Thursday, December 19, 2013

Social Theater in Sudan

In November ensemble member Anna Zastrow spent two weeks working with American Voices on a social theater project. Here is her story.

I am back in New York after an amazing two weeks teaching theater in Sudan. It was an intense, beautiful and profound experience.  I worked with a group of young men and women burning to express themselves creatively within a challenging political and cultural environment.

Quick country background: Sudan is a country in north-east Africa that recently split into Sudan and South Sudan.  Sudan (the North) has been ruled by one regime since 1989, which instituted Sharia law, and has been branded by the U.S. as a sponsor of terrorist organizations.  The country has suffered financial sanctions for over 15 years.  This September the government cut subsidies, prices rose sharply, and the people took to the streets in protest, which regime forces quickly quelled, reportedly resulting in 200 deaths.  It is a somewhat precarious time for Sudan…

Enter our cultural diplomacy program.  For this project I joined American Voices and its YES Academy (Youth Excellence on Stage), a cultural exchange program focused on countries emerging from conflict and isolation.  (Bond Street Theatre and American Voices know each other well, and indeed BST has often referred artists to AV.)  The YES Academy Sudan program was sponsored by the US Embassy and the Sudanese Ministry of Culture.  The program offers training in American cultural forms such as jazz, rap, hip hop and musical theater.  This time they included a social theater component: I was brought on to teach physical theater to university students and children and create a performance piece on a social issue relevant to them.  We had 10 days to hone their skills and to create and publicly perform a theater piece.

This was the first high-profile artistic exchange between the U.S. and Sudan in many years, or perhaps ever – and we were watched closely by the Sudanese government.  They sent a government “minder” to keep an eye on us. His name was Obay. I am not kidding. And he was from the Office of Central Thought.  (You can’t make this stuff up.) In the end, Obay turned out to be an ally who greatly advocated for our program (not everyone in the government was keen on this project).

A representative from the Ministry of Culture also came by to see how things were going.  He seemed genuinely concerned about how the rest of the world views Sudan, and committed that this artistic exchange will have a real influence on improving Sudan’s image and relationship with the U.S.  I’m glad that he values the arts and its potential power! He asked me to tell everyone that everything you heard about Sudan isn’t true.  (They are not terrorists.)   So if you see Obama, be sure to let him know.

For myself, what I value is not the political impact, but the human connection.

I worked with a group of wonderful people and we had a truly beautiful exchange.  Indeed, everyone I met in Khartoum was friendly, hospitable and good-humored. One of the things that touched me about Sudan was how keen the people are to connect with Americans and for us to have a positive view of their country.  I was met with a huge smile and the immediate question: “How do you like Sudan?” and “Why don’t you stay longer?”

The students in my theater group were primarily drama students from the University of Sudan. I was really impressed with them – so talented, expressive and 100% gung-ho. It is so satisfying to teach students who are hungry to learn and who appreciate everything you give them – and who give you all the more in return. Over the course of 10 intensive days, we created a really strong bond.  All the more so because of the sensitive subject matter of our work and the controversy this created.  

We were faced with a challenge:  how create a show in which they can speak out on what matters most to them – social justice, economic opportunity, spiritual fulfillment, freedom to express – without criticizing the government?  I was tasked with doing social theater but under no circumstances to criticize the regime!  But bringing up any social issue can be viewed as criticism.  We cloaked our message in comedy and mime.  But it was still obvious and possibly too obvious.  Concerns were raised by some of our producers about what was safe to say. Despite warnings, the students were adamant to proceed with what they had created.

This was challenging to navigate. I was not sure how serious the situation was going to get. For them or for me. I half-expected an Argo-like escape to the airport at the last minute. On dress rehearsal night rumors floated of possible protests and government-placed fire trucks at the ready to hose us down at any moment. Would we even be able to do the show?

Then, on the day of our actual performance, the whole event was shut down. The imam of the main mosque denounced the event and that’s no small matter in Sudan. After much negotiation between our producers and government representatives, the show was back on again. But all the hold-ups delayed everything and we started late. Our students waited and waited for their turn to present.  Finally they got to go on -- everything was going great -- the audience loved it, they whistled, clapped and laughed in recognition of what was presented -- and then we had to cut their performance short! The authorities mandated the show end at a certain time. I had to physically get up there on stage and stop them. 

The students were devastated. After working so hard for 10 days, after all the build-up and anticipation, they were finally getting to perform and have their say – and then to have the rug pulled from under them!  They were so upset they at first refused to leave the stage and were near ready to riot.  And I was immediately whisked away to the airport for my flight.  I had no chance to talk about what happened or say good bye.  The whole thing was heart-wrenching. I took solace in the few shared hugs that spontaneously erupted as I left – intense and heartfelt -- which affirmed for me that even in the face of this terrible breakdown our bond was not broken. It is hard to explain the mix of emotions of the deeply meaningful exchange that had taken place between us, now cut short.

I have since been in communication with them. They are in good spirits and ready to perform the piece again elsewhere.  They sent me the following message: “We are artists and we are strong; we have a message to tell the world and you have shown us how to give it out. . . We will never be able to thank you for the knowledge and time you gave us.” 

This was truly one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had teaching and traveling abroad, and trying to make a difference in the world.  It’s been a privilege to experience Sudan and its people, and to get to work with these beautiful and talented individuals.  I hope to be able to come back soon again.  And next time I will stay longer.

To see photos, click here:  YES Sudan - Highlights

Thursday, November 07, 2013

An Intern’s Trial by Stilts

For two weeks, Michael patiently taught my boyfriend Dave and I to stilt walk. To my surprise the distribution of weight and maneuvering of extra-long legs came quite easily to me. That might be attributed to the fact that I myself am quite a lanky individual and am used to dealing with awkwardly long limbs or maybe that I’ve had a number of years practice in climbing colleagues bodies and finding balance in precarious places. Either way, I have definitely, with the help of stilt guru Michael, discovered a skill I hope to develop and perfect.

The real test of my new-found abilities came on October 31st, when a team from Bond Street Theatre (Anna Zastrow, Josh Wynter, Elizabeth Frascoia, Marshall Nichols and Dave Southwood) strapped on their stilts and waved, walked and danced the length of 6th Avenue in the famous Village Halloween Parade, alongside the very impressive Le Velo Rouge (driven by Michael). After a number of pre-parade wobbles and close calls with photographers struggling to see through their view finders, I found my feet and couldn’t believe where I had found myself. 16,000km (or 10,000m) from my home in Sydney Australia, in one of the most iconic cities in the world, stilt-walking alongside some fantastic people I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with. Who would have thought?! The sheer size of the event was something I couldn’t quite get my head around. It wasn’t until we had a moment to stop and take a breather that Michael suggested to “Turn around!” and I was able to get a glimpse of the wonderful puppets, floats and swarms of parade-goers that followed. The city was illuminated, not with headlights of cars, and changing traffic lights, but a wonderful glow of creativity and celebration.

It was an incredible experience to witness the number of people who braved the cold and sprinkle of rain to cheer and bear witness to the wonders that passed them. People of all ages enjoyed the event from small children squishing their faces between the bars or held high on their parents’ shoulders, to elderly friends sitting comfortably in their wheelchairs sharing a laugh and a dance.

Halloween is not a widely celebrated occasion way down under in Australia. My one and only experience of Trick or Treating involved rolling around a neighbour’s garden in the dark, fearful of ‘eggers’ and teenagers with water bombs who made it their mission to ruin the fun of those in costume. You can imagine how interesting it was for me when shop fronts, restaurants, apartment blocks, buses and even dogs (or maybe really their owners) embraced Halloween.

I’ve been told and have read countless times that participating in the Halloween Parade is on the list of ‘Top 100 things you must do before you die’. I’ve got to say, that stilt walking the parade with Bond Street Theatre now stands at number 1. 


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Don't Abandon The Women of Afghanistan!

In an opinion piece on CNN, Paula Dobriansky and Melanne Verveer say:

"Nothing is more important for Afghanistan than building on the liberalizing achievements of the past decade and preventing a slide back toward repression.

This is why it is crucial to retain and expand the hard-won rights of Afghan women.  Gender equality isn't just a matter of moral fairness -- it's essential to the country's economic and political health and to ensuring that the nation has a secure, peaceful and stable future."

And this is why it is so important for our Afghan women's theatre troupes to get out there and get out the vote!  

You can read the full article here: Don't Abandon the Women of Afghanistan.

Our wonderful contributors!

Our IndieGoGo campaign to support Afghan Women Speak Out through Theatre was a success -- we raised our goal and then some!  Over a hundred of you rallied together with generous donations to give this project the boost it needed to succeed.  Now, thanks to you, our Afghan women's theatre troupes will be able to to reach isolated women across Afghanistan to be sure they are aware of their right to vote and to encourage them to participate in the upcoming election, in which so much is at stake.

Thank you for standing with the women of Afghanistan!  We salute you, one and all!

Donna Butcher-Thorpe
Stephen Fryburg
Duska Bisconti
Sandra Heath
Rose Haywood
Mei Wei Wong
Meghan Frank
Everett Ellestad
Frank Juliano
Patrick Sciarrata
Deirdre Towers
David Diamond
Romy Clugston
Laura Wilson
Phyllis Brodsky
Hilary Chaplain
Rebecca and Gary
Mary Dino
Thomas Neuman
Lorri Kendrick
Jeanne Fleming
Ray Leslee
Mike Seliger
Beth Brodsky
Deborah Ben-Eliezer
Audrey Crabtree
Susan Snyder
Andrew Arnault
Nicholas Wolfson

Catherine Coulter
Sigrid Nyholm
Mireille Bergenstrom
Leslie Elias
Bruce Williamson
Matt Opatrny
Martha Richards
Marsha Gildin
Erika Person
Katy Rubin
Lia Gladstone
Frauke Luhning
Gretchen & Bo Gerard
Arlene Lefkoe
Andrew Teirstein
Julie Pasqual
Susan Voyticky
Shirley Caulkins
John & Alice Tepper Marlin
Lilian Manansala
Laura Shamas
Elana Gartner
Katie Down
Jacqueline Davis
Helen Jamieson
Kaja Gam
Shelley Wyant
Michael Bongar
Sarah Knight
Joshua Wynter & Tami

Laurie McCants
Bruce Allardice
Brenda Jean Foley
Sarah Johnson
Ruth Zamoyta
Lisa Karrer
Suzanne Haring
Daniel Williams
Matthew Fass
Annie Dino
Amy Trompetter
Ilanna Saltzman
Lisa Travis
Caitlin White
Laine Barton
Margaret Mills
Laura Foord
Joel Zimmerman
Rhona Sewell
Michael Preston
Anna Hacker
John Towsen
Project Troubador!

We also thank our many
anonymous donors!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Afghan Women Speak Out through Theatre

Extra, extra, read all about it!

Bond Street Theatre 

Afghan Women Speak Out through Theatre

We have launched an Indiegogo campaign to support Afghan Women's Voting Rights in preparation for the April 5, 2014 elections, and you can make a huge difference!

This is a time of hope and possibility.  A new generation is voting for the first time in Afghanistan, and half of them are women.  Women's right to vote is a hard-earned victory, and yet many women are unaware of their right to vote.  

This is a time for crucial change.  In the past decade, women have made great strides, setting Afghanistan on a promising course. But conservative factions are working hard to reverse these advances and prevent women from enjoying the most basic human rights.  

The time is now to stand with the women of Afghanistan.  We are asking for your support to help our all-women's theatre troupes bring vital information to women who are isolated by tradition, location or incarceration. Your contribution goes directly to the women's groups!  To reach women across the country,  

Women's voice in government and participation in the election is essential to protect and advance their rights! 

"This theatre project has given me new courage to speak out!"
  (Ayesha, member of Nangarhar Women's Theatre troupe in Jalalabad.) 

Bond Street Theatre
 has been working for Afghan women for more than 10 years.  We trained four women's theatre groups to create theatre -- by women, for women -- to spread the word about women's right to vote, why each vote counts, and how to register. They are a first in Afghanistan! 

These women are role models: they encourage women and girls to speak out. Theatre shows like these have a ripple effect through the community and a huge impact. 

In order to reach as many women (and men) as possible, we must raise $10,000.
 Visit our Indiegogo page Afghan Women Speak Out through Theatre to contribute! 

Please spread the word via email, Facebook, Twitter or actual face-to-face interaction!

Thank you for your support!   
The Bond Street Team and the Afghan Women's Theatres

ClosingBond Street Theatre
Blue Like us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter View our videos on YouTube Visit our blog 

Bond Street Theatre initiates theatre-based projects for education, conflict resolution, and healing in areas of conflict and poverty globally.  Bond Street Theatre is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, and NGO in association with the UN-DPI.   
Please support our campaign for Afghan women:
Bond Street Theatre
2 Bond Street, New York, New York 10012   --  212-254-4614  --

Monday, September 09, 2013

Intern Spotlight: Aly Trombitas

Here is our final intern spotlight!  Aly shares how BST aligns with her aspirations to make art and help people:

From when you can talk onward, there’s always that one question you’re consistently asked: What do you want to be when you grow up? As a highly optimistic college student with too many interests to count, I’ve always hesitated before responding to that question, because “Make art and help people” isn’t a satisfactory answer for most.

I discovered Bond Street Theatre’s website while doing research for a class, and am pretty sure I applied for an internship within the hour. Here was a group of trained physical theater artists who were using their craft not only to create compelling performance but also to promote human rights internationally—it sounded like a win/win situation to me!  I had been looking to spend my summer somewhere where I could get a sense of many aspects of a small theatre organization, instead of being guided into only one particular skill. Bond Street spends time with each intern to allow you to explore and grow, and that’s exactly what I needed. Not only is the office open and airy (and no shoes allowed—a valuable perk in my opinion) but it carries 37 years of not-for-profit arts and humanitarian knowledge. Even after 2 ½ months of taking everything in I am still in awe of the travels and impact that Bond Street has had in the world (75,000 refugees reached in Kosovo? Wow!)  

My summer at Bond Street has been incredibly fulfilling and inspiring. I’ve gotten to know an amusing company of theatre professionals who are so wonderful at looking beyond themselves to a broader world. I’ve become much more aware of myself as a part of that world—in one day I could be scouring news sites to provide updates and information to the Haiti team, researching grants for women’s public speaking programs in Afghanistan, talking with the Syrian-American Council about working with refugees, and editing the study guide for our new Young Audience Program. I’ve always been a team player, but I’ve never been a part of such a big team before! Many incredible people in many walks of life come together to make Bond Street’s vision a reality, and I’ve really been impressed at the interdisciplinary communication that makes programs as effective as they are.

Bond Street also values their interns as performers as well as administrators—I got to try my hand at solo and partner acrobatics and, of course, stilt walking. Stilts were certainly scary at first! But I was very proud of myself when I was able to let go of Katherine and Anna’s hands and walk around on my own. I can’t imagine how incredibly empowering that feeling must be to people around the world living in oppressive conditions, tall and strong and balanced on stilts—to me it epitomizes what Bond Street is trying to do.

This has been a wonderful place to spend my time. There’s been a lot of learning, big laughs, and some high quality iced coffee. Being here has further prompted my determination to make an impact in the world and I feel more confident than ever that “make art and help people” is a worthy pursuit. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Afghanistan: New Courage to Get Out the Vote thru Theatre

An update from the field from Olivia :

Hello from sunny - actually, a bit rainy today - Kabul, where we just finished a week of pre-program training workshops for the Voter Education and Fraud Mitigation Project. Every morning this week from 8-12:30, we have been leading workshops for 2 members of the Nangarhar team, 2 members of the Kandahar team, and 8 members of the Kabul team in the tools necessary to implement this project from now until the elections next April.

The project has many parts: 1) a series of educational and mobile performances to spread crucial election information to Afghan citizens and engage them in community dialogue about the issues that matter to them in the presidential elections; 2) Leadership Workshops for youth that engage young people (16-22 ish) in discussion about why voting is important and the value of democracy; and 3) engaging election officials and independent monitors as allies to share information and findings.  Because of all these moving pieces, this week of workshops went by like a flash trying to communicate all the necessary information!

Before I arrived, Michael and Joanna had a series of meetings in Kabul with the Independent Election Commission, Ministers, and others to let them know about this project. They are excited about the project’s potential, and we have partnered with the IEC in the 4 provinces where the teams are performing.  That is good news for the local teams, who have access to more voting information through this partnership.

The workshops focused on the content of the shows, the post-performance activities, the evaluation measures for the project, and the curriculum for the Leadership Workshops. I can hardly believe that the week is over and I am writing about this in the past tense!  We worked quickly this week, but it hardly feels like work to be in a room full of people who are all getting the chance to do what they love for a good cause.

On the first day of the workshop, we had a discussion about why theatre may be a good medium to spread this information. The IEC and other groups have television messages and radio dramas that promote the elections. As our partners said, not everyone has access to TV and radio all the time - and both TV and radio can be switched off. Having a real, live person performing in front of you creates a direct and emotional relationship, one that is more likely to lead to a change in action.

The post-performance dialogues will also help in that regard. The dialogues are inspired by Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, and ask the audience to come up with alternate solutions to the issues presented on stage. In addition to thinking of solutions, audience members are encouraged to take the stage themselves to try their ideas with the actors. This technique allows audiences to make action plans, and to engage in community discussion about issues that may not come up in everyday life.

Every day, we spent some time discussing common voting issues and using those discussions to make pieces of theatre. What struck me was that many of the issues identified in Afghan culture are common issues in American elections as well - folks who do not believe that one vote matters and do not trust the democratic system, and so choose not to vote at all.  That’s common everywhere that elections are held, I think, so we spent lots of time discussion potential solutions. First and foremost, people need to have confidence in the election system to believe that their ballot will make a difference - so the performances that the troupes are creating for this project will all promote that confidence.

Using Image Theater, narration, and improvisation, the participants made and performed short pieces addressing those issues and many more. They took on women’s right to vote and those who believe  women shouldn’t vote, the lack of voting infrastructure that causes long lines and too few ballots, bribery and threats from candidates, access to the polls for folks living with disabilities (which turned into a discussion about the larger responsibility of all Afghans to ensure all can participate in the elections), and the value of one vote.  

Now that they have a lot of content, the troupes are going home to finalize scripts that merge some of the stories and issues. Once the scripts are done and rehearsed, each troupe will perform over 50 shows before April. The Kabul team is travelling to Bamyan and Kunduz to perform, rather than staying in Kabul where the IEC has a strong voter education program.  They will also conduct the Leadership Workshops for youth in those provinces, which includes a mock campaign to illustrate some of the common joys and issues with the elections.

As the troupes begin to perform in August, we will have more information about the impact of these performances and the experiences that our partners are having in the field. Right now, we are proud and tired, and excited for what this project has in store.

This project is my first time in the country, and I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. Though our partners tell me I look Afghan, I know I still stick out a bit. All the folks I have met here are warm, welcoming, and thankful, in addition to being the best hosts around.  Even though it is Ramadan and our partners are fasting, they are all focused and dedicated on the work at hand (not to mention talented). I cannot wait to hear the stories of their successes, and to return to work with them again.


Ayesha is studying biology in University, and teaches human rights workshops for women all over Nangarhar province. But it took me almost a week to find out all that information. Ayesha is also the director of the women’s troupe of the Nangarhar Theatre, one of our partners for the Voter Education and Fraud Mitigation Project.  I met her in Kabul, where she came with the director of the men’s troupe for a week of training and program set-up.

When I met Ayesha, she was shy, giggly, and self-conscious. Jalalabad is a more conservative area than Kabul, and she dresses in long black garments over her other clothing all the time. She would not make eye contact with Michael, and she was decidedly uncomfortable in our daily theatre warm-ups. She had never done theatre before - but she had certainly taught workshops.

Ayesha, like all Afghans, is a perfect host. She invited us into her room for melon nearly every night, and it is those conversations that made her begin to open up. We learned about her work with the women and her life in Jalalabad.  Since she was staying in the same hotel that we were, it was easy to have these after-dinner chats, particularly since she was fasting and much happier after her dinner.  It was during the first of these conversations that she told us that this workshop is giving her new courage.

Little by little over the week, Ayesha began to open up and come out of her shell.  We learned that she has quite a silly side and loves to joke around. She also gave me the best nickname I have ever had - ILoveYou, which is what my name sounds like to her.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Intern Spotlight: Ruby Hankey

Development Associate Ruby Hankey is a recent graduate from Drew University and proud to be a BST intern!

I am a tap dancer hailing from…well, here!  My first bed was a small dresser drawer on 2nd Avenue not too far from Bond Street Theatre’s office.  While continuing to enjoy a humble lifestyle, I dream of bigger and better things than my quaint drawer.  Specifically, I have been drawn to international travel working with Sudanese refugees in Egypt, studying French in Paris and teaching English in Greece. 

Growing up, my passions clashed between wanting to be a theatre professional and a diplomat.  A wise man said to me, Well, Ruby…you’ll do both!” -- a pipe dream to me at the time.  However, after this summer working with Bond Street Theatre, I see that theatre and humanitarian international relations really can work in tandem.  After receiving my BA in Theatre Arts from Drew University and concluding an internship with St. Ann’s Warehouse in May, I wanted to expand my knowledge of how theatre organizations operate in today’s economy and political state.  At St. Ann’s, I had an immensely valuable experience participating in a theater which brings in performers from all over the world.  However, I still had a hunger to observe a company that creates its own theater to take around the world, themselves!

Bond Street Theatre has been on my radar for years.  As many other interns have said, within five minutes of scouring BST’s website, it becomes difficult to turn away from such an admirable mission. Joanna and Michael have toured all over the world, bringing lessons, trinkets, languages, culture, art, stories, hopes and dreams from nooks and crannies of the globe: dusting off news which can often be forgotten in the western world.  They represent the melting pot this city has become: connecting a conversation of the heart and mind across continents.  I knew this was the place for me.  I feel honored to be learning from such a diverse, brave and innovative organization.

Over my three months here, Bond Street Theatre’s staff has trusted me to spearhead the research, organization and preliminary planning of a photography gallery showing for the coming year.  I have experience in event planning and individual giving, so I was willing to take on an adventure to develop a new way to showcase BST’s work domestically.  Quite an adventure it has been!  Diving in to the deep end, I have learned an entirely new program called Adobe Lightroom, looked into nearly every photo gallery in New York City and beyond, researched grants for documentary photography (and identified for myself what documentary photography actually means!), gone to free seminars and gallery opening events, sifted through 30,000 + photos from our collections, schmoozed with gallery administrators and owners, went out to tea with photography artists, learned the etiquette differences between the theatre and photography worlds, and written a how-to document outlining the process of my discoveries, developments and procedures.

Although coming in to this internship I had no knowledge of or experience with photography, focusing on this project has given me an invaluable source of knowledge and perspective for a line of humanitarian theatre work which I only knew at surface value.  This internship has opened my eyes to the possibilities of international communication, community development, and my own inventive, ‘go-get-em’ attitude.  I often get a thrill to know that I have the pleasure of working for a company that is paving the way for the future of theatre for social development.  There is not much widespread support or knowledge, overall, for the type of work Bond Street Theatre does, but it warms my heart to see and hear how many people are growing to support it fervently.   I plan to continue to be involved in this type of theatre as an individual, artist, administrator and leader.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Intern Spotlight: Katherine Connolly

Back by popular demand! The 2013 Summer Intern Spotlight highlights the experiences of our three incredible summer interns. This week, recent graduate Katherine Connolly discusses her many passions and the value of being label-less.

I’m from Maryland, “The Old Line State.”  The Line is the one drawn in 1763 by Mr. Mason and Mr. Dixon,  which eventually became the division between free and slave states east of the Ohio River. And yet by the time the Civil War rolled around, Maryland was part of the Union (with some help from President Lincoln and Union forces). So much for drawing clear lines.
Over a century later,  the ambiguity remains. Maryland is too southern for the North and to northern for the South. The Tourism Bureau will tell you we’re “America in miniature,” with almost every kind of environment except a desert. Maryland is a blurred area, a melting pot of the melting pot.  The No Line State.
Why a Maryland history lesson in a post about the great work of Bond Street Theatre? Well, for those of you who know and love BST the connection shouldn’t be that hard to make. It made perfect sense to me the minute I stumbled across the BST website. Here is an organization that encompasses everything I am passionate about; a theatre that blurs lines and defies categorization. A perfect and exciting mix of traditional theatre, clowning, education, development, empowerment, healing, international collaboration, acrobatics etc. etc.

As a Maryland girl, I am comfortable with blurred lines. In June I graduated from the University of Virginia with a double major in global development studies and drama. To the theatre community I was a development person and to the GDS world I was a theatre person. Even my majors were a mix of disciplines; The drama major included technique and theory in all aspects of theatre, and GDS, an interdisciplinary program, included any class that could justifiably relate to the study of development. The highlight of my education was attempting to draw the lines between the two fields and finding ways to make those connections that BST has understood for decades.

Throughout my internship here at BST I’ve loved discovering all of the hats BST wears. My tasks as a summer intern have mirrored the diversity of BST’s work.  I’ve had the opportunity to build upon my background in political engagement in Afghanistan by providing research and programmatic support for the recent Educating the Electorate Project. I’ve contributed to the domestic focus by working with Heddy, Ilana, and Gretchen to develop marketing materials for the new YAP show, Amelia and Her Paper Tigers. Michael, Joanna, and Olivia have allowed and encouraged me to explore my interests in varied projects from assisting with grant-writing and editing, to researching potential projects in South Sudan and Arab Spring nations, to mapping out the structure of the UN. The more I work in different areas, the more I come to understand the importance of BST’s work.
So if you can’t quite figure out what category to put BST in, I would say you’ve discovered the true gem of BST’s work. This is a group of artists that redefines, bends, blurs, ignores, challenges, engages and defies lines. A no line state of cross-cultural artistic organization. BST thrives on collaboration and imagination. In a world of separation, of borders between us and them, what better approach than artistic collaboration? BST sees a future lying  in the grey areas, and this Maryland girl is honored to be a part of that work.

Katherine taught some of BST's acrobatics to her cousins during their beach vacation.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Blog With Few Words: Myanmar Update 3

From Michael: Hey Kids!  Tired of blogs filled with words?  No?  Well, since our goal here in Yangon has been  writing a play and a training manual, I sure as hell am tired of words, so this blog entry will use pictures as the jump off.  

First up:
These are our good friends in Thukhuma Khayethe, Nyan (left) and Thila (right) getting ready for a show they donated to a local old folks home.  Notice that Thila is wearing a traditional longyi, or rather a traditional clown longyi.  You would know this because the pattern of the cloth, while perhaps appropriate for the Scottish Bagpipe Infantry, is really only appropriate for a Burmese table cloth - or a clown. 

This is pretty much all you need to know about the Water Festival, whose proper Burmese name is Thingyan.  Basically, sponsors (especially booze companies) build these reviewer stands / dance floors all around town for young people, especially young men, to fire water hoses and cannons at Toyota pick-ups filled with more youth, especially young men, who consider it a fun blessing to be doused in water.  The pickups will stop for a minute or two to be sure their passengers are thoroughly soaked.   They will line up at the bigger, more famous stands and wait their turn for the soaking. 

During this time taxis will cover their seats with plastic as passengers are likely to be dripping, and street-side revelers are apt to toss buckets of water into the taxi to soak their foreign passengers (we speak from experience).   This is why we do not actually have too many pictures of the festivities; we feared for the life of our Canon G-12.

Once we got the whole idea behind the Water Festival (soak everyone, especially the foreigners) we decided to stroll around the more peaceful side streets, where only the occasional reveler might gently pour a bowl of water down your back.  Our neighborhood around the hotel has lovely flowers in full bloom.  Atop a background of greens are yellows, reds, pinks, and white (pinks pictured here).  

We did taxi over to the state-manicured Peoples Park;  no water cannons allowed in the park, but we did enjoy running through the sprinklers.   In the area marked LOVE we hung out with a couple of park rangers, whose job apparently is to make sure that the young love-birds sitting in the cul-de-sacs keep their hands visible at all times.  Not sharing a common language, I showed them our mini-portfolio of pictures from our tours, and the images of us working with the Afghans elicited a lot of conversation between them.  The man then pulled a cross from around his neck, indicating that he was a Christian and, I think, inquiring if perhaps we were Christian missionaries working to convert the Afghan Muslims.   I'm not sure what brand of Christianity he thought uses stilts and outrageous costumes, but, no, that wasn't our job.

This is the table at the Gitameit Music Center around which Bond Street Theatre and Thukhuma Khayethe make our master plans for bringing a new version of "Volpone" into the world.  Playing the part of Michael McGuigan is Eugenio Barba of Denmark's Odin Teatret.  To his right, playing herself, is the wonderful Odin actress Julia Varley.  They were both traveling around Myanmar and their pass through Yangon coincided with our stay here.  We had a lovely afternoon together before they headed to Bali.

And here we all are outside the Gitameit gate.  Obviously Eugenio won the part of playing me because of the hair color.  

Next blog:  all the work we're doing (probably more words). 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Starting Anew in Myanmar: Update 2

Joanna Sherman's update from Myanmar on blending the East and West on stage, Burmese culture "opening up," and the future of theatre in the country.

Finally -- greetings from Myanmar!  All is going very well.  We have been having some fascinating discussions with Thila Min about Buddhism, life, theatre, making sense of the recent violence here, Myanmar cultural history, and... the play.  All endlessly interesting. 

Basically, we have been exploring how Burmese performance styles and US/European styles can blend in style, character, setting, music, dance, and structure of the play. We are watching DVDs of famous zat pwe performers and performances, looking mostly at structure: for example, they always begin with the Nat pwe, a dance to certain spirits to get on their good side. Otherwise these spirits seemed to me to be a bit shady or hedonistic (tricksters?) who could play some nasty pranks during the performance.  So perhaps we might start with such a dance -- what fun!  At the same time, the costumes and altar to these spirits are, as Thila says, very "bling bling", which fits right into Volpone's love of "bling".  The altar to the spirits could very easily become Volpone's altar to his gold, and the play does open with he and Mosca's worshiping their stash. 

We have had further discussions on where the show will travel, what kind of venues, and who would our audiences be??  These are huge questions since modern theatre is really unknown!  Just like Afghanistan... for slightly different reasons.  In one, the government forbade it on religious grounds, and the other, the government forbade it on political grounds. As things loosen up, the Thukhuma Khayeethe folks seem to think it is time to take modern theatre public. But still, who will our audiences be?  The National Theatre here in Yangon still stands idle except for rentals for big events. But even the concerts lose money.  The zat pwe is very cheap and everyone knows exactly what to expect.  Could we do some scenes in the pwe?  Thila says not.  People go the pwe to have a night out of entertainment, but actual attention to what's on stage drifts in and out depending on personal taste, who's awake and who's sleeping, what's to eat, who you're with, etc.  It's a night-long picnic. Everyone knows the stories so no need to actually pay attention.  A serious tale (however comical) would not command attention with the pwe crowd. 

So we are thinking that perhaps cinemas might offer a venue, or maybe schools... we are starting anew here. There is no knowledge of modern theatre. If we succeed, we are opening a new door.  It is quite like what we were doing in Afghanistan with Exile Theatre -- first people who saw our work were aghast at what they saw in our abstract surreal storytelling... then slowly they all tried to mimic it.  (At least in Afghanistan they had a tradition in the Stanislavsky style from the Russians two decades before).  Here we hope Thukhuma Khayeethe can lead the way. I expect it will have a tough start, and that's why we are trying to cagily introduce some mix of East and West to ease in some new ideas.

We still have a lot more decisions to make about language, costume, character, staging, music, etc. but we are off to a good start.  We made a great start in our prior rehearsal process, and now (especially since things are truly looking like they are opening up... even just over the course of one year) we can really plan to take our show public!  Not just hidden away at Gitameit or the American Center or Alliance Francais. 

We have a hiatus now in our work on the play during the Water Festival.  It officially starts today and we will report!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Yangon News #1

Michael's update from Yangon on the current situation on the ground, the effects of history, progress, and the Water Festival.

Greetings from Yangon...
...where the weather is hot and the atmosphere is peaceful.  It's the calm before the storm, the storm being the New Year Celebration and the infamous Water Festival which starts today, Saturday April 13.   I'm getting the impression it's like being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras and Times Square for New Years.  We have an expectation of getting continually soaked by water cannons and blasters, and assured that my sins or bad karma or both are being washed away.  Another reason not to drink the water.

Joanna and I are here to flesh out the plans for a US - Burmese production of Ben Jonson's Elizabethan-era comedy, Volpone, which we plan to produce with our friends in Thukhuma Khayethe (Art Travelers Theatre Co.) with whom we've been training and performing since 2009.

Our first visit four years ago was under the watchful eyes of the military dictatorship, which kept the beloved lady Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.  Our last visit a year ago had seen Suu Kyi released and elected to Parliament, and a new "open" era coming in (hopefully).   Now a year later, we are getting the skinny from our friends on how things have been going.

If you have been following the news, you may be aware that there have been recent clashes and bloodshed between the Buddhists and the Muslims. To understand where this comes from, we have to take a step back and remember our cultural history.

First, the name Myanmar vs Burma.  In the Burmese language, and we are talking history here, the name of the country when written in official King's court documents is Myanmar.  When the commoners speak it, they say Burma. This notion of having special words for the King and other words for commoners is not rare in world languages.  The British, having had colonies all over the place including here, referred to this territory as Burma, partly to stick-it to the former royal rulers.  But there are a lot of ethnicities and religions:  the majority are Buddhist and ethnic Burmese, but there are also Muslims, Christians and Hindus who are Shan, Karin, Mon etc etc.  When the military took over somewhat after the Brits left, they changed the name to the more "inclusive" Myanmar (inclusive sounding, though the military was primarily Burmese, paranoid and brutal to anyone remotely dissenting).

There is a good primer and political update on this Burma - Myanmar - US relations issue at the Washington Post.

With that background and even a vague understanding of world politics, its pretty easy to guess what happens when a formerly oppressed people gets a taste of freedom and democracy. They use their new-found voices to yell at each other. Every under-educated charismatic bullet-head now figures their opinion is better than the next guy, and they get on the radio and say "ya know, these [insert ethnic group here] people are dirty and smelly and taking over our way of life. They should leave."  So yeah, there are ethnic tensions, these days particularly between the Buddhists and the Muslims. Myanmar shares a border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh, and the politics are akin to the immigrant situation between the US and Mexico.   Arizona, anyone?

More to the point, our friend Thila Min (director of TK) reports that people are happy to take their rights, but not the responsibility.  Freedom of speech can be used for good or for evil, but nobody wants to be responsible for the evil their speech might unleash.  Sound familiar? 

Thila's English is very good,  but I wouldn't have thought he knew a word like "crony", which he uses a lot to describe another problem: rampant crony-ism.  There is a great deal of deal-making, land grabbing and back scratching between politicians, connected merchants, and foreign interests, all to the detriment of the poor and middle class that the new openness was supposed to help. 

But, by and large, there are "onward and upward" kinds of changes going on. We've been staying in the same neighborhood through these years, and just in the last year we have seen many new and modern homes spring up, gigantic hotels, new car dealerships, all in formerly vacant lots. I don't know if they are getting any business, but the construction companies must be making a killing. The members of  Thukhuma Khayethe also hear the siren call of business opportunities outside of theatre work.  One of the finest clown-actors I know, Soe Myat Thu, is getting a lot of work instead as an English-French-Burmese translator for all the foreign business people descending on Yangon.

But the theatre work does go on. We have had some great meetings with Thukhuma Khayethe about our co-production of Volpone, and we're learning more about the culture and seeing how it might manifest in the play, which is exciting. 

Next: swimming in the Water Festival.