Thursday, April 28, 2011

Casting 'Round Gender Issues

Michael Reporting:

When we last left our intrepid artists (Bond Street Theatre and Simorgh Theatre and Film here in Herat, Afghanistan), the question was: in a culture where a sizable part of the population has reservations about men and women appearing on stage side by side, how do you get characters of one gender portrayed in performances by the other gender? To clarify, it isn’t so much an issue of men and women performing together, since Afghans do produce films and TV shows with male and female actors. It’s a question of who is in the audience.

Here in Afghanistan there is no “theatre audience” per se; no middle class with leisure time and an expendable income, nor any local theaters to go to. Actually, each of the four largest cities have an official National Theatre, but they mainly video their work in-studio and supply the tape to the local TV stations for broadcast. Only on special occasions do they perform live to an invited audience.

Performances are generally welcomed in schools and community centers, but these institutions tend to be segregated by gender. With all the social, political and religious codes to navigate, we decided to create separate productions with male and female casts to offer these venues.

We divided our US team accordingly, with Joanna and Anna working with the girls and I with the boys. It should be noted that “girls” and “boys” is being used to reflect the youthful age of our actors, ranging from 12 to 21 (with an average of 15). Despite their youth, we were greatly impressed by their enthusiasm, commitment and creativity.

For daily rehearsals we rented a local sports facility: a 50’ x 50’ room with matted flooring used by the local martial arts club. In the evenings we met in two small rooms at the offices of Simorgh Theatre. In the first days the US and Afghan directors wrote the scenarios; the girls would tell the story of the relationship between an abusive mother-in-law and her target: the daughter-in-law, and the boys would handle the abusive father and his target: the wife and kids. With the basic storylines and characters set, Monireh and Hakim (Simorgh Theatre directors) cast the parts. We went to our separate rooms (or corners) and started putting meat on the bones.

It was pretty remarkable how both sets of directors, working separately, employed many of the same “tricks of the trade”. Both shows start with a pair of clown-narrators: for the girls it was two trash-pickers, and for the guys two street laborers. Both sets of narrators discover they have control over the action, starting and stopping scenes with the clap of their hands or the blowing of a whistle. A healthy dose of mime is employed to represent teacups and automobiles.  (As I write these words I’m thinking, “this sounds vaguely familiar…”  Oh yeah, Bond Street Theatre’s Powerplay, circa 1984.  Joanna and I playing the Hosanna Brothers.  Exact same techniques.  Steal from the best, I guess!).

An opening bit of comic repartee leads to “hey, that reminds me of a story…” and this sets the stage for our narrators to “play characters” rather than “be characters”. Thus, the female narrators can play at being husbands and brothers, and the males play at being the wife and children, with a nod-and-a-wink to the audience.

Slightly trickier in the men’s show was the little 4 year old daughter. Her character is pivotal, being a catalyst for change in the father, and thus too significant to be played by a 16 year old male. To work around this, we have the father discover a piece of paper in his pocket, a self-portrait draw by the daughter (well, a crude child-like drawing make by me). This drawing became the avatar of the daughter, from which her story could emerge.

As we come up to our first performances, we New Yorkers feel pretty good about the choices that have been made. Still, only the audience can say if the choices are good, and considering that most people even in the big cities have never seen a live performance, we’re not entirely sure our choices are comprehensible.

Next: Final rehearsals, and strange translations.

Soon: The audiences weigh in (including two high schools, a woman’s prison, a drug rehab center, and the para-military police).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Creating the Productions in Herat

From Michael:

All is still well as we are finishing up on week three here in Herat. Our adopted parents are still providing us with excellent meals and room to sleep, and our health and morale are good. There has been a slight yet tolerable increase in the fly population, although there is a lovely breeze that has kept them at bay. Unfortunately, it has also brought the dust, much to the chagrin of our laptops.

We have been working on two new productions, which actually start performances next week. Yikes! Well, no, not really “yikes”; it’s all going well with the art, too.

The task has been is to create a show promoting peaceful solutions to violence and oppression – after all, one of our sponsors is the United States Institute for Peace. We have a choice of topics, from the heavy (domestic violence; racial / tribal discrimination) to the light-yet-also-significant: support of democracy, literacy, health and hygiene. There is no easy choice; even a seemingly “no brainer” can be more than it seems.

Take for example: in our last project, in Myanmar, we (along with our local partners) decided to do a show about hand washing—always an important message, especially in tropical climates where germs multiply and spread fast. Okay, so we create this fun show telling kids to wash their hands and head into the schools and monasteries. Well, at one school, post-show, one of the older kids commented: “Thanks for the show; it was good, but we all KNOW we are supposed to wash our hands. They’ve been telling us that for years. The problem is the water doesn’t come out of the pipes and nobody gives us soap!” Oh. So our message should have been directed to the authorities: “Hey! Fix the pipes and give them soap!”

Aside from trying to troubleshoot show topics, there is also the troubleshooting that goes into the staging. Here in Afghanistan, you have probably heard that the gender issues are complex. It is a pretty conservative society, and even though there are many progressive and liberal Afghans, the line of tradition has been drawn deeply in the dry, rocky soil.

In general, the actors and actresses we are working with have no problem working together (without physical contact, that is); sharing dialogue on stage is fine with them. But they know it won’t fly with most religious or government authorities who give or withhold permission to perform. In fact, Simorgh Theatre (our partners here in Herat) face constant opposition from the local conservative forces. But there is one high ranking and respected Mullah firmly on their side. Actually, he was originally a naysayer, until he witnessed one of their performances at a girl’s high school, and he saw the social benefits of issue-related theatre. He even told us in conversation that he would like to see theatre performances brought into the Mosque! Religious stories, of course; think early church morality plays. But for here that’s pretty damn progressive.

Still, in order to maximize our performance possibilities we decided to create two separate shows: one for men by the actors, and one for women by the actresses. Both shows deal with types of domestic violence that are statistically all too prevalent: husbands and fathers abusing wives and children, and mothers-in-law abusing daughters-in-law. (Married women traditionally live with the husband’s family).

The hand-washing show presented a topic fairly easy to communicate physically, without much dialogue. But domestic violence is complex, and we are relying on the playwriting expertise of the Simorgh directors Monireh and Hakim to create the dialogue with input from the performers. Since we Americans are not appearing in the show (taking co-directorship roles) the local language can flow freely.

But here’s a hitch: how can you present family issues when you can’t have male and female actors working together on the same stage?* Hmmmm. To an extent, women can get away with impersonating men, but on the flip side we’ve seen the male actors at the Kabul University theatre department try to impersonate women, and it was a painful, absurd mockery. They couldn’t get away with it even when they were supposed to be funny, and there is nothing funny about our topic. How do we do it?


*Well, in fact we could probably get away with having male actors in performances for women, but we don’t want to condone the double standard.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

From Anna: The Workshops and Our Amazing Students

For the first nine days here in Herat, we have been doing workshops with Simorgh’s young company members and students, mostly girls age 12-20 and also some boys. They are so amazing! I am really impressed with their level of imagination and creativity and expressiveness. These are kids who have not had much exposure to theater as a medium in their culture (indeed such activity is generally frowned upon, and theater really doesn’t even exist). As children they are taught to be quiet, unnoticeable and have no opinions, especially the girls – and yet they are so spirited and jumping right in to play, game to try out whatever we throw at them. Some of the newer girls are very shy, but as the workshops progressed we could see that they got more comfortable and felt more free to express themselves, in action and in words.

On the final day, we had a conversation with the youngsters and asked them about their experience: what did you enjoy about the workshop, what did you discover, and how can it be useful to you in your lives? How do you think theater can be of value to the community? I was blown away by their responses! They are so young but already so wise.

Theater, they tell us, serves to reflect our society and its problems in order for us to better see ourselves… Zainab points out that after working on different characters, she now feels she can better understand people, and this is how theater can be useful: to help us understand each other. Mahbouba said that she discovered how she can connect with people, beyond her small circle of friends – through theater she can make a connection with the audience and thereby with people in the community.

Zahra describes how men traditionally have more power than women in the society, but in this workshop she felt equal to the men, everybody on the same level, free and comfortable. Marzia points out that she even forgot the boys were there!

The fact that both boys and girls are working and playing together in the workshop is not without controversy. One girl, unfortunately, was not allowed to continue because her brothers discovered there were boys in the workshops, and even though her mother had agreed to her participating, the brothers as men had the veto power to decide what their sister may or may not do. On the final day, she nonetheless snuck out of the house and joined us for a last chance to play.

Marzia loved yelling her name out, throwing it far over the mountain, because, she told us, it was the first time she had ever said her name out loud, and it felt so good to know that “Yes, I am Marzia!”

Little Wahija liked the stilt-walking best. Why?, we ask her. “Because I stand tall and feel in control of everything! It makes me feel more confident.” Wahija is a very small girl, she is twelve years old but really looks eight. Everybody loved the stilt-walking. It’s amazing the power such a simple activity can have. And everyone loved the acrobatics too.

Mahbouba tells us she really saw value in the exercise of passing the mask that transforms. It’s the same in life, she points out, because when one is in an argument with someone, they pass on to you their angry mask which you take on, but you don’t have to keep it, you can change it to one of joy before you get home!

Wow. I have to say I am shocked and awed by their astute insights. And these were just a few examples. It is so affirming to hear how enthusiastic they felt about the work we’ve done together, how much they got out of it, how eager they are to continue, and the insights they gained. It makes me feel like we truly have offered something worthwhile and made a difference. This moment to me was the culmination, the highlight, of the entire project. (And this was less than two weeks into the program. Who knows what amazing things will happen in the next few weeks!?)

Then we ask them what the problems are that make it difficult to do theater in Afghanistan, and they all shout out in unison: “Everything!!!”

Monday, April 25, 2011

An Update from "The Pied Piper" in Herat


Today had a day off. Good, cuz I was sick all night. It was probably the home-made yoghurt the father made for me. But didn't last too long.

We went for a walk around the neighborhood and down the street with the market and little shops. I had my camera with me and we were taking pictures. I bet they never had tourists here before! We definitely stirred up some attention. But all in good way. A man in his breadshop called us over to take photos, and we checked out how they made bread – they bake it deep in a hole in the floor and then lift it out, flat and round and hot and fresh – and we got some to eat. Mmm, naan! As we continued on, a man here and there would come up to Michael to engage in conversation and ask where we're from and whenever we would stop to chat, a crowd would gather to check us out. (I noticed they never addressed me or Joanna; and of course they didn’t because that would be very inappropriate, men are not supposed to talk to women they do not know on the street.) School had let out and the street was filling with little school girls in ‘nun’s habits’ eating ice cream, and soon a bunch of them were gathered around us, giggling and whispering, and following us down the street like we were the Pied Piper. But whenever Joanna pulled out the camera they hid their faces in their hijabs. You can't take pictures of women, not even when they're little girls!

As we got home, the neighbors kids were out on the street playing and we yucked it up with them again, as we had before, it's become a game of making faces and playing monster. This adds to the novelty of our presence, I’m sure, because I imagine no adult, and definitely no woman, would play like that with them and make funny movements and faces -- on the street! Crazy foreigners! After we had entered our house (behind a large iron gate, most Afghan houses are hidden behind a wall and gate), there was a loud banging. I opened up, and there were three of the school girls again. Don't know how they found us (we had left them behind further down the street), but I guess it's not that difficult, since we're the only foreigners in town. Come to the market with us! they shouted. Come, let's go! Now? Yes, now! Well, maybe another day, ok? We were actually quite tired at this point, and I really needed a nap. That was funny, though, and so sweet, that they were so excited at meeting us that they came to get us to go to the market with them. Badan mebinim! (See you later!)

Later in afternoon, someone was coming over to fix the refrigerator that wasn't working (although they had just bought it). We were told the man was Taliban so we better stay in our rooms and not show ourselves. Well, the man was Pashtun, and to our hosts (who are Hazara) any Pashtun man who wears a turban is Taliban, which of course isn't true, but I guess it's good to play it safe!

We also spoke with a young man who was here on visit, but works down in the Helmand province (next to Kandahar) as an interpreter for the US Marines. He said it was very dangerous, for him as someone working for the Americans, and for us if we wanted to go there, because [finger across throat], they'll behead us all. And it doesn't help that he's Hazara. They don't like us cuz we're foreigners? Joanna asks. Pashtuns don't like anyone who's not Pashtun, he says.

Another fun day in Afghanistan!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Anna's First Update from Herat

From ensemble member Anna, April 7:

Salam! Chestor asti? Khob astom! Here I am in Herat, and am picking up some good Dari phrases. After a month of living here, I’ll be speaking like a native. Not quite. But little by little, able to do some simple communication.

We are living with our theater hosts’ family. Monirah, the director of Simorgh, the theater company we're working with here in Herat, is fantastic. She’s 26 years old and has already produced several plays and films, together with her husband Hakim. Well, actually they’re not quite married yet, though they finally got engaged, a bit of a scandal here.

She’s a free-thinking modern young woman, but is having to adhere to local customs (which she gripes about). To that end, she dresses in the chador whenever she is out on the street, like all women here. This is basically a large sheet, black or with white flowers or sometimes grey, swept around the body and held tight with the hands under the chin, so only the face shows. There are still women who wear the blue burqa, too. When inside, all women (and girls over 9) still wear a head scarf if there is a male present who is not close family. So because Michael is in the house, her mother and herself and her younger sister wear head scarves, but otherwise they wouldn’t. Joanna and I don’t bother when in the house. Since her father said to me: “You’re like my daughter!” I figure we’re family now and I don’t have to. And Michael is family to us too (me and Joanna). So there. But the grand father came for a visit the other night, and the father ran up to me quickly and said: “Anna, Anna!” and gestured to put my head scarf on. Because the grand father is very old school, very conservative. He does not, by the way, approve of Monirah’s choice of husband (to be), and has not spoken to the family for a long time.

In any case, the family is very welcoming to us, the father is really great and good-humored, and the mother is sweet. They cook us fabulous Afghan food. We are eating like kings -- yummy vegetable dishes, salad, yoghurt and great bread. We eat on the floor on a plastic table cloth (called the ‘sofra’), that’s the Afghan way. And drink lots of green tea –wherever we go, we’re offered tea, even in a shop.

We are in a new suburb to Herat called Jabraiel (it's being built as we speak, everywhere partial structures in process of construction). It’s where all the Hazara live. The Hazara are an ethnic people in Afghanistan and are very much discriminated against, especially by the Pashtuns (who consider themselves the only true Afghans). The Hazare are supposedly descendants of Djengis Khan, and have Asian features. The day after we arrived was a holiday and Monirah’s family and many many others went to a picnic area near a mountain. There some Tajik guys took a photo of a Hazara girl (and you do not take photos of girls!), so her brothers asked them to stop and to delete the pics; some soldiers came up (who happened to be Tajik too) and suddenly opened fire, and two random Hazaras got killed. This was extremely upsetting to Monirah, who started crying when she heard. It’s distressing because this kind of thing happens a lot. Of course, it didn’t help that we were in the midst of an intense political discussion about the state of Afghanistan and its future, as she got the news.

The day we arrived is when they had protests because of the Koran-burning. However, it was pretty small here in Herat (although later I was told there were up to 3,000 protesters and that is still quite a crowd). We were advised not to hang about town for a couple of days. But everything is fine. Things are peaceful here. It’s down in Kandahar, and in the east, Jalalabad, and now up in the north too, Mazar-i-Sharif, where the Taliban are causing trouble. We walk down the street and nobody bothers us, although we got lots of looks. There aren’t any other foreigners here, so we are quite a sight. And Joanna and I are not wearing the chador-sheets, although we of course wear long tunics and loose pants, or long skirts, with head scarf. People stare at us like we’re aliens, men, women and children alike. Some looks do appear a bit disapproving and hostile, from some men in particular, but mostly it’s just shock and awe. In general, people here are friendly and welcoming.

We have started teaching workshops, and are working with a group of very talented young girls, age 12-20, and some boys, too. It is really fantastic that there’s a theater group here, I must say, and with so many girls, and that their families let them come and be part of it! Considering how conservative and traditional the area is, one might expect any such activity to be entirely suppressed here in Herat and certainly if involving girls. And yet Herat has historically been the cradle of Afghan culture. For sure, engaging in theater here is not without controversy, without its risks and problems. Theater is certainly not considered a respectable activity here, let alone profession (nor did it use to be in the US or Europe, and perhaps still isn't). Really, theater is a foreign concept, and thus suspect. For certain, it is not something respectable young girls should partake in. Women are not supposed to show themselves (off) in public, so to be on a stage and be looked at – unthinkable! And who knows what kind of untoward activities they’ll have to engage in… Moving their bodies – scandalous! Being loud and expressive – outrageous! And, God forbid, intermingling on stage with the opposite sex. At Kabul University where they have an acting department, there is not one single female acting student among about 200 male students. In fact, Monirah's sister Tahira is just now entering the university and she will be the first female acting student ever! Go Tahira!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Michael's First Update from Herat: On Youth

Greetings friends and family.

We are into week three in our six week project in Afghanistan, the last 9 days being here in Jabraiel, near Herat. (Jabraiel is the Afghan name for the angel Gabriel). It’s good work; the members of Simorgh Theatre and Film are completely enthusiastic, soaking up all our exercises, and totally wearing us out. There are 35 members, ages 12 to 24. It’s a young company, but very well organized with a number of international performances, including Germany and India.

Simorgh is the first of four companies around Afghanistan that we will be working with over these two years. The project, sponsored by the US Institute for Peace and the US Embassy in Kabul, is to create with each company a series of issue-related performances that they can market to NGO’s and government ministries. Basically, we are giving the companies the tools to generate earned income. This week we were sharing various theatre techniques with the Simorgh actors and Monireh Heshemi, their Artistic Director. At 26, Monireh is smart, devoted, and well respected by her actors. Her command of English is quite good, so translation has not been a problem.

As it happens, the members of this acting troupe are all Hazara, the ethnic minority of Afghanistan’s four main tribal groups. Actually, almost all the inhabitants in Jabraiel are Hazara (think Chinatown, Spanish Harlem, or other such neighborhood). As this project requires the company to do 10 performances, and ethnicity can be a hot issue, we asked the company if there would be a problem if we booked a performance in another community of, say, Tajiks or Pashtuns. So check out the answer of sixteen year old Rahelah:

“When we choose to do theatre it is our task and duty to reflect on the problems and pains in society. It is not important who is the audience, if we have an opportunity to affect a good change in people and society it is our task and duty to do it."

Right on! That’s a pretty impressive quote, and to hear Rahelah proclaim it makes all the stress of our travels vanish like the fog in a breeze. Her answer is testimony to the very real desire of many Afghans to transcend the conflicts and build a peaceful society.

Rahelah is a young woman enjoying the opportunity to pursue her interest in acting. That she is allowed to do so in her immediate society of family and friends, and that there is a local theatre company here for her is pretty remarkable. Yeah, there is a certain stigma in this conservative society about women appearing on stage, but the real issue is the economic one… theatre is just not considered a viable career. Sounds familiar. Which is why we’re helping with possible solutions, working with NGO’s and schools and government ministries. It’s a start.

We’ve just started working on the specifics of the performances, and that will be the subject of the next entry.