Theatre in Afghanistan Reborn: Voices in a Fragmented Country

by Joanna Sherman

in National Conference

Post image for Theatre in Afghanistan Reborn: Voices in a Fragmented Country

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

(photo by Russ Weatherford)

For more than a decade, we have been making theatre in Afghanistan, a country where the rules of engagement are still being invented. Theatre venues are virtually nonexistent in Afghanistan so we bring theatre to the public, a first time experience for most onlookers. Like all theatre in the public sphere, the actors must remember whose turf they are on and abide by their rules. In Afghanistan, this is critical.

After September 11th, we headed to the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Having spent years working in other hot spots – Bosnia, Colombia, Israel – this was a reasonable course of action for us. Over the decades, thousands of families fled Afghanistan to escape the Russian invasion, then civil wars, then Taliban extremism. We arrived as the Taliban were fleeing US bombs. Those who fled the Taliban were suddenly side by side with the Taliban themselves, sharing the same camps. Some were tidy mudwalled villages, others just make-shift scatterings of tents.

An NGO that had built schools for refugees offered to host our performances and workshops for the students. Since we were a mixed male and female group, the school officials asked us exactly what we would be doing. We explained that we were going to present a show to make the kids laugh—after all, they had not laughed in a long time. Under the Taliban all performing had been forbidden, so the idea of a “show” was not entirely clear. They asked,

“So you aren’t on stage together then, are you?”
“Oh yes, we perform together.”
“Well you don’t touch, do you?”
“Yes, because we are doing some acrobatic routines and we must touch each other.”
“There’s no music, is there?”
“Yes, for the dancing.”
“Dancing! You’re dancing!?”
“Well, yes, but just on stilts.”

We decided to show them a video. We flipped open our camera and they watched our show on a 2 by 3 inch screen. After just a few moments of viewing they said, “Ohhhhh, that! Well, that’s fine.” Apparently, we were so outside the realm of reality, like cartoon characters, that our actions were deemed acceptable.

I tell this tale because, on one hand, the schools were their turf and we, as guests, were expected to abide by local customs. On the other hand, we were reviving some old memories in the elders’ minds of something they had once known and now forgotten: “yes, we had this thing you call a ‘show’ and we enjoyed it.”

Our work in Afghanistan has been focused on reviving theatrical traditions, building the capacity of local theatre groups, and most important, bringing women into the picture. A woman appearing on stage is still taboo, but women can perform for other women. It’s been a long battle, but we have now created and trained four all-women’s theatre companies that are reaching women who are isolated in their homes and villages. Sometimes performing directly in women’s homes is the only way to reach them.

We proposed the idea of establishing an all-women’s group to Nangarhar Theatre, an all-male group in the heart of Taliban territory. They were open to the idea, but finding women whose families allow them on stage would be nearly impossible. The general image of theatre is the Bollywood drama in which women are inappropriately clad and dealing with a forbidden subject – romantic love.

We did succeed in gathering fourteen young women to participate in our theatre training, with six agreeing to perform in public as long as it was only for women. Amazingly, four were daughters of the mullah. Every day they went home and showed their father what they had learned. After the group had written their play, they performed the entire show for him – a play about a 13 year-old girl being married against her will to an older man for a price. He was touched and now allows them to perform their stories.

Once the young actors see the impact they have on the women in their audiences, they are forever changed. Truly, when they realize their own power, and the power of performance, there is no going back. Their audiences are women in shelters and prisons who have escaped domestic violence and worse.The women marvel that they are seeing girls perform “just like on TV”. For most, this is their first experience with live theatre. Performances in the girls’ high schools stir up an enormous amount of interest and energy.

Our challenge now is in keeping the groups going. Girls must marry by 19 or 20 years old – they have few choices. One encouragement is that, when they bring money home to the family – their performance pay – it vastly improves their respect in the family. Even if they don’t continue as actors (few husbands allow their wives to do so), the theatre training is transformative: they learn to stand up, speak out, and recognize that they have an opinion and a voice.

Joanna Sherman is the Artistic Director of Bond Street Theatre.  As director, choreographer, musician and actor, she has participated in company performances and projects globally. The company primarily works in post-war and disadvantaged communities, collaborating with local artists, and working for the benefit of women, children and others through theatre.  Current focus areas: Afghanistan, Haiti, Myanmar, Lebanon.  Ms. Sherman has directed and taught internationally, and is a frequent speaker and advocate for Theatre for Social Development.  Under her directorship, the company received a MacArthur Award for its intercultural programming.  She has been an advocate and speaker on the role of the arts in peacebuilding at the United Nations, National Council on Women, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, UN Conference on Women in China, universities, and other forums, and featured on CNN, BBC, NPR, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and published in American Theatre magazine.  She is the 2014 recipient of the Lee Reynolds Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women.  Ms. Sherman has a BFA from Cooper Union, and an MA in Theatre & International Studies from New York University.  Ms. Sherman also plays saxophone with the Shinbone Alley Stilt Band.

  • Laurie McCants

    Brava, Bond Street! You folks really walk the walk!