“I have been doing theatre for a number of years in conflict zones, and have been asked more than once why they should support our work, when people don’t have enough to eat. Shouldn’t basic needs be prioritized over art? My reply is that we create food for the soul. Our work creates hope and opens the door for dialogue and in that sense is equally important,” pointed out Joanna Sherman, Artistic Director of New York based Bond Street Theatre. She was speaking along with Michael McGuigan, Managing Director of Bond Street Theatre at The Lyric Theatre, as part of the public dialogue organized by community Voices on October 24th.
Opening her talk with a “pick your nose hand trick” that got the audience involved in demonstrating how flexible they were with their hands, they jumped right into showing the power of nonverbal communication in reaching out to people. Throughout their presentation that lasted for about an hour, both Joanna and Michael presented various examples of acrobatics, other body language tools that they use to break through the barrier with kids, who for many reasons may not be able to communicate with others. Language is a major barrier, since many of the kids do not speak English or even if they do, many of the kids in conflict zones are so traumatized that they do not trust others enough to open up, to speak, they pointed out. “In these contexts, we believe that theatre, in the form of opening up dialogue through non-verbal communication is key” they said, in tandem. The work they have put together with local theatre groups includes shows such as the Silent Romeo and Juliet that the group put up in collaboration with another theatre group in Bulgaria.
The duo enthralled the audience with their stories of working in remote parts of Burma, India, Afghanistan and over 40 other countries. While Bond Street Theatre has worked on its own in areas of conflict and provided a venue for spreading social messages such as the need for better hygiene, education for girls, among others, they believe that the work they do is also important in teaching local groups how to do theatre themselves. “We want to teach the local theatre groups to perform, to put up shows and also work with the local stakeholders. We see this capacity building component as being significant to our work too. We also teach them business skills, since that is so crucial to remaining afloat as an organization,” said Michael.
This goes in line with the local needs of the people in many remote parts of the world. With no access to TV, electricity, Radio or other forms of communication, many of these people have no other means of getting public messaging. Local community theatre becomes part of their entertainment, as well as news gathering mechanism. In this context, the power of theatre is multiplied manifold, the duo pointed out. In a brief chat before the official talk, Michael shared with me how they were overwhelmed with the positive response from villagers in Afghanistan, during their first trip there. Expecting to see about 50-100 people, they showed up at a local school. On being informed that this was the last day of school, the Bond group did not expect to see even that many people. “We were overwhelmed to see over 1000 people in the school backyard, when we went around. People were waiting anxiously to see us perform. It is one of the most overwhelmingly positive experiences I have had,” he said.
It is not all good news, all the time. There are definite challenges to their work, as well. Being American and working in a country where the Taliban still has some influence can be dangerous. While both Joanna and Michael pointed out that they have never felt threatened by the local people, in any way, there are times when one has to be cautious, they said. The recent controversy about the film on Prophet Muhammad created a lot of confusion, so we just lay low for a while, they said. Part of the solution to being safe and ensuring that their work is well received is to get the buy-in of the local Mullahs, or religious leaders. There is much wisdom in doing that and ensuring that they understand exactly what it is that we are doing, while respecting their local traditions and religious sensibilities, they both said.
Their mission is “restoring humanity through theatre”, in Joanna’s words. And from the stories they shared at The Lyric, they seem to be doing just that. As a parting thought, Joanna said “ If there is one thing I have learnt from all my travels and experiences, it is that people are people, everywhere. They all want to get up and have a good day.”