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."