Lebanese theater-maker, actor and playwright Rabih Mroué has argued that theatre is an ideal medium for exposing complex and uneasy issues, and an especially powerful vehicle to raise questions and to formulate fresh ideas, without reaching conclusions and judgments (Mroué, 2009, p. x). Similar beliefs have motivated the creative work of Bond Street Theatre (BST) of New York City since its foundation in 1976. This group of socially concerned actors, musicians and educators has shared its passion and repertoire and created works with audiences and partners in Japan, China, Indonesia, Singapore, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Israel, Palestine, Hungary, Romania, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and across Western Europe, Canada and the USA.
As Bond’s Artistic Director Joanna Sherman observed in a recent interview with the author, company members recognized theatre’s unique ability to illuminate social issues with wit and eloquence early in its history. To reach the broadest variety of audiences, the group has sought systematically to employ performance techniques that will captivate, while also being universal. The company creates innovative works that address social and environmental issues and that function as a humanitarian outreach tool for education and healing. The group has performed in refugee camps, areas of conflict and in post-war environments while collaborating with local artists to reap the benefits of such exchange and to promote the value of the arts in helping communities and cultures shape more peaceful futures.
BST has been working in Afghanistan since 2003. Live performance theatre is little known in that nation following 30 years of war and 5 years of brutally repressive Taliban rule, from 1996-2001. As a result, for many Afghans, a visit by Bond Street to their community constitutes their first exposure to the live performing arts. And since Afghanistan today remains an unsettled and conflict-filled country, the company’s efforts are occurring in environments characterized by ongoing violence and continued struggle. BST has sought to develop ways it can help address that reality for the nation’s citizens: “We do conflict resolution through theatre on a consistent basis, […] offering workshops for children, to explore alternative ways to resolve conflict, without violence,” Ms. Sherman observed in a recent interview (July 2013 interview).
Women in Afghanistan lack adequate protection under the law as well as little access to education. Afghani women are also often subjected to domestic violence. Ms. Sherman suggested that Bond has managed to help create several theatre companies in Afghanistan that address issues surrounding women’s everyday life experiences:
Sometimes they can’t really use the word ‘theatre.’ They’re ‘Women’s Companies,’ that are doing what I would call theatre, but they can go speak to women… Only women can go and do these performances for women, and they’re pretty dauntless. The group that we formed in Kandahar went from door to door, knocking on doors and gathering the women in the neighborhood, just to go to one woman’s house and do the performance in the courtyard or the living room, for maybe just twenty, twenty-five women. These are women that really never leave the home and would not be able to have access to this particular information about domestic violence or about some of the traditions about how in-laws treat their new young brides. They start breaking them [traditions] down. A woman playing an abusive husband is a scary sight to see, because they really know what it’s like. Afterwards, the women in the audience get a chance to come up and act out the scene with them, with the character of their choice, and say how they would treat the situation. It is some interesting dialogue, as you can imagine (July 2013 interview).
Bond Street helps Afghan women create theatre performances about their concerns that speak directly to other women in a safe environment. The testimonial form of addressing human rights abuses, on which BST and its partners draw, privileges personal voice and empowers the marginalized (Rae, 2009, p.17). Jan Cohen Cruz has argued similarly that “change [is] brought on more by people making theatre than by watching it,” when reflecting on her decision to shift from performing in travelling street theatre to facilitating community-based workshops (Cohen-Cruz, 1998, p.5). Bond’s approach reflects its commitment to initiating change through grassroots participation and helping develop skills relevant to individual community environments.
Bond’s ongoing “Theatre for Social Development” project brought theatre to women in prisons in 3 provinces of Afghanistan — Herat, Kabul and Jalalabad. One of BST’s partners, Simorgh Theatre in Herat, was determined to use plays to reach out to women in otherwise isolated communities in its region. Bond Street’s Sherman, Managing Director Michael McGuigan, and performing artist Anna Zastrow, worked with Simorgh’s actors for a month in 2011 to craft theater pieces addressing family violence and literacy. The BST company members were deeply affected by the situations they encountered of women who had been incarcerated for alleged crimes and who had little access to legal counsel, resources or appeals. As they noted in a Bond Street newsletter, “In the Juvenile Prison, most of the young women had fled forced marriages or abusive families. We came to understand that frequently the women face a situation far worse than jail if they were to return to the homes they fled. Many of the women have their children with them in the prison – infants and toddlers. It is sad to see children growing up in jail, and yet it clearly gave mother and child great joy to be together” (BST Newsletter, Fall 2011, http://www.bondst.org/newsletters.html).
BST seeks to create theater that helps to restore human dignity, which Sherman considers foundational to peace and justice in the communities touched by Bond’s work:
As long as women are kept under the conditions they are, there will not be peace. Women are definitely part of the peace quotient for sure. We end up working with the men separately from the women and it shapes the situation to a certain degree. My message to the men is: ‘You can’t be a country that just hops along on one foot. You really have to walk on two feet. And women are half of your country. And you will never be able to achieve peace alone and peace begins in the home, really (July 2013 interview).
Bond Street promotes theater as an instrument for healing and peace in areas of conflict. With a humility born of both experience and self-reflection, Sherman explained this aspiration in our recent interview,
We can’t come in, as the foreigners, with the better way. … Our strategy is always to collaborate with local artists and have our partnership on the ground and then we can work peer-to-peer and really discuss the issues and discuss their thinking and our thinking… Then and only then can you start at least to understand where each other is coming from. Then you could maybe create a play together that’s addressing these issues from more of a fair point-of-view, or maybe a more culturally appropriate point of view…We’re training organizations to use theatre in a certain kind of way… to use theatre as a way to speak out about the issues that confront them.
NOTE: The Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance will host Bond Street Theatre’s Artistic and Managing directors, Joanna Sherman and Michael McGuigan respectively, on October 24, as part of its ongoing Community Voices initiative. The visit’s main purpose is to explore a variety of approaches to conflict resolution in community. Local community organizers and planners have recently approached the Community Voices team about partnering to address persistent social problems via dialogue. Activists, governments, community groups and civil society organizations are increasingly utilizing arts-based dialogic approaches to catalyze community conversations of just these sorts.
References and sources:
Bond Street Theatre Newsletter: Fall 2011 http://www.bondst.org/uploads/1/4/5/7/14571600/newsletter_fall_2011_pg_12.pdf
Cohen-Cruz, J. (1998). General Introduction. In J. Cohen-Cruz (ed.) Radical Street Performance: An International Anthology (pp.1-6). London and New York: Routledge.
Mroué, R. (2009). Foreword. In P. Rae, Theatre and Human Rights, (pp.ix-xii). Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rae, P. (2009). Theatre and Human Rights. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Phone interview with Joanna Sherman, conducted on July 11, 2013.
Lyusyena Kirakosyan is a postdoctoral research scholar at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance. She has recently earned her Ph.D. from ASPECT doctoral program – Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought at Virginia Tech. Her doctoral dissertation, Democratic Justice for Brazilians with Impairments, examined contemporary discourses to help develop an interdisciplinary understanding of how ideas about justice, power relations, human rights and disability are perceived and enacted by different actors in Brazilian society.