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.