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).

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