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

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