominantly composed of Egyptian Nationals, followed by other African, Arabian Peninsula, and Middle Eastern students, and finally a small number of British and Americans.   The students in general struggle with the same issues as American students. . . Some are un-prepared for college, others are socially distracted or procrastinate. However when engaged, they are inquisitive and show great mental faculty, and when challenged, they show supreme craft and care with a keen eye towards detail.”

He adds that AUC is like all American institutions and struggles with assessment, enrollment, and sustainability, but working in the post-revolutionary country as an artist the challenges were quit different.

“Egypt is a country where brick, concrete, and stone are the common building materials.  Carpenters are prized specialists and stage carpenters rare.   Lumber is purchased as beams and re-sawn and planned in to useable sizes.  Steel presents the same challenges.  Along with expense, time, and labor, wood and steel present a distinct problem for the standard Egyptian in that American Stagecraft relies on the carpenters to have an expertise in these materials and an understanding of 100 years of techniques and principles.  This is not the case.  Caring and exacting craftsmen, the Egyptian National Staff often lack the stage training to accomplish theatrical production.   This dilemma finds the American artist training not only student, but staff as well.  With a language barrier this is not a insurmountable problem but rather, an issue that just needs to be overcome with patience and planning.”

Finally, Panttaja adds that living in Egypt was a wonderful experience.  

“The people are open and friendly, most everyone speaks enough English to help you in stores or in transit, and the prices are in your favor.   North Africa presents a warmer climate and so fresh vegetables are available year round and constant greenery and blossoms can be seen.  There are always the drawbacks of crowded streets, insane traffic, and city noise but these are far outweighed by the people, culture, and beauty if you look.”

So as in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Panttaja says he has emerged refreshed and with new perspectives, quoting Puck, ‘I come before, to sweep the cobwebs from behind the door.”