Theatre in a Troubled Country: Staging Satire in Pakistan

(Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers)

Three years ago I had arrived in blazing sunshine to find a fledgling university department, just one year old, stretching its wings. It felt like an exciting time. My visit, backed by the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD), was part of a programme of events run by the Department of Theatre of The National College of Arts, Pakistan’s much respected arts university. I had been invited by Claire Pamment, a theatre director and dramaturg I’d worked with in UK, who was now resident in Pakistan and leading the effort to establish the department. My specific remit was to head a week-long seminar leading to a showcase of visual theatre. Entitled Rang, an Urdu word meaning roughly ‘colour’, this ‘performance without actors’, ranged from a tiny puppet holding the attention of the audience to a massive projection of fire filmed live on stage. The seminar, on the other hand, focused on comparing approaches, looking at the boundaries of scenography and investigating what the purely visual can ‘say’ in its own right. Another more general aim of my visit was to raise the department’s profile, engage students in a range of projects and, crucially, to bring together a group of professional artists and designers to discuss how to establish and run what would be the first public funded BA theatre degree in the country.

It was hard work. For one thing there is a lot of traditionalism and conservatism, mainly in the older generation but also present in the young. There were also practical problems; power outages, support staff not used to the demands of theatre and lack of organisational support from the college. I left full of optimism, nonetheless, and with a list of tasks ranging from getting advice on lighting equipment for the campus auditorium, Liaquat Hall, to exploring potential links to UK academics and practitioners.

In late July of last year I arrived in rain to a country that seemed profoundly changed. The army were everywhere and police roadblocks with gun emplacements could be as close as a few hundred meters apart on the roads encircling Islamabad. Private security guards manned barricades and checked the underside of cars for bombs at the entrances not only to key buildings but, for example, my hotel out on the edge of the city. One of the entrances to Liaquat Bagh, the site of our campus, had been turned into a garish memorial for Benazir Bhutto, who had been assassinated there; gun-toting guards manned the other gate. Disillusion with government was growing while the need for security was bandied about as a reason for drastically increased red tape. Education funding was being cut and procrastination by the NCA meant that the Department of Theatre was still not running a BA degree course.

Meanwhile, we were there to stage a play. It was to be the department’s first full production and, as well as making a great piece of theatre, we hoped to enhance the department’s reputation and launch admissions to the new degree course. The play was Dario Fo’s anarchic and satirical masterpiece Can’t Pay Won’t Pay, in an English version, though, like most spoken Pakistani English, it flitted in and out of Urdu. Language, idiom and context were all translated, with songs added. The Pakistani urban lower middle class was portrayed as colourfully and insightfully as Fo’s Italians. This extremely impressive and topical re-write was by Sarmad Sehbai, a highly regarded intellectual, teacher, poet and dramatist: he not only captured the spirit of the piece but assimilated and expanded upon it.

In fact the show brought in a wide range of well-respected talent and experience: the dancer and choreographer Indu Mitha, one of those older artists who seems to exude wisdom, was part of the team and had a cameo in the show, while costumes and make-up were by the much-loved designer Tariq Ameen, who brought a touch of glamour to every room he entered. Dario Fo’s collaborator Mario Pirovano also came over for a few days to run a workshop and perform some of his work. The theatre maker, journalist, previous translator of Fo and founder of the Geo News channel, Imran Aslam, also joined us and was a speaker at a seminar alongside Mario. I was supported by the British Council, again with the backing of the SBTD, to work alongside students to create sets and video projections, as well as to run workshops on scenography and theatre production. In a way, this is a microcosm of how the department works, using some of Pakistan’s most esteemed practicing artists to teach the younger generation, with occasional visits from foreign artists to introduce an international perspective or fill specific knowledge gaps.

If the work three years ago was hard, my second visit felt like a marathon. The reasons for this were engrained and systemic. I often feel humbled by the richness and longevity of the Pakistani cultural heritage and by the fact that so many artists from so many disciplines can relate to this naturally, without any compromise to their modernity. Of course, as in any country, there are also those who just want to stage a step-by-step remake of The Lion King. There’s room for them too but what matters is the huge but often untapped potential for truly home-grown excellence. The failure of many in the establishment to support and nurture this, simply because of cultural pre-conceptions or political expediency, is reprehensible. Even the college itself gave the impression that it barely tolerated the project. Most rehearsals had to be off campus, as access to facilities was limited for spurious ‘security reasons’, and our final rehearsal was cancelled at the last minute because our hall booking was waived in favour of an event for VIPs to cut a birthday cake for the president, though Zardari himself was celebrating elsewhere.

Pakistan’s red-tape culture exacerbated an already difficult situation. Our venue was the prestigious Pakistan National Council for the Arts, an imposing but pleasing architectural fusion of traditional and modern, housing an art collection and auditorium. It is positioned between the Presidential palace and the Marriot Hotel, in the most securely guarded area of Islamabad. Lorries are not normally allowed into the city centre during the day: the Marriot Hotel truck bomb cannot be far from people’s thoughts. On our set-up day our scenery was loaded into one of those ubiquitous painted trucks that are in all the tourist guidebooks, with the rest split between the college van and private cars. In one car was the signed paperwork to get us through. Our little convoy tried to keep together through the clogged streets of Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s sister city where the department is based. Of course we got split up. Luckily we were confident that the lorry would get stopped at every police roadblock, so the convoy had plenty of chances to regroup and we all got plenty of time perched on the kerb by some shabby gun emplacement, breathing in exhaust and cigarette smoke, while calls were made, paperwork checked, policemen got to exercise some power and our booked setting-up time at the venue grew smaller. The last and most difficult policeman only decided he liked us when he discovered one of our group had a cousin in the force. He did insist, however, that when we later went out for dinner we bought him food. I believe that a gift of samosas after the event does not count as bribery.

Still, amid the red tape and absurdity we got the play together. The set was still being built as we were doing dress rehearsals. Sometimes it took several phone calls and a long wait just to get the lights switched on in the building. I wasn’t even allowed to use the remote control for the video projector but had to find a member of staff to do it for me, even though I then sometimes had to teach them how to use it. At one point, when we were running late due to the absence of venue staff earlier in the day, technicians came in and started shutting down the lights and sound while the cast where still on stage, leaving some of them stranded on eight-foot high platforms in pitch darkness. I rarely lose my temper but on that occasion I did so rather spectacularly. Support from college had also evaporated for reasons that weren’t at the time entirely clear. It now appears they were, unforgivably, using general funding cuts as a cover to close a department which doesn’t fit with their preconceptions of what the arts should be. Whatever the reason, at some point in the final week all of the department staff received letters saying that their services would not be needed after the date of the play’s last performance and that the department’s activities were to be suspended.

Of course, all this was about to be eclipsed by two huge tragedies. News had been coming in of floods all week. At first this felt fairly distant, although at one point the campus was partially submerged. But it was the beginning of flooding that, at its worst, would cover a fifth of Pakistan’s land area and affect more people than the 2004 tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake combined. Then, the day before our first performance, the young peon who cleaned my hotel room knocked on the door, came in and silently switched on the TV news. In the thick cloud, Airblue Flight 202 from Karachi had crashed in to the Margalla Hills right on the edge of the city, a few minutes drive from the theatre.

In the face of these national traumas, making a play – even setting up a degree course in drama – may seem trivial. However, everyone has a right to enjoy and participate in culture and being embroiled in the ‘war’ on terrorism or caught up in terrible natural disasters does not take that right away, nor the underlying need. We still need both entertainment and an arena to explore what it means to be human, from the deepest philosophical question to the banal minutia of every day life. For me this was epitomized by the young student who sat next to me in the tech box operating sound while I controlled video projections: he lost a close friend in the crash but remained keen and loyal, even coming straight from his friend’s funeral to the theatre to work. As soon as the play was done he went to help flood victims.

However, in Pakistan there are even more specific reasons for the department to succeed than general access to culture. Pakistan’s own rich traditions need to be rediscovered, preserved and re-interpreted. The NCA Department of Theatre has been building up archives and researching the history of Pakistani theatre. Claire’s own work on the traditional folk entertainers, or bhands, has attracted international interest. No other institution was doing this kind of work. Then there is the huge amount of untapped talent, which is barely supported even when visible, let alone grown and nurtured outside of urban, middle-class areas. Nevertheless, as can be seen from the department’s own struggles to survive, theatre is too often seen as a lesser art, somehow not suitable for the public sphere nor to be taken too seriously. And, let’s be honest, this kind of cultural conservatism is a few steps away from the more radical ultra-conservatism that leads to censorship, the destruction of record shops, book burning and far, far worse.

Pakistan has a huge amount to offer the world. Performance, though struggling to be heard, is a quiet but important voice in its rich culture. Moreover, if this culture had more of an international reputation and if work by its artists were shown regularly at major UK arts venues, would that not help end the casual racism that, for example, caused David Cameron to make the tactless and naive comments he did in India when he equated the Pakistani state with terrorism?

The play took place, albeit opening a day late because of a national day of mourning for victims of the air crash. Audiences loved it. There was overwhelming praise and enthusiasm. People came to see it again. Someone said it was the first piece of real theatre he had seen in Pakistan. There was a general sense that it was the beginning of something important. Will it be? And will the years of work that have gone into setting up a theatre department bear fruit? If not, what happens to the hope kindled in practitioners and students eager to learn theatre? As Indu Mitha put it:

I do not blame my students who have earned a “diploma” in dance, if they do not have the courage to withstand that stare of contempt in a society where the honourable word “Meerasi”(traditional inheritors of the performing arts) has come to be derogatory! Perhaps if I had had a Masters’ Degree in Dance instead of Philosophy, they, and others, might have accorded me and my art some respect, before my hair had to turn white. That was my hope for the future, since the first meetings at NCA in 2006. The Board of Governors has snatched away my hopes. And that this retrograde step should be taken during a so-called “liberal” political party’s tenure, is the last straw.

The outlook is bleak but the rich seam of imagination, talent, tradition and intellect remains, whether supported by the state or not. In the meantime, we will be organising as many small scale UK-Pakistani collaborations as possible in the hope that a healthy link with practicing theatre-makers and others artists outside the country will be a source of encouragement and chance for Pakistani theatre-makers to test their ideas and get some practical experience. Perhaps it will also be a chance for people in the UK to see a more rounded version of Pakistan than that presented by the news.

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