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.

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