Thursday, October 20, 2016

Working in Azerbaijan: "We really entered a different life"

This past February, Bond Street Theatre travelled to Azerbaijan to conduct a program with local university students, in collaboration with the US Embassy.

We landed in Baku and, with barely a moment to catch our breath, immediately hit the ground running. The capital of Azerbaijan, Baku is a sprawling urban center that is half old Soviet buildings, and half new construction made possible by vast sums of oil wealth. We had three weeks to create, rehearse and tour a piece of social theatre with students from the State University of Culture and Arts, a daunting task to say the least.

Azerbaijan is a tiny country located on the edge of the Caspian Sea, and politically dwarfed by its neighbors: Iran to the South, and Russia to the North. As a former member of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is relatively new to democracy, and still struggles with corruption, with a government that does not look kindly upon dissidents.

Week 1: “You make us actually want to learn!”

Within this context, we began our first week by training 22 students of both the social sciences and the arts in Bond Street Theatre’s social theatre techniques. Our collaborative, exploration-based approach was a totally new experience for the participants, most of whom were used to authoritative teachers, and accustomed to a culture of individual as opposed to group achievement. The idea of an “ensemble” was a new concept.  One of the workshop participants explained that, “We didn’t feel any favoritism. This made us strong and feel like we have one shared goal,” while another proclaimed, “You make us actually want to learn!”

The students learned how to devise a performance based on their own assessment of social issues, and how to do this quickly!  For most of them, this was a rare opportunity to be asked their opinions on issues without authority figures demanding a set expected answer.

Week 2: Ideas in Action

From the initial group of 22 participants we selected 8 to create an original performance. The piece focussed on domestic violence, with the message that violence begets violence, and that breaking the cycle of violence in the familial context is essential in breaking the cycle of violence in society.  In countries where violent extremism is a continual problem, we find a strong correlation with the prevalence and acceptance of domestic violence.  A child who witnesses violence as a response to problems learns that violence is a valid problem-solving mechanism. The play addressed the idea that young women should make their own decisions about marriage, education, and other major life choices, rather than their parents or societal pressures.

While gender equality laws have been enacted in Azerbaijan, implementation remains poor, especially in rural areas. The youth were eager to share these stories, and to bring issues of corruption to light. The result was a brand new play, titled Moon Cycles, featuring both the students and members of Bond Street Theatre.

Week 3: Maybe Theatre
The troupe of students and actors toured Moon Cycles to five locations across the country, reaching well over a thousand people. The group even presented excerpts of the performance live on Azeri TV channel ANS TV.  After each show, we asked the audience to ask questions to characters in the play, which led to complex and insightful conversations. The actors had to respond to some challenging questions, and we observed their confidence and understanding of the material grow with each performance.

During the tour of the show, it came time to name the newly-created theatre troupe, and the name “Maybe Theatre” was suggested. Throughout the rehearsal process, the word “maybe” was used as a frequent response to suggestions. This happened often enough that it became one of the first words everyone learned in English. In a culture where learning typically does not involve open-ended questions, the name “Maybe Theatre” stuck.

The new Maybe Theatre plans to continue their work, improving and touring the show, and creating new social theatre productions. As one of the group’s members, explained: In 21 days, we experienced things we never had before. When we entered the door into the space, we really entered a different life.