Olympia Dukakis, Jill Navarre,
Dijana Milošević, Hartmut Von Lieres, Selma Alisphasic, Tina Chen,
Dr. Niranjan Vanalli, Zainal Abd Latiff, Dragan Jovičić, Sachin Gupta,
Odile Gakire Katese, Deborah Asiimwe
Began her career in the theatre, receiving an Obie Award in 1963 for her performance Off-Broadway in Brecht’s “Man Equals Man.” On Broadway she has appeared in “Rose,” “Who’s Who in Hell,” and “Social Security.” Ms. Dukakis’ TV and film includes Anna Madrigal in the “Tales of the City,” “Search for Tomorrow,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” Jane Austen’s Mafia!,” “The Thing About my Folks,” “Moonstruck,” as Dolly Sinatra in the mini-series of Frank Sinatra’s life, “3 Needles,” as Charlotte Kiszko in “A life for a Life,” “The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines,” “In the Land of Women,” “Away from Her,” and starred in and executive-produced “Montana Amazon.” She provided the voice of Grandpa’s love interest for “The Simpsons” episode, “The Old Man and the Key.” Ms. Dukakis wrote her bestselling autobiography, “Ask Me Again Tomorrow: A Life in Progress. She recently directed the world premiere production of Todd Logan's “Botanic Garden” at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago. In 2008, Ms. Dukakis appeared in the revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” opposite Kevin Anderson at Hartford Stage. She also co-adapted and starred in the world-premiere of “Another Side of the Island, based on “The Tempest”, at Alpine Theatre Project in Whitefish, Montana. Ms. Dukakis was honored with the 2,498th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and has received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, Golden Globe award, LA Film Critics Association Award, and nominations for an Emmy Award, NY Film Critics Circle Award, American Comedy Award, British Academy TV Award, Seattle International Film Festival Award, Satellite Award, SAG Award, Genie Award, BAFTA Award, and received the Grand Jury Award.
in The Milk Tain Doesn't Stop Here Anymore
When you began to work in the theater, were there other actresses and actors whose work
Yes! Florence Eldridge (who appeared on Broadway in “Long Day’s Journey into
Night”), Maureen Stapleton, Geraldine Fitzgerald. Many other Italian, French and British
You have said: “To be open-hearted, you have to trust, or be willing to trust – but trust
with open eyes. You have to look at the reality of things. Sometimes there’s darkness and pain.
That’s part of life, too.” Why does the art of acting demand so much discipline, honesty and
Anything else is too difficult.
You’ve spent a great deal of your life working on the classics, including the Greeks,
Chekhov, Ibsen and other great writers. Why was that important to you?
They shook the rafters!
In 1992, you co-created “Voices of Earth,” a non-profit theater company to help women explore your spiritual heritage and birth your own spiritual transformation. Why did you need to do this?
Because I was raised and shaped by a Patriarchal society and culture.
Why did you take on the challenge of performing the one-woman show, “Rose” on Broadway?
To see if I could do it. Also, I had it in me to put myself in challenging
situations. Though, mostly to see if I could do it.
What has given you the greatest joy in creating art in the theater, in film and television?
Knowing myself and what it is to be human.
Has been the Artistic Director of The Auroville Theatre Group (ATG) in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India since 1992. She has been directing many of their productions, with several actors beginning their stage careers with the ATG. Her career actually started in Washington, D.C. in the 1980’s, where she received Best Director award for “Rivers of Blood” at the Source Theatre Festival and first prize for her play, “The Cradle Will Fall” in the Washington, D.C. Arts Council competition. Jill was one of the founding members and the Director of the New Play Series at the Sanctuary Theatre, as well as working at The Folger Theatre. In New York, Jill worked at Playwrights Horizon, and the Light Opera of Manhattan. In America, other plays she has directed include “Resident Alien,” “The Greasy Envelope,” her play “The Cradle Will Fall,” “Deceit (Or Crime with Class),” “Psychotic Busboy Blues,” “Eeany-Meany,” her play “Mommy, I’m Home, and “Behind the Curtains.” In 2003, she began receiving Government of India Development Scheme grants with “Milarepa.” Her screenplays include “Portrait of Anna,” “The Door,” and “Sannyasi” with Edgar Weinberger –adapted from the novel – By the Body of the Earth or The Sannyasin by Satprem. In Auroville, some of the plays, Ms. Navarre has directed include “The Merchant of Venice,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “Waiting for Godot,” “Nishta: or The Strange Disappearance of Margaret Woodrow Wilson,” “Sacrifice,” “Milarepa,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” “The Rainmaker,” “The Tempest,” “The Woolgatherer,” “Black Comedy,” and “The Bay at Nice”, as well as new plays written by Aurovilians, such as “The Greedy Man” and “The Legend of the Kaliveli Siddha”. Her home base here has often been The Sri Aurobindo Auditorium in Bharat Nivas, where renowned Indian choreographers and directors such as Chandraleka and Veenapani Chawla, as well as Ronald Rand in his solo play, “LET IT BE ART! Harold Clurman’s Life of Passion” have performed new works. www.auroville.org/contents/3792, contact: email@example.com, www.facebook.com/jill.navarre, www.facebook.com/theaurovilletheatregroup.com
What brought you to Auroville?
Traveling to India for me began in ’87. At that time, I was working in Washington, D.C. with The Sanctuary Theatre and came with a friend to India. We stopped in a place in Tamil Nadu, and it was called Auroville. I was intrigue by this place. There were a bunch of people from all different countries trying to live and work together, understand one another. It was a kind of experiment in human unity; it had been a dream of mine when I was a child. I remember wanting to go to Israel too – the idea being a pioneer and establishing a place where people could live a different kind of life than the life we were living in America; it fascinated me.
I was born in New Orleans and grew up in Brooklyn. As a kid I loved to sing, and in summer camp got a chance to do some great roles like Ado Annie in “Oklahoma.” I started writing when I was about nine years old, and won a New York City-wide competition for best essay on the theme, “Why I Like to Read.” I also wrote poetry and had some of my poems have been published in the U.S. and in Canada. While I was living in Toronto, a group of us started a coffee house. We called it, ‘The Soft Cell,’ and presented some of Canada’s best poets for a solid evening of poetry and all the chocolate chip cookies you could eat.
My passion in life is theater. I’ve always been involved with the theatre and anywhere I go, I have to do theater or else I can’t live.
Hamlet performed in Auroville at the Town Hall with Drupad and Saraswati.
When I started to take my Master’s Degree at Florida International University, I took a playwriting class on a lark and that changed my life. I began writing plays with a wonderful instructor, Terry Twyman and then I got involved with theater in Miami. I worked for the Coconut Grove Playhouse. My first ‘paying gig’ in theater was selling tickets for “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” That was when I thought seriously about pursuing a life in the theater. So my partner and I decided to go to New York to get more involved with the theatre scene.
Well, when I first came here to Auroville, south India, I got in touch with people here who were doing theater, and I stayed in touch with them when I left. Then I decided to return in ’90. I told friends I’m just going to India for a year, but I didn’t come back to the U.S. for ten years.
What led you to directing?
I started to direct in Washington, D.C, and became a founding member with Michael Oliver and Elizabeth Bruce of The Sanctuary Theatre. I was also the director of the New Play Series where young playwrights would have a chance to see their work on stage performed for the first time and get some feedback from the audience. I was still writing plays and my play, “Mommy, I’m Home” got a production at the Washington Women’s Festival., When I began directing, I enjoyed it every much. I loved the fact we start with words on a page and at the end we have created a universe.
Why did you want to have your own theatre group here in Auroville?
I had found my ‘tribe’ and people in the States asked me: ‘Why are you staying in India,’” and the simplest reason that I could give was I felt happy here. When I arrived, there was no one else doing theatre in English, so I naturally jumped in.
The scripts we’ve chosen are because of their beauty of language and depth of expression. We always ask the question: ‘What does this story mean to us, here, now?’
The plays we do have to have some relevance to the Auroville experience, its multi-cultural, international aspect and should be connected in some way to what Auroville is all about – an expression of the search for human unity, its triumphs as well as its failures, man’s aspiration for progress, the evolution of consciousness, unity in diversity, our connection with the Divine.
What is the credo of the Auroville Theatre Group?
Theatre is about transformation. It’s about finding yourself and touching the deepest part of yourself in order to offer it up to the Divine, to the audience. You are there for them – you’re enacting this miracle of transformation for them (some would say “we stand in their place.”)
So how do we open our hearts to allow this transformation to take place? We use the strongest power that we know – the power of love. What is this love? It is the love which can change you, open you, widen you, clean you, make you strong. It gives you a voice, two arms, two legs, a strong, flexible, responsive, energized, dynamic body and most of all, a heart. It opens your heart, yes, until you think it will break.
During this work, every obstacle comes up, every resistance. We hear “It’s not possible.” “I can’t say that.” “I can’t do that.” “I can’t be that.” But we can. We contain multitudes. What is not possible is to do it alone. For this act of transformation, we need some help. We need each other, for support, for encouragement, for a kind word, for a hug. It’s not a mysterious process. And yet, it contains the essential mysterious question of life – how can love transform?
What is this power? Every day we come and start again. And every day there is some progress, understanding, some laughter and even some tears. Because you cannot change without pain, and frustration and denial and resistance. Then the love has to be there, even stronger than the strongest resistance. Because it leads to a discovery of one's psychic being, to a feeling of connectedness, of light and great, great joy. And we are here for that. I don’t mean only we have it in Auroville, but, finally, all of us are here – here on earth – to make it happen, to allow the spirit to work in the world and… we can do it. We must do it – together.
I think a theatre group in Auroville is like a small Auroville. We have to find a way to work together, to understand one another, to respect and trust one another. That is what Auroville is all about. When I direct I feel I’m in service to the ideals of Auroville. That appeals to me.
The dream of The Mother (whose vision created Auroville) was to create a place beyond national boundaries, religions, beyond differences of caste and gender. She asked people to join her in a great adventure, to step into the unknown, trusting that all who thirst for a higher and truer life are invited.
And somehow for me, this pursuit of a higher and truer life is the reason for doing theater also. It has to happen or I don’t do it. I’m not interested in repeating the past. When I take up a play I always ask myself – there’s always a question – How am I going to do this? If I don’t know the answer, then I know I’m on the right track. The process of discovery in rehearsal is very addictive, its magical. It’s very hard to describe. If I try I feel a lot of emotions. I think it’s a combination of working with all the actors and the play and here we’re all together to make a dream happen.
So, it’s about having a common purpose so we can bond together and trust one another, and at the same time it forces us to work for a certain perfection of expression which I have had not to elsewhere. In the United States a lot of people’s main focus is something other than achieving a quality of radiance. Here we don’t have to think about the money or the critics or worry about how we’ll will earn money. The money question is a big burden outside of Auroville. Here it doesn’t happen in a competitive spirit, so we can concentrate on creating something of truth and beauty without having to compromise ourselves for the bucks.
What kind of challenges do you encounter along the way?
Many challenges. I recall the line from Beckett’s play, “Endgame” – “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that.” We’re all human beings; we all have our creative obstacles, our insecurities, our fears and these things get in the way of the freedom and the discipline we need.
What plays do like working on the most?
My first love, my deepest love is working on plays by Shakespeare. I’ve done four of his plays and part of a fifth one. “Hamlet, “The Tempest,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Merchant of Venice,” and stage-managed “Twelfth Night.”
Sri Aurobindo wrote extensively about Shakespeare and his place in dramatic literature. He wrote a book called The Future Poetry. The book means a great deal to me. In the book he wrote about Shakespeare, saying: “…in all literature, the one and genuine poet standing out as unique in his spirit, method and quality for his content…” was Shakespeare.
I feel Shakespeare, supported by what Aurobindo has said, is the finest work you can put on the stage and when you speak those words it does something to you. They have a mantric quality which takes you deeper, and higher than any other writing that I know of.
When you worked on your production of “Merchant of Venice,” what kind of research did you do?
I had to do a lot of research – about how Shylock was presented in the past, without letting this person, Shylock, overtake the play. So it was quite interesting to see videos of Sir Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellan, and to listen to them talk about their work as Shylock, and then to try and see how my actor, Shakti Kumar, who would be playing Shylock, would find his way in. I spent five months working on “Merchant,” and nine months on “Hamlet.”
What questions did you personally ask yourself as you worked on the play?
I had to try to find, without prejudice, a balance between Shylock’s need for revenge which he speaks of over and over again, and his need for empathy. How will the audience empathize with him? How do we find a way to create understanding and identify with people who have suffered because of us? It’s a very difficult question. And I don’t know how much the audience listening to the play once or twice can understand immediately the balance. The message is important.
Why did you choose the plays you have chosen to do over the years in Auroville?
I look for the content or the message or whether it will be useful for my audience. There’s no use if the audience isn’t interested. With the audience in mind, I think about plays that have to do with spiritual awakening, the search for human unity, the struggle to remain true, searching for truth in your inner life. All these themes are interesting.
“The Rainmaker” by N. Richard Nash was the play we did in 2006, and the play explored some themes of love, trusting one’s self, learning how to be able to give and receive love, how to overcome fear. How to believe in the great magic that love brings in your life. The last scene when the rain comes is one of the magical moments of theater. You could feel the audience go “Ahhh!”
There was a play called “The Perfect Sandcastle” written by a young woman from England, Rachel Barnett. It came to me and this play offered an insight into how people who are lonely are able to reach across their loneliness, their separateness and listen to each other. To be present for each other. You have the character of a grandfather and a grandson, a mother and a daughter, and a young girl who is on a journey to find herself. Directing the play had been a joy, in the challenge. There was a little girl in the play, so I used two young actresses so neither one would feel burdened to carry the whole show by themselves; they were both delightful to work with.
You also are working with actors who speak different languages. Why do you enjoy the process as much as you do?
I find I can direct in another language. At first I was surprised when I went to Thailand and when I got there I found out the actors were not proficient enough in English to work on a play like “The Crucible,” so there had to be a Thai version which we used and I had to learn how to figure out what was happening on stage. To understand them I had to memorize the English script, and watch the action so I could sync my version with the version they were doing on stage.
Once you do it, you say – okay I can do it. And, fortunately working with the actors of the Moradokmai Company and The Rangakarmee actors in Kolkata, who perform in Hindi, I was working with dedicated young and older actors, people who were really in love with theater. And that was a great joy because they gave so much of their time and attention to the work. When you have that kind of devotion you can really make something happen.
You also bring many exciting artists from all over the world to perform and teach at Auroville. I had the good fortune of bringing my play as Harold Clurman to Auroville, which was an honor and a delight. Why is that important to you?
I feel we need to be inspired here by creative artists coming from all over the world. We need to be challenged out of our complacency. We need to constantly learn from artists from outside Auroville, to come and work with Auroville Theatre Group. It brings an element of surprise to the work. I also go out and direct in India and other countries. I take some people with me like when I worked in Thailand. I took two actors two times to work with the Moradokmai Theater troupe in Thailand. I worked on a play I wrote, a rock musical called “Peter Pan: Lost and Found,” and also worked on Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”
I feel it’s very important, this sharing of skills and being able to see new ways of working. Of course, India is very proud of its long tradition in the arts, and rightly so, and it’s also part of Asia and the influence of east Asian arts can be used to our advantage in our work; it’s a very interesting process. I found, for instance, with Moradokmai, there was a great respect and passion for theater from the students and the older actors. We could work at any time of the day or night if we had to. There was a respect given to the process and the time it needs, and of course as a director I love that.
What has happened to the community because of the work you’ve done here?
photo of me and Swar during a Hindu Spring Holi festival in Auroville, where it is mandatory that you get splashed with colored powder.
More young people are much more interested in acting. I’m not the only one doing theater here at Auroville. My role is only as one and there are others who work every day in the schools where plays are performed and the young people in Auroville have many opportunities to be on stage not just with the Auroville Theatre Group. There are performances directed by Johnny from Australia, there is a social satire by the Genius Brothers now, called Genius Inc. There’s work being done by Partha Krishnan, a wonderful actor, director, writer. Ellen, a German director has worked quite a bit with comedy, especially on Moliere and Giraudoux, and of course, Aryamani who has directed several plays by Sri Aurobindo.
People are also doing other things beside theater in Auroville. They have families to taken care of, they have their work. It’s very difficult to have a rehearsal schedule which can satisfy everyone. Very often I have to schedule according to the free time the actors have. One of our challenges here is that many of the actors do not have English as a first language, so we spend quite a few months, for instance, on how to speak Shakespeare. We keep reading the play together to understand the text, and I make sure the actors understand every word that they are saying. Sometimes they have to see a translation of the text in their native language and it takes time to compare the English text to Hindi or Tamil. It can take a lot time.
What do you feel your personal contribution has been to the lives of those here at Auroville?
I want to give respect to the creative process, to the input from every individual in the group. The work on a play involves the need for freedom and discipline. Without freedom you have fascism, without discipline you have chaos. So when working with a group, the group has to find the balance that allows them to work at their highest potential. I think the kind of work the Theatre Group has done has had an affect outside the theater.
In the same way in our daily lives we have to find a way to work together with those who may speak a different language. We come from another culture, and are embracing another life style and yet if we want to pursue a common purpose we have to allow space for each other’s uniqueness, each person’s gifts, each individual’s right to be heard and respected. And then of course, the director has to make the final decisions, so it can be challenging at time but I love what I do. Yes, every day, every moment.
Is a theatre director, co-founder and artistic director of DAH Theatre in Belgrade, Serbia, the first theatre laboratory in her country. She is the co-founder of Natsha Project (an international theatre network) and ANET (Association of Independent Theatre Groups in Belgrade). Ms. Milošević served as Artistic Director and programmer for different theatre events and currently is the Director of International School for Actors and Directors of DAH Theatre. She tours with her work, giving lectures and workshops around the world. She also writes essays about the theatre for different national and international publications and magazines. In addition to directing socially engaged theatre works of high aesthetic quality, Ms. Milošević has worked on issues of violence against women with the activist group, Women in Black, performing stories of women from Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia. Ms. Milošević directs at an international theatre school every summer, and has taught across America at different colleges and universities on several occasions. DAH Theatre is known for being an experimental Serbian Theatre group founded in 1991 by Dijana Milošević and Jadranka Anđelić. Originally performed on the streets of Belgrade to protest against the government’s acts of aggression, DAH Theatre produces politically driven, movement-oriented works. In 2003, DAH Theatre enlarged its activities by founding DAH Theatre Research Centre to deliver an ongoing program of workshops, lectures, seminars, guest performances and festivals. The work of the Centre is aimed towards a constant exchange of knowledge, experience and ideas amongst artists and participants from various theatrical and national traditions. In the last two decades, through their work, the members of DAH Theatre have strongly opposed war and violence. In 1991, when the war started in Yugoslavia, DAH Theatre immediately had to face questions such as: “What is the role and meaning of theatre? What are the responsibilities and duties of artists in times of darkness, violence and human? Suffering?'” DAH Theatre decided to interrupt their work on the performance “Gifts of Our Ancestors” to begin work on a new piece that could provide them with the answers to these questions. DAH Theatre’s first performance “This Babylonian Confusion” was based on the songs of Bertolt Brecht. An anti-war performance; it was presented outdoors in the center of Belgrade at a time when it was forbidden to even mention the war. DAH Theatre is committed to social justice, healing the wounds of war and fighting the nationalist agenda in Serbia, armed with the belief that the world can be changed through its performances. DAH Theatre has performed on every continent and trained hundreds of performers from around the world in its International School for Actors and Directors, recently renamed The DAH Theatre Institute. DAH Theatre’s performances include: “InVisible City,” originally performed in 2005 in Belgrade, essentially a street performance staged on a working city bus. “Crossing the Line” is based on texts from the book Women’s Side of War, a collection of women’s testimonies about wars which occurred in the former Yugoslavia during 1991-1999. It was DAH Theatre’s goal to establish a process to deal with the past – to reach the audience emotionally and psychologically as well as to encourage women to start talking about their experiences, the past – and to participate in building democracy and peace.
Are you currently working on new theater pieces?
Yes, I am working on my new lecture/performance. I would like to talk about the twenty-five years of my theatre in the context of one country which does not exist anymore. How one theatre group started, developed and endure in the very special circumstances. What the conditions in which we have lived and are still living. Where every moment is colored and marked by political and historical situation in a very direct way.
I still do not have name for this piece and I am composing it from short stories. They are the real stories from last twenty-five years. It is a kind of story-telling in the service of the lecture/performance. It will be premiered on July first this year, for our 25th Anniversary!
Another piece I’m preparing for is “Decades,” which is the working title of the performance. It will be based on interviews with elders, people who are eighty-years-old or older. The whole project has been initiated by Ruwanthie de Chichera, actress, and director from Sri Lanka. She started the project, “Dear Children Sincerely,” with an aim to create international project and she’s already working on it in her country.
This is what Ruwanthie wrote about the project:
“Dear Children, Sincerely…” is an international theatre project initiated by Stages Theatre Group in Sri Lanka, which aims to collect the stories and experiences of the elders of a society (those close to or over eighty years old today) and take them to the present day youth in the form of storytelling and live performance.”
“The world of the 1930’s – with America in depression, a weak China battling internal rebellion and the external threat of Japan, western colonial powers – England, France, Spain, Holland and Belgium, to name a few – ruling half the world, the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, and independence struggles gaining momentum across the world – is worlds apart from the world of today.”
“It is so far removed from our present-day reality of globalisation, communications technology, the United Nations, consumerism and struggle, that it is easy to forget that we have, living amongst us, a very tangible link to that earlier era. An era that has been romanticised, vilified and patronised in equal degree. An era whose values and experiences built the world we have today.”
“Our elders were born in the 1930’s or before. They lived through the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. They lived through the injustice of colonisation and empire. They witnessed the fall of socialism – the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union – and the unfettered rise of market-capitalism. They saw the establishment of the United Nations and the enshrinement of international human rights. They saw countries gain independence from the colonial powers, and then they witnessed these countries leaders squander independence in exchange for petty political gain.”
“Discrimination, injustice, corruption, abuse and violence, discontent, insurrection and hatred have scarred the post-independence journeys that our elders have navigated. They lived through social upheaval – the movements for equality of women, ethnic and racial minorities, sexual and gender minorities, castes and class. Some of them pushed the boundaries of change, others resisted, the rest remained uninvolved. They witnessed society change, as the pace of life quickened, and the supremacy of convention evaporated.”
“As access became easier and value diminished, as the protection of one’s privacy became more difficult – the search for one’s identity more desperate. They witnessed unprecedented technological advance in their lives – from the first colour photographs in the 1930’s to the digital, interconnected technological superhighway the world has become today.”
“Eight decades of this world. Of change. Of experience. Of loss and gain. What have they learnt? What do they regret? What do they want to say to us before they leave?”
So, this is the starting point for the performance I plan to start rehearsing in September, 2016. The elders in my country experienced, beside all from above, also a huge transformation of one big idea – of believing in the possibility of the “most just country in the world” that Yugoslavia was supposed to be. To witnessing the failure of that idea with all its horrific circumstances.
They might have something to tell us about how it all happened, how to go on, how to build the future. Before they leave us.
When you were studying at the Faculty of Special Education at the University of Belgrade – were you already directing and thinking about creating your own theatre company?
My need to create the group started very early in my childhood. It was not conscious idea to create the theatre group, but to have a group of people with whom I could go through different adventures. In my imagination they were very concrete people with special skills, and every day I was experiencing different adventures together with them. In my mind, it was very real and I was fortunate to have an older neighbor, who, unlike my parents and older sister, wanted to listen every day about my adventures.
So, every day I would knock on his door, and I was telling him about the most recent adventure I have just experienced. He was my first spectator and thanks to him that idea and need of having the group became real. Later, when I started to understand that my path in theatre is theatre group, not institution, I recalled that early experience and understood how much it had formed me and my vision of the theatre company.
Who have been inspirations for you in theater and in life?
The first big inspiration in theater was Polish director Jerzy Grotowski and his book “Towards the Poor Theatre,” which blew my mind away when I read it for the first time. My other big inspiration, and someone I consider my master, is Eugenio Barba, and his actors, specially Torgeir Wethal, the formative member of ODIN Teatret, who unfortunately passed away few years ago.
Another big source of inspiration for me is performance art and visual art, and the work of my partner Nesa Paripovic, who is also a renowned conceptual artist. And books, all kind of books, from different fields, different periods and topics.
What would describe as the main reasons you co-founded Dah Teatar with Jadranka Anđelić?
We wanted to create a theatre laboratory, because, first, we were not satisfied with the short time we would have to direct performance in traditional theatres. We wanted to have a much longer period to devise and create our pieces. Then we wanted to develop constantly as artists and as human beings with a group of people – to perfect our skills and techniques on the everyday basis, to create our own conditions – to establish different, more human relationships then relationships in institutions. We wanted to create space free for experiment, but also space of freedom in the broader sense.
We were aware of the paradox. In order to create the space of freedom we had to construct very strict rules, a working ethic, etc. But at the same time when we started, the Civil War broke out in our country and our theatre laboratory became another sense for us.
It was really a breath of life in that time. It became the platform from which we were able to speak openly and publicly – to oppose the war and violence and insanity of our government then – as well as the madness of world politics.
Your earlier performance work, “Gifts of Our Ancestors,” led to your first performance piece: “This Babylonian Confusion,” based on the songs of Bertolt Brecht, spoke out strongly against war. You have said they led the DAH Theatre to ask two questions: “What is the role and meaning of theatre? What are the responsibilities and duties of artists in times of darkness, violence and human suffering?” Do you feel as you’ve continued creating new theater you’ve been able to approach some answers?
We realized that the only way to oppose destruction is to create. So our performances, continue having as their main theme the relationship between the individual and history, which also became a powerful celebration of life.
I can quote something I said from the book “Acting Together: “Through common participation – projects, performances, meetings – theatre can be one of the most powerful mediums for creating live contact between individuals from opposing sides of a conflict. In this way, theatre helps remove barriers between people and nudges them to face the truth and overcome harsh experiences, thus directly contributing to reconciliation.”
“Theatre can answer people’s need to understand the moment they live in, and it can help them meet the fear, anger, prejudice, pain, and suffering in safe surroundings. It can remind people of the suffering of others. It can influence people profoundly without political pressure and propaganda. It can give the energy of life manifested in the dancing, singing body of an actor. It can make people smile together again.”
One of the fundamental aspects of theatre is that people of all different backgrounds work together – and this is also what is most needed in our region. Theatre is an attempt to share the space. Every country in our region faces the same important questions: Can we create a shared space? What would it take?
Through theatre work – tolerance and the possibility of creating new life from the ruins can be explored. Theatre can be a way to gently initiate discussions about a country’s troubled history, opening the door for facing the truth and reconciliation. Through touring, theatre artists meet with people from other ethnic communities and build a basis for exchange and possible collaboration. Through programs, for and with young people, theatre nurtures a foundation for the future that will enable people to live together.
How do you keep up your spirit and energy to do the work that is necessary?
Very early in the history of my group, I experienced that our work was needed by people. It was during our first anti-war performance on the streets of Belgrade when I realized that our work, words, and actions were needed as much as food and water. This is what has given me the energy to continue through all hardships and constant financial insecurity. The idea that we can make our society and our world a better place is not ‘naive utopia’ for me; it is something I constantly choose to practice through my work. It’s something that I share with my colleagues, and in return, I get a lot of energy from.
How does the Theater have the power to help heal?
Theatre creates space for untold stories, that are burning inside of the people to be told. Theatre gives meaning and justification to the loss people experienced.
Theatre can energize and open up spectators, thus contributing to the life force in their beings. Theatre brings back smiles on the faces, using humor to “speak truth to the power.” Theatre creates space where emotions can be shared in a safe surrounding.
Theatre inspires people for the action. Theatre provides us with community, so we do not feel alone with our pain or problems or concerns.
Theatre demands active participation in the life of community, in that way contributing to the vital force in people. Theatre reframes events and experiences and make them possible to be shared as wisdom with others.
What have you discovered about the art of story-telling that makes it such a universal language?
The circle was the first. It is the circle in which story-telling started to happen and this is an archetype that lives in all of us.
Story-telling touches something very deep human in us; it creates community.
Story-telling is the shared space and shared moment in the real time, the live experience that cannot be replaced.
Hartmut Von Lieres
Is a German composer and pianist. He has composed music for films and theater, including writing the music for the new opera, “IBSEN” with a libretto written by Ronald Rand.
He had piano lessons with Andreas Stephan, a concert pianist of the Hamburg School of Music and then studied Historical Science of Music at the University of Hamburg. His first symphony, “Schloss Hueffe” describes the early Baroque castle history and its environment.
You recently had a concert in Auroville. Why did you want to come to India to perform your music?
I have always been touched by classical Indian music. I had a very big longing for India. One day, I was in the airplane, on my way there.
How did it affect your music?
I’m more of a classically trained but I know about ragas. Sometimes it has seeped into my music. In the last concert I did here in Auroville, one song was called “Indian Dreams.”
How young were you when you took up the piano?
I was ten years old. My mother encouraged me. She placed a piano in the house and I had a teacher for twelve ears. He was a concert pianist Then after that, I studied the historical science of music.
What was some of the music you created in Germany?
I would give piano concerts in Germany with own compositions, mainly from the classical style. I’d call it impressionistic music of today.
The first Symphony I wrote was a commission about a castle and its environment. I had met some people here in India who liked my concerts, and they invited me to come to where they were near Bielefeld, in Germany. They had a water castle and their neighbor was a duchess. So I gave a concert there, and was commissioned by the duchess to write a symphony about this beautiful castle, Hueffe, near Bielefeld.
As I gazed at it, it began to inspire me. I had many historical guidelines from the duchess different historical chapters, which she thought were the most important for that area. The landscape there had faced Roman and Germanic periods. Then the Saxons came and fought against the Franks, then the Renaissance, and the Liberation wars from the Prussians against the French. I tried to include these historical elements into the music.
Which composers would you say are your biggest influences?
From the contemporary composers Steve Reich and Chick Corea. I like Reich‘s music; it’s extremely peaceful and he writes wonderful harmonies, which are quite meditationary without becoming boring. He’s an absolute master creating wonderful chords and harmonies. Chick Corea mixes classical orchestral music with Spanish music and jazz. Wonderful. I love it.
From the classical composers Stravinsky and Richard Strauss.
How were you first introduced to Ronald Rand to work together to create the music for the new opera, “IBSEN,” about Henrik Ibsen.
Jill Navarre from the Auroville Theatre Group knew about my symphony and she liked it very much. She told me about a new play called “IBSEN,” and asked me to come and hear a reading of it in Auroville at her home. I went and met the playwright, Ronald Rand. Then Jill asked me if I would be interested in doing an opera. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, to express and underline the words with instruments. To express the big variety of human emotions with an orchestra.
Had you known much about Henrik Ibsen?
I knew who he was, but I didn’t know that much of his life and his work when I began. As I continued working, I became more and more fascinated by who he was and his work – he was a fascinating personality. I think he was extremely strong, and had a very lonely path like many men of size in the world. In a way, he was like Nietzsche. He wanted to create something new without any help.
It’s been very interesting to collaborate – it’s an international and intellectual exchange with Ronald. He’s in New York City, and I’ve been in Germany. Ronald’s someone who has studied deep into Ibsen’s life and it’s been enriching me.
I feel a lot responsibility to do a good job and want to make the opera happen. I believe there is an audience that would be very interested in an opera like this, that deals with the life of such a great artist, and Ronald has written a challenging libretto, so I can imagine, it would lead to a great discussion.
How did you go about creating the opera?
When I read the libretto, I begin to develop a ‘stage picture’ in my head of what happens there. The words, of course I follow and think: how do these characters feel. What is going on inside of them? I try to imagine, what is moving them.
I start with the voice, to create the melodic line. Then normally, the strings come, and they’re followed by the woodwinds, then the brass, harp, celesta and drums.
Then I read about Ibsen, his life and his plays to get a feeling for his life, the period and listened to music of his time. The opera has many influences from the late romantic period, mixed with modern elements regarding rhythm and harmonies. I did not want to write an opera of that time.
What are your hopes for the opera?
I hope it will go around the world, and that it will be a humanistic opera. In the opera there are all these different characters, several women, who have a strong connection to Ibsen, and have an influence upon him, and he upon them, which makes the encounters very dramatic.
I personally feel the opera would be very valuable for many people to see, including artists, to see how he struggles in his life creating his art. Women being liberated from the constraints of the time was a big issue for him and his work continues to have a great effect in many countries.
What makes music so valuable to our time today?
Can you think of the world without music? I think it transforms humans; music can be very unearthly. You can’t touch music; you can’t see it. It’s not earthbound.
When I think about Bach, for example, his spiritual music can make your heart soar. Music changes people, and so many different types of music creates so many different emotions.
Music can be a big educator – not only to express feelings, but also to bring the quality of compassion and love, courage and hope. Music is necessary for the health of all people.
One of the foremost theater and film actresses in Eastern Europe, Ms. Alispahic is a permanent member of the Sarajevo War Theatre (SARTR) in Sarajevo since 1998. She performed in London with the Theatre de Complicite in “Foe” directed by Simon McBurney, in “Women of Troy,” and “Caucasian Chalk Circle” (National Theatre), “Blood Wedding” (Young Vic Theatre), and as Andromache in an adaptation of Euripides’ ”Sarajevo Trilogy” (Royal Festival Hall). She has performed in many productions at the National Theatre in Sarajevo-Bosnia and Herzegovina including “Hasanaginica,” “Woyzeck,” “Leons and Lena,” at the National Theatre of Tuzla in “Don Juan” among many other plays, in many plays at the Chamber Theatre 55 in Sarajevo including “The Sickness of Youth,” and has received awards for her performance in “Sarajevo and across Bosnia with Dragan Jovičić in Jose Sanchis Sinisterra’s “Ay, Carmela” (12th year, directed by Robert Raponja). Her noted work at SARTR includes “Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” as Beatrice, the lead role in “Anna Karenina,” “Huggers, ” in the lead role in “Katarina Kosaca, the last Bosnian Queen,” Ana in “Dr. Shuster,” as Sylvia Plath in “Longing and Death of “Sylvia Plath, Natalia in “The Siege of Leningrad,” and the lead in “Caroline Neuber.” Her film and television includes: “Play to the End,” “Milky Way,” Elgars Tenth Muse,” and “Bliss.” She has received many awards at many festivals and also received the ‘Woman of the Year in the Arts’ Award from the magazine, “Woman 21,” and the Freedom Award from the International Center for Peace. Ms. Alispahic is a Professor of Acting at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
How young were you when you entered the theatre?
Actually it began when I was about eight years old. My father is playwright and a dramaturg of a theatre in Tuzla. I will be grateful for the rest of my life. He took me to the theater at a very early age, and I grew up backstage at the theatre. I became connected to all these wonderful people who worked there. It’s where I learned respect for this profession, for everything that has to do with the theatre. I never wanted to do anything else. I’d spend hours and hours watching rehearsals, seeing these wonderful actors on stage.
When I went to secondary school at fifteen years of age, I knew I was going into the theatre. I had spent all my free time at the theatre. I had started acting at eight in the Drama Studio, and at sixteen years old I was accepted into the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Sarajevo. I passed the exams, and was the youngest graduate student of the Academy in the former Yugoslavia.
When the Bosnian War started I was twenty years old and in Sarajevo. I traveled to Tuzla to escape the War. My mom was a doctor and gynecologist, and she helped many of the raped women in Tuzla; it was a terrible period. Many of them were even eleven, twelve years of age, and my parents saw what was happening and made the decision to send me out Bosnia.
I left with an agency’s help, got a visa, and traveled by bus to Zagreb. Then by plane to England. After I had left Tuzla, a friend of mine told me the only bridge into Bosnia had been destroyed so there was no going back.
For almost a year I worked as a babysitter in a restaurant in London. I was a very good waitress. I worked in a boutique selling clothes and cleaned houses, and I was grateful to be there. There was a program for refugees in one of the colleges to learn English and computer skills and I did, and then I met a girl who was a friend of a casting director. She got me in touch with a director at The Young Vic. My first role was as Andromache in English.in a ‘Sarajevo trilogy’ from a part of Euripides’ “Trojan Women.”
After that I wrote a hundred letters to try and get more acting work but no one answered. Then somehow I got in touch with the Jeremy Conway Agency, which had come to see me in the Sarajevo Trilogy, and they began getting me auditions, which led to my being cast at the National Theatre with Rosemary Harris and Jeremy Irons. I also met my best friend then – Elizabeth Mansfield.
How did you cope with being away from Sarajevo and adapting to living in London?
It was a hard experience being there alone. I really didn’t really know anyone; I only had one friend. It was about survival. I decided once I was there, I would be there for a while. So I said to myself I will live my life with dignity. I won’t be a victim of circumstances. It was a very hard period, yet at the same time it gave me so much strength. I’m not afraid of anything in my life. I met so many lovely people; I eventually worked with the Complicite Company. I had really good training, really wonderful professors. I was never ashamed of my skills.
I always say to my students: “Go for every audition, don’t let your vanity, your ego get in your way. Discipline your mind. It’s a question of the moment. You should always believe in yourself no matter what.”
All the time I would tell myself: I will not give up, but the chances of me working in English speaking environment were very slim. I feel what eventually happened to me as an actress was meant to be.
What was the experience like working with Theatre de Complicite?
Up to that point I had worked a lot from my head. After experiencing the work with Complicite I learned to listen to my body. The work they did made me connect with my body. I was very intellectual in the work, always working very hard to understand things. But I learned it’s really about the connection with my body and my being. I learned how much we can do by listening to our emotional memory and physical memory of our bodies.
I also learned the power of the ability to divide the text from the story. I learned from the text how to do so many wonderful things without saying the lines. To just listen and connect and learn from other human beings, and to work as one unit – it was a most ‘incredibly-aware’ experience of being in the theater.
When we did “Caucasian Chalk Circle, I understudied Juliet Stevenson playing the lead, and I played five roles. It was wonderful that Simon (McBurney) felt I could do it all. We had one run-through with me in the lead role, and it was so exhilarating.
Simon isn’t afraid to listen to other people. He's not obsessed with himself. He feels he has something to learn from everyone, which makes him a great director. He’s very passionate about the work; he’s a very warm person, and he’s became a great friend.
How did your having to leave your country because of the War impact you as an actress and your feelings about acting?
Before the War I felt it was great to act. That it was nice to entertain – that the theater can help the audience relax. When I came back to Bosnia after the War, I had to pick up the pieces. I changed my opinion about what acting is all about. I don’t want to sound pretentious but there’s kind of greater purpose for me. Having gone through that kind of an experience, of having everything and then losing everything overnight, in a moment I realized that every moment when I’m acting on stage is special. There are a lot of people who had gone through hell during the War and now they have chosen to buy a ticket and come and spend two hours of their time watching me. For me, that’s a huge responsibility; the task is for me to give them my best. I feel really conscious now of the words I speak from the stage to the audience.
When I choose parts, when I decide what I want to do, I know now I have to have at least one line which I believe might possibly change someone’s day or their life. It’s a big thing if you can do that as an actor. I insist when I work on a show that I’m bringing a clear, clean honest emotion as a theater actress.
We’re creating theater in a world where more and more people are engaged with television, blockbuster movies, all kinds of entertainment, reality shows, computer games, they’re bombarded with so many things. But when they come to the theater, we’re there to tell them a simple story – to somehow get to the core of their being, to their emotions.
I think it’s very important to me that my acting is that rich all the time. Our job is always to just tell the story and the more shows you can do that in, the more the theatre can survive.
You’ve also been bringing to audiences for over fourteen years now with Dragan Jovičić – Jose Sanchis Sinisterra’s “Ay, Carmela”
We have performed it over 200 times. We feel it’s like a celebration of life. We really want to celebrate those two hours with each audience. We have something special that occurs in that and you feel a very special atmosphere has been created in the theater. I have the same women who has been doing my hair and makeup for thirteen years. She was in the theater for fifty years. She said to me when she came to do “Ay Carmela,” she felt like she was born again. Dragan says we have been able to bring something very special to our audiences. We continue to nurse the production to keep it growing. When you do a show this long with another actor like Dragan, it’s a very special experience.
What was it like to bring this play across Bosnia right after the War.
One time we arrived in a town and there was no electricity. It was quite a dark place which we performed in. It was a theatre which we performed in. But in that town every day the school kids had to go around mine fields to get to their classes. We felt we had to bring something very special to this audience that came to see us. To give our very best and hope it would bring some kind of dignity to their lives. They had lost so much during the bombardment during the War. They didn’t have that much to eat. They came to the theater because they wanted to feel like human beings. A man came and brought his child with him. He was a doctor, and I can’t imagine what he went through during the War. He came in a black suit and a bow tie like he was going to La Scala, and at the end, he kept saying “Thank you, thank you for coming.”
Dragan and I also took the show to a small town in 1992 to the northwest part of Bosnia, and did a show in a sports gymnasium in the local school. The auditorium windows were still broken and it began to rain during the show on our stage. The audience was sitting on uncomfortable chairs and it rained but we continued and acted in the rain, and it was wonderful to feel as if we were stripped down to the basic way of communicating without necessities or power. But when you come and give them a piece of heart you give a hundred percent, and they feel you have come to celebrate life with them. To say: You are not a victim. Together let’s bring our lives back to normality, to a place where our previous life was.
We did a show in a space where it was so cold, at one point I couldn’t feel my toes or jaw. I didn’t want to put anything else because it would have obscured my costume. It was so cold during the show Dragan and I felt our jaws stiffening. Everyone was freezing in the audience but we all stayed together and were warmed by what we all did together.
What does acting mean to you now?
I had stopped acting when I became a mother. But now I have returned I feel I have become a better actress. Being a mother is a big thing for me. I didn’t think I would become a mother at this time in my life, but it has made me more complete; it has brought something special to my acting. It has helped make me a better actor.
When I wake up in the morning I have to give the best to this small human being. I can’t explain to her I’m not well. I have chosen that not all my time is in the theater but I really believe in what Stanislavsky said that when you enter the theatre, you can leave all your problems and negative thoughts on the doormat. You have the opportunity to bring all the love and joy and happiness you feel in life to your work. We’re so privileged and so blessed with our lives, those who act, so very lucky that we can act.
Ms. Chen is currently starring in Albert Chan’s new short film, “Descendants of the Past, Ancestors of the Future.” She recently gave her talk, "Legacy of My Chinese Family" about the three generations of her mother’s family and their contributions to Chinese culture at the Greensboro Arts Alliance Summer Stock Theatre in Vermont, and at Urban Stages in New York City. She had a starring role opposite Kelly Hu and Roger Rees in a Film Festival award-winning independent feature, “Almost Perfect,” written and directed by Bertha Bay-Sa Pan; and the indie short film “The Potential Wives of Norman Mao,” shown at the 2011Cannes Film Festival, written and directed by Derek Nguyen, and narrated by George Takei. Her other films include “The Hawaiians” opposite Charlton Heston, for which she received a Golden Globe Award nomination, “Alice’s Restaurant” opposite Arlo Guthrie, “Three Days of the Condor” opposite Robert Redford, and the award-winning indie film, Face” opposite Bai Ling. Her television work includes guest starring roles on numerous shows opposite Anthony Quinn, Burt Reynolds, Wayne Rogers, and David Carradine, and she was nominated for an Emmy Award for “The Final War of Olly Winter” opposite Ivan Dixon. She has played leading roles in many productions on and off Broadway, including Katharine Nomura in “The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks) (August Wilson Theatre), Mother Goddamn in “The Shanghai Gesture” (Mirror Repertory Theatre), and “Family Devotions” by David Henry Hwang. She has directed a number of plays, including Lucy Liu’s New York stage debut in “Fairy Bones.” On Broadway, she co-produced the play “Passion” by Peter Nichols starring Frank Langella, and received a Drama Desk Award nomination as part of the producing team for “The Rink” by Terrence McNally starring Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli. Ms. Chen’s other awards include Urban Stages 25th Anniversary Award for Artistic Brilliance, Women’s Project’s Women of Achievement Award, Girl Scouts Woman of Distinction Award, and The Anna Mae Wong Award. She wrote the music for the holiday song, “This Tree,” with lyrics by Ruth Wolff, which premiered with the Hong Kong Children’s Choir at its Silver Jubilee, and composed short flute pieces for Pan Asian Repertory’s production of “Fairy Bones.” While working as an actor, Tina simultaneously worked as a research technologist in the Serology & Genetics department at the New York Blood Center. An honorary advisor for the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Ms. Chen is on the National Council of the Aspen Music Festival & School and volunteers for Lighthouse International as a reader for the sight impaired. TinaChen.net.
Tina Chen with Bail Ling in "Face."
Heroes of History:
Legacy of My Chinese Family
by Tina Chen
Some years ago, the Cosmopolitan Club, a career women’s club in New York City asked me to present a talk. I initially thought the topic would be about my professional artistic life. But a number of things happened that made me want to talk about my ancestors.
First, my husband asked me, after my mother’s passing, whether I wanted to travel back to China to trace my roots. I didn’t follow through at the time but the idea had been planted in my head. Shortly thereafter, a dear friend of mine, Katharine Houghton, surprised me with a cassette tape of a conversation she had made of my mother years ago. They were both living in New York City at the time. On the cassette my mother talked about her past, her family. I was so touched by her words, andI’m so grateful to have it.
Soon after that, the Pan Asian Repertory Theater in New York City asked me to play the Dowager Empress in the production of “Empress of China.” I remembered hearing as a child that my great grandfather had served under the Empress Tzu Hsi and had often visited the court. All of these things taken together made me feel as though my mother’s spirit was somehow manipulating circumstances for me to learn more about my ancestors.
When I gave my talk at the Cosmopolitan Club, I shared about the history of my mother’s family – my great grandfather, Tan Zhong Lin, my grandfather, Tan Yen Kai, and my mother, Tan Yuin.
In China, my family was known as the Tans, and the Chinese always put the last name first. When I traced my family history, my journey started from the latter part of the 19th century near the end of the Ching Dynasty. The first recorded Tan (Tan Wei Se) lived in Jiang Xi Province.
However more recently, I found a book written by my mother’s oldest brother Tan Beue, who traced our ancestry back to the Spring and Autumn period in Chinese history, dating from 770–476 BC, more than 2500 years ago! Even before when Christ and Buddha lived.
My great grandfather, Tan Zhong Lin, had served under three emperors and one empress towards the end of the Ching dynasty as a royal advisor, and he also became Viceroy of seven provinces. During his life, he also cultivated his chefs to create the famous Tan kitchen.
Tan Yen Kai, my grandfather, was one of the founders of the Republic of China. He also later served as the fledgling country’s Premier. One of my aunts and an uncle were accomplished calligraphers, and another aunt of mine married President Chiang Kai-Shek’s Vice President, Chen Cheng.
My mother, Tan Yuin, also known as Una Yuin Tann, had attended England’s Cambridge University, where she received an honors degree and a master’s degree in English Literature, recognized as one of the best students not studying in her language. It was an amazing feat considering she was studying English Literature with English students studying in their own language, as she was from China. After she moved to America, she taught at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities. My mother made, in her own special way, contributions to the history of China.
Now I have chosen to continue sharing my family’s history around the world. It is a heartfelt sharing for me of the three generations of my mother’s family. 2014
Written for “The Soul of the American Actor.”
Dr. Niranjan Vanalli
Is Professor and Chairman of Board of Studies in Communication and Journalism, Director of Centre for Proficiency Development and Director of Educational Multimedia Research Centre at Mysore University in India. A prolific writer in Kannada, Dr. Niranjana Vanalli has written thirty-two books. A well-known columnist in Kannada, he has written columns for various popular newspapers for the past 25 years. Dr. Niranjana Vanalli was born in a remote village called Vanalli in Sirsi taluk of Uttara Kannada, district of Karnataka state. He received his Bachelors and Masters in Journalism from University of Mysore. Dr. Niranjana Vanalli taught at SDM College Ujire for six years, and then joined the University of Mysore. He began writing in Kannada and English, and edited “Manjuvani Magazine” of Shri Kshetra Dharmasthala. His first book, Suddiyaste Alla in Ujire, received the State Sahitya Academy Award. Dr. Niranjana Vanalli wrote a popular column ‘Kandiddu Kaadiddu’ in “Udayavani,” a Kannada daily for the last seven years, and has written more than 500 feature stories. Dr. Niranjana Vanalli worked at Sultanate of Oman as a Communication Professor for over two years, and wrote a book on his experiences there, considered a pioneer work in Kannada on life in Middle East countries. Dr. Niranjana Vanalli has received several awards and recognitions for his contributions to journalism, literature, and academic fields, including as a Sahitya Akademy Awardee, Goruru Award, Ugraana Prashasthi, HSK Award, Krishnananda Kamath Puraskaara, shimogga Karnataka Sangha Award, and Rotary Amara vani prashasthi. He lives in Mysore with wife Savitha and daughters Spoorthi and Siri, at his residence ‘Shalmala’ in Sharada Devi Nagar, Mysore.
What are your greatest aims for your students in your position?
I am a featured writer. I teach featured writing just like drama is for you, features are for me. In fact, features are very important in this complex world of journalism. Writing for a newspaper gives me a satisfaction. I want my students to be very good human beings and features are a way to feature human interest stories. I want them to be very good writers.
What do you consider necessary to become a good writer?
First, a good writer is just like for any artist or a dramatic writer like you or a writer like me, first, a sensitivity. How sensitive you are to the external world of what is happening around you. It is most important how you pick a subject to write about. It requires a certain sensitivity and ability to use language. As a journalist this is your tool.
Communication – for us who write for magazines and newspapers –it is a question how do you communicate to people using a lot of words but if you can use less of a number of words and carry more meaning. Feature writing requires you to put all your feelings in a less number of words – that’s why language is your asset.
I have been writing features for more than thirty years; I’ve published six books, and three hundred features up to now.
How young were you when you began writing?
I was around twenty years of age. Earlier I was already writing poems. When I took up journalism seriously, I was working to get my Master’s degree. I started writing features and I’ve continued from that day to now. I also have an anthology of poems and of late, I have come back to writing poetry now for some years. I feel poetry expresses your inner feeling, and that is the best way to write poetry, so I try and write whenever it is possible.
As a student I studied English literature, Shakespeare, Milton, many of the English poets as well as Kannada poets. Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre, a very senior poet in Kannada, we could say he was the poet of the 20th century for Kannada, very much in the dame way you talk about Harold Clurman. D. R. Bendre was the poet of the century in Kannada and other well-known poets have also influence me in my writing.
I don’t think poetry has as much impact today because the media has changed, even in Kannada language. We’re not seeing as many young poets as there used to be. I am worried what it will be in ten or twenty years.
My poems have also turned into songs; I am very proud of that. Whenever I have written them, my wife will compose music for them, and my children, Spoorthi and Siri will sing them. I hope to bring out a new album of these and have my wife, Savitha, turn them into songs.
What led you to want to teach?
After teaching for 25 years when I look back and think about this question, I wonder why I began teaching. It was always my aim to become a professional journalist. I never thought I would become a teacher but one of the senior journalist, I’d say my mentor, Nadish Hagy, suggested that I could become a teacher and continue to be a freelance journalist. At that time, I was appointed as a teacher at one of the colleges in Kannada. I was in a dilemma whether to go continue being a journalist or as he suggested, teach. Now, after 25 years I still write because I have to, and I’m alive in this field.
How important are newspapers and the media today in India?
They are very influential; they dominate the media. Especially in Kannada are the newspapers in the state language are very influential but they’re much more interested and concentrate more on politics, crime and sex rather than positive stories so sometimes I feel like not reading newspapers as much as I used to. But I do because we have to teach our students to become journalists. We can’t escape from that reality. When my daughter told me she would like to be a journalist, I wasn’t especially happy. I was taken aback knowing the field very well. I was surprised she should make such a difficult decision in a difficult field.
In India we have magazines, especially for art and culture, similar in a way to your newspaper, talking about artists. I talk to the students when they come here in a realistic way because they are very innocent about the business of journalism. We teach them to write the best way to write features in the most positive way, but they also learn very quickly about the circumstances, that realities are very different when they start to work at newspapers. They have to make a choice either to compromise their values or quit. Some of them quit because they don’t wish to compromise what they believe in.
It is important to help them understand what it takes to write well, with principles. It is the way I write, and it what my readers expect from me. Unfortunately, young generations today are reading less, they think less, they write less. We belong to an age where a majority of them are without jobs. But I want to do everything I can to help them have a job, if they want one.
I firmly believe students, if they are willing to work hard, to live up to the expectations of the people around them, what they learn, their hard work will not go to waste. I am inspired by Swami Vechi who said: You are the makers of your destiny.
Zainal Abd Latiff (PhD.
Is an emeritus Professor in the Performing Arts Department at the Cultural Centre, University of Malaysia. He has lectured across the world at many universities. A renowned actor and director, his directing includes “Antara” and “Kerusi, and in conjunction with reviving of Randai, the plays of “Puti Nilam Sari,” and “Sabai nan Aluih.” Mr. Latiff studied the Suzuki Method with John Knobs in Brisbane, directing with Tone Brulin and acting with Terence Knapp. Mr. Latiff’s writings have also appeared in the Asian Theatre Journal of 2012 and 2013. He has conducted Silat workshops in England, Australia, Latvia, Italy, Japan, and in U.S. After thirty years of teaching, he has created his own method of training actors called the ZAL Method.
What led you to want to teach your workshop at the Theatre Arts Conference in Hawaii?
I was revisiting Hawaii, as I had first went there in1979. On this visit I was teaching at the Hawaii International Conference on Arts & Humanities, and was revisiting Silat as a basis for acting. It’s not necessarily a conference mainly on acting but also many subjects including anthropology, psychology, so many different topics.
I came to realize that more people would want to learn about Silat. In Malaysia, we’ve been looking to the West for acting techniques. I have traveled to several universities and theater conferences, in Brisbane in Italy, Latvia, in London, sharing about Silat and the response was great.
I feel the new generation is losing their connection to their traditions, and I think I have found a way to passionately share about Silat.
When did you first become connected to this work?
I was first introduced to martial arts in 1964 in secondary school, and then introduced to the theatre in 1971 during my undergraduate studies. When I headed the department in Pyananong, I introduced theater as a discipline, and the only acting was physical work using martial arts. I like to move and I wanted to try something new. I had learned about Asian theatre and studied at different universities after I got my degree in the theatre, I went to Hawaii to got my Masters in Theatre. I then went back to teach in Malaysia.
Can you talk about your work and what you share with your students?
As a teacher I like communicating and expressing myself, sharing with the students all of my passion. Using new techniques and martial arts has been inspiring for my students. They may not know about theatre but they like the notion that martial arts can be applied to making theater. However, in Malaysia using martial arts isn’t so accepted. There is resistance because teachers there don’t think of it as a viable way for students to learn about the artistic process.
In Malaysia many teachers have gone to America and England and have brought back what they learned, so students are doing Malay drama using western models, using Stanislavsky’s techniques, ways of working from Stella Adler or Strasberg but they don't know where they really came from.
When we watch warriors in film, or see films with Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, they are very popular with the Chinese population in Malaysia; it has a big effect. The young people like to use this kind of movement in their acting. I want them to get into the soul of martial arts rather than just imitating the movement. To get inside the spirit, the soul.
I insist the students keep a diary every day, writing down the time they practice. This work requires hours and hours of training. I give them homework to do, to help them with disciplining yourselves. Discipline is essential.
I teach Acting I – a course for the preparation for an actor. We don't initially go into scripts. We work on movements, using theater games applying the Silat technique. There is a ritual in the work. We begin with prayers, and move to the telling of a story with movements to get the audience’s attention. The movements have to be like a spark to keep their attention.
In modern plays in Malaysia, Malay playwrights usually deal more with morality and religious beliefs. The government is very strong, and scripts that are produced have to be passed by the police so what writers write about can't be controversial.
My idea regarding training is that I’m not training the actor; I am training a human being. If he becomes a good actor, good but I am most interested in him being a good human being.
By training the person to be a human being, they will be enriched and be able to share the richest parts of themselves in the life of the world. They will find the truth of himself or herself and through their work the theatre is made relevant. In Malaysia, I want see actors and the theater create significance for the audience.
For the past two years, the celebrated actor, Dragan Jovičić, has led the celebrated Chamber Theatre 55 in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina as its Artistic Director.
Recognized as one of the finest actors in the country with an array of leading roles on stage and in film, he has brought a great humanity and love in his role as Artistic Director, championing new plays and playwrights, leading with a refreshing and calm spirit and ease.
He has always worked to create an environment of harmony and joy, where those who work feel they can come and do their best. And it shows because the audiences who come and attend the array of plays always have a most fulfilling experience at one of the most important theaters in Europe.
The Chamber Theatre 55 remains one of the most productive and enjoyable theaters in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Many of their performances are sold out in advance, and the productions which Mr. Jovičić has chosen have thoroughly entertained and had a deep impact on the lives of those who have come to the Theatre.
Mr. Jovičić has said: “I believe it is all about creating the right atmosphere, finding a good text, a high-quality text, finding a good director, and making a good production. Though the modest means at our disposal, we continually try and increase the budget. All during the war we played. The performances were a special bond between us and the audience. The audiences would bring a candle to us as there were no electricity in the theater, and this was the only light for the audience to see us play. This is our profession and regardless of the situation, we have to preserve their dignity and the profession. Here at the theater, we have great young actors and we will endeavor to continue to invest in them and give them a chance, allowing them to show what they know and create space for their work. Young people want a chance. It’s important to me.”
The Shop around the Corner
As an actor, his performances have been a huge part of the Chamber Theatre 55’s history, and he currently appears in Miklós László’s “The Shop Around the Corner” directed by François Lunel, and Abdulah Sidran’s “U Zvorniku Ja Sam Ostavio Svoje Srce” (“In Zvorkik I Left My Heart”) directed by Sulejman Kupusovic.
Mr. Jovičić also continues performing to standing ovations with internationally acclaimed actress Selma Alispahic, in its 12th year, the widely popular play, "Ay, Carmela" by Jose Sanchis Sinisterra, directed by Robert Raponja.
Among the Chamber Theater 55’s current repertory of plays also include “Umri Muški” starring Tatjana Šojić, Admir Glamočak and Senad Bašić. (playing for 23 years); “Koncert Ptica’ (The Concert of Birds) by Dževad Karahasan, directed by Aleš Kurt with Mirsad Tuka, Amar Selimović, Tatjana Šojić, Senad Alihodžić and Aida Bukva; Murray Schisgal’s “LUV” directed by Ronald Rand with Zana Marjanovic, Moamer Kasumović, and Muhamed Hadzovic; John Patrick Shanley’s “In Zvorkik I Left Your Heart” directed by Sulaiman Kupusović, “Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley directed by Selma Spahic; J. Pommerat’s “What We Have To” directed by Dino Mustafic; Majenburg’s “Stone” directed by Dino Mustafic; Ingmar Vilkvist’s “Helver Night” directed by Dino Mustafic, and A.Nikolaj “Die Hard” directed by Admir Glamočak, Mihanovic’s “Zaba” (“Frog”) directed by Elmir Jukic with Emir Hadzihafizbegovic, Mirsad Tuka, Moamer Kasumović, and Aleksander Seksan,
The Chamber Theatre 55 continues to have a permanent ensemble of 19 actors, and often hosts top local and international actors, directors, writers and artists.
In September, 2013, Ronald Rand was invited to come to direct the comedy, “LUV” at the Chamber Theatre 55, and also performed his solo play, “LET IT BE ART!” Harold Clurman’s Life of Passion” at the Chamber Theatre 55 as part of the M.E.S.S. International Theatre Festival.
after performance at Chamber Theatre 55 in MESS International Theatre Festival - with renowned Bosnian painter Safet Zec, Mirjana Jovicic - translator of "LUV", Zana Marjanovic - acclaimed actress of Angelina Jolie's film "In the Land of Blood and Honey" and "LUV", and Dragan Jovicic - Artistic Director of Chamber Theatre 55, Sarajevo
"LUV" directed by Ronald Rand, with Zana Marjanovic, Moamer Kasumović, and
The production of “LUV”, directed by Ronald Rand” continues to be performed by an extraordinary cast of Zana Marjanovic, Moamer Kasumović, and Muhamed Hadzovic. The hit production recently traveled on tour across Bosnia & Herzegovina and received standing ovations and awards at theaters and festivals in Slovenia and Montenegro.
It was a great privilege working with a gifted production team which included my Assistant Director Vedran Fajkovic, renowned Costume and Set Designer: Vanja Popovic, Translator of the original script: Mirjana Jovicic, Stage Manager: Sena Besic, Public Relations director: Duska Amidzic, Technical director: Mirsad Imamovic, Light designers: Elvedin Bajraktarevic & Nino Brutus, Sound designers: Edin Hajdarevic & Dina Hajdarevic, Scene Master: Milan Novic, Decorators: Ahmo Rozajac, Emir Pamuk & Samir Muhovic, Makeup artist: Jasmina Hadzic – Ajanovic, Wardrobe Mistress: Semra Didelija, Props Mistress: Mirela Gutric, Video Projector director: Dino Brutus, Cabinet master: Ramo Pamuk, with Hajdar Tinjak and Danan Jaha.
Founded in 1955, The Chamber Theatre 55 has had a long and illustrious history begun by its visionary founder Jurislav Korenić, at a time new drama was emerging in Europe, and many new works were performed at the theater including works by Beckett, Jarry, Pinter, Durenmatt, Genet, Camus, Sartre, Havel and Ionesco. The Chamber Theatre 55 had a decisive influence on a whole new generation of artists who came to see these plays in the unique theater space with the audience on three sides affording more of an intimate and sincere style of acting, much more direct and natural.
Over the years audiences have seen over 260 premieres including works by Brecht, Shaw, Witkiewitz, Albee, Alby, Schisgal, Weiss, Pirandello, Vitracq, Zindel, Goldoni, Lorca, Arbuzov, Fo, Bulgakov, Chekov, Dumas, Fassbinder, Ibsen, Strindberg, Dostoevsky, Priestley, Kohout, Shakespeare, Miller, Wise, Williams, Feydeau, Buchner, Glovatzky, as well as original plays written by Bosnian-Herzegovinian playwrights including Žalica, Topčić, Kovač, Plakalo, Ibrišimović, Fetahagić, Ovanović, Karahasan, Fogl, Mustajbašić, and Horozović.
And during the 1992-1995 war the Chamber Theatre 55 continued to present plays for its citizens and presented 28 premieres within their repertory that are described as “not succumbing to any compromise or any ideological, national, religious, or political influence.”
Recipient of India’s National Award “Natya Bhushan.” He is the founder and CEO of Chilsag Entertainment Network, and Chilsag Chillies Theatre Company, which has produced thirteen productions, written and directed by Sachin Gupta. He has formed a Theatre laboratory, a Drama Therapy Center, and has trained more than 300 actors in his Acting School at Chilsag Chilies Theatre Company, which he began in 2004. He has staged three plays Off-Broadway. In 2011, he formed Chilsag Motion Pictures, a film production house. He is presently directing a Bollywood Hindi feature film to be released in the winter of 2012. He is also the founder and editor of “Theatre Pasta, a magazine devoted to film and theater in India. Because of his achievements he has received positive letters from the former President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam & an award conferred on him by Delhi’s Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit on behalf of Balwant Ray Society in India. Mr. Sachin’s plays include “Celebration of Life,” “Handicapped City,” and “Kailashnath weds Madhumati,” which he staged Off-Broadway and in Toronto. Recently he staged his play, “The Play Begins @8pm” in Orissa with film actor and singer, Vasundhara das. His other plays include “Suicide is Painless,” “Great Mind at Work,” “No Cheating Today,” “Don’t Miss my Party,” “Devil’s Carnival,” “Live Telecast,” “Next Indian Idol,” “A Roller Coaster Ride,” and “Wake Up Call.” Mr. Gupta studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York City, Emerson College, and Fanshawe College in Canada. Chilsag@gmail.com, www.chilsag.com, www.theatrepasta.com
I had the privilege and pleasure to sit down with Sachin in New Delhi and first asked him how he began.
“I was about twelve years old in school here in New Delhi, when I did my first performance in a comedy,” he replied. “That was the seed and I started enjoying doing theatre in school. I would perform in the annual programs and events. When I was sixteen, I wrote my first play in school, a comedy. I acted in it but I never thought about directing. But soon I started doing all three. My mother would take my brother and I to the theatre.”
“When I finished school at seventeen, I took a professional engineering course for four years in college; I also did performance and was a part of theatre groups in New Delhi. Computer engineering was my main program and today I have my own IT company today. I do it now to keep my dream alive and fuel my passion.”
I asked him what led him to start his own theatre.
“In 2003, I started my own theatre company.” he told me. “I had left a job I had in '99. Then I got a job in the U.S. but I didn’t go to America. I had very clear objectives. I wanted to do a lot of theatre but I faced difficulties. I didn't have any idea how to start it. I had a lot of ideas to express but not a clue how to direct. I didn’t have a professional degree in theatre and directing.”
You’ve chosen to call your theatre – Chilsag Chillies.
“I chose the name because of nine elements: creative, humor, innovative, learners, sincere, successful, ambitions, explore, and to win. The French word: “gagner” means to win. There are all these nine elements, these qualities in any theatre person who is ambitious and a learner. I think we have to continually learn new things. At any age you can explore and discover all the energies you have. I also have all these nine elements in all my productions.”
I asked him about his acclaimed play, “Handicapped City.”
“When we staged the play in Delhi in 2004 we had standing ovations. I received an award from the chief minister of Delhi for the play. It was my second play. It’s about people in the city, a generation without a purpose and someone who wants to be successful and will do anything to get these things; it could happen in any place in the world. Everywhere you have these kinds of people. I think the city belongs to the people who live in that city. You can see your city is a city of artists like San Francisco. It’s about the kind of work that happens in the city and the positive and negative elements. The kind of work people does reflect their city and that country.”
I wondered what led him to want to direct his own plays.
“I didn’t have any professional training when I began,” he told me. “I did it my own way; I wanted to direct the actors to use the stage in an untraditional way, to use the entire auditorium and aisles so that became my strength. I like to have interaction with my audience. We should interact with the audience much more. In the play, “Kailashnath Weds Madhumati,” two people get married and the audiences are very involved with the festivities. I wanted to promote audiences when I started my theatre journey. I wanted to involve more people and give them opportunities. I also asked the actors in my company to write something on their own.”
“I want to share my experience as a teacher or director as much as possible. I think it’s important to share acting views from every country. Here in India I get a very good response. We have one of the best acting schools in India with intensive one and two year programs and we also teach the business of acting, scene study, building a character, and acting for camera. In my country I felt there’s a need for these programs for actors who want to come out on the weekend and study.”
I asked him about how he views the audience in India and what they want to see in the theatre.
“A lot of the things that people who come to see theatre have to do with the time they have. So we started doing short plays instead of plays for two hours. At least in 45 minutes they can see at least one play. Theatre must involve the audience and we must work to create a new audience. We need to experiment. I try to always have original productions, it’s all original work. I want to promote other playwrights.”
I then inquired about his theatre magazine, “Theatre Pasta,” and why he feel‘s necessary to share ideas from artists through it.
“I began my magazine, “Theatre Pasta,” because I felt that there isn’t enough support of theatre artists here so I want theatre artists to be known much more, to share about their theatrical journey. I wanted to talk about the artist – how they started, their struggles, how they make their art happen.”
“There are mainly positive reactions to the magazine, here and abroad. I strongly feel whatever you say becomes reality, and that theatre is the best thing in the world. “Theatre Pasta” is really India’s first specialized magazine about the artistic process. I had to start it. Now it’s mainly online. It gets a very good response. I want the artist in India to know about artists in Japan or in Australia or like what you’re doing in America with your Newspaper – to share ideas about theatre. It’s a common platform no matter the language. I wanted this community to be one community. One family as one community.”
“I also would like to have more exchange programs so people can come from different countries to India and study here with us. It’s my goal to start an intense two or three year residence program. It’s very intense work. For me, theatre is not a hobby; it’s a full time job. I feel an actor has to produce good quality work and the only way for that to happen is you have to devote your time and efforts, that’s what’s necessary.”
The Associate Director of the University Centre for Arts and Drama at the National University of Rwanda, she is also presently writing a screenplay about AIDS, as well as a novel that explores the lives of several Rwandan women. Known to her colleagues and friends as “Kiki,” Ms. Katese is a playwright, novelist, screenwriter, poet, drummer, and actress. To many in her homeland of Rwanda and in the international arts community, she is also a cultural revolutionary. Born in Rwanda, she fled with her family to the Congo during the genocide. She and her siblings were raised “in exile.” Educated in the Congo, she was not taught the language of the country of her birth, and for a time did not even know she was Rwandan. But Ms. Katese came to love her country, embraced her heritage, and undertook the job of building hope and happiness through art. She set out to create in Rwanda an artistic culture where there was little, to help a depressed and traumatized community find a reason to live again. Ms. Katese participated as the 2008 “Playwright in Residence” at Sundance Institute East Africa and as a director with “The Book of Lifeat the 2010 East Africa Theatre Lab. Her play, “Nwgino Ubeho” (“Come and Be Alive”) was also featured at the 2009 Theatre Lab. She received the Gilder/Coigney International Theatre Award, presented to her by Martha Coigney.
“You unfurl the wings of time and to both tips you tie all the threads that weave my name. You take a handful of the earth that covers me and infuse each speck with a breath of eternity…Every morning, I get up at dawn I search for you in the thick cotton fog. I turn every ray of sun upside down. Take my hand and let me pull you out of the dark abyss where you fall a little more every day. Yes, take my hand now.”
- Odile Gakire Katese, from “Ngwino Ubeho” (“Come and Be Alive”)with translation by Chantal Bilodeau
I had the pleasure of meeting Odile, and then corresponded with her and asked her how she learned about her country, how old she was when she returned to her country, and why she wanted to return? I also asked her how she began to learn about Rwanda, and how she went about building an artistic consciousness in her country.
“I was born in exile,” she replied. “I was eighteen when someone on the road said to me: “What are you doing here when people are killing each other in your country?” I asked him: “My country? Which country” - and he said: “Rwanda.” That’s when I came to hear about the genocide in Rwanda. I was twenty when my family and I went back to Rwanda. We went back because my parents were longing to go back home, and it was finally possible. I didn’t know a lot of things about Rwanda beside the melancholic music that my parents used to listen to. My biggest regret is that I don’t know my mother tongue. I can’t write in Kinyarwanda. I write in French, and my work is translated in Kinyarwanda. When I went back to Rwanda, for a long time, I used to consider myself as a “zairoise” (Zaire) which I think I am to a certain extent. Therefore, I needed to own the history of Rwanda and the terrible legacy of the genocide. This process was only possible through artistic work as I was at the same time experiencing the power of culture. And it is through the University Centre for Arts and Drama of the National University of Rwanda that I started to offer images, symbols, emotions to reason and to the heart, to confront the violence of the genocide by increasing the number of spaces of poetical representation and intervention.”
I then asked: What led her to write her play "Ngwino Ubeho" and how it was received?
“Since 2004, I’ve decided to work on the commemoration of the genocide every five years. In 2004, for the 10th commemoration of the genocide, I co-wrote the play “Iryo Nabonye” about what I saw that toured in villages in 2004, when I toured schools and universities in 2005, and at prisons in 2007.”
“For the 15th commemoration in 2009, I planned five artistic activities (a festival, a documentary film, a play, a book and a music album) on the theme of culture and conflicts. I’ve been able to implement four projects out of the five and “Ngwino Ubeho” (“Come to Life”) is one of them. “Ngwino Ubeho” is a play in loving memory of the dead that mixes dance, music and poetry. It tries to reconcile Rwandans with themselves, with happiness, with their history, with death, with the present and the future. It is an attempt to give life to the dead and to propose an appeased memory… It involved 15 Rwandan artists and an international artistic team (Togo/France, Burkina Faso, USA). Three performances were offered in Butare in Rwanda, Butare in 2009, and another three in Nantes, France in February, 2011. The premiere was in October, 2009 in Butare, at the Second Festival Arts in Azimuts. People in Butare and in Nantes were touched by our approach to the theme of the genocide. The quest of an appeased memory led us to find delicate choreographies, songs and words to soothe a little the pain and the despair related to the genocide and its legacy.”
I asked her about her being a part of the Sundance Institute in East Africa as a "playwright in Residence." Was it a rewarding experience and how did it feed her work as a writer, actress and director?
“Sundance East Africa started in Utah, and then went to Manda in July 2010 and 2011. Utah is a place of unique beauty, a place to be and the 2008 Theatre Lab was a life changing experience! Most of the time, what I need in my work and in my life are opportunities to renew my work and myself. Sundance worked as a unique chance to take distance from my routine and to look at my work with a new and different eye.”
“I always look fondly to my first visit to Utah when I met so many wonderful people! Working with American directors such as Rebecca Taichman and Mame Hunt was a great honor. Meeting with Jennie Dundas, an American actress and Co-Proprietress with Alexis Miesen of Blue Marble Ice Cream in Brooklyn prompted a very sweet journey: the launching in June 2010 of Inzozi Nziza, (Sweet Dreams), Rwanda’s first local ice cream shop with the women drummers of Ingoma Nshya.”
“The work of American artists I met in Utah in 2008, and in 2009 fed my imagination and my life. And in 2010, three Rwandan artists attended the first Theatre Lab in East Africa in Manda with the project “The Book of Life.” It’s crucial for me to sustain in the long run and I believe that “une chose n’a de sens que quand elle donne naissance”.
“Sundance East Africa transformed my life. Roberta Levitow, Philip Himberg, Christopher Hibma and Deborah Asiimwe make me stronger, hopeful and audacious in my work and contribute to strengthen the faith I have in life.”
I then asked why it is so vital to make this kind of art for the culture of Rwanda now.
“Making art is vital in Rwanda for the same reasons it is everywhere. I agree with the Prince Claus Fund (Netherlands), one of the main partners in my work that “Culture is a basic need.” I also like these words of Pablo Picasso: “Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.”And for a country like Rwanda, a post-conflict society whose social tissue has been deeply destroyed, artistic tools help very much in the healing, reconciliation and peace building processes which require time and different approaches.”
My next question was about being Associate Director of the University Centre for Arts and Drama at the National University of Rwanda and what she has learned from her students as she’s taught?
“The ingenuousness and freshness of students always amaze me. For the last ten years, I’ve been learning and experiencing the possibility of pulling up life from the emptiness, from nowhere. I’m always very alert when we start a project with just an idea and an empty stage. I like to watch how a play comes to life, how a costume, a light, a sound, a laugh, a word come to help us built a story. And I use the same process in my own life. In situation of impasse, I know that I have to be attentive and patient to pinpoint the element that comes to develop or not my project or my life. I pretend to know what is going to work or not, what is ready to happen or not…”
“I believe we need to increase and facilitate their access to artistic expression and experience. We need to be humble and honest in our work. We need to work hard and find the language they hear and are sensitive to. We need to never give up, no matter what.”
Odile has also written a screenplay about AIDS, and a novel about several Rwandan women. I wondered if she was seeing a re-birth of appreciation for art and culture in Rwanda.
“The appreciation of arts and culture has always been there. A sound of a drum can attract hundreds of people in a second. Rwandan people are hungry for spaces of joy, freedom and dreams. What we cruelly miss is a committed policy of culture to set up an appropriate environment for artistic and cultural activities to develop and sustain.”
I finally asked what gives her the strength each day to wake up and want to bring art into the world.
“I take my strength from the conviction that art makes miracles and transcends our lives. The lives of hundred Rwandan women which have changed because they have touched a drum convince me of the necessity of bringing art into the world. And Art is the only language I speak to engage a conversation with the world.”
Is currently working as Specialist for Sundance Institute’s East Africa initiative, Ms. Asiimwe is a playwright and performer from Uganda. Her plays include “Forgotten World,” “Cooking Oil,” “Appointment with gOD,” and “Untitled” and have received readings and workshops in America. Her other plays, “Lagoma is Searching,” “You are that Man,” and “My Secret” were produced at the Uganda National Cultural Centre/National Theatre. She has participated in many artists’ gatherings and conferences, including the Arts in the One World Conference (CalArts, Valencia, California), a project of More Life Initiative: Genocide and Cultural Studies, a collaboration between Cal Arts and the Interdisciplinary Genocide Study Center in Kigali, Rwanda; Eti! East Africa Speaks at Dartmouth College; the Women Playwrights International Conference in the Philippines; and was the 2003 Sundance Theatre Lab international observer. Ms. Asiimwe received her MFA in Writing for Performance from California Institute of the Arts. She is the Overall Winner for the 2010 BBC World Service African Performance playwriting competition.
We had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Ms. Asiimwe and we asked her what first brought her to America?
“The very first time I was in the U.S. was in 2002,” she told us. “I was invited to attend a workshop at Tulsa. Roberta Levitow taught the workshop, and they had invited three artists from Kenya, and two artists from the Academy in Warsaw. The initial impulses were to find ways for artists to talk to one another, so we were interested in that. Out of that workshop we built a show, which we took to Warsaw for the theatre festival there. We all performed in it together; it was quite an experience.”
“In 2003 I met Philip Himberg, the Producing Associate Director of the Sundance Institute Theatre; he wanted to connect with artists in Africa. He traveled to Uganda at that time. I was an undergrad student, and had an internship with the National Theatre. That’s when I was introduced to Sundance and observed the theatre projects there. He had invited two artists from East Africa. After that, I went to an acting performance workshop at the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa. Roberta also came to teach a workshop. Around that time, I became interested in going to CalArts to study there, and they accepted me. The only challenge was getting the money; it’s an expensive school. I applied for scholarships which took a while, then finally CalArts gave me a full scholarship. At that point I moved to California for three years.”
“In 2008, Sundance Institute started an initiative in East Africa and asked me to be on the board of advisors. By the time I graduated, Sundance needed someone to lead the initiative. Five American theatre artists from the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, along with two artists each from Rwanda and Tanzania, participated in an exploratory visit to meet East African theatre artists in Nairobi, Kenya and Kampala, Uganda. In 2010, the first Lab from Sundance came on to Kenya, and I helped put everything together. It took place on the island of Manda. It was a three-week developmental retreat and provided us with the support of directors, dramaturges, mentors and a company of performers. At its conclusion, the projects selected were “Cut off My Tongue” by the Kenya artist, Sitawa Namwalie; Odile Gakire Katese’s “The Book of Life” from Rwanda; “Africa Kills Her Sun,” an Kiswahili adaptation of "Africa Kills Her Sun" by Ken Saro-Wiwa from Tanzania, with Mrisho Mpoto as adapter/performer, and “Silent Voices” by Lucy Judith Adong from Uganda.”
I then asked her what led you to begin writing. Did you read a lot as a child?
“I did but also reading wasn’t so much in our culture; we’re an oral culture.,” she replied.” “I grew around stories my grandmother told me. I spent a significant part of my life with my mother. What she would do was to tell me stories. I began to write and I’d write these stories down and that’s how I started – rewriting her stories. Of course in school I was exposed to Tchebe, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. They were so different. The things that attracted me to them was the way they used language. I studied English in school and felt I was reading my own language that I could relate to the images in their writing.”
I asked: When did you know your path was as a playwright?
“I think in school,” she said. “One of the things we did in classes to write English composition stories and my writing always had people talking to each other, like plays. My teachers would say that’s how they introduced me to playwrights such as Shakespeare and Chekhov. I thought: “Okay, maybe this is my path.” I also wrote short stories. I was so interested in performing when it came for me to go college that I studied acting.”
Who inspires you in the world, was my next question.
“Great conversations really excite me. Social, political discussions and essays excite me. I also love quiet places, by the water, landscapes that make me feel I need be here, like when I was in Utah. In Uganda, in the eastern part of the country, I love to go to falls there, I go to Sipi Falls and Bujjagali Falls, around lake Victoria, it’s far far away from the city, and where I grew up Uganda is so green, there are no cars, no city sounds.”
“When I was in Utah, I was working on my play, “Lagoma Is Searching,” it’s about a conversation I had with a high school kid who was addicted to drugs in Uganda. And what happened to me was in this conversation I had had with this boy, he had mentioned cigarette butts, and now being in Utah, I was seeing some of the actors putting out their cigarettes, and somehow his conversations with me came back to me and I began writing.”
I asked her what plays she’s in the midst of.
“I’m re-writing my play, “Cooking Oil,” and have had a reading,” she replied. “I am writing a new play called “Wanted,” based on the World Cup finals. There were two bombings in my city, Kamala. A Somali group claimed responsibility, and I met someone who had lost a brother in the bombings. My conversations with her informed the writing of this play. What struck me was how sometimes personally I found myself in places trying to understand why people do what they do. “If I had the power,” she told me, “to avenge my brother’s death I would do it. I would do anything to feel I got my brother’s death avenged.” So the story I’m telling is about a girl who decided to avenge the death of her brother, and she shares the name of a terrorist.”
My last question was how has she learned to listen to her inner voice?
“It’s always a process of learning,” she said, with a smile. “I don’t know if I have learned but there are certain things that have happened to me. A higher power telling me to do something, from some of the dreams I have and have certain things I have to write down.”
“I’m trying to find a balance. What concerns me is why certain artists are not allowed to come and travel from their country to share their talents. They are stopped. I wonder: Why should an artist who wants to experience their environment be told they cannot do it. One of my greatest hopes is at least by this middle of this century; borders will not be strict as they are today. Humanity must be able to connect with one another from everywhere they come from.”