March 28, 2014

Behind the Curtain: Theater making in Afghanistan

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by Emilie Gruat

Last week Play Company intern, Emilie Gruat wrote about her encounters with everyday Afghans during her extended visit to Kabul.  This week she shares her experiences with Afgahn theatre artists who continue to create under extraordinary circumstances.


‘Living Life tomorrow’s fate, though thou be wise, thou canst not tell nor yet surmise; pass, therefore, not today in vain, for it will never come again.’
                                                                                                                                                                                                               …Omar Khayyam…


Once in Kabul, I decided to meet with as many artists and theater makers as possible. My schedule was as follows: from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., Dâri lesson in a school in downtown Kabul, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., meeting and working with Afghan theater makers.

I first met with the National Theater’s company in downtown Kabul, whose director, Mrs. Guleman, had performed in former times as an actress. After returning from exile in Germany and the USA, she formed a new theatre company with which she staged more than 130 performances in the ruins of Kabul Theater and in several provinces of Afghanistan.

Members of The National Theater of Afghanistan posing for a photo in their partially destroyed theater in Kabul.

Members of The National Theater of Afghanistan posing for a photo in the partially destroyed Kabul Theater.

Kabul Theater had been destroyed by the past and more recent wars and seemed isolated and deserted, a remaining ghost and witness of what had once been the center of Kabul theatrical life. And yet, Mrs. Guleman still rehearsed with the actors of her company: seven actors, and one actress, Shakebâ. In her forties, the latter confessed that she would never let her passion and art go, despite pressures from her family or other relatives. She knew she was an outsider among Afghan women, and among Afghan society in general because women in Afghanistan, nowadays, usually stay home to raise the family, and also because it may be risky for a woman to involve herself in the arts. As a matter of fact, women artists are very rare in Afghanistan because to create means to express one’s voice and vision of the world, which Afghan women don’t really feel allowed to do, at least not in public.

When I met the National Theater company, they were working on their next creation, set to begin performances two weeks later — The story of a man in love with a woman he couldn’t marry. Her family refused because they did not belong to the same ethnic group. The young woman had been promised to a cousin at the age of twelve. However dark it seemed, the play ended well, and in music: the woman succeeded in escaping her family, and they both fled their village, in search of a place where they could live freely.

Members of the Afghan National Theater rehearsing.

Members of the Afghan National Theater rehearsing.

Mrs Guleman told me they once had government financial support. That is, around forty years ago. When I met them, the rehearsal room and the stage were damaged and there were very few sets, props, or costumes, and no spotlights or makeup. Invasion and war had devastated everything, but the company continued to have faith: “We trust God, so why shouldn’t we trust theater?” one of them asked.

The classroom of the school housed on the first floor of Kabul Theater.

The classroom of the school housed on the first floor of Kabul Theater.

Eventually they asked me to give them an acting class, so for a week, I gave them a workshop based on physical exercises and improvisations. Mrs. Guleman wanted them to get an idea of the preparation and practice of a European actor, so, during that week, our days followed this agenda: stretching, breathing and voice exercises in the mornings, and improvisations and preparation for the stage (exercises of concentration, and meditation) in the afternoons. The physical training seemed especially new for them. In their practice, instead of doing a physical warm-up before going on stage, they usually isolated themselves in silence, concentrated and foresaw what they would have to do once on stage. The stretching movements were particularly demanding for Shakebâ because her veil didn’t hold well and was often about to fall, but she persevered, laughing at her own predicament. My Dâri was still a bit ‘raw’, but they spoke English, so all our meetings and rehearsals went on with full excitement and joy.

Actors from The National Theater at work in their rehearsal room.

Actors from The National Theater at work in their rehearsal room.

They finally performed in public: the half-destroyed building and partly collapsed stage didn’t prevent people from attending. At 3 p.m. on D-day, men, women and children all gathered and sat on benches set for the occasion. A theater event was, and still is regarded as an exceptional and rare moment of lively artistic expression, one to honor and praise— perhaps even deeper because the members of the company just get a symbolic stipend and don’t make a living creating shows and acting.

Actors preparing for the day's performance on the exposed stage at the National Theater.

National Theater Actors preparing for the day’s performance on the exposed stage of Kabul Theater.

One of the actors of the National Theater was also a member of Soraya, a theater group that gathered every Tuesday night. They met on the fourth floor of a building where Sepânta, the director, lived. One would expect upon entering that they were rehearsing in an apartment, in fact their rehearsal took place in an apartment transformed into a small theater: the first room was the dressing room, then came the theater—tiered seats and a small stage—, and the third room served as a cloakroom. Because they met at night, it was too dangerous for a woman to be part of the group, so there was no actress. Men played women if needed. Their show was based on moments from their own lives, memories, and recent events. After the performance they offered me, we exchanged visions and insights on theater, and now I wonder: are they still doing theater? Do they have a larger theater to rehearse in? How do they make people aware of their craft?  Do they have an audience? Are women now part of their company? Are they still alive?

Members of the Soraya Theater group in the apartment space that serves as their performance space.

Members of the Soraya Theater group in the apartment that serves as their performance space.

During my second week, I went to the Kabul-based Foundation for Culture and Civil Society (FCCS), which was established in March 2003 as an independent social organization by a group of Afghans concerned with the fate of Afghan culture and the strengthening of Afghan civil society.  Their board members included important personalities from Kabul University, the Ministry of Information and Culture, the Academy of Sciences, the Human Rights Commission, and the most proactive cultural and social organizations operating in Afghanistan.

I met there with the head, Paul Allen, who told me more about the projects the foundation was trying to implement. Along with his staff, they wanted the building to be a shelter as well as an inspiring and creative hive for artists in need. They regularly organized music and theater workshops with renowned masters mainly from Europe, and they also gave one or two weekly screenings of international and independent movie productions. Their goal was to provide the younger Afghan generations with a broader ‘window’ and view of the world and its different cultures.

The now Paris-based company Theatre Aftâb originally sprung from one of the FCCS’s workshops. They remained as long as they could in Kabul, trying to find productions and technical means to further develop their performances but they eventually started to feel that their projects were seriously threatened by the growing danger in the country and the pressure from various relatives and people they knew. Thus, they left their lives and families to reach a place where they could anchor and make their company bloom. Thanks to the help and support of Théâtre du Soleil, they settled in a Paris suburb, and produced their first performance in France, Tartuffe. They are now touring their eighth production in France and Europe, La Ronde de Nuit (The Night Shift), a performance originally based on improvisations.  Here’s an excerpt from that production:

I later met with Hussein, head of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Kabul, and his students. He had asked me to attend his class, which allowed me to witness part of their daily acting practice (scenes study); and to give a lecture both on European Theater and on my experience as an actress. I recently tried to get in touch with Hussein, in order to hear news from him: what is he working on with his students now? How is the Arts Department doing? Does the ongoing international and political turmoil feels menacing? What are their needs and artistic desires? What are the students’ prospects once they finish their studies?

Thanks to Hussein, I met Soheila and Râzi, two theater makers and films director who decided to use their art as a metaphorical medium and tool to deeper inform the rest of the world about the situation of the country through the lens of the arts’ critical state. They strongly believed in the power of their craft, and wished their projects (films, articles) to grow, spread among theater communities, and act as a beacon alerting others to the plight of Afghan Theater and Arts.

Soheila and Râzi are now political refugees in Northern Italy, where they created and implemented Afghanistan 2014, a cultural movement they want to share with artists around the world. They are now editing their latest film Afghanistan 2014/Dettaglio, and Stanford University just invited them to give a screening of it next Fall.  Here’s the trailer for their film:

Afghanistan 2014 – Dettaglio (trailer) from FilmWork Trento on Vimeo.

Nearly ten years have passed since I was there.  In my last post, Midnight in Kabul I talked about my host family.  My friend and host Arezou is now in England with all their children except the eldest, Laila, who, along with her father Babur, is held in Afghanistan for visa purposes.

The National Theater still rehearses, but they need help and support to rebuild the theater and to be able to invest in sets, lights, make-up and costumes.

So far, I received no news from Sepânta or Hussein.

The end of 2014 will see NATO definitively leave Afghanistan. They maintained a certain status-quo in the country, and Afghan soldiers are now training to guarantee security and peace. But many Afghan people go on leaving the country, and are pessimistic about its future.

How do you make a theater in which every thought, word and action may participate in some way to bring about peace and freedom for all? How do you make a theater that echoes human values, and how do you keep its flame lit, despite the downward spiral of the everyday world? How do you make a theater sufficiently grounded in such values as truth and hope to balance the never ending increase of contemporary prejudices and violence? How could we involve the theater we create here at a more international level? These are the questions I specifically investigate now.

Emilie Gruat is an actress and theatre artist originally from Paris, currently pursuing her MFA in dramaturgy at Columbia University.

Author: buzzadmin
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