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.