Thursday, April 26, 2012

Actors on Stage: Jalalabad Update 8

Michael writes from Jalalabad, where the team is working with Nangarhar Provincial Theatre.

A scene from the men's show, The Law of the Jungle
As of this writing our male and female teams of the Nangahar Provincial Theatre have three performances each under their shalwar kameezes!   As of this morning our women's team has performed at the Support Center for Widows, the AFCECO safe house for children, and this morning at the Nangarhar Women’s Prison.   I saw the show yesterday at AFCECO, and I was very impressed with their performance and the reception they received by the women and children.  Considering they have never appeared on stage before, and the challenges they face as women performing at all, they are doing an exemplary job.  Two new actresses in particular, YYY and ZZZ, are amazing (yeah, I'm not sure about using their names yet -- there is still a veil of secrecy).

Last Tuesday the men's team performed for the National Police Department in Jalalabad.  It turns out that the base commander, Abdullah Sanakzay, saw our Kabul team performing for ANCOP last October and quickly set up the performance for a meeting of all the regional commanders.  It was pretty impressive.  The team has also preformed at the Juvenile Correction Center and the Jalalabad Hospital Drug-Addiction Center, all very diverse and appreciative audiences.

This is our post-performance "photo-op" with the head of the police information department (basically the press department - he's the one in the uniform).  When we first met him he seemed aloof and official, like they all do, and then when he heard that we were a team of actors he completely softened up: turns out he used to be an actor too!  And make-up artist and poet!  He studied Persian poetry at Kabul University during the war years, and was particularly impressed that we worked with Anisa Wahab in our production of "Beyond the Mirror".  Of course, there's little money on the Afghan stage (or poetry cafes) and so he fell back on police work.  He's now a big fan.

I can't believe we're in the last leg of this project.  We'll be leaving Jalalabad for Kabul on May 1 or 2, and then spending the remainder of our stay in Kabul working with Papyrus Theatre until our flight out on the 11th (many thanks to CEC Artslink for the support of Papyrus phase).

Watch this space...

Love from Jalalabad,
Michael and Joanna

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Women Against Women, Women for Women

Zan Zid Zan, Zan Barai Zan (Women Against Women, Women For Women) is the name of the play to be performed by the women’s troupe of the Nangarhar Theater Company. It goes up tomorrow at the Support Center for Widows. The script for this incredible play was essentially written by the six young pioneers of the women’s troupe. The story centers around two girls, Freshta and Nafisa, and their families as they negotiate decisions around education, early marriage and how to respond to gossiping neighbors.
The problem tree that the women created.

Freshta has just graduated from high school and been accepted into the medical program at Kabul University. She is the first person from her school to be granted admission into this highly competitive program, which usually happens only through nepotism and not merit. At the start of the show, Freshta’s parents, who are also educated, are fully supportive of their daughter until two neighborhood gossips purposefully sabotage their plans. The pair of backbiters, who ban their own daughters from going to school, spread rumors about Freshta and how her moral character is being corrupted through education, from dressing immodestly to running off with boys.  Her father overhears this and, worried about the family’s honor and reputation, suddenly reconsiders his approval.

Meanwhile, Freshta’s friend and neighbor, 12 year-old Nafisa is facing her own challenges. Her father, who is illiterate and poor, decides to marry her off to a very wealthy man, who is 40 years-old and already married with children.  He reasons that this would rescue their family from poverty. He forbids Nafisa from going to school, dismisses the desperate pleas of his wife against the marriage and violently abuses both of them.  Freshta learns about her young friend’s trials and seeks the help of one of her former teachers, a staunch advocate of women’s rights. The teacher visits Nafisa’s father at home and tries to convince him to cancel the marriage and allow his daughter to complete her studies. She points out girls’ rights to education and its merits, as specified in the Koran, and the minimum age (18) for a girl to marry, as written in Afghan civil law. Nafisa’s father is not persuaded. Meanwhile, the two gossips continue with their chatter and sabotage.

The mothers then intervene on behalf of their daughters and seek the moral guidance of the mullah.  He agrees to help.  One day, when all the men gather in the masjid for the mullah’s routine talk, he speaks about education and marriage. He reminds the men that it’s a farz or moral duty of every Muslim to seek education, both men and women. And that the Koran also decrees that a girl should be of mature age to marry and cannot be forced to do so against her will. Eventually, the fathers have a change of heart and allow their daughters to go to school. The girls are overjoyed and celebrate. The two back-biters also reassess their behavior and realize that it’s un-Islamic to gossip and that, as the idiom goes, gossiping about someone amounts to eating the corpse of your own brother.

The schedule of performances in Jalalabad is as follows:

4/23 – The Support Center for Widows
4/25 – AFCECO Safe House for Children
4/26 – Jalalabad Women’s Prison
4/27 – Women’s shura (council) in Surkhrod district
4/29 – Afghan Women’s Educational Center (AWEC), Behsud district

May we break a leg tomorrow! Stay tuned…


Monday, April 23, 2012

A Day in the Life: Jalalabad Update 7

Michael writes (and photographs!) from the Theatre for Social Development project with Nangarhar Provincial Theatre in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

So here is a photo entry that will give you a rough idea of a day in the lives of some a-typical Americans and Afghans in the city of Jalalabad.

Firstly: Joanna boarding the embassy arranged flight from Kabul to Jalalabad.  Okay, we don't do that everyday, but it did start our adventure here.

The Bond Street Theatre team: Joanna, Jamail - our Pashto-speaking translator from Kabul, and Sahar, our native New Yorker actress and Dari speaker.
And me - working hard at the Yellow House, our rehearsal space for the Nangarhar Provincial Theater men's company.  
The Yellow House is an oasis for the Nangarhar artists, founded and supported by the Australian filmmaker George Gittoes and the actress Hellen Rose.  Hellen tells a fascinating tale of their work in Jalalabad here: 
As for the artists themselves, check out:

Also in residency at the Yellow House, an interspecies collaboration between Ezmarai the dog and Dali the monkey.

In the mornings we have been training a new team of young women -- 14 in the workshops, of which six are creating a new show. 

Yeah, the picture looks pretty static -  chairs, lecture, blah blah - but that has NOT been typical of the work.  The morning starts with a vigorous warm up by your's truly, followed by various exercises and techniques in physical theatre and forum theatre by the three of us (with translations by Sahar and Jamail).  
Though they were a bit shy and unsure at first, they quickly warmed to the work and have a great time.   As you may have gathered by the other entries here, photographs are a BIG problem for them-- the proliferation of Facebook and the internet and the misuse and abuse of photos of women in the past makes this very conservative culture very wary of cameras.   Hence, the best we could do above was the back of their heads.   So it goes.

The culture is not shy about photos of the guys, so here are two from our afternoon sessions with them:


Since April 12 Joanna and Sahar have been directing the six women in a new show, by the women and exclusively for women. Titled "Women Against Women, Women for Women" the show deals with how some women in the community can actually be the cause of problems for other women with the spread of false rumors, innuendo, and "back-biting". Performances starting next week will be at three women's centers, a safe house for children, and the Nangarhar Women’s Prison. 

 Here the women proudly display their certificates for completing the training part of our program:


I have not been so involved in creating the women's show, concentrating on getting the guy's act together.   Their show is called "Da Zangal Qanoon", Pashto for "The Law of the Jungle", wherein an auto-rickshaw driver and a lawyer get lost in the jungle, a metaphor for Afghanistan and a lesson in the virtues of the rule of law in a potentially lawless society.  It's pretty funny and serious at the same time:

The Jungle - and the Tiger about to eat a hapless Hunter
The Turtle, on left, wins the race because the corrupt official wasted the rabbit's time in demanding a bribe. The Lawyer rejoices with the Turtle - because, in fact, the rabbit was trying to cheat the poor old Turtle anyway. See, it can be pretty strange and complicated here in Afghanistan.

So complicated in fact, that I sometimes don't know what's going on, a challenge for directing.  Actually, I get enough translation and most of the actors speak some English, so communication has been pretty direct.
Here the Lawyer, on left played by Shams, is trying to avoid getting eaten by the Tiger, Hideri on the right.  No, he doesn't get eaten, he's actually a good lawyer (I told you it was strange in Afghanistan).

After the rehearsals, the tech savvy get crackin' with the wireless internet connection here at the Yellow House, sometimes past sundown before heading back to the Hotel - a 5 minute auto rickshaw drive away.



A surprise birthday party for Sahar thrown by the Nangahar men's team.

Nice shot of J at a lovely family park outside of Jalalabad the women's team took us one afternoon.   The park was actually next to a Hydro-Electric dam on the Kabul-Jalalabad river.  That's the rushing melting snow behind me.

And that's it for this entry.  Performances start next week.

Watch this space.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Deep Reserves of Courage: Jalalabad Update 6

Because of the stigma against theater, and now women participating in it, from the start we have had lots of conversations about what exactly the Bond Street Theater program is about, whether or not they are actually required to perform in public and their request to never be photographed or recorded at any time. We have had so many conversations about the photography! Apparently, a group of them had a bad experience with someone from the US Embassy posting their photos from another workshop online and it causing a real scandal in the schools and in their families. And so we have honored to not photograph them, or if so, only when they are covered or from the back. Although it’s unfortunate, I respect their request and understand the circumstances under which they are working. I think every day that they show up again demonstrates their deep reserve of courage.

Girls Group with Poems, blurred

We also had a close call yesterday when of the six girls who finally volunteered to work on the actual play, four of them pulled out! Apparently, there was a lot of rumors going about in their neighborhood about what this work entailed.  Everyone was thinking Bollywood. Luckily, we talked with the families, and today the girls returned with full approval and full energy.  We had a lively discussion in trying to arrive at the theme of their play. They are very eager to work on women’s ability to choose their own profession. So we broke down the problem, trying to arrive at the root causes, and ended up talking for about 2 hours! Tomorrow, we’ll hold the ceremony for all the girls who completed the training. I can’t believe how fast it’s going.

Girl's Session in the Afternoon

The men’s group is also in the process of selecting their topic for their play. They are such a great group as well—very energetic and talkative! Yesterday, we did a wonderful exercise of demonstrating a social issue using a fable or folkloric tale. I worked with a group illustrating corruption (which is rampant here) using the turtle and hare story. Another group illustrated the same topic using another animal scenario, with a sheep sacrificing its lamb to a tiger in order to continue to live on the field. It made me think of Toni Morrison's Beloved, and how, no matter the culture, when faced with oppression, people are forced to resort to the most heart-tearing sacrifices. It was very compelling.

Men's Group Scene on Drig Addiction 

Well, now it’s early evening and we will head back to the hotel.

Lots of love from this corner, and hope all is well in yours!


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Afghan Stars: Jalalabad Update 5

Sahar writes from Jalalabad.

Dear friends,

A long overdue update on my time here in Jalalabad! It’s been a whirlwind – beautiful and challenging and every swing of emotion.  But overall, it’s been really amazing. I’ve been journaling as much as I can because we don’t have great internet access. The hotel connection is slow and then we have limited access where we hold the workshops.

I’m writing you now from my room in the Spinghar, an old government-run hotel with a lovely garden abloom with the city’s famous and very aromatic orange blossoms. Jalalabad is known as “evergreen” for its year-round lushness and warm weather. And indeed, it’s a fresh respite from the dry and cool weather of Kabul.

How I dress in Jalalabad
In many ways, it’s vastly different from Kabul. It’s a predominately Pashtun area and you only hear sprinkles of Dari, which actually makes me feel good about my Americanized Dari (I tease my new friends here: Dari is my second language too). You also see much fewer women on the streets here, at least in the city proper, which is the only area we have visited so far. Most of the women cover their faces or wear the full burqa. You also don’t see many foreigners here, so Michael tends to stand out (Joanna and I are fully covered). 

Also, because of its proximity to Pakistan, Jalalabad is heavily influenced by Pakistani culture. The main method of transportation is the rickshaw, most women wear the shalwar kamiz and most families fled to Pakistan during the civil war.

As for the work, it’s really great, and all because of our colleagues here.  We’ve gathered a group of twenty teenagers from two schools. We work with one group of 15 in the mornings before school and then four in the afternoons following their school. In Afghanistan it’s generally like this, with school times varying before or after lunch.

The men’s group consists of members from the Nangarhar Provincial Theater, which is well-established and very active. Their work spans comedic and dramatic theater. Their ages range from 20 – 50 or so, and most have to have a second or third job since they cannot sustain themselves on theater alone. The company also has a film wing, which is extremely active and you can like them on Facebook at Afghan Stars!

The men's group!
☺ They are incredible--please check them out on YouTube too.

We work with each group daily for 3-4 hours. The first ten days constituted the training period, which included warm-ups, theater games, physical and dramatic theater techniques, Theater of the Oppressed techniques (including lots of image theater,) and lots and lots of dialogue. And, of course, fun! These are all new for the girls, while a few of the men participated in a similar workshop last fall in Kabul. 

The goal is that those girls who are interested and able will go on to create a play, which they will then perform in various local institutions for all-female audiences, such as women’s shelters, orphanages, rural shuras, etc. The men have more flexibility, but will perform largely for all-male audiences.  For example, they just did a free show at the park (for men only, except Wednesdays, when it’s women’s day) on the implications of the international community leaving Afghanistan.

The girls were really shy at the beginning, giggling behind their hands or saying they couldn’t or feeling totally ashamed to even so much as jump in front of each other (even though they’re all friends, or maybe because of that).  It’s taken some time, but it’s been beautiful to see them come out of their shells and feel uninhibited and now even lead exercises themselves! 

A scene about the Turtle and the Hare.
We did one exercise where we stand in a line and imagine a mountain ridge. Each person then steps forward and yells their name, tossing it over the mountain. Then all of us behind follow suite, stepping forward, yelling and throwing their name over the mountain. The person then does it facing the group, imagining the group as the mountain. The mountain of us then responds. It’s really empowering to hear one’s name like that. Afterward, many of them mentioned how courageous they felt doing this. Hearing their life stories, they already are some of the most courageous individuals I’ve met, but I think this is a new outlet for them to demonstrate that. They’ve also been so incredibly creative, coming up with wonderful scene work on subjects like illiteracy, gender equality and abusive teachers—issues that they self-identify as important to their lives--and proposing feasible solutions.  It’s so inspiring!

Oh, but there are challenges! For one, the girls are, I think understandably, extremely fearful about the implications of participating in theater at all. In Nangarhar province, which is very conservative compared to other parts of the country and still under a lot of Taliban influence, it’s just not done—it’s scandalous and implies inappropriate entertainment. The guys from the Nangarhar Provincial Theater though have been active for many years now and have worked hard to dispel these ideas. When the Taliban were in power, they performed secretly at weddings and such. But for the most part, they have been successful and are now ell-respected in town. Of course, some people still stigmatize their work and there are limitations with having to hire Pakistani actresses (which has its own social implications). But, comparatively, the girls really have a long way to go with gaining social approval for pursuing this art. They are the pioneers.

Stay tuned for more!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Springtime in Afghanistan: Jalalabad Update 4

Good Morning America,

A quick missive here to acknowledge that we have indeed heard the recent news (that is, about 30 minutes ago) about the excitement (okay, attacks) in and around Kabul. Good thing we're in Jalalabad. Whenever something happens everybody gets locked down. As for us, we're here in a quiet residential side of town away from any government buildings or markets.

We're in the "Yellow House", so named because it's yellow. It is the current rehearsal studio for Nanagahar Provincial Theatre. As is typical of the houses in Afghanistan, we are surrounded by a high 8 foot stone wall enclosing a quarter acre court yard.

The Yellow House is an oasis for the Nangarhar artists, founded and supported by the Australian filmmaker George Gittoes and the actress Hellen Rose. Hellen tells a fascinating tale of their work in Jalalabad here:
As for the artists themselves, check out:

We're about to go into rehearsal on the new show, so whatever goes on out there it's business as usual in here.

Safe and sound and keeping out of trouble,
Your friends,
Michael and Joanna

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Deeper Look at the Women's Workshops, from Michael's Perspective

Last week, Joanna wrote about working with the female workshop participants in Jalalabad. Here, Michael checks in with his experiences.

In the morning we are working with 14 young women a few blocks down the street at a local NGO. Our workspace is their cellar, which reminds me of a small 20-car parking garage; concrete floor, large supporting pillars, kinda echo-y. Well lit, though, and not completely “damp” feeling.  Pretty okay by Afghan standards.

The girls (high school and college age) have no theatre experience whatsoever, but they do understand our project, have seen films, and want to do social outreach. Naturally they are a bit shy and cautious (given the conservative society) but they didn’t run away after the workshop; in fact they asked us if they could invite more friends!

We’ve been taking their backgrounds into consideration when planning the curriculum—we didn’t want to hit them with sixteenth century Italian Commedia or 1930’s Russian bio-mechanics right off, but we didn’t want to pamper them, either.  Still, you can never anticipate the effects of even the simplest exercises.

For example, on the second day we were doing an exercise called Passing Impulses.  The group stands in a circle, facing inward.  One person imagines having a great ball of energy – could be something mimed in their hands or more abstractly as a ball of fire in the belly.  With a tossing motion and energetic sound the person “passes” the impulse, or energy, across the circle to someone else who then “receives” it and energetically passes it off to someone else.  This impulse should move quickly: pass-receive-pass-receive-pass… not only are you “passing an impulse” but you are working “on impulse”.  There shouldn’t be any thinking or planning, don’t try to be creative or clever; and there shouldn’t be any time spent feeling silly, just DO IT!  It’s Physical Theatre 101.

Sound easy?  Well, yeah, if you’ve done it a million times, (as we have) but for sure these lasses haven’t done ANYTHING like this before.  Still, it was going along okay -- some pretty slow and weak impulses, but okay --  and then I passed a slightly more energetic impulse than I probably should have to someone who was clearly taken by surprised, clearly received the impulse, and then clearly did not know what to do with it.  I could see her desperately trying to remember what to do, and then trying to decide who to send it to… the clock was ticking… her eyes frantically darting from face to face…total brain freeze… until all she could do was turn away and burst into tears.

Fortunately our on-the-ball BST teammate Sahar (herself an Afghan-American and Dari speaker) quickly took her aside and gave her the ol’ “everything’s cool” speech, while I continued the exercise (me feeling pretty bad).   Our student was able to rejoin the group within minutes, and all again was well with the world.  For the rest of the workshop I tried to avoid making any unexpected sudden movements – only to discover that I actually DO make a lot of unexpected sudden movements regularly!

Interestingly, towards the end of that same workshop we were engaged in another exercise, wherein the students were asked to create “snapshots” of scenes, the first representing a problem, the second how that problem could escalate, the third a possible solution to the problem.  The students create the scenes themselves.  The same young woman from the earlier freak-out was playing a mother who was illiterate, who couldn’t read the expiration date on some medication (problem), who gives the wrong dosage to her baby who then dies (escalation). Pretty serious stuff, but for some reason I never quite understood everyone started laughing hysterically… not at the context, certainly, but at some side joke or slip of the tongue.  In any case, the day ended with both laughter and an appreciation of new techniques and their potential.  

Oh…a possible solution to the problem?  Teach the women to read, of course!  By the way – far from being scared off, the young lady in question is very enthusiastic about being on stage.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Persistence: Jalalabad Update #2

Joanna checks in after a few days of workshops in Afghanistan about the state of women’s rights and steps being taken towards hope…

We are in such a different land here in Jalalabad.  Really all women wear full chador and then burqa on top of that.  It's hard for me to understand why this is necessary. Sahar and I wear our scarves draped fully around our shoulders covering our front and then over our noses.  If we didn't do this, we would be the center of attention in a very dangerous way.

The Nangarhar theatre guys are just great.  They create plays about women's rights and take them into the real no-man's land in the rural areas and borderlands with Pakistan -absolute danger zones.  After one show about women’s rights, someone threw an explosive device at them and it landed a few feet from their car.  But they persist!

We have great talks about what to do; what can be done. The Pashtun areas are so deeply entrenched in these ancient traditions.  What will change this?  Yes, maybe the internet, maybe these theatre plays, more communication on Facebook and cell phones. But women are just not in the conversation at all.  The 200 women at Nangarhar University (among the thousands of guys) are plagued with one indignity after another -- you can't use the library, why are you here, don't dare come in this building, etc. But they persist too.  They are our hope.... and the great girls in our theatre workshops!

The girls are terribly withdrawn and shy, and slowly slowly are starting to speak out.  We were passing impulses today and one girl burst into tears when it was her turn – she just froze with fright and then crashed. A few are feisty and willing to try everything. We all hope they encourage the other girls and show them it's okay.  We have great talks with these girls too, but they have such a tough road ahead of them.  What advice can we give them that doesn't endanger their lives?  If they dare do anything to speak out, it is dangerous.... really, they will be killed.  It seems the law doesn't apply here.

There are also great NGOs working for women's rights, and they offer some hope too.  It's not that things are stagnant!  So we will have our women's theatre team and they will be the pioneers... and they accept the challenge.

All for now ---
Lots of love from beautiful (it is!) Jalalabad.
J and M and S

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A Firebrand Named ______: Jalalabad Update 1

Michael writes from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where the ensemble is working with the Nangarhar Provincial Theatre. 

Greetings from exciting Jalalabad.  We have only been here two and a half days, and it is total sensory overload.  Firstly, let me assure you we are safe, secure and in very good hands.  Jalalabad itself is a fairly green city... almost tropical, at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned.  Warm, lots of flowers, palm trees even.  We are staying in a "government" hotel - not exactly sure what that means, but, from the looks of it, it means they don't pay their staff enough to really keep the rooms nice.  However, there are a couple of acres of beautiful gardens out front, with lots of early morning chirping birds.  

Jalalabad is in Nangahar Provence and the people tribally Pashtun--  yeah, the Taliban are Pashtun, but
they're not here in force.  The amount of civil society work going on here is impressive.  The theatre company we are here to work with, Nangahar Theatre, are already well known and supported in the city and surrounding rural communities because of their work through the NGO's.   We came here with a list of people we should talk to -- but haven't even gotten to it because so many others have appeared to meet us... a revolving door of amazing and eccentric characters foreign and local, with wild stories and contrasting points of view.

Before we came down here we were pretty much told that, given the very conservative nature of the community it would be impossible to find any women to work with.  HA!  They didn't know about a firebrand named (um... name withheld until we're sure it's safe), a 19 year old recommended by an embassy connection who gathered together 14 high school and college age women who all seem pretty willing.   We had a meeting yesterday and our first day of workshops this morning, and while most of them are a bit reserved and had no idea what we'd be hitting them with, by the end of the 3rd hour they were loosening up and pretty game. 

We're still working out internet logistics.  As we get into the workshops we'll be pretty busy.  I'll certainly write when I can.  Going into our first workshop with the guys now...

Onward and upward,
Michael and Joanna