Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Afghan Update: Bamiyan

Getting ready to go to Bamiyan… it’s a bit dicey because we are driving. There are two routes: the southern way (paved) goes through Wardak which is definitely to be avoided if you are foreign or Hazara since it’s Pashtun and thus potential Taliban territory. The northern route (unpaved) bumps along through mountain passes on roads of rubble and sheer cliffs, but passing only has one danger area, the Pashtun villages in the Ghorban valley. This is not a road really; this is a rugged path carved by hundreds of years of donkeys patiently hoofing their way through the precipices, head down, loaded with every sort of tradable item. These donkeys are relentless, dauntless. We are passing them continuously on the path – they nimbly trot through the rubble as we go bouncing along, rattling teeth and brains. What do donkeys think? Do they think? No matter how huge the load, they just keep walking.

The dangers on this precipitous journey run from robberies to kidnappings, and we aren’t too keen on either. So the entire ride with our non-English speaking driver we are asking if we are approaching, in, or leaving this notorious Ghorban valley. Nothing like a 7 hour scary ride to improve one’s language skills, and my Dari is improving daily. I’ve learned khatar = danger, and checkpoint which has a long name but everyone knows ”checkpoint.”

Passing through one town in the long ride to Bamyan, we pass a sheep being slaughtered, its head severed, still shaking and quivering – still alive. A man stands by casually. Sheep are food; sheep are life. Death is a casual event. Meat hangs in front of every butchery, a gory decoration to me, a vegetarian, but even a bit too vivid for meat-eaters who are used to packaged pieces of animals. A wheelbarrow full of hoofed feet stands by with another row of feet all neatly lined up fill the store window. Without the sheep, people could not live. I hear it’s really tasty, this mutton, so fresh, so tender!

Pulling into Bamyan is a little shock after Kabul. Most small cities (or large towns) are clusters of mud walled lanes shielding homes inside from prying eyes, punctuated by alleyways between them, and a few streets lined with rows of small, open-front shops. Bamiyan has one long street of bazaar that welcomes you into the town. It is the town. There are a few cross streets and a lovely river traversing the town, and then endless farms and mud walled enclaves – all in a flat sprawl between the mountains.

But the most prominent feature in Bamyan is that amazing rocky fa├žade of mountain dotted with caves across its impossibly sheer face, and the two huge empty arches where stone Buddhas once towered until the Taliban blew up these treasured statues. There it stands, the huge wall of caves and niches, right there, visible from anywhere in the city the minute you enter, and right there at the end of my block. It’s not hidden, or a bus ride away, or behind a fence – it’s there – the biggest thing in town. It defines the town in more than reputation but in situation. The wall is omnipresent. Farmers are busy at its base tending to crops just as they’ve done for centuries; herds of sheep or goats traipse along looking for edibles oblivious to this majestic masterpiece of nature and man.

So what did the town do as the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas that stood watching over them for a millennium? Did they all come out to watch? Did they have a protest? Chain themselves to the mountain? No… because before the Taliban blew up the statues, they proceeded to massacre most of the Hazara in the area, going door to door and killing every male, and causing a mass exodus of families over the snowcapped mountains. Babies froze, the elderly faltered, men dressed in burqas, women carried their children until they dropped. Who was left in town to dispute the slaying of statues?

Bamyan is the safest province in Afghanistan (once you get there) and one of the poorest (hence our presence here). The locals feel that, since this is the homeland of the Hazara, the government ignores them and isn’t sending them the money for teachers, schools, training programs, etc. Sounds familiar. So the new idea in Bamyan is eco-tourism. Several key development organizations are assisting in staff training and hotel building, and establishing tour groups and media to bring in tourists. Perhaps in a year or two a kiosk selling souvenirs will open at the mountain base, and then a few more, and then a billboard… but, then again, you can’t keep a valley alive selling ladies fingers (aka okra or bamya in Dari).

I hope that tourism won’t bring those elements that plague Kabul: too many cars, unfettered pollution, pickpockets, beggars, high prices, random dangers for foreigners, etc. Already, we were accosted – or jubilantly surrounded – by a swarm of kids as we passed a makhtab (school). The second they saw us, they ran at us screaming like we were Santa Claus. But there was savvy behind the mania. The children (girls and boys) mimed putting on lipstick – clear message: give me lipstick. And they cling, and pinch, and grab your hat and bags, and yell “qalam” (pen) and “bakhshesh” (gift or tip). Someone has been giving children lipstick and pens. Children are the most needy, the least able to survive… but the mass attack was unnerving. We have experienced this before: after a show in a refugee camp in Macedonia during the Kosovo war, I was literally carried off by the sea of excited kids, as I waved madly at Michael who was similarly being swept away in the other direction. We were suddenly the candy they never tasted.

Speaking of Santa, I see Christmas trees here and there – decorated with shiny balls and all – right here in Afghanistan. “We like Christmas here,” they tell me. Of course, why not? The Christmas event is noted in the Quran along with the virgin birth and angelic visits.

One more word on Bamiyan… the province – the only one with a woman governor – is not as well served by humanitarian organizations as are the areas besieged by war. Many in Bamyan suggest that it would be a better strategy to improve the safest areas, such as Bamyan and Badakhshan, to serve as models for the other provinces. Give Bamyan good schools and hospitals, provide services in the mountain villages, improve agricultural methods and transportation, and let the other provinces get the message that peace attracts aid, not violence. Of course, the counter arguments are many. Every battle-weary village in Ghazni, Qandahar, Helmand or Wardak wants peace. Only the handful of troublemakers that are bought and paid for by another handful of wealthy outsiders who profit from war want its continuance. What family in Uruzgan wants a life of fear and insecurity for their children? None. Some of the most conservative areas may share traditions with their Talib cousins, but no one wants bombs at their son’s wedding or daughter’s school. Families are alike the world over and bemoan their lost children.
from Joanna's Afghan journal

Monday, November 08, 2010

Afghanistan Update: Rameen

Rameen, our friend from Afghan Communicator who was born in Kabul and raised in the US and now returned to help rebuild the country – one of the few returnees -- says that this is not the Kabul of his youth. It’s full of “hillbillies,” he says. When refugees returned from wherever they went, they all came to Kabul. Add to that the general trend toward urbanization that comes after war, drought and famine, and you have a city full of country bumpkins. They know nothing, Rameen complains, about how to operate in an organized, civil society. They are relentlessly tribal and dismiss anything outside their sphere of understanding – such as, entrepreneurship, modern trade practices, money managing, rewards for merit rather than familial ties, etc.

Rameen has set up a beautiful gallery of arts, from exquisite calligraphy (a famous art of Afghanistan) to crafts, clothing and furniture. He already has money, so he is seeking out the best artists, buying their goods, getting them further training at his expense, and selling their artwork with negligible markup. This kind of support for the arts is rare though, and Rameen returned determined to bring back the arts and to encourage self-respect among fine artists and train them in entrepreneurship. He speaks strongly against turning Afghanistan into a “beggar nation.” All this money flowing into the country is hampering the people’s ability to solve problems and survive on their own. All this building of hospitals and schools but no trained doctors and teachers to fill them.

Okay this was Rameen’s rant but it fits right in with this lack of global coordination of aid.

From Joanna in Kabul.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Afghanistan Update:

Sorry, since this is our fact-finding journey, so we have more news reportage than uplifting tales about the joys of working with the children.  It has been very interesting hearing from each arts group and NGO about their trials and successes.  But we are trying to locate the artists that are truly dedicated to the craft and recognize how rewarding and effective it can be, and see beyond the TV cameras and sheltered stages (where only the invited or intellectuals go) and are happy to go out into the rural provinces. 

We were invited to give a presentation to the Theatre Program students. For the presentation, Professor Hussainzadah gave a nice opening about our place in new Afghan theatre history and we showed the students our "Theatre for Peace" video with Dari translation (well done by Sharif) for the narration.  Then I described the point of the project – that you theatre students have an essential role in improving life in Afghanistan – beyond reviving the art of theatre, beyond being on TV or film – using theatre as a newspaper for the majority of Afghans that live in the provinces and can’t read and have no access to information and don’t know that they have no access to information.  Most of the students were heartily in favor of this kind of theatre and ready to sign up then and there. They responded with genuine concern and idealism, not the lure of money. 

And then, typically, I had to stir things up – I mentioned an idea I’ve had for awhile, an idea that upon mentioning to my hosts and others, was greeted with tremendous skepticism. The Theatre Program has almost 300 students, and only eight of them are women (and none of them are actors, only playwrights and directors).  Here was my ultimate test – idealistic students – all of them male but one.  My idea is that the University should create a “women’s theatre group” specifically to perform just for women, and especially for women in the provinces.  And where would they gather the women to perform for them?  Most villages have rudimentary community centers where the men hang out to smoke and chat, so why not have one night as “women-only night” and only women and their children are allowed. Then we can present our play by women, about women, and for women. I asked them: don’t they see how essential it is – if you have important information about breast-feeding or women’s hygiene or pregnancy, you can’t expect the men to relay this information to the women. You have to reach them directly!  Well --- this caused quite a stir!  Sharif said that the more prevalent response amid the ruckus was, yes, this may be possible. The others shook their head and said no way was this going to happen.  The one woman at our presentation left amid the stir – perhaps she was embarrassed to be the object, even obliquely, of the discussion.  (But maybe she just had to go to the loo.) 

Rameen had told me a story when I mentioned the idea to him. He said he was advising a women’s group and they complained to him that they wanted to start a Women’s Forum but the men, who had a Men’s Forum, wouldn’t let them.  So Rameen asked the men what the problem was. They thought this idea of a Women’s Forum could only mean trouble for them, that the women were going to gang up on them.  He then asked the women what they intended to discuss at their Forum and, of course, it was just issues about health and family and the like.  Now in Islamic tradition, mothers reign supreme – mothers are tops.  So he asked the men if having a Mother’s Forum would be okay.  The men said of course it would be fine!  So the women established a Mother’s Forum with no problem. Recalling this story, I made sure in my presentation – and especially my question at the end – to refer to Mothers Night at the community center rather than Women-only Night so the men would be more apt to agree. 

After the discussion, one group of students came up and informed me that they themselves were doing a show about women’s rights in the provinces – performing for the women.  This is allowed: for women to see men perform.  I told them that they should also take care to perform for the men too, so they have a better understanding about women’s rights.  This group also thought that they could arrange a performance by a group of girls as I had suggested, and that girls would be willing to be on stage and perform if it were under these circumstances. 

Interestingly, this student group was all Hazara and, for Americans this means nothing, but for Afghans, the Hazara are the most put-upon tribe/ethnicity.  It’s quite comparable to being black – the prejudice is deep-seated, less noticeable in some arenas and huge in others.  They are less represented in government, but widely appreciated for their arts; they were decimated during the mujahideen civil war (which was primarily inter-tribal) and are less often hired except among their own businesses.  My hosts are all Hazara, and doing very well in business.  So it was interesting for Sharif, who is also Hazara and very sensitive to the issue to see a Hazara group perform – they did a short comedy skit during the class – and then speak up about women’s rights. He was quite complimentary about the group’s performing even though he swears little interest in theatre.  But he is always very attuned to anything accomplished by Hazara, and consequently Michael and I are now very sensitive to who’s behind the counter in a store, who’s sweeping up, who’s on the bus and who’s driving the bus.  It seems things have become more polarized in Kabul – neighborhoods are more clearly defined by tribe and Sharif feels more comfortable driving in certain areas. Hazara are considered the descendants of Genghis Khan, an outside invader from centuries ago, because Hazara look slightly Chinese. It’s remarkable that this feature remains after all this time, I assume because there isn’t much inter-tribal marriage. Also, and maybe more important, prejudice is doubled because the Hazara are Shia and most of Afghanistan is Sunni. 

From Joanna in Kabul  

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Afghan Update: The Role of Theatre

Theatre is a good solution to the information problem. It really is effective in the few places it goes…. but it’s just not generally accepted. That's partly because it doesn’t sound proper, but mostly because people don’t know what it is! It’s as though they never had a tradition of theatre. In fact, Afghanistan enjoyed a long history of traveling actor-poet-comedians who roamed the country acting out stories from Islamic and mythical tales with one fellow acting all the parts with different voices and accoutrements. But a collective of actors on the stage didn’t emerge until the early 1900s and came into its own in the 50’s and 60’s. Even a women’s theatre was formed in 1958 for audiences of all women. Gradually the audiences for these plays were mixed men and women. Then, as we know, the best actors fled the country during the Russian invasion, then the civil war in the 90’s, and the Taliban finally put the theatre into the grave.

So you have a country of mostly deeply traditional, rural, uneducated people in the provinces, cities full of these country folk who come to the city for work, a huge expatriate population of the best Afghan actors and intellectuals scattered about the globe, and youngsters growing up today who have no knowledge of theatre or memory of any tradition of theatre. Even the students entering the Theatre program at the University, reports one of the Theatre instructors, actually do not know what "theatre" is. How would they know? What have they seen in their province? So why are they there? They are there because they have seen people on TV but they have no knowledge of live theatre and no idea that one might perform for a live audience. Really, Salahuddin, one of the teachers says he is amazed (he has the 1st and 2nd year students) that they have no knowledge of live performance whatsoever, having never encountered it.

He begs us please send DVDs of performances -- Shakespeare, Brecht, Ibsen -- anything from the Western tradition so they can see a play. We left a full version of "Beyond the Mirror" and small excerpts from four of our productions, but we are not classical theatre, we are symbolic, non-realistic, physical-visual theatre... which is good too. But they need exposure to everything so they will get a balanced view of theatre from many genres. The Germans sent in a puppetry teacher who taught the animation of objects, but he didn’t teach puppet-making, so they have a successful puppet theatre now sponsored by the Goethe Institute, but the puppets are rough and amateurish looking. However, the children love the puppets all the same.

Theatre is so unknown that it presents a problem to tackle right off when trying to go into the provinces. We have to find some forward-thinking village leader who will take a chance. Then when they see that this thing called theatre is funny and amusing and educational, they like it… mostly. Once, Parwaz Puppet Theatre told us, they did about half the show and had to quickly pack up and leave a village. Yet we saw photos of them in the mountains of Bamiyan, with the villagers carrying their gear up and up and up the mountain with them tagging along behind. Then, after all this lugging of gear, the villagers loved the show! They said this was one of their most rewarding performances because, really, these people so far up in the hills never dreamed of something like their puppet show (about children’s rights). We had the same experiences in Pakistan in one refugee camp where we had to leave in a big hurry, and the same completely rewarding experience taking our show to remote villages around Andkhoi (a small town) where people flocked from miles around to see the amazing show!  Our experience is – and same with the theatre groups we spoke to – people may be very skeptical and disapproving to start, but almost always, when they see the funny-business and imaginative puppets or characters or antics and music, they just love it. And they see that it is not un-Islamic and actually carries a good message for their children. And everywhere, people love their children.

from Joanna in Kabul

Monday, November 01, 2010

Afghan Update: Meetings, NGOs, and International Aid

We have had great meetings... with Kabul University, theatre groups, NGOs, old friends, cultural organizations, etc. and the Embassy.  Everyone has been very happy to see us, interested in the project, hopeful for its success, and yes... they do see dollar signs when they look at us, but most have been genuinely helpful, interested and generous.

Prof. Hussainzadah, the head of the Theatre Department at Kabul University was our first stop – he knows everyone in the theatre business in all of Afghanistan, and has been introducing us to every director of note and the most promising students and inviting us to the important events. Fortunately there was a big Arts Festival at the famous Bagh-e Babur (Babur’s Garden) that attracted directors and artists from all the provinces. We met the Directors of the National Theatres in Herat, Mazar, Jalalabad and Jowzjan Provinces, and have gotten a good sense of what their needs are, who funds them, how they survive, and their hopes or doubts about the future. And we’ve met some of the smaller theatre groups and see how they survive. In a nutshell – foreign money.

The Goethe Institute is the big funder for arts here, and the Norwegians. There’s money flowing into Afghanistan from everywhere, for every purpose, for odd scraps of time… and it’s completely disorganized. No one seems to coordinate with anyone else. Wouldn’t it be great if the Norwegians, who are sending four actresses here to work with the girls at the University for one week (!) to coordinate with us who will be working for five months, and with the French who only seem to bring Afghans to France for extended study, with the Germans who fund this and that theatre group with no communication with anyone else?

It’s really a lesson for us to stay in touch with these groups so we can try to coordinate a plan to move theatre forward in some concerted way. For example, the theatre director from Herat said every foreign group that comes in a requests they do a play about HIV-AIDS. So you have dozens of plays about AIDS and the real issues of water use, agri-practices, anti-corruption, or whatnot are ignored. I get the gist – these are all fine ideas but it might be better to let the Afghans make some decisions about what is important to address. But the counter to that is – the Afghans only want to line their own personal pockets and aren’t looking at the big picture. And the government – that does look at the whole picture – is too corrupt to organize and implement anything. Sigh.

from Joanna in Kabul

Thursday, October 28, 2010

On the Road in Afghanistan

Hello from sunny Afghanistan!

We hit the ground running and have been running ever since! The days are packed and endlessly interesting. Although much time is spent being stuck in traffic which is always interesting to us -- a chance to see life as it dodges between the cars -- but pretty trying for our driver. Yes we have a driver just like those big NGOs do.

Where to begin? Things are really remarkably normal here in Kabul... that is, normal for Kabul. I have noticed lots of changes since last time: MANY more cars, fewer donkey carts in the city center, roads still not paved even in fancy neighborhoods, fewer huge piles of trash, shorter and more fitted dresses on the girls with skinny jeans underneath, fewer traffic lights and more traffic police, more checkpoints at night, fewer bikes, pretty consistent electricity, lots of new buildings and fancy houses, and remarkably few foreigners... unless they are all hiding. But life goes on here in a very daily way and people seem oblivious to any imminent dangers. I am thoroughly amazed to see how cars, donkey carts, bikes, sheep, goats, motorbikes and people cram the streets dodging every which way and somehow missing each other.

Just to fill y’all in on our immediate environment, we are staying in one of those fabulous houses that I usually make fun of – the “wedding cake” houses or “Pakistani” houses as people call them. Typical of all Afghan homes, the house is behind very tall walls to maintain privacy for the women and family. This house is very lovely inside with a spiral stairway and a foyer and 4 rooms, a kitchen, and two bathrooms on each floor. The first floor is for general cooking and dining, and the next two floors are offices or bedrooms. We have the entire third floor to ourselves, and Zahir, our host, has the second floor for his business as a contractor for supplies for the US military (yep – but no guns, other stuff from paper clips to furniture). The house has a nice roof patio and balconies on each floor done in the most lavish mosaic with mirrors and tile.
It would be quite grand except Kabul is immensely, amazingly dusty… and this is an understatement. The combination of unpaved streets, plethora of cars, arid climate and windy evenings makes for a layer of dust on everything and everyone. In this environment, a burqa isn’t a bad idea. Many men wear scarves over their heads and around their faces. Women cover their faces with their headscarves to keep out the dust more than modesty here. After a day out and about, my hair feels like straw and cannot possibly be combed.
Our hosts are the best! Zahir and his company are lovely and generous beyond belief. They take care for our every step and will not allow us to travel unattended despite our years of taxi-taking and casual walks around town. I appreciate their concern and, although this level of luxury is quite new for us after years of trudging the dusty streets on foot and taxi, it’s pretty great having a driver. We are staying in this fabulous house for free and their cook makes everyone lunch daily and makes us three meals a day! His vegetable curry is to die for and his spinach rocks (if spinach can rock). I have no idea of the spices he uses but it’s not like Indian curry, it’s very flavorful but not hot at all. Our escort/driver/translator, Sharif, takes us around to meetings in his big white Toyota SUV with some extra gears for those crazy hills (Kabul is mountainous too) and winding streets that are beyond bumpy into axle-breaking perilousness. This is terrain that actually needs an SUV…. and he in fact broke an axle going up one particularly windy route. Fortunately we have this particular journey on video!
Sharif is a bit macho and has no interest in the arts whatsoever (again, having no experience of WTF it is, how could he care), but translates to the best of his knowledge and asks for explanations as needed for words like “collaboration” or “improvisation,” and he understands the idea of what I am now calling “information theatre” or “informational theatre.” "Social theatre" or "Applied theatre" just doesn't make sense to anyone here where words are translated literally, directly from the dictionary.

I have many other stories to relay, and will have more to follow!

from Joanna in Kabul

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Kadmus Arts Wants to Know How We Do What We Do

Ana Maria Harkins called us recently on behalf of the podcast at KadmusArts.com.  KadmusArts.com is a site for the festival community: the organizers, the sponsors, the artists, and most importantly, the audiences.  They're familiar with our reputation performing in festivals all over the world and wanted to know more about how our International Artistic-Humanitarian programming worked.

"If you want to get information to an area of high illiteracy, you can't hand out a flyer," explains Joanna when asked about how the versatile application of theatre and the arts works in communities in crisis.  "So you get together a theatre company, and they put together a show in a flash about polio vaccines. ... You have to dispel the mythology in a practical way, especially in a place like Afghanistan, so that when the medical team follows up, the town is prepared."

For more on what makes every kid in every country laugh and where we're going next with our Artistic-Humanitarian programming, listen to the podcast interview.

Thanks to KadmusArts.com and Ana Maria for chatting us up!


Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Reflections from our Artistic Director: "Ask yourself who you are. Love what you do. Get good at it. And watch things change around you."

Bond Street Theatre's Artistic Director Joanna Sherman gives the Keynote Address to this year's United Nations Youth Assembly. Here is the transcript:

ON THE THRESHOLD: Your Contribution to the Millennium Development Goals Will Matter

First of all, I want to welcome you all to the USA and my hometown, New York, and to thank Patrick for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today.

He said, “I want you to give the Keynote Address – I think you’ll inspire the group.” And I said, “Who am I -- I’m not famous – you want Queen Noor or Oprah.” And Patrick said, “Who are you? You are the ‘real deal.’" The real deal -- that’s American slang for “You are the person who is too busy getting their hands dirty doing the real work out in the world to worry about getting famous.”

This is the essence of what I want to talk to you about today – being the “real deal" – being so dedicated to what you love to do and what you NEED to do, that you cannot be distracted from this mission, this passion.

For me it is the arts, and I can talk for days about the value of theatre: Theatre gives people a voice when they don’t have the courage to speak out, it stimulates the imagination, it teaches people how to collaborate…

Because what is art, all of the arts? Art is communication – it’s the way we communicate as individuals, as communities, as societies, as nations. Everything we know about our ancient ancestors, we know through the art that they left for us, those paintings on the cave walls – they tell the stories of their lives.

OK, that’s my advertisement for the arts … but that’s my path – we are not all artists. I do hope that the work that you saw in the video inspires you… but not necessarily to do theatre, but to discover your own way in the world.

So – how do you know what is your own way – your own particular path to make the world a better place?

Some of you may be well along in your career path and you are here at the Youth Assembly to make new connections, and learn more about your field. But some of you may be wondering where you fit into this big wide world, and you are here hoping to find that right career path and vision for the future.

Over the next few days, you are going to hear amazing stories and meet many inspiring people – both young and old – and wow! What an opportunity! Take it all in – notice everything -- listen to everyone – be open to all that you see and hear in this universe that is the United Nations, and even New York, a melting pot of cultures from around the world.

Be open to everything, and think about your particular strengths. We all have something to contribute: as future diplomats, teachers, business people, civic leaders, and yes, artists. We need every single one of you – and we are counting on you to find your voice!

You know, it’s funny but you never know how your life is going to go. I started out as a dancer, but my parents wanted me to be something more “serious,” something that sounded more “important” or at least financially stable. So I picked architecture. I thought – well it’s creative, and it sounds “serious.”

After I got my college degree, what did I do? I immediately returned to dancing. And through dance, and through a series of totally unplanned coincidences, I found myself completely involved in creating this very physical, dance-like theatre that you saw in the film. And traveling to villages in Colombia and Afghanistan and refugee camps in Bosnia.

As it turns out, inadvertently, through my dance training, I also learned how to express myself physically without using language, a skill that has helped me on my career path.

In the film, you saw a few of the moments along our theatrical journey that gave me clues to my future. The more I traveled, the more I experienced how my theatre skills could make a very real difference in the lives of the people we encountered – the children in the favellas in Brazil, the refugee children in Pakistan, the rural women in India.

Life is something you experience. You can plan, you can decide, you can compromise, you can change your mind…. But in fact, it’s like being a character in a novel, you just don’t know the crazy bends and twists that your life will take, and you don’t know the ending.

So I say - don't worry about success. Just trust in your instincts, and no matter what your skill and talent is, there is a place for you to contribute to the world.

Just be the real deal – the one who is so dedicated to what you love to do and what you MUST do, that you cannot be distracted from this mission.

Speaking of characters in a novel…. Have any of you heard of Harry Potter? JK Rowling? I recently heard an inspiring speech by JK Rowling, and she spoke about two things: the benefits of failure, and the importance of imagination.

The importance of imagination I immediately understand – the field of theatre is all about imagination. But the benefits of failure? I think this is our biggest fear. We think – what if I trust my instincts, and I am dedicated to what I love to do and what I MUST do….. and I fail?

This is what JK Rowling said. She said that she had been a failure – she had been very poor and completely lost. And her failure saved her because failure meant stripping away everything that wasn’t absolutely essential, and finding what was truly important to her.

She said, “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”

And, of course, we know that out of her failure, she created the one work to which she was truly dedicated – the Harry Potter stories.

Now, at the age of 42, she is a multi-millionaire, but more than that, she is bringing great joy to millions of young people who are inspired by her stories and, really, by her imagination. Her ability to create a world of her own creation, and get inside her characters and bring them to life.

Imagination is the uniquely human capacity to envision that which does not exist. It is the basis of all innovation and invention. And this really resonated with me, “Imagination is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

The fact is… You must be able to imagine the world that you want to live in. If we can’t imagine a better world, we can’t create one. I think this is the problem with many of our politicians – they have lost their ability to imagine.

What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. This is an astonishing truth that I have seen proven a thousand times in my life. We have an inescapable connection with the outside world.

You saw in the film what our work is about… I bring my theatre to the front lines. I make healing, education, imagination through theatre a part of emergency relief in places where there are serious needs and issues.

A doctor from Doctors Without Borders once told us, “We are providing refugees with the necessities for human survival – food, medicine, shelter – but you are providing them with ‘food for the soul’ – you are restoring their humanity.”

Without our humanity, our soul, what good are food and shelter? So, I am combining two essential ideas: my creative skill as a theatre artist to imagine a better world, and my very concrete abilities to achieve my goals. You must have the skills to back up your ideas. Because none of this is abstract.

No matter what your skill and talent is, there is a place for you to contribute to the MDGs. Everything you do has very concrete effects on everything and everyone around you. What you do means the difference between a world that respects human rights for all people, or a scary world where there is no hope.

Love what you do. Get good at it. And watch things change around you. You will be surprised at what you can achieve.

I have trusted my instincts, listened to people who knew more than me, honed my skills, and never gave up.

Think of yourself. While you take in all the information about youth leadership and the success of the Millennium Development Goals these next couple of days. Ask yourself who you are.

Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, your education, your talents give you unique status and unique responsibilities.

If you choose to use your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to use your power to help the powerless; if you choose to use your imagination to experience how life might be for the less fortunate, then you will receive in return the amazing joy of having reached out and helped scores of people whose lives you have helped change.

And all of us expect no less from you; because it can be done. "No matter where you begin, you can be great! You can be the “real deal.”

As Ms. Rowling so well said,

“We do not need magic to change the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."

Monday, June 07, 2010

Myanmar in May! Part II

Here is the continuation of our experiences in Myanmar in May:

It’s time to get this show on the road! May 15 we embark on a tour to the Mon and Karen States east of Yangon. We are going to perform for children in the monastic schools.

Monasteries run schools for poor children of the neighborhood who cannot afford regular public school (which charges tuition) and for children taken in by the monasteries because they have no parents or their parents are too poor to care for them. Sometimes these kids come from far away remote places and, therefore, live permanently at the monasteries, even those who still have parents. Many parents are away working at the border to Thailand where there is a lot of trade, and the children were living with relatives until they came to the monastery. So, essentially, these children are orphaned. They are “economic orphans” as some have termed it.

* * *

When we first arrived in Myanmar, we were told that our initial plan of doing a tour around Mon and Karen States was not going to be possible due to security concerns with the increasingly sensitive political situation. Just in the past month, the situation has gotten worse with several bombings in Yangon as well as Mon State. The upcoming elections have created a lot of tension.

We are eager to bring our work to as many places as we can, and our Burmese friends were gung-ho to go as well. They know the local authorities well in the particular areas where they had planned for us to travel to and are not worried about getting permissions. (In Myanmar, foreigners, and locals as well, are not able to go just anywhere; you need to receive permission from the authorities, and especially if you wish to do such a thing as perform! Officially, public assembly of more than five persons is prohibited.) The embassy tells us to wait and see until after May 6, which is the deadline for all opposition parties to register for the elections and which might trigger unrest. In the meantime, plan on doing a local tour around the Yangon area. In actuality, what appears to have been a concern is the U.S. State Department visit coinciding with our being here, which could possibly cause friction. But everything goes smoothly and things are calm, so in the end we are informed it is fine to resume our original plan. Yey!

* * *

Off we go in our hired van, all seven of us plus a driver. We leave early in the morning on the 15th and drive all day until finally we arrive in the late afternoon – at the beach! Wow. Nice. Our first stop is the small beach town of Setse (southern Mon State). The plan is to do a show in the early morning in the midst of the market. How fun! Unfortunately, the permission initially given is revoked and we are informed we must leave the area. Because our performance in Setse was nixed, it is deemed prudent to forego performing in the bigger town next door as well, Mawlamyine, because it’s the same regional authority presiding over both, and while we’re at it, it’s best to skip going to Kayin (Karen) state altogether, because of the checkpoint we have go through. Things look a little tense. So it is decided that we will head straight back up to Kyaiktho (pronounced ‘Chai-toe’) and see if we can still do some shows there. I sure hope so!

But first we take a dip in the ocean! Mmmm… it’s warm like bath water! After hot and dusty days in Yangon, and a long drive, it sure is refreshing to be by the sea. And how nice to wake up on the morning of May 16 in a quaint little seaside hotel (ok, a run-down rickety shack) right on the beach on what just happens to be my birthday! Good timing!

* * *

Upon arrival to Kyaiktho after about a four-hour drive, we luckily get the green light to perform. We make our way up a little red dirt road to a small monastery compound. Stories of Buddha on giant placards line part of the way. A monk blows a whistle and after a minute children emerge from all directions, amass and trot off to the performing area, which is on a small hillside under a giant tree. We perform for about 200 children or so and they are a great audience, curious and excited.

After the show, we chat with the Sayadaw (meaning senior monk, or abbot, in Burmese), and Joanna asks him what issues we ought to address in our show, what do the children need to learn? Going to the toilet, says the Sayadaw. Many of the children come from the jungle and just go in the bushes, they need to learn to use the toilet. Unfortunately, I remark to myself, the toilets they have, at least the one I used, are so filthy it would be more hygienic to just go in the bushes! The toilets need to be kept clean if they are to advance good hygiene.

On this note, at another monastery, the Sayadaw affirms the importance of teaching the children to wash their hands but informs us that the children often have no soap to use (and sometimes barely water). Well, not much use preaching hygiene if the elements to facilitate it aren’t provided. So, we are teaching the lesson of the importance of washing one’s hands to the kids, but we apparently also need to teach the lesson (to the adults) of obtaining soap and water! Is soap really that expensive that they cannot afford a few bars? Well, some of the people in these areas can barely afford rice, so I guess in the end they have to make a choice whether to eat or to wash. In the future, perhaps we had better bring soap with us and hand out to the kids as part of the show! But that soap will, of course, only last so long -- I wonder what an effective long-term solution could be for this hygiene dilemma. Something to think about. Any ideas?

Our second day (May 17) we drive to Kayin (Karen) state, after all. The monastery phoned and insisted we come. Apparently, the Sayadaw there is greatly respected and exerts a certain degree of authority. So we are able to perform without a problem. We had a little adventure getting through the checkpoint, which I will not elaborate upon here, except to say we made it safely through, not to worry! The monastery here is a huge compound containing several large school buildings. One of them has a mural on the wall with the Kayin national flag and an inscription in the Kayin language behind a small free-standing blackboard. Many students who come here only speak Kayin (as opposed to Burmese).

The Kayins are an ethnic group that has been embroiled in a fight for autonomy for over sixty years. Sporadic fighting continues and the ongoing insurgency has resulted in thousands of refugees and many orphaned children. Outside of the one main city, Hpa-an, where we are, there is very little infrastructure and limited educational opportunities. Thus, many children are sent to a monastery, such as this one, in order to receive schooling.

We visit another monastery (back in Mon state), very small and very much poorer, and upon arrival I notice a little girl standing in the doorway. I approach to say hello. The other couple of kids around us are curious and spontaneous and playful, as kids are, reacting to my goofiness as can be expected. She is very serious, and her expression does not change. She remains in the doorway, not moving, not reacting. I wonder what has happened to her that she is so sad? During the performance, I keep an eye on her, sitting in the front row, to see what effect the show might have on her, to see if she’ll laugh. Her face lights up in a smile for a moment. I am informed that she is newly arrived from a remote area of Kayin state. Many of the children here come from a mountainous jungle region, which is extremely difficult to access. In order to make their way here, the children have to walk for many hours just to get to the nearest road for transportation. Therefore, the children do not go back during school holiday, they stay here at the school year-round. These are the children we perform for today. (It happens to be summer in Myanmar, so school is out and many children have gone home – most to help their parents work in the rice fields or sell goods). This particular child’s mother had recently died and her father remarried a woman who apparently did not treat her kindly. They left to work at the border, as is quite common, leaving her behind. Finally, she was sent here. She does not speak Burmese, only Kayin. So sad to see her so sad! And I wish we could have stayed longer to play a little more. I hope that our visit lit a little bit of light inside her heart.

While in Kayin state we go to a second monastery as well, a smaller branch of the main one. This one is out in the countryside and we drive for quite a long time. I didn’t realize this when I jumped up in the back of the pick-up truck! It’s a long, bumpy ride in the hot sun. As we drive, I suddenly hear music playing and we come upon a group of kids in the middle of the road who surround our vehicle asking for donations. In return, we get a cold drink. Just what I needed! At the school, we perform inside with all the kids seated on the floor, dressed in sailor-style white and blue school uniforms. By the time we start the show, the room is packed. There are probably four hundred children and adults in attendance. As part of an improvised pre-show, I say hello to the kids and decide to demonstrate my newly acquired expertise in Burmese (How are you, my name is Anna, nice to meet you, etc.) But all I get back are blank stares. It turns out, they don’t speak Burmese! So much for that. Luckily, at lunch I had picked up a few Kayin phrases which I had written down in my little notebook. "Asso lassan!" (Hello! in Kayin, spelled phonetically). This goes over much better. How are you, I continue. Applause! Now we’re talking!

I have so many stories, but this will have to do for now. More may follow later.

All in all we perform at seven monasteries in Mon and Kayin states, one in Bago on the way back to Yangon, and four times in the Yangon area, for a total of almost 3,000 children.

* * *

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Myanmar in May! Part I

Bond Street Theatre is off on its new adventure as Cultural Envoys to Burma (Myanmar)! For three weeks, at the behest of the U.S. Dept. of State’s Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs, we will be working with local artists towards creating a theatrical piece together, as well as performing a clown-y show for children in the monastery schools. Traveling this time are Joanna & Michael and Yours Truly - who’s writing this blog entry - Anna Zastrow. I have known Bond Street for about a decade now and have been directly and actively involved with for the last two. If you saw The Mechanical, I played one of the Zannis – the two comedic sidekicks - together with Joanna.

(That's me on the left - Joanna Sherman on the right)

It’s so exciting to finally be joining forces with Joanna and Michael on one of their international outreach projects!

* * *

We took off on May 1, 2010 and arrived in Rangoon (Yangon) Sunday evening, May 2. We have had a very busy schedule so there has not been much time to take notes and to post updates on the blog! Internet access is very sketchy.

Myanmar, as the country now calls itself, is run by a military dictatorship. Any dissent is suppressed and only some internet sites are accessible. Usually Gmail is ok, but even that gets an "access denied" at times. Unfamiliar sites such as the Bond Street Blog are by default blocked. But sometimes there are ways around it.

Background on “Burma” vs. “Myanmar”: When the junta took over the regime, they decided that Burma would henceforth be called Myanmar, and the capital city of Rangoon would be referred to as Yangon. Burma and Rangoon were names ascribed by the British during their colonial rule. Burma actually refers to the Burmese people, a specific ethnic group in the country, whereas there are many other ethnicities as well, and of course they do not wish to be referred to as Burmese nor as living in "Burma". Thus, the name of Myanmar is a general name that includes all peoples of this country. It is the name that the people of this country prefer to use to refer to its nation and its language. However, because it was the military junta that chose to name it thus, and as its regime is not recognized by the U.S. and the West, the United States officially still refers to the country as Burma. Calling it Myanmar would be to legitimize the regime. For myself, I'm confused as to which name I ought to use. But since my Burmese friends -- or, rather, my Myanmar friends -- use the term Myanmar, I will use this term as well.

There is much to say about the political situation here, recent history, and the current circumstances of living affected by this, but I will delve further into that later.

Joanna, Michael & Anna with
Public Affairs Officer Richard Mei and family

* * *
Creating a Contemporary Theatre Scene
We are working with four local artists who are interested in exploring and developing further the state of theater in Myanmar. As Joanna mentioned in conjunction with Bond Street’s last trip, there is no real theater scene here. There used to be more theater, but with the oppressive regime, it has withered rather than flourished. Our Burmese friends wish to resurrect and develop a vibrant, active and contemporary theater scene that addresses the issues of the day and looks to the future.

At this point, I am not going to specify by name our Burmese artist friends for security reasons. This may change. Suffice it to say they have been hired as Theater Specialists by a local artist organization and have started a new theater company. They are all men ranging in age from 19 to 44. (Soon we hope some Myanmar women will join them!).

We are here to share our theater experience with the Burmese artists, to inspire them to develop new ideas and possibilities for Burmese theater. As they requested, we brought several books on theater that they might wish to read and draw from (such as Impro by Keith Johnstone, The Viewpoints Book by Anne Bogart,
Theater Games for the Classroom by Viola Spolin, and Tricks of the Trade by Dario Fo.
And on a further level, we are here to collaborate and develop a theatrical piece together.

At first, I was under the impression we would be holding workshops sharing theater techniques and approaches with them; that is, I thought we would be teaching more. But as it turns out, we jumped straight in to rehearsing and exploring how we can collaborate on putting together a theatrical piece, and we have been full up with this. The emphasis has been on developing a theatrical piece on a theme we decided to explore. And we have been hard at work everyday!

Building the Serious, Making the Funny
Our Myanmar colleagues suggested we build a piece around the theme of waiting. This is a big issue in Myanmar, and certainly something Westerners can relate to as well -- waiting for the bus, waiting at the doctor's office or the emergency room, waiting at the DMV, always having to wait in one way or another for something to be done or to get to do something or to be approved by the powers that be so one can go on with one's life and go about one's business. And then on a more philosophical and existential level, one might ponder life as one long wait for death to arrive…!

In Myanmar, this is magnified tenfold. The authority is a military dictatorship, so one has no choice but to be nice and comply - or else. You are at the mercy of whoever happens to be in authority - whether they feel like keeping you waiting or approving something, or not. One of the artists we're working with is currently trying to obtain a passport (and as a former political prisoner, he is especially at the mercy of the authorities’ whim), so this situation very much hits home for him at this time.

We explore various situations and scenarios on this theme and start to piece something together from improvisations. Our focus – the usual approach of Bond Street Theatre – is to use a physical theatrical language (rather than verbal) - that is, to find physical actions to express ourselves and the situation, and dynamic movements that will create compelling visual imagery. Little by little, something of substance begins to take shape. Eventually, as we continue our collaboration in the future, our exploration will develop into a full-fledged theatrical production to be performed in both Myanmar and the States.

We are having a great time working together. In our warm-up exercise, everyone is really well connected and in sync and creatively expressive. Our Burmese artist friends are starting to be a bit more assertive in rehearsal, offering ideas and suggestions, which is good. We want ideas to come from them! Especially as we are working on depicting Burmese life. They’re the experts on this - not us! We start to consider further what the theme is, really, that we are exploring. What do we want the show to be about ultimately? Beyond waiting, what is the reality and the experiences of Myanmar life that we may wish to explore? We discuss the history and current circumstances of Myanmar – and let possibilities ruminate.

Apart from this - our "serious" show - as we call it for want of a better word, we are also working on creating another show geared towards children that we can perform in the monasteries. This is our "funny" show to bring joy and laughter to the kids. We incorporate some of the classic slapstick of Bond Street’s repertoire together with several Burmese songs that our friends teach us. From this, a narrative theme develops based on an issue we are asked to address: washing your hands before you eat! The importance of this is something many children here do not yet understand. Washing your hands after you go to the toilet and washing your hands before you eat. As a result, kids may get stomach sickness and walk around with infected sores all over their bodies. It is possible that some children in poor neighborhoods are so used to dirt and garbage everywhere that they have developed an immune system against this from early on. Nonetheless, not washing is still a serious issue.

The first ten days, we spent workshopping and rehearsing: in the morning, our "serious" show, and in the afternoon, our "funny" show for the kids. Then it’s show time!

We first try our show out for the local neighborhood kids in an empty dirt lot, where the young men like to play soccer in the afternoons.

We perform in the morning to avoid the heat. Let me tell you, it is hot, hot, hot here! We sure picked a great time to come - the hottest time of year - and not only that, it is apparently the hottest summer in over 40 years!

By the time, we are finished with our performance, we are soaked with sweat. To gather the crowds, we parade through the neighborhood pre-show and make an announcement – our pals on megaphone and me in tow making a spectacle of myself as usual (on purpose this time). I try out my limited Burmese: (phonetically) “Mingala-ba! Ni kaun la shin?” [Hello! How are you?] And it works - yay! I get hello and responses back. There aren’t too many people out and about and I don’t see many children. But when it’s time to do the show and I walk onto the lot, there are already about 50 kids gathered to watch. Where did they all come from?! Word travels fast. From the time we start to the end of our show, the audience grew from 100 or 150. It’s a good first show. The kids laugh a lot, especially when we make mistakes – maybe we’ll keep them!


Keep an eye out for Myanmar in May! : Part II ...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Safe and Sound and HOTHOTHOT!

Reports Michael McGuigan after one week in Yangon, Myanmar: 

"Safe and Sound and HOTHOTHOT ... where the weather is sunny and HOT, the people are friendly and the food is edible. 

After traveling for some 23 hours, we were pretty brain dead for the first two days; the second day beginning our work with the local actors. We have a three hour rehearsal in the morning, 8 - 11, and another at 4 - 7. In between, we've been heading back to the comfortable but not lavish hotel for lunch and reading / research / nap. 

The four Burmese actors (all male) speak fairly good English, which tends to speed up the creative process considerably. We are working on two potential new shows: one for the kids (which we will start performing in the third week to 7 or 8 schools / community centers) and the other a "mainstage" production based on the theme of "waiting", which I am told the Burmese are very acquainted with. They wait for buses, passports, electricity, permission, tea... It's a challenging topic to portray on stage as it can tend to be rather boring. But we like a challenge. I can't say more about it because it's all still in an embryonic stage, but our morale is high and the camaraderie superb. 

We heard about the near-bombing in Times Square-- the hotel does get CNN and the BBC news (I am told that whenever news of Myanmar is discussed, there can be a switch to commercials if the topic is not flattering). A new Myanmar election season is supposed to be announced today -- elections do not necessarily mean you can vote for your favorite candidate. There has been some localized violence throughout the country leading up to that, but you wouldn't know it from the day to day activity here around Yangon. People work, food is prepared, and very very occasionally theatre is created."