Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Film and Stage: An Update from Michael in Kabul

Another greeting from Afghanistan where the beer is cold and the nightlife wild. Hold it, wait... that was Belgium at the stilt festival. Funny how I confuse the two. We've been here in Afghanistan just over two weeks-- a week of the National Theatre Festival and a week training the actors (and actresses) of White Star Company. It's productive, and actually fun, though there's no beer and our nightlife is pretty much spent having dinner, downloading the day's video, writing emails, and planning the next day's events.

In the last couple of days the French Cultural Institute (among others) sponsored the first Human Rights Film Festival here in Kabul, with many entries from Afghanistan (and others from around the world). We caught a couple of films from Afghanistan, and I have certainly seen many over the years, and something occurred to me in comparing the level of Afghan film acting vs. stage acting.

Generally the film acting was pretty good -- better than most of what we saw at the recent theatre festival. To be clear, there was some real talent among the stage actors, both "old" (those who studied under the Soviets) and young. The "Best Actor" and "Best Actress" were in their early 20's and definitely the best, but there was a pretty big gap between these few and the others. I was trying to figure out why (aside, that is, from 30 years of horrible civil war and a shaky reconstruction). Here's a conjecture:

For most actors here, film and TV is the only role model, since actual theatrical performances are few and far between. (There was one complaint from a prominent western NGO sponsor of the Kabul University Fine Arts Department that the Theatre Department rarely stages student productions.) In film and TV (prepare for a sweeping generalization on my part) a lot of the work of an actor is taken care of by the location. Film an actor walking down a bleak alley in the dead of winter, and he doesn't have to act cold - he IS cold. Want an actor to look crazy? Have him slowly twirl around holding an apple standing in the middle of Kabul city traffic -- that really IS crazy. But on stage where you don't have the cold or the cars, the actor has to work that much harder to convey not just emotion but location. It's a whole different set of chops and techniques between stage and screen.

Similarly, an actor can spend an entire film at ground level, which could be monotonous; but different camera angles provide the welcome variety: filming from above, below, long-shot, close-up, etc. In the theatre, there's no camera to move, and you can't move the audience. You can move the actors... put one on a ladder, another under a table, but that assumes you have a budget to buy a ladder or a table for your production. Yes, the economy is that bleak for most of the artists here. But in my career I've seen some pretty amazing staging for little or no money. It usually requires a very creative theatre director, which may be another issue here.

Many of the Afghan directors, even of the theatre companies, are working in film and TV (and by film, we are really talking about digital video). They can certainly set up creative shots in a camera frame, but not necessarily a proscenium arch (for non-theatre types, that's the "frame" around the front of the stage). In my humble, subjective opinion, the best directed shows at the Theatre Festival were (in this order): a production from Tajikistan, a production of The Little Prince by an Afghan group with an Iranian director, and an actor/puppet production co-directed by a German puppeteer. Actually, the latter two productions were by the same group of Afghan actor/puppeteers whom we've been watching in the last couple of years. If the rest of the country improved at the same rate as this ensemble, Afghanistan would be a lot further along.

I also must mention an very impressive solo-woman's performance by a young Afghan actress that opened the festival. It was a pretty bold, funny, character driven piece (almost clown theatre) that I, and the audience, was NOT expecting. I shall venture to elaborate more on that in the future.

Gotta plan tomorrow's rehearsal. Watch this space.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Kayhan in Kabul: Kabul Goes to My Head

The last four days at the Kabul Theater Festival has been heady, thrilling, hopeful, and heartful. I was overjoyed to meet most of the theater artists that I worked with last year. They were presenting their work at the festival (one of them won best scenery and costumes!) and they all looked radiant and full of life. Moreover, I met so many new, creative people working in MANY different provinces of Afghanistan and in different forms of theater.

I was so happy to see all the forms that these shows took. People are really getting creative, getting inventive, and are taking the initiative to make art however they can.

We met groups who have faced great danger making their art, people new to theater, others who are well established, some on the cutting edge, and folks who are just joining in for the sake of it – maybe hearing about it for the first time. This is exactly the type of vitality and diversity you want to see in any field.

In general (and not just with theater folks) there is so much love, energy, brilliance, and hope I feel when talking to Afghans. Just the opposite of what the mainstream media shows us. I suppose that outside forces need people to believe things are drab and hopeless to get support for unending war. Imagine if we heard about theater festivals, language schools, women judges, youth voices, inter-ethnic solidarity projects, music and dance forms, etc.?

Hopelessness, despair, and cynicism are some of the most powerful weapons of the oppressor.  If we feel there is no point and that we can never win; then there will be weak efforts.The truth is, Afghanis are creating their futures with vision and dedication. I hope that reading this blog will allow you to reignite your hope for the people of Afghanistan and believe in their brilliance and power.

Without further ado … proof that hope springs eternal – through theater!

The first one woman show ever!

                            Photos by Kayhan Irani
A brilliant young university student from Herat did a fantastic clown show and had us all laughing and crying. Her amazing mother and father joined her onstage for the curtain call. You could see how much they loved their daughter and supported her dreams. All artists should have parents like hers!

Love K

Read Kayhan's personal blog here.