Friday, November 16, 2007

Final Presentation Day Afghanistan!

In a public ceremony on November 15th, we presented a demonstration of the techniques and skills learned in the workshops, and gave Certificates to each of the Mediothek Theatre students.

The presentation was the first time such a diverse display of theatrical techniques was ever seen in Kunduz, and it made quite an interesting performance and an amazing impression on the audience! The group did very well and we were proud of them. But there were a few surprises...

As the audience of invited guests, primarily male, arrived and took their seats, many of the girls' confidence slowly began to falter. It is profoundly difficult to be a female and present yourself publicly on stage in an environment where women are completely hidden. Although the girls were all eager and willing to display their new skills, when confronted with a live audience of men, many of whom they knew or were young men that they might marry, suddenly the situation became tough to face. We had made masks in previous workshops that were used in some parts of the show but, suddenly, all of the girls wanted to wear their masks! Many of the girls had performed several times before at the International Theatre Festivals in Kabul in front of far more critical audiences, but even seasoned performers can find an audience of family or friends a bit daunting.

I should add, the Mediothek staff were careful to invite only those people who have an active interest in theatre and its revitalization, and a willingness to accept women on the stage. And Bibimah, the Director, gave a fine talk prior to the show addressing the relevance of theatre in Afghan culture and why women's presence on the stage was not unIslamic.

In the end, the girls did perform with as much fervor as they could manage, and the response of the audience was superlative! They were very impressed to see the girls so competent on the stage, the quality of their acting, the beautiful mask work, maneuvering on the stilts, the range of techniques the young women and men had learned. If they noticed the girls' sudden timidity, they didn't mention it. And in the end, both girls and boys were very excited at what they had achieved and the wonderful response from the audience.

Our next challenge as teachers is to consider the best way to approach the issue. Can we encourage more women to join the audiences, and would that help? Most of these young women have aspirations to join the government, to become lawyers and politicians -- public roles indeed. Are there smaller steps we can take to empower the girls and, even more important, educate the audiences? Most of their sudden shyness was the fear of exposure, but the many of the physical techniques of stagecraft, such as martial arts and dance, are radical departures from accepted women's behavior in general.

Considering the obstacles, it is all the more remarkable that these young women have decided, completely on their own, to create theatre! We have a deeper appreciation for the very daring and outstanding choices they have made for themselves against all odds. Although these girls may not become actors in their adult lives, we know that the theatre training will give the girls poise, confidence and inspiration as they pursue their future careers.

We are really going to miss this energetic and fun loving group and we wish them luck as they continue in their work. We also hope to find funding to return and work again with the group: our plan is to create a piece together and to bring them to the US.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Dust Storm

A dust storm kept us from performing at the orphanage today. We will have to try again tomorrow. It was like being in a white out—except a little dirtier. You could feel the grit in your teeth and on your tongue. All the day the sky was orange and then it began to snow sand!
(this is the actual color of the sky)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Workshops are Cookin'

We have one week of workshops under our belt and we have all had a great time! We are giving them a little bit of everything we know... a crash course in physical theatre. We begin with a creative movement warm-up and concentration games, and follow with the essential of acting: body language, working with text, the symbolism in actions, etc. Then there are the other skills: mask-making and mask performance, making puppets out of everyday objects (thanks Theatre Tsvete!), martial arts (stick fighting from the Philippines), stilt-walking, commedia dell'arte, acrobatic balances, rhythm games, juggling, and many other important elements of a physical theatre vocabulary. They love the masks -- we make the masks directly on the students' faces, a soothing process that results in an exact replica of each student's countenance.

It is rewarding to talk and interact with the young females of Afghanistan over these weeks. We feel we are getting to know about their lives, aspirations and dreams, such as going to university to become astronauts, teachers, and politicians. We know this theatre training is a good preparation for their future careers, even if they don't become theatre artists. Their self-confidence grows daily with each achievement.

Each day we wave goodbye to our female participants, very outgoing and talented students who we have just worked with closely for three hours, as they put on their burqas and step through the compound door. The situation is a disconnect for me... to see them slip beneath the veil. You'd think that these girls would be the ones to change things and refuse to wear the burqa. They are willing to see change, but also patient.... "In a few years things will be different," says Bibimah (which means good moon), the Director of the theatre group, who is 17 and began wearing the burqa only two months ago. Their families are worried about their safety. “We wear it because the security situation is not good in Afghanistan,” says another theatre student. "We don't mind it, but it is too bad that it covers the whole face." I gather that there is a little feminine mystique to the burqa too, a right of passage into womanhood for Afghan girls, like getting to wear high heels for the first time.

We are teaching one class also for children and they are bright and very enthusiastic. I don’t think they get the opportunity to have structured play very often. In fact, there are almost no playgrounds in Afghanistan—we have seen only one in our time in Kunduz.

The power has been out for more than two days now. It comes on in spurts and unexpectedly, so after dark, we work feverishly when it's on, and go to sleep early when it's not. We were so impressed that Kunduz had 24 hour power, one of the only places in Afghanistan, apparently, and now that familiar sound of the generator is our friend again. Fortunately, the daily classes are all held outside in the dusty sunshine.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Living in Afghanistan

The workshops have started well and we are more than busy: the theatre group in the morning, the ‘magic box’ children in the afternoon, and a class for older male students some evenings, as well as performances of “A Tale of Two Kites” at local schools and orphanages.

We were finally able to leave the Mediothek compound on foot today. It was an amazing experience to step outside the calm compound walls into the bustle of five o’clock commerce. The city is a sensory overload. The streets are busy with horse and donkey drawn carts heaving heavy loads of fruit and flour. The horses are decorated with colorful, decorative baubles and fake flowers adorn their harnesses. Bright blue, ornately decorated three wheeled rickshaws bear burqa clad women to work or to shopping, the rickshaw framing the half light of this very bright and dusty small city. The metal working shops are next to the fruit stands are next to the water pumps. Long quiet streets stretch away from the main drag, lined with trees. We achieve unisex roles when performing, but truth be told, there are not a lot of foreign women in Kunduz-- and the attention we get when we step out on the streets actually stops traffic. The scene is fascinating - we attempt to take everything in and yet somehow not create a stir.

At around the same time of our evening walk, there was what the news is calling a “major suicide attack” in the Baghlan Province, a neighboring district. The initial reports are that several important Parliamentarians as well as civilians and children have been killed, including Mostafa Kazemi, who was “a great man doing good things for Afghanistan” according to our friends here. We heard the news as we sat down to dinner. Everyone at Mediothek is shocked and saddened. Suicide attacks are a recent phenomenon in Afghanistan, giving a new edge to the violence here. “During the day we are smiling, but inside we are sad” Bibimah tells us of the Afghan sentiment about this attack.

Monday, November 05, 2007


Today we went on a search to get flowers for our comedic non-verbal show for the children: A Tale of Two Kites. On the wall next to a door there was a hand painted sign that said ‘All types of Flowars and Plants for sale’. An old man, stooped and smiling, led us into the compound, a hidden treasure…. a nursery with lush yards and a greenhouse. Inside, the old man cut flowers off the vine for us, chatting in Dari about the different plants. The greenhouse and gardens were calm and quiet and green, a world away from the dusty streets. We got to meet his wife too, an extra treat for the females of Bond Street who get to slip into the house and visit with the women while Michael must wait outside.

The shows have been extraordinarily fun and worth getting completely dirty top to toe. It is so great to see the children laugh and participate! Most have never seen a performance in their lives and are amazed at every little thing.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Mediothek Theatre Group of Kunduz

Today, we arrived in Kunduz. We got here in a prop plane! 10 seats-- we almost had more luggage than the plane. They had to weigh the gear and each passenger to see if we were too heavy to fly—but we made it and we have arrived! The flight was 45 minutes over ravenous mountains that twisted like rivers and tributaries of mud and sand.... we landed at the airport: a small building and landing strip that was surrounded by scrap metal, rusting planes and pieces of army tanks… sort of how I imagine the surface of the moon. The city does not have domestic flights yet, like some of the other major cities to the north. Kunduz is a small city, with no buildings above two stories, surrounded by farms and green landscape. There are many children here, at play and also at work—lugging wheelbarrows, stacking bricks, and working the fields.

We are staying with Mediothek, an NGO that sponsors the girl’s theatre company. Mediothek (Media Center) of Afghanistan publishes Kunduz's only magazine, once a month, with an insert made by the teenagers of the theatre group who design the spread and do the reporting. The Mediothek compound, located in the center of town, is also a community center. The NGO offers many cultural programs like the "Magic Box," a creative play and performance program for children, as well as an active youth program that promotes journalism, film making, and theatre as a way to engage youth (boys and girls together) to become active in their community. The artistic programs also develop creativity, presentation and leadership skills.

We met the group today. They call themselves Mediothek Theatre Group, although they are considering a more descriptive name. They now have a few boys in the group, but the group is still primarily young women, ages 14-18 years old, directed by Bibimah, a lead actress in the group. The group was founded in 2004 by an enterprising young woman, Naseeba Holgar, who initiated the idea quite on her own and is now studying Law at Balkh University. Bibimah is heading to university next year. The group comes together for projects, but has a hard time meeting regularly since there are few performance opportunities for theatre groups in Kunduz. The annual Kabul Theatre Festival and a few Mediothek conferences provide the main outlet for their work.

We also shared our portfolio—it is always a great idea to bring tons of pictures to share as an introduction... now on to the fun (and tough) part of creating something together. We start workshops tomorrow... and continue through the next two weeks!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

November in AFGHANISTAN - to Kunduz

Three Bond Street Theatre members are in Afghanistan to work with an all-girls theatre company in the small city of Kunduz, located in the north of the country.

The flight out of Delhi was delayed 5 hours, so we did not arrive into Kabul until evening which is a hard time to arrive at the Kabul airport, with no lights in the parking lot and 7 large bags of theatrical supplies for only three people to lug, haggling for a taxi in the darkness. The Kabul Airport has improved greatly since the last time we came though - construction is underway! We are staying at the famed/infamous Mustafa Hotel in Kabul and there are a group of Aussies here on vacation, taking in the sights and traveling on local buses. Even the man at the front desk suggested that the drive to Kunduz, through the Salang Pass through the Hindu Kush mountain range, was safe. We hear about the beauty of the drive from everyone, but we do not want to take the risk. As for me, it is always difficult to come back to Afghanistan because of the worry of my family and all of the stories in the newspaper. But once I am here, in the everyday of a country that has everyday just like any other place in the world, I begin to relax. I am very excited about the project to come: working with an all girls theatre group in Kunduz!

Bond Street met the company at the International Theatre Festival of Kabul in 2005 while we were working on “Beyond the Mirror” with Exile Theatre. The girls had natural talent and with no formal training, they were better than many of the student groups from the theatre programs at the University. It is unusual and difficult for women to be on stage in Afghanistan and Bond Street was excited to see an all-girls group, especially from a more conservative area. We met the founder and former director of the company Nassiba in our last trip in May in Mazar-i-Sharif, but were unable to come to Kunduz. Now we are back in Afghanistan to work the young women. I look forward to meeting the group tomorrow and spending the weeks to come working together.