Thursday, May 18, 2017

Behind the posters: Bond Street Theatre's work in the Balkans

There are a variety of ways to tell a single story. Recently, the posters from BST’s work overseas have been archived, and it is amazing (especially for the intern who archived them and is writing this blog) how much they have to tell.

This week, Bond Street Theatre shares the posters from our work in the Balkans, where the company initiated the Balkan Peace Project and formed the Performing Artists for Balkan Peace, an inter-Balkan network of artists. Back to the year 2000!

One year after the war in Kosovo, Bond Street Theatre came to the region in response to to an emerging need for  psychosocial support for  the population of the area. In 2000, Bond Street Theatre and Theatre Tsvete, a puppet theatre company from Bulgaria, created a non-verbal version of Romeo and Juliet as a part of the Balkan Peace Project initiated in Kosovo. The two companies’ goal was to address the tragedy of the war between neighbors through physical theatre and visual storytelling. The actors were able to symbolically talk about choosing between love and violence, following one’s heart and duty to defend.

The play was presented throughout Kosovo, featured at such festivals as the  International Theatre Festival Skampa in Albania,  the Sibiu International Theatre Festival in Romania, and the International Festival of Alternative & New Theatre in Serbia. In partnership with UNICEF, Romeo and Juliet was performed in the most critical areas of Serbia, where ethnic tensions were still high. The play was warmly received, and the story resonated with audiences, providing a safe space to reflect on the conflict situation in the region.

A poster announcing the International Theatre Festival Skampa in Albania,
where Romeo and Juliet was presented, 2002

A poster announcing Romeo and Juliet, 2000

In 2005, continuing the collaboration in the region, theatre practitioners from Serbia, Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, the UK and the USA convened in Bulgaria to initiate the Performing Artists for Balkan Peace network, which was devoted to free exchange of ideas and cross-border cooperation. The connected artists confirmed their role as global actors for social improvement, stressed the importance of involving and reaching local communities in peacemaking processes, and aimed to create arts projects that would address the current social and political issues of the Balkans.

A poster announcing free lectures, workshops, and performances from the
Performing Artists for Balkan Peace in Bulgaria, 2005
As a result of the collaboration,  five theatre directors united to craft a performance titled Honey and Blood. In the Turkish language, “bal” means honey and “kan” means blood. A performance conducted by 20 actors from 9 countries was presented to a wider audience, stimulating a cross-border dialogue.

An English version of a poster presenting Honey and Blood
in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2005
A Cyrillic version of a poster presenting Honey in Blood, 2005
The work of Bond Street Theatre and its partners in the Balkans went far beyond these posters. To quote  Bond Street Theatre’s Artistic Director, Joanna Sherman,  this social project, focused on relationships between artists from ethnically diverse backgrounds, was a success.“Could Kosovars and Serbs room together? Could five directors really create together in collaboration?  We were all sublimely pleased that the project was both a successful social experiment and a truly deep artistic experience as well”.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Intern Spotlight: Polina Peremitina

This week Polina Peremitina, our Arts Administration intern from both Saint-Petersburg State University and the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program, writes about her experience from the New York office.

This is me, an Arts Administration intern at Bond Street Theatre, sitting in an old Ford and waiting for the Easter Parade in Brooklyn to begin. Michael and Joanna (name a more iconic duo) invited me to join them to help and have some fun with kids and kites all around, while they led the parade on stilts, and dozens of children followed them down the streets. It was a cold, gloomy day, but the bright costumes, big smiles, and readiness to be there for these kids, making them laugh and question whether Michael and Joanna’s legs were truly that high and wooden, made all the difference. However, there are some questions that will remain mysteries no matter what, kids.

                                                 Waiting for the Easter Parade to begin

When I was a kid, I also had lots of questions. However, having played in my hometown musical theatre for almost ten years as a child, I never wondered if this experience would somehow shape my future. Pursuing theatre was a done deal, with “no” as the answer. I considered theatre to be a means of entertainment, and hadn't even thought about its capacity to influence social justice. Luckily, I educated myself with the help of my dear friend Jordana, who explained the concept of social theatre to me last summer while in Palestine through school. And when, having been accepted to the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program this January in New York City, I knew exactly in what kind of organization I wanted to intern with for academic credit. So I found Bond Street Theatre and I applied right away. And, once again luckily, I got in.

At my very first day in the office, I had to conduct research on problems that Afghan refugee returnees face as they come back to their country. By doing that, I learned about needs assessments. Yes, it’s true that BST cannot help with water and food supplies. But the company can help with spreading information among the returnees about their rights in an effective way. Where there is a need that can be covered by theatre, the company is there, and the more I searched for grant opportunities later on, the more I realized how it can be applicable.

It also taught me a lot about NGO management itself, especially if an NGO is small. There are only three people in the NYC office who maintain the company, as well as a full Afghan staff, and it’s a great opportunity to be involved in a variety of things: marketing, fundraising, researching, photo editing, design. Speaking of which, who would have thought that I would gain some basic graphic design skills at this job, creating promotional materials for “Amelia and Her Paper Tigers”, Bond Street’s young audiences show? Wow. I learned a lot from Emma directly, Internship Coordinator and Development/Communication Director, and I am genuinely grateful to her, Joanna and Michael who taught me so many things that I think I am not even able to embrace fully yet.

                                      Bond Street Theatre NYC Staff - Spring 2017

As Emma develops the BST website, I am close to wrapping up my biggest project here. I am creating an interactive map that will show all the counties in which BST has worked, with a short description and pictures for each project and performance. In a way, it is an archival project. BST was founded in 1976, and there is quite a history that needs to be systemized constantly. I am helping with it, going through all the pictures that have been taken since 1979 and digitizing the ones that I think may be worth adding to the already existing and awesome digital photo library of the office. I also use these pictures for this map, which is a fun quest - to find the gap (where are the Colombia pictures?) and fill it by searching through more than 155 envelopes of photographs.

                              This is what the process and my office space looked like

I believe I became more aware and conscious about global affairs and social injustice around the world during this internship. And I LOVE how well it is linked to my academic program, where I use the knowledge I gain at the internship for writing my papers and class discussions.

But back to the initial question: yes, theatre can be about entertainment. Theatre can be about education, enlightening issues of a particular society, providing tools for peacemaking and reconciliation, and empowering audiences to act along. But theatre can also be about grant researching and writing, maintaining the current projects and preparing new ones. It can be about marketing upcoming shows, trying to figure it out how and where to promote them best. It can be about more than three thousand analogue pictures, waiting to be digitized and archived. In addition to all of that, you can always have some fun hanging in an old Ford and walking on stilts. And yet again, another mystery solved.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Celebrating International Women's Day

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we celebrate the achievements of women and girls around the world, and are reminded of the challenges that lie ahead on issues ranging from domestic and gender-based violence, to girls’ education, to voting rights for all, to social justice, to safe self-expression. Today, we highlight a selection of projects created in collaboration with our partners around the world devoted to women’s rights.


As a part of the 2010-2012 Theatre for Social Development project in Afghanistan, we worked with four Afghan theatre companies, and created four new all-women’s theatre troupes as part of the project. For the first time, the troupes were able to reach women directly, performing in homes, girl’s schools, and women’s shuras. The photos above and right below were taken as part of a 2011 workshop conducted by Bond Street Theatre and Simorgh Theatre of Herat.

Malia, one of the workshop participants, shared: ”When I came to the workshop, I was really shy to even move, but now I really feel free to speak aloud and talk to audiences”.

Manizha, another participant, reflects on the importance of women’s unity: “What I learned by performing in so many different places is that most of the women have no good relationship with others and with society.  They are fighting with each other!  If we stand up together, we can solve this problem. This is the most important and useful thing for myself”. 

From 2014-2016, BST’s Youth-Led Community Engagement Project brought  together 375 youth from 25 Afghan provinces for arts-based leadership and communication training. One of them, the Women’s Group of the Volunteer Youth of Kunar, chose to implement a project focused on ending violence against women. The participants conducted sessions and workshops with women, and  met one-on-one with families to discuss the vital importance of education. 

In Guatemala, we initiated The Acting for Peace project, which implemented theatre programs for at-risk women and youth living in rural areas, and workshops with young women aged 10 to 17 in collaboration with Oasis Orphanage.

As a task for one of the workshops, girls had to come up with short pieces to perform. In this picture, captured in 2012, the girls present the following story of unity: “There is one tree in the forest that stands alone. It is proud of itself, thinking it the strongest and best tree around. One day, a woodcutter comes along and cuts it down easily. Then the woodcutter goes to a grove nearby, where all the trees have grown together.  He tries and he tries to cut the trees down, but he can't - the trees are united”. 

In these pictures captured in 2007 in India, BST staff and Indian women collaborate on workshops, later to be turned to a play to be presented to a wider audience. As part of our time in India, BST was fortunate enough to work with the famed Patachitra painter-storytellers of West Bengal, a primarily female group dedicated to storytelling across mediums. Recalling a BST stilt-walking workshop, Nurjahan recalls: “At first I was “Ohhhh, I don’t want to go on stilts,” but now I know once I go for it, after that, I don’t have any apprehension at all”.

Working in Haiti in 2012, BST collaborated with women’s group FAVILEK (Women Victims Get Up, Stand Up), survivors of politically motivated violence. The original show created by the women, Fanm Yo Di Ase!, was a powerful testament to the resilience of women, and a call to action. In the words of Marie of Haiti, “They fight violence. It takes courage and valor. Replace violence with love!”

As we work towards creating a more equitable world for all women, Bond Street is grateful for the women and allies that we have met and worked with around the world, crossing lines of citizenship, age, disability, and sexuality, but sharing a common core of courage and creativity.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Volpone: From Rehearsal to Performance

In our final weeks in Myanmar, Bond Street Theatre and Thukhuma Khayeethe premiered our quite unique version of Volpone, an adaptation of Ben Jonson's 1605 play. The play is a fusion of styles, combining Italian commedia dell'arte with a Burmese dance to the spirits, and addresses the particularly relevant theme of personal responsibility in a country just moving from strict military rule to a certain amount of personal freedom. With freedom comes responsibility

Check out photos from the process below:

The Bond Street and Thukhuma Khayeethe teams discuss the script
(L-R: Nyan Lin Aung, Ngwe Ngwe Tin, Zin Mar Thwin, Kyae Zan and Soe Moe Thu. 
Not shown: Soe Myat Thu, Thila Min, Michael McGuigan and Joanna Sherman)

Rehearsal sure is tiring!

A dusty dress rehearsal at Gitameit

Our smallest audience members listen to the live pre-performance music at our second performance -- in a squatter settlement just outside Yangon. Wah Wah (in the blue dress at right) played the Burmese harp, which can be seen on the chair next to her, and the violin. 
 The audiences stayed enthralled and attentive for the entire hour and a half show!  And eagerly contributed to the ending in which the audience gets to decide who is guilty and who is not and why. Most important, they understand that they have a voice in their future -- they can speak out against injustice and have a responsibility to do so

Audience participation at the final show in the lovely township of East Dagon in Yangon.

Bond Street Theatre and Thukhuma Khayeethe give a huge thanks to all those that made this production possible, especially the Theatre Communications Group's In the Lab Grant program that supported the entire mulit-year process, the Gitameit Music School, and all of our supporters!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Volpone Premieres in Yangon

People have been asking, why Volpone?  How did you manage to make that make sense in Myanmar?  Did they catch the British humor or understand the context?  Well, it was easier than one might think -- human beings have the same flaws and foibles everywhere. Adjusting the characters to Burmese society was not a big leap!  

The tough part was the verbal translation -- translating from old English to new English to American to easy American to Burmese to clever Burmese. Even the humor slipped easily between cultures. It's a great pleasure to know that what makes people laugh is the same everywhere you go. People love to laugh.

[It reminds me of our first performances in Afghanistan in 2003, just after the fall of the Taliban regime. We took a comic show to small towns where people had never seen a show, since all of the arts had been banned under the Taliban. There were still many Taliban-sympathizers in the audience and we had no idea if we'd be welcomed or shot. In fact, they were rolling in the aisles (figuratively speaking) -- the children along with the white beards!  Everyone loves slapstick! ]

The other reasons for doing Volpone is the content and message. Both companies believe that theatre artists have a unique opportunity to facilitate discussion around social issues and, in Myanmar, that has not been an option. All outlets for discussion were censored, and all public material had to pass government scrutiny beforehand. We hope that this production will make bold first steps. The story is bizarre enough to only obliquely reflect reality and anger any leftover censors. And, hopefully, it will provide an exciting model for social engagement through theatre for both performers and audiences in the future.  

Meanwhile, Yangon is a city in transition! Newly opened to foreign trade, I was shocked to see shops like Armani in a newly refurbished airport that had only had local handicraft stalls for years!  So it was only appropriate that, against this backdrop of change, Bond Street Theatre and Thukhuma Khayeethe premiered our Volpone in a space that was quite literally still under construction.

Volpone premiered at the new Gitameit studios, with workers pouring concrete in the next room and bamboo scaffolding holding up the stairwell. Nonetheless, the show was a success, with laughs all around, and an opportunity to test the material and the interactive ending. Since it was at Gitameit, among artists, we got some great feedback and ideas. Up next: two more performances in more daring spaces around Yangon!

Check out photos from the rehearsal process below, and stay tuned for more updates:

Monday, January 16, 2017

Updates from Myanmar

Greetings from Yangon, Myanmar, where Bond Street Theatre has just wrapped the second week of rehearsals for Volpone, our show in collaboration with Burmese theatre group Thukhuma Khayeethe.

Those of you who have followed Bond Street's adventures over the years might remember that we frequently rehearse at the very cool Gitameit Music School in Yangon. This time we were lucky to be the first group to rehearse in the "new" Gitameit studios. Well, lucky might be a little strong, since they are still actively constructing the building, which meant dust, nails, sparks and concrete everywhere. Concrete steps newly poured..."hmm, any steel reinforcing in there?" we wondered as we made our way to the third floor. 

The best thing was the group of workmen who traipsed around during our warm-ups and rehearsals, watching us with great curiosity. One of them was heard to say, "What are they doing? They're just playing!"  Yup. That's why they call it a play.  

After one week, they started some serious welding in our space and we had to move. For our second week, we rehearsed in a small Buddhist Monastery located near the home of director Thila Min. Note: monasteries make great rehearsal spaces!

Our rehearsals so far have included practice in traditional Burmese dance, learning a traditional Nat dance, a spirit dance that (interestingly enough) is about the joys of drinking. We have spent our meetings with TK over the years sharing physical performance techniques, so we speak the same language theatrically and can jump right into the work. Our latest addition to the mix was introducing the style of the Italian commedia dell'arte. Now, in the third stage of working on Volpone, we are easily blending our mix of physical vocabularies.  

We are working all day -- 10am to 5pm!  What a luxury!  Morning and afternoon sessions are separated by lunch at one of the street side stalls. Yes, I know they say don't eat street food... but this is what they have! And it's great food, freshly made from fresh produce from local farmers

Next week is tech week and the cast and crew will be assembling set pieces and costumes for our debut public performances in the following week!  It's been a whirlwind process, and the next week is sure to be no different. If there's one thing we've learned about street performances, it's that they are always full of surprises! Stay tuned!

Rehearsing at the New Gitameit Studios

Monday, January 02, 2017

Street Theatre in Myanmar

We landed in Yangon, Myanmar and, after 24 hours of no sleep, immediately made up for lost time. Still a bit jetlagged, we met with the whole gang from Thukhuma Khayeethe yesterday, our intrepid and inventive partners in Myanmar since 2009. Since our last visit just a year and a half ago, there were two marriages and three children including one set of twins!   

This week we will begin our rehearsals for Volpone, our adaptation of Ben Jonson's 16th century play. A dual-language production, the show tackles themes of greed and corruption but, since plays in progress have a way of taking on a life of their own, we'll see how it manifests these or other themes.

The challenge, beyond the obvious hurdles of creating successful theatre, is that Thukhuma Khayeethe is trying to create a culture of contemporary theatre where there has been none over the last 5 decades. Traditional theatre abounds, and this is what the tourists want to see, but contemporary theatre has been forbidden under the military regime since, as we know, theatre is dangerous! It can expose uncomfortable truths!

In addition, it was our intention, now that the military regime is (mostly) gone, to bring theatre directly to the people by doing our plays in the streets or parks. There are no venues for contemporary theatre, so it's is a logical place to perform... but how would an actual play be received?

People do see dramas on TV, so the idea is not unknown, but they don't see theatre. They love comedy, so we have to combine both, with the added complication that we intend our Volpone to be interactive with the ending decided by the audience. Will they respond?  Will they participate?

Since our last trip, Thukhuma Khayeethe has also started a coalition of four young theatre groups that also want to do modern theatre. TK is the oldest and most experienced group, but it is really encouraging to see a new movement starting up. 

With this interactive show, we will be examining all these questions with Thukhuma Khayeethe, and continuing to figure out how to use theatre to spark discussion and bring taboo topics to light without having anyone end up in jail.  With performances in public spaces as our testing ground, and a newly opened government, we have a unique opportunity to experiment with all possibilities while refining the show.  We can't wait to see where the coming weeks take us!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Tackling Injustice in Afghanistan

We are excited to announce that this week we are beginning a yearlong program to inform and engage communities in Afghanistan about legal rights and access to justice. Bond Street Theatre-trained Youth Leaders from across the country have come together in Kabul to address the major barriers to justice in their provinces, and discuss solutions. 

Our Kabul facility is already a hive of activity, with the teams hard at work devising awareness-raising strategies to bring accurate information to the public, and spark community dialogue.

Much of Afghanistan relies on traditional councils for dispute resolution, with outcomes that are often arbitrary, driven by personal relationships, discriminatory against vulnerable groups, and impose overly harsh sentences. Up to 80% of legal disputes are resolved outside of the formal justice system. To improve access to justice and the consistent application of laws, citizens need a clearer understanding of their rights, and the resources available to uphold them. 

Over the next week, the Youth Leaders will create original mobile theatre plays and media campaigns to tour in their home regions, which will 
inform the public of their rights, and engage in dialogue with local authorities, police, justice officials and religious leaders. By promoting justice sector reform that meets the requirements of the formal justice system while respecting local frameworks, they hope to engage all members of their communities in the justice process.
With youth under the age of 25 making up over 50% of the country's population, young people are in need of opportunities to have a voice in their country's future.
Building on the enthusiasm and success of our Provincial Youth Leadership project, we are excited to watch our Youth Leaders take on this new collaboration, using their leadership and communication skills to disseminate information about rule of law and access to justice in their own communities across Afghanistan. We can't wait to see what they come up with!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Working in Azerbaijan: "We really entered a different life"

This past February, Bond Street Theatre travelled to Azerbaijan to conduct a program with local university students, in collaboration with the US Embassy.

We landed in Baku and, with barely a moment to catch our breath, immediately hit the ground running. The capital of Azerbaijan, Baku is a sprawling urban center that is half old Soviet buildings, and half new construction made possible by vast sums of oil wealth. We had three weeks to create, rehearse and tour a piece of social theatre with students from the State University of Culture and Arts, a daunting task to say the least.

Azerbaijan is a tiny country located on the edge of the Caspian Sea, and politically dwarfed by its neighbors: Iran to the South, and Russia to the North. As a former member of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is relatively new to democracy, and still struggles with corruption, with a government that does not look kindly upon dissidents.

Week 1: “You make us actually want to learn!”

Within this context, we began our first week by training 22 students of both the social sciences and the arts in Bond Street Theatre’s social theatre techniques. Our collaborative, exploration-based approach was a totally new experience for the participants, most of whom were used to authoritative teachers, and accustomed to a culture of individual as opposed to group achievement. The idea of an “ensemble” was a new concept.  One of the workshop participants explained that, “We didn’t feel any favoritism. This made us strong and feel like we have one shared goal,” while another proclaimed, “You make us actually want to learn!”

The students learned how to devise a performance based on their own assessment of social issues, and how to do this quickly!  For most of them, this was a rare opportunity to be asked their opinions on issues without authority figures demanding a set expected answer.

Week 2: Ideas in Action

From the initial group of 22 participants we selected 8 to create an original performance. The piece focussed on domestic violence, with the message that violence begets violence, and that breaking the cycle of violence in the familial context is essential in breaking the cycle of violence in society.  In countries where violent extremism is a continual problem, we find a strong correlation with the prevalence and acceptance of domestic violence.  A child who witnesses violence as a response to problems learns that violence is a valid problem-solving mechanism. The play addressed the idea that young women should make their own decisions about marriage, education, and other major life choices, rather than their parents or societal pressures.

While gender equality laws have been enacted in Azerbaijan, implementation remains poor, especially in rural areas. The youth were eager to share these stories, and to bring issues of corruption to light. The result was a brand new play, titled Moon Cycles, featuring both the students and members of Bond Street Theatre.

Week 3: Maybe Theatre
The troupe of students and actors toured Moon Cycles to five locations across the country, reaching well over a thousand people. The group even presented excerpts of the performance live on Azeri TV channel ANS TV.  After each show, we asked the audience to ask questions to characters in the play, which led to complex and insightful conversations. The actors had to respond to some challenging questions, and we observed their confidence and understanding of the material grow with each performance.

During the tour of the show, it came time to name the newly-created theatre troupe, and the name “Maybe Theatre” was suggested. Throughout the rehearsal process, the word “maybe” was used as a frequent response to suggestions. This happened often enough that it became one of the first words everyone learned in English. In a culture where learning typically does not involve open-ended questions, the name “Maybe Theatre” stuck.

The new Maybe Theatre plans to continue their work, improving and touring the show, and creating new social theatre productions. As one of the group’s members, explained: In 21 days, we experienced things we never had before. When we entered the door into the space, we really entered a different life.