Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words

An update from Michael on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul.

             On our otherwise uneventful drive back to Kabul from Jalalabad we were stopped by the police at the Kabul city checkpoint.  We had passed a number of checkpoints on the way, but this was the only one that stopped us.   We had to pull over.  A portly, unfriendly looking policeman opened the van door and stared at me in a menacing way, or perhaps it was just his "I-Mean-Business" look which can be similar to a "Menacing Look" but should have important subtle differences if you are a well trained actor which I doubted he was.   I stared back in my "slightly-bored-can-I-help-you?" look but, being a trained actor, I colored it with just a hint of submission as that tends to move things along positively with these brutes.

            He barked to our guide, AZ, that he wanted to see our passports, which we happily supplied.  Then he started asking to look through our bags.   "There, that bag, and that bag! What is there?"  "It's fruit! You can see it is fruit!" AZ barked back.  I didn't understand what he was saying exactly, but clearly there was no love and respect.  When confronted by busy-body authority, many Afghans turn belligerent.  I never understood why, as it usually leads to more delays and chest-thumping.

            Now the policeman wants to look at our pile of luggage stacked in the back of the van.  Knowing that our workshop bag is topmost (excellent!) I have Joanna hand me the little portfolio we have containing photos of our work, for just such an occasion.  AZ later told me that on our way to the back of the van the policeman was asking him, "Why are you working with these Americans?  They make films that disrespect our religion!  Are you helping them make films?!"   AZ  said, "No! They are not making films, they are good people, what's wrong with you?"

            I'm not sure what he expected to find when he opened the first duffel bag; maybe he thought it would be film equipment, porn magazines, and fuel to burn the Holy Book, or maybe just a cache of weapons.  He sure wasn't expecting what he did find, which was three pair of stilts and juggling equipment.  His look of menace became one of confusion.  I helpfully showed him the pictures of us on our stilts in costumes, with the crowds of happy children, and our workshops with the Afghan actors.  "See?!" AZ was saying, "They are our teachers! They are good people, they are helping us!" ("You stupid cow", he added -- not with words but with inflection.  AZ is a trained actor, after all).

            There was more talk between them, and the cop softened, as they usually do after seeing the portfolio and the pictures of happy children.  He actually shook my hand and casually embraced AZ.   I don't think he was totally convinced of our innocence, but he let us go without further delay.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Kandahar Theatre Update 3: Another Job Well Done

Michael writes from Jalalabad on the work with Kandahar Theatre.

After the ten day training and rehearsal period here in Jalalabad with Maiwand Theatre Company both the men and the women have done their first productions, and now are heading back to Kandahar to arrange four more performances each.

Despite losing a day over the recent anti-film protests (not here, as far as I can tell) we accomplished a lot. Having the Kandahar team here 24-7 meant we could have more time with them, and they were motivated enough to train and rehearse on their own some evenings and early mornings. For the men's group, we decided to use a script written by our Nangahar Theatre collaborator, Zhwandoon; and for the women we used the script we developed last year with the Nangahar women's team. The men's show promoted the civil and religious laws that favor the rights of women (forced marriage not allowed, no violence), and the women's show called for unity among women and an end to the "backbiting".

This was a good opportunity to revisit past work. Both shows were previously produced by other teams, and the directors of the previous versions were on hand to help remount the new adaptations. Thus they got to see how we adapt and direct based on the strengths (or, in some cases, the lack thereof) of different actors for the same material. We also could delve a little deeper in acting technique without having to create new material.

The men performed yesterday at the Lincoln Learning Center to 75 appreciative high school and college age students, while the women performed early today at a women's training center (I forgot to get the stats from Joanna, sorry).  Both shows went very well, in our humble opinions.

There are a great many new insights and stories associated with the process, and I'll try to get them down in future updates, but here is one from rehearsing the guy's show. Though the basic story line has serious intent, one actor played the clownish nephew, and he was pretty good in the part. The central object in this tale is a government published book on the laws of the rights of women. At one point the nephew is holding the book up by his face as the teacher points out this and that law. His uncle comes up and slaps him on the back, and he closes the book on his nose. Funny comedy bit (if they get the timing right, which is about 65% of the time). Well, in our last rehearsal before the performance, one of the actors points out that the book also has Koranic laws written in it as well (NOW he tells me) and some members of the audience might not think it so funny. Well, I tell them, you guys gotta be the judge on this; if you think it's a problem then we don't have to do the bit, BUT (deep breath here), if the point of the show is to see how much the audience really knows about what is written in the law, this will give you an indication of what they know. I bet most of them never heard of this book, much less know what's in it, that's what you are trying to tell them. So maybe do the bit, and see if indeed you get a reaction. Well, they understood my point, but the consensus was maybe they shouldn't do it.

Of course, come show time and the actors clearly forgot the entire conversation, because they did the bit anyway, and nobody stormed the stage. It didn't get much of a laugh either, despite the timing being pretty good. I think more than anything else the whole concept of live theatre is still new to live audiences, and they don't quite know how to react until the end, when they applauded enthusiastically.

We'll be here in Jalalabad until Friday with some follow-up with our local teams, and then head back to Kabul to check in with the teams there.

Despite whatever is going on around the world, it's still a pretty big world, and it's been safe and sound in our neck of the woods. Still, we'll keep our eyes open and ears close to the ground, and follow the advice of our friends.

Much love,

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Kandahar Theatre Update 2: Safe Haven

Dear all, 
Things have been a bit dicey lately.  Our Afghan partner called us at 5:30am this morning to tell us to pack our bags and we were to evacuate Jalalabad for a few days. He would come by and take us to stay to his house in a small village outside the city.  We hadn’t heard a thing about this nasty film (and it is really awful – I am appalled even as an artist) so it was all a shock.  Now we are on lockdown at the hotel.  We decided it would be more dangerous to get in a car and drive to the village and endanger his family.  We are such a liability!  We put everyone in danger.
So the program is on hold for today and especially tomorrow, Friday – the usual day of prayer and protest.  
To put our friends at home at ease, I do think our hotel is a safe haven. We are staying in our rooms with meals delivered up from the kitchen.  There are a bevy of guards at the front gate and they have added more.  Then there is a long driveway (through a very nice garden) up to the front of the building.  They frisked our male escort on his way in, and stopped even the women… so they are really being careful.  
One of our partners came over to deliver burqas for me and Monireh, and some additional details to add to Michael’s Afghan attire.  Meanwhile the Afghans have been telling people (and only few people know we are here) that we are from Australia.  I usually say Canada, but whatever.
The trainings were really going well – we were all very pleased!  It’s a shame to make this break in the process right now.  We had just started discussions on what topics the shows should address.  The Kandahari group is really learning a lot.  Besides the obviously new stuff – our crazy warm-ups, the stilts, funny routines, etc. – many of the acting techniques are very new… even the mime.  They had some image theatre from Kayhan, but we are dealing with purely actors’ training first, then we will move into the conflict resolution work as we develop the play.  So we are focusing on body language, precision of gesture, focus,… all detail work that they haven’t been exposed to.
That’s the news from the front….  We will let you know how things develop.  I am a bit concerned about tomorrow, but we will, as ever, keep our heads down.  (Under my burqa, I have to… or I’ll trip).

Cheers –
Joanna, Michael, and Monireh

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Kandahar Theatre Update 1: Making it Work in Jalalabad

Michael writes about the process of traveling to Jalalabad to work with Kandahar Theatre, setting up the houses, and the challenges of electricity and running water.

All is well, we are here in Jalalabad. Joanna, I and Monireh (our Kabul-based collaborator) are staying at a local hotel, while the Kandahar Theatre Company is staying in a house directly across the street. The most dangerous part of our project is crossing that street each morning and afternoon.

The journey here from Kabul was interesting. The car that was sent to pick up the three of us was not nearly big enough for us and all our luggage, but it only took about a half hour for Ahmad Zia dismiss the first driver and car (at a cost of $40) and hire another, bigger passenger van. We drove for about forty minutes out of the city and through several small towns; when we slowed for a speed bump in the middle of one market area a bunch of surly guys started to pound on the car with sticks. These brutish, grunting Neanderthals turned out to be the toll collectors.

Interesting system. The toll was 4000 afs - $80 - and you'd think at those prices they could at least afford uniforms, if not actual toll booths. Reluctantly, the driver paid the toll. Then, about a mile down the road, the van broke down from a shattered fan belt. So, a third vehicle was called, slightly smaller than the second but still managed all of us and our stuff. It's a shame the van didn't break before the toll.

We got through the mountains and two hours later were dropped safely at the hotel. I paid $100 for the third vehicle. So if you were keeping track, that was $40 for a car we didn't use, $100 for the car we did, and in there was a $80 toll which no one asked me to pay. There is much that is inscrutable about the economics of Afghanistan.

Our local Jalalabad contact worked out an arrangement to rent a house for the Kandahar company, thinking it would be better than a hotel -- cheaper (potentially) and they can cook their own meals. That of course assumes that the house has water and electricity - which, when we arrived, we found it did not, though it did have excessive dust covering everything. No worries; we are assured it will all get better soon. The group arranged to stay the night in a local hotel (not our hotel). Although it did have water and electric, the hotel was so stifling hot that the house was deemed preferable despite its limitations, and they moved in the next day - the six women on the top floor, and the five guys below.

The plumbing and electricity were mostly fixed in a day. The limited electricity comes from a rattling old generator in the yard, as there is only 1 hour of electricity supplied by the city. While this keeps the water pump churning, the electrons don't seem to flow to any of the ceiling fans. Still, the Kandaharians seem satisfied with all that. 

Our hotel does have pretty good AC in the rooms; a luxury in this country, but without it we would go mad. Especially because we didn't have any water for three days due to a big problem with their pump. Well, we didn't have water in the pipes, they did supply us with big buckets of the
vital liquid. Cold water.

We are rehearsing in one of the rooms of the house, so our view of Jalalabad this time is extremely limited to crossing the street.

Next update - the training process.  Watch this space.

Much love,
Michael and Joanna

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

An Uplifting Family Experience

BST intern Zoe Travis taught her family to walk on stilts at their family reunion - and they loved it!

            The moment Michael heard I was leaving the office early for a family reunion, he immediately started to assemble a “to-go” stilt bag. I would be going to a gathering of family members of all ages, from all over the country, who only see each other every couple of years- of course I had to bring the stilts! In a magically compact bag, Michael threw in my fancy, newly crafted personal stilts, two extra stilts, stilt pants, and some juggling balls (just in case). I managed to lug it all to Penn Station and arrived, stilts in tow, in Lyme, New Hampshire the next day.
          Lets just say, that the Travis Family Reunion of 2012 will forever be remembered as the time when every single one of us, ages 12-70, learned how to walk on stilts. Once word had spread that I brought stilts to the reunion, everyone jumped at the opportunity to give it a try. The night before our “big stilt lesson” many people were skeptical and said they would never be able to take steps on their own. But I am proud to say that it was only a matter of minutes before until most of my family members were prancing around, forming kick lines, and showing off their dance moves. For a family that doesn’t have much contact throughout the year, it was very clear that we still have a lot in common. The Travis’s are stubborn, competitive, and determined to get it right. Throughout it all we were supportive, encouraging, and ready to learn.
             Throughout the weekend, stilts remained a major topic of conversation. Everyone had so much to say! I asked my relatives to reflect on the experience, and here is Uncle Mark's response:

Zoe taught her entire family to join her up on stilts!
"At first I thought there was no way that I would be able to keep my balance, and that I would topple like a dead tree. But when I saw one family member after the other not only manage the stills but with great pride launch out on their own without support ... I knew it was possible and way more than desirable. I was hooked. So when it came to my turn I felt those old fears and trepidations creep in and those little voices saying, "what are you thinking", "you're doomed", but with Zoe's unending encouragement (by this time she was wandering around on her stilts, looking magnificent in her long black pants) I hoisted myself up. 

The first sensation was pretty much what I expected. No balance, no security, just hold on tight to everything within your grasp and you'll get through without major embarrassment. But then I took a few steps and I felt this rush of courage and conviction. Watching Zoe hover above me on her much longer stilts with that glorious smile on her face gave me the last bit of courage that I needed. And without thinking I let go of my two handlers and ventured out on my own. Wow. I felt like a giraffe. Maybe a baby giraffe, but a giraffe all the same. With wobbly legs, every core muscle tightening in response to the new challenges, I took bigger and bigger steps. 

 And then I decided to turn. And turn I did. And then I found myself just rocking back and forth, foot to foot, stick to stick - just like I had seen Zoe do so gracefully. And it was in that moment that I knew I was totally on my own. That I had accomplished something that I had never seen as possible. A new experience of independence, floating high above the masses feeling oddly empowered. 

I think my favorite part of my short stilt-walk was when I was dancing with Zoe. One, two, three, Kick. One, two, three, Kick. A beautiful moment of abandonment, fearlessly dancing on two sticks. A great metaphor for how we could all live. Maybe we are more secure when we place ourselves at the edge of disaster, maybe we are more connected if we elevate ourselves, not so we can be better seen, but so we can see better. Maybe we will slow down and be in the moment when we can't move so fast and when every muscle in our body is focussed on staying upright. Maybe...

Thanks you, Zoe. It was a moment I will cherish forever.  Cheers, Mark"