Monday, May 19, 2014

Report from the Election Front in Afghanistan

In July 2013, we initiated our Voter Education & Fraud Mitigation project to educate Afghan communities about their voting rights and encourage participation in the 2014, April 5th election.  We trained six Afghan theatre troupes (including three women’s groups we created) in dynamic and interactive theater techniques, and over the past nine months they brought performances to six provinces in Afghanistan.  

The troupes focused on reaching communities where there is little access to information via radio or television and generally high rates of illiteracy. In many areas, the mobile theatre shows provided the only source of comprehensive information on the elections.  They presented their entertaining and educational plays in public parks, schools, community centers and even private homes.

The plays address questions about who has the right to vote, how to register, signs of fraud, and where to report it.  They present realistic situations and issues relevant to many Afghans; for example, young men who are not allowed to vote by their parents, wives and daughters who are not allowed to vote by their husbands, the belief that elections are un-Islamic, or otherwise bad and useless, and widespread concerns with corruption and transparency. The plays offer solutions to the issues presented, and are followed by interactive sessions with the audience to identify additional solutions and promote community awareness and dialogue.  The performances include lots of comedy to engage the audiences and more effectively drive the message home. 

Our collaborators are three Afghan theatre companies, each with a men's group and a women's group:
  • Simorgh Film Association of Culture & Art - Directors: Monirah Hashemi & Abdul Hakim Hashemi (Bamiyan and Kunduz areas)
  • Nangarhar Theatre - Directors: Sayed Karim Zhwandoon & Ayesha Mohammedi; and 
  • Kandahar Theatre - Directors: Jawed Ahmed Watanyar &  Salma Waheedi.

Here we share their experiences traveling and performing in the heartland!  

All of the groups reported an overwhelmingly positive audience response. Everyone loved seeing live drama in front of their eyes -- men, women, children, police, teachers, mullahs. The teams performed mainly for audiences who had never before seen theatre. The Kandahar women's troupe -- the first women’s theatre group in Kandahar! -- said that the women audiences were so excited at the opportunity to see a live performance (“It’s just like on TV, but right here before us!”) that they called their friends and neighbors to come and said to the team: “Perform the show again!” The team was consistently asked to repeat their performance two or three times!

Most audience members, whether educated and uneducated, expressed that “most of the miseries of our country are rooted in ignorance, illiteracy and lack of information” and they appreciated this educational forum bringing information to communities.  A member of a women’s shura (local council) in Kandahar said: “We learned many thing about the election and about the value of our own vote; we want to see more theatre dramas about different issues.”

Karim, an audience member in Bamiyan said: “Honestly, I was thinking that theatre and films are only dancing and showing bad things to the people, but now I find out that we can talk about many different issues through theatre.”

The theatre troupes overheard the dialogue continuing in public areas following the shows, and among the workers, at schools, and in the streets and bazaars for long after the performance.  In Bamiyan, the group reported that people were repeating the quips and sentences that they heard in the plays, and discussing the messages that the plays carried.  The Director of Nangarhar Theatre reported that audience members were telling the stories of the shows to their friends and families in the province, continuing to spread the messages of the play.

In Bamiyan province, Haji Mohsen sat  in a corner watching the play. He said: “I am so happy to see these artists and actors come from a long distance to perform for us. I am so happy to see people enjoying the play, laughing and getting useful messages. We’ve had a brutal history, full of wars, but I am happy today to see people smiling, especially when you encourage them to participate in the election to take their destiny in their hand.”

Naturally, there were also instances where skepticism and concern were voiced. 

Nangarhar director Zhwandoon shared the following exchange:  “When I asked the pre-performance question, ‘Who will not participate in upcoming election?,’ Rubeena raised her finger. I asked her ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘We are coming out of our houses and voting for these corrupt people who are working just for their own pockets. We are voting to help our country but, by voting for these corrupt leaders, we are destroying our country with our own hands.’ I told her, ‘Ok, you are right, but this is the only way to vote for good candidates and give them the opportunity to serve us and our country.  If we do not vote, it means we have lost. We must vote and fight against corruption and corrupt people until we win.’ She said, ‘There is not one fully honest man in the list of candidates.’ I responded, ‘Our prophet said, 'if you have two or more options to choose a leader, and there is no one perfect person, then choose the person who is less harmful.'  So we also can act according to the speech of Prophet Muhammad.’ The entire audience began clapping at this, and she said ‘You are right. Thanks.’

He also had this exchange: “A young student told me, ‘I won’t vote because I heard from a religious scholar that if somebody votes he will become Non-Muslim.’  I asked, ‘Who said that?’ He told me a Mullah in Pakistan.  I asked, ‘Aren't there elections in Pakistan?’ He did not have an answer. Then I asked if there is any religious scholar present to please come to the stage and say something about this issue, but nobody came.  I then told them, ‘There is nothing in Quran or the sayings of Muhammad that states this. I know much about Islam, if someone agrees with this boy, please come to the stage and tell me in which book of Islam you have read this? I am happy to discuss.’ Then three other students came to the stage and said, ‘We must participate in the election, because we want to build our country.’”  

Both Zhwandoon and Hakim are well-versed scholars of Islam and able to effectively communicate with audiences about Islamic law as they relate to election activities.

In Kunar province, Nangarhar Theatre performed in a district close to the Pakistan border and Taliban strongholds.  At first, the school principal and teachers were hesitant, asking many questions about the program. They invited the District Governor and local elders to see the show.  Afterwards, one of the elders said, “We welcome you. This is a very good way to make people aware of many things; we request that if at any time you have a performance about any issue, please don’t forget us.” He then requested that the troupe perform for “our daughters and sisters in our Girls’ High School.” Which, of course, they did.

The impact of witnessing a live performance was multiplied through shared photos and video taken during the events via mobile phones, plus extensive word of mouth among friends, neighbors and families. Students posted videos of the shows on YouTube and Facebook. There was also media coverage by TV and radio. But no newspapers, because as Zhwandoon said: “We have no newspapers… well, yes, we have them, but we use them for wrapping kebab or fish!”

Salma, the director of the women’s group in Kandahar was also a monitor at one of the polling sites. On election day, several women recognized her and said: “Do you remember me?  I saw your show at the shura and you said I must use my right to vote, and now I am here!”

The April 5th election saw a record turnout of Afghan voters, including scores of women and youth voting for the first time.  Now we continue our project to prepare voters for the run-off election in June!

To see photos from the performances, please go to our Flickr page.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Comedy as Commentary: Volpone in Myanmar

Joanna and Michael traveled to Myanmar in February to continue our collaboration with Thukhuma Khayeethe (Arts Travelers). Here is Michael's account:
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We are working on Ben Jonson’s play about greed and con-artistry, Volpone (1606), in collaboration with Thukhuma Khayeethe (TK) of Myanmar.  The title character is a nobleman who seeks to increase his wealth by fooling other greedy nobles into giving him lavish gifts in the hope that they will be named heir in his will. The grand deceit involves Volpone pretending to be deathly ill, assisted by his equally sly and considerably more clever servant, Mosca.  

We had several reasons for choosing this play.  First, comedies are fun. The Thukhuma Khayeethe (TK) actors were interested in exploring Western comedic forms, and we have always loved the classical Italian commedia dell’arte -- a physical, improvisational genre with strong, codified characters.  Ben Jonson’s ne’er-do-wells have their Italian counterparts: Volpone is Brighella, Mosca is Arlecchino, Voltore the lawyer is Doctore, Corvino is Pantalone, and so on. More relevant, they have their Burmese counterparts as well. As soon as we suggested this play to our collaborators, they identified the Burmese versions. The only issue was… well, in Myanmar, one does not comment on the flaws of the ruling class. It’s still a military dictatorship thinly disguised as a non-military dictatorship (that is, they changed their costumes).

The only theatre allowed in Myanmar for the duration of the regime has been the traditional all-night performances known as a nyint pwe.  Imagine a nine hour show that consists of American Idol, Tales of King Arthur, the Ten Commandments, Swan Lake, and Abbott and Costello, all accompanied by a string quartet, Indonesian gamelan, and a pop-rock band. To my Western eyes, that is the pwe.  

The performances within the pwe are stylized renditions of the lives of Buddhist Saints and old Burmese Kings. Until perhaps this moment, contemporary theatre has been banned for its potential use as a tool for public education and subversion.  Any performances other than the traditional have had to be performed in private and in secret. 

Presenting any sort of “regular” play, like Volpone, would be viewed as something completely new.  Further, there are no longer any venues to present such a thing. The pwe takes place outside on large, temporary stages for an audience ready for an all-night picnic. Everyone knows the stories, so you don’t really need to pay attention. Like a picnic, it’s about friends, food, and merriment.  Would our play fit into the all-night pwe experience?  TK founder Thila Min says no – it would never get sustained attention.

Politically speaking, the TK cast reminded us that much of Volpone takes place in a courtroom, a place not seen on a stage in Myanmar.  On trial are the virtuous young lovers who have been wrongly accused of fraud and licentiousness via the evil machinations of Mosca and the elites. Eventually, the over-the-top greed of the ruling class is their undoing, and they each get punishments befitting their crimes.  Our collaborators noted that presenting a scene where justice is served against the power brokers is a delicate issue!  That unlikely scenario has never been seen before on stage or in real life. In fact, one of the chastised characters is a military man.  Until very recently, performing such a play would have guaranteed jail time. (We assured them that the power brokers in the US rarely get their just deserts either.)  Nonetheless, the final call is in our collaborator’s hands: is Myanmar ready to see such pointed social commentary?  Their resounding response is “yes”, but treading carefully as we go.    

One of the many discussions we had concerned the ending. I should note in preface that we took some liberties in adapting Jonson’s work, including an added scene where the young innocents, Celia and Bonario, are sentenced to death and executed (not in the original). We then see them in the spirit world, and Celia, finding her militant voice against the injustice they have suffered, tries to rally the audience into action.  Meanwhile, Bonario “finds” a magic wand in the audience which allows them to alter the past by magically endowing the lawyer with a conscience (magic indeed). The show is back on track to a near-happy ending.  But in another adaptation, the judge sentences all the greedy nobles to harsh punishments except for Volpone who, despite being the main instigator, is given a $10 fine.  (Again, this is not Jonson’s ending. He punishes Volpone equally). Once again, Celia uses the wand to stop the action and solicits the audience to suggest appropriate punishments for Volpone: justice must be served!    

This tampering with the playwright’s work came from our mutual desire to speak directly with the audience and charge them with some responsibility for action, a new concept since people have been silenced so long. At later rehearsals, there was some unease among our collaborators.  Does our ending suggest a “mob rule” mentality?  Until the recent political thaw, it made sense to criticize the regime, although dangerous to do so.  But now, even though things are hardly rosy, there is the potential for improvement.  Certainly, our friends say, they want to encourage people to find their voice and involve themselves in improving society.  But frankly, the new freedom of expression has led to hate speech against several ethnic groups, particularly the Muslim population. As Thila Min said, “People are happy to have freedoms, but they don’t want to take responsibility. They haven’t learned that freedom has consequences.”  

Our friends were not so much afraid of repercussions from authorities; they just want to be sure that we are encouraging progressive action among the audience. This underscores our responsibility as artists to choose the clearest words, gestures, and images for the message we want to convey. It’s easy to assume that the message we think we are sending is actually the message being received.  

By our departure, we had not altered the ending, but decided to review Celia’s final dialogue with the audience with deeper attention to “spin”; that is, possible interpretations and misinterpretations. As Soe Myat Thu says, “For a funny play, it is very serious.”  
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Note: Thila Min and Soe Myat Thu are co-directors of Thukhuma Khayeethe.