Monday, October 01, 2012

How Do You Get to Jalalabad?

All still well in Kabul.  Most of our time is spent in the hotel these days, writing reports and working on the Training Manual, but we've had at least one important meeting each day; at the Embassy, the US Institute for Peace, the Theatre Department at the University...

We'll be doing some follow-up training with the Kabul theatre artists, and lots more meetings before heading back on the 5th.  In the mean time, should any of you be wondering what the heck we actually DO with these actors, I decided to detail one of the exercises to give you a backstage look.

How do you get to Jalalabad?

This is based on a little remembered Abbot and Costello routine from one of their old TV shows.  Kudo's to John Towsen for calling my attention to it about 15 years ago (and a shout out to our peeps currently playing in the NY Clown Theatre Festival):

Costello is on the street waiting for Abbott to return.  A women approaches him and asks:
(the dialogue is to the best of my memory)

Woman:  Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to the public library?

Costello:  I'm sorry, I don't know where the public library is.

Woman: Oh, well, if you go down Main Street and make a left at the corner go to the end of the street and make a right and...

Costello (confused): What a minute, wait a minute... I didn't ask you, you asked me.

Woman: I asked you what?

Costello: How do you get to the public library?

Woman: That's what I'm telling you! Go down Main Street and make a left at the corner go to the end of the street and make a right and....

Costello:  Wait a minute, Lady! I don't care about the public library!

Woman:  (Angry) Then what are wasting my time for? Who do you think you are bothering poor innocent young women on the street, you fat little potato!  I should call the police!  You are nothing but a masher!  (she smacks him with her purse and storms away).

Costello:  (completely bewildered) I'm a mashed potato!?!

Abbott: (walking up) Who was she?  What did she ask you?

Costello:  How do you get to the public library?

Abbott: Oh, well if you go down Main Street and make a left at the corner...

Costello runs off screaming.

It's a completely absurd bit, and one of the reasons we decided to do it was to get the actors to play "outside-the-box".   Also, it's vaudeville!  It's my roots.

Joanna and I would do the routine in English, with our translator translating line by line.  Since there aren't many public libraries around, we use "Jalalabad" instead.  Also, we dropped the masher / mashed
potato joke, as the pun never worked in translation (and they don't have mashed potatoes here).

Even with the awkward English/Dari or English/Pashto presentation, the actors understood the comedy immediately and always laughed.

For a simple, silly little bit it was a challenge for them to duplicate it.  They, of course, would do it in their own language.  Because the structure is so tight, we always knew what they were saying, or supposed to be saying.  But it would take about 15 - 20 minutes for them to get the structure correct: who entered when, who was asking what and who got angry at which time, and who stormed off when.

We would rotate everyone through the different parts, focusing on the subtle comic timings:  "Costello's" confusion, then annoyance, then really confused post-assault, then the build to completely losing it as "Abbott" starts to give him directions again.  The Stranger (does not have to be a woman) is absurdly matter-of-fact until they get to yell at Costello about how wonderful Jalalabad is: "what do you mean you don't care about Jalalabad! My mother lives in Jalalabad!..." etc.  A chance for the actor to improvise.

Some caught on faster than others.  A few never caught on at all, causing as much confusion and laughter as the routine itself.  Thing is, they all LOVE this exercise.  As far as I can tell from all the years of watching Afghan theatre, while they do comedy, they don't do absurdity, and maybe that newness has appeal.

They loved the bit so much they wanted to keep doing it, and we had to come up with "as if" variations:  same dialogue, but  doing it as if the characters are spies, or martial artists, or singing opera, or suddenly in love, etc.

Even months later, when I would see one of the actors again, they might catch my eye just the right way and say, in halting English (which they might not actually speak):  "Michael, how you get Jalalabad?" and we would launch into the routine in half English, half Dari, clearly playing the parts in the language of theatre.