Teaching Industrial Relations in Vietnam: a US Labor Academic at a Union-sponsored University

In order to translate the core assumptions of collective bargaining for Vietnamese undergraduates, I have had to turn my attention to the way democracy is actually practiced in our own country.

Who can participate in “freedom of association”? Labor Notes 2018, Chicago — April 29, 2018

Who can participate in “freedom of association”? Labor Notes 2018, Chicago

Much too soon after we got back from Nepal, we went to Chicago for the Labor Notes conference.

Snow Chicago

Chicago (Oak Park), April 2018. A little red, a little blue. This is from the front steps of our friends Diane and Phil’s house.

One of my goals in this blog is to record instances of how people in the US gather at the grassroots level of political action. In other words, how we practice freedom of association. That’s different from “freedom of assembly,” which we in the US have in the First Amendment. Freedom of assembly refers to gathering for “peaceable” purposes for things ranging from a performance or celebration to a demonstration. If the gathering is large enough, it may require a permit.

Individuals and societies can lose freedom of assembly; I remember that during the apartheid period in South Africa, political activists could be banned from meeting with other people or traveling. In many other times and places a gathering of more than  3 people has been made illegal.

“Freedom of association” goes further: it includes joining or leaving an actual group,  the kind of group that might have continuity, a membership list, an explicit purpose. Freedom of association is one of the basic ILO conventions (and one that the US has not signed, but we won’t talk about that).  Freedom of association is the ILO convention that is the topic of much discussion in Viet Nam. It enters the conversation when people are talking about trade agreements such as the TPP. The question is whether freedom of association might lead to the formation of independent unions, unions other than and in addition to the VGCL, whether these unions would have enough strength to be effective or whether they would just be company unions.

I’m interested in the experience of freedom of association in the US at the very grassroots level of political action. What does it look like? Who can belong? What is the relationship of the experience of entry or exit at the margins with the process of decision-making on behalf of the whole group?

Examples

I participate at the bottom level in a variety of political groups that represent types of freedom of association. If you go back in this blog you’ll see photos of a Black Lives Matter event in Oakland, the two Women’s Marches (one right after Trump’s election), the general membership meeting of the Vermont Workers’ Center, a small house party fundraiser for a woman running for the Chair of the California Democratic Party, a general membership meeting of the Democratic Socialists in Oakland, and a meeting of the CalOSHA Board attended by workers from UNITE HERE where they agreed to the musculo-skeletal standards, and maybe others. I will also include a photo of the 2018 Labor Notes conference, which is why we are in Chicago in April right now.

Organizations that I don’t have a photo of are Our Revolution, which came out of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Indivisibles, which is a giant network of Democrats and other liberals that emerged and spread rapidly after Trump’s election. Joe and I are members of both, and have held and attended monthly neighborhood meetings of a combined group, but participation ranges from 6-12 people and our most recent attempt, a fundraiser for a woman who is trying to run for Alameda County District Attorney (no contested elections for that post in 60 years!) had to be cancelled for lack of participation. However, nationally both OR and Indivisibles are strong organizations. To belong to them, you do not have to do anything other than attend or perhaps pay a small membership fee. These are not representative groups, in other words: the people who are participating are not representing anyone else. They are there on their own hook, choosing to be there for their own reasons.

All these bottom-level political action gatherings assume freedom of association, a right that is disputed in Viet Nam. In the US, the right to organize and attend events like these goes without question because it is presumed to fall under “freedom of assembly”. Yes, to have a major parade or a big demonstration you’re supposed to get a permit, but they are usually granted. More recently, however, there is increasing fear of risks of attacks by opposing groups, like in Charlottesville, when right wing white supremacists attacked a civil rights-related demonstration. It is also true that pulling together a gathering for the purpose of clarifying, unifying, expressing and planning to act on a political agenda almost certainly draws attention from persons and organizations that oppose that agenda. Such persons might be the local police, the FBI, the CIA, a citizen’s vigilante group of some sort, more recently the various right-wing extremist groups, going back as far as anyone can remember. But we still assume that the right to hold such gatherings  — freedom of assembly, from the First Amendment – is fundamentally not disputed. The gatherings may be infiltrated or disturbed by provocateurs or filmed and reported, or actually violently interrupted, but people still think we have the right to hold them. This goes for gatherings of both right, left and other types of agendas.

In the last year, when right wing groups at the University of California Berkeley invited extreme right wing speakers to present on-campus, there was a loud argument about whether these events should be allowed to happen. In one case, the event happened and students pro and con marched down into central Berkeley where right and “anti-Facists” or “anti-fa” confronted each other, resulting in broken windows and some arrests. Another time the event was tightly circumscribed by limited permits.

How do these very porous, grassroots level associations make decisions?

Now, thinking about Andy Blunden’s book, The Origins of Collective Decision Making, how do these groups, as represented by the gatherings that I have attended and mentioned in these posts, make their decisions? Blunden finds four kinds of decision making. The first two are really “on behalf of” not “by” the collective. The first is cleromancy (consulting a priest, oracle, dice, lots or magic). The second is consulting, where a group advises the leader and then he or she makes the decision. The third and fourth are majority rule and consensus, but only the last two are really collective.

Ideally, in order for the third and fourth methods to function smoothly, the parties to the decision-making have to be equal. One person’s vote has to have no more or less weight than the next person’s. (I am condensing here.) But how do you establish or achieve that equality in an association? One way is to define who can be a member so that members are or less equal.  You could decide, for example, that only men who own property can vote. But what if it’s really a grassroots open organization, and the only qualification for membership is that you want to join or perhaps pay a small membership fee that is affordable. How does that affect decision-making within the organization?

So how does grassroots freedom of association work here?

To answer this question, I looked at various groups that I am “associated” with, one way or another. First, I decided to ask, “Who can participate?” Who can participate is determined by very concrete characteristics. It includes how the event or organization is publicized, where the event is held, and what goes on during the event. What happens afterwards may be different, but we’re just looking at events themselves. What does the very first threshold of association look like?

In the Black Lives Matter event in Oakland, word went out via email and Facebook and was spread around broadly. At the event, accessibility was highlighted. There was good disabled access with signs and plenty of room down front for wheelchairs. There was a whole section for people with allergies to scents. Someone was signing the whole program, and I’m pretty sure some of it was spoken in Spanish, and the rest was translated. So the message is: Everyone is welcome.

For the Women’s March, all you had to do was get there. You could step off the sidewalk and be part of the march. Everyone was encouraged to make a sign saying whatever you had to say. There was a section of the march set aside for organizations (unions, political groups, etc.) and it so happened that they filled up the official starting location, so everyone else just started marching ahead of the groups. At the first women’s march I went to there was disabled access that put me in the front row (I had just had knee replacement surgery) along with a lot of other interesting old women (mostly).

At the Democratic Socialists meeting, you had to be a member in order to vote. Being a member means signing up in advance and paying a membership fee of about $35. You could not vote at the meeting. This was a good way to prevent outside groups from storming the meeting.

At the CalOSHA meeting, you had to be a member of UNITE HERE to actually have a participated in the union’s share in getting the standard established. That means that you were hired by and retained by the employer, but your job security was protected by the union, so that once you were hired, you were fairly free to be active. Joe and I were able to appear at the meeting by signing in as “community,” because the community at large does have an interest in the welfare of workers. The membership of the Board depended on being appointed by the Governor, and it took a change in governor to get a change in the Board to produce a yes vote. So “who can participate?” regarding the Board does have its roots in mass electoral politics, but at a remove.

The Democratic Party, with its tangle of levels of representation, is a real mess. In addition to what I wrote about how the Chair of the California Democratic Party and how delegates to the Convention get elected, the news this morning was all about how the election campaigns of the various presidential candidates are completely separate organizations — to the extent of selling and renting their email lists to the Democratic Party itself.

The Vermont Workers’ Center is also an open group. You are supposed to pay a low-cost membership fee (I think it can be as little as $5 a month) but membership is open and meetings are open.

So participating in some of these, like the Women’s March, just involves stepping off the sidewalk or showing up. Others (like the Democratic Socialists) involve paying a membership fee and filling out a form. This is what the bottom grassroots level of political activity looks like. As you move further up the levels of involvement, the ways in which your voice or vote counts change.

Labor Notes in Chicago, April 2018

Back in the 1990s when I first started going to Labor Notes, the attendance was several hundred and we gathered in a hotel in Dearborn, Michigan. Six or eight years ago they started holding it in Chicago at the various airport hotels because it now brings in nearly 3,000 people. Participants are labor activists from all kinds of organizations, including unions, NGOs and political groups. Typically, if a union is engaging in some kind of internal democratic reform process, it will send leadership and as many rank and file as they can afford. The result is an intense Friday through Sunday exchange of ideas and strategies. There are panels and workshops and interest group meetings continuously, several general sessions, a banquet and a whole lot of side meetings going on. Many people rely on Labor Notes to get together with friends across the country. There is usually a substantial non-US presence, especially from Canada. This year there were Chinese, Phillipino and Japanese panels. I attended one panel on the militarization of anti-labor activity in China and Japan.

LN 1 About 3,000 labor activists of all kinds, not just union members — at the 2018 Labor Notes conference in Chicago. No one from Viet Nam was present, to my knowledge.

Labor Notes itself is not a membership organization. It is a combination of a newspaper (a good monthly newsprint paper, the only multi-union reporting in the US) and an annual conference. There are some regional conferences put on around the US known as Troublemaker’s Schools, where there are union skills trainings and general political education. The core group behind Labor Notes is a small political organization, Solidarity, and it is a membership organization, but it keeps a low profile compared to the big conferences and the newspaper, and no one seems to object.

Voting in Nepal

Here are two posters that I saw on a wall in the village of Dhumpas, in Nepal. These are put out by the Election Commission. They were probably put up during the last year, or even the last six months. The first one is to assure people that everyone should vote. The second one shows how you come to the central place to vote. Note the diversity of people in the first poster — people with wheelchairs, crutches, old people, men and women  – everyone except children. This message had to get communicated widely because this was the first election following the establishment of a national constitution, following over 20 years of revolution and internal war. People really didn’t know about voting and had to be shown what it would look like, in pictures.

 

Elect 2

Everyone is welcome; everyone is expected. Old and young, men and women. Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, professionals and peasants, able and disabled.

elec village

 

Martin Luther King, 1965: Housing March in Cicero, Chicago

This march was intended to bring some of the power of the Civil Rights Movement north to Chicago where housing was notoriously segregated.

I will end this with some of work done by our friend John Pittman Weber, a Chicago artist who has done a lot of public art around Chicago. Below is one of three carved brick stellae from a monument to the march led by Martin Luther King jr. through Cicero, a suburb of Chicago. A gang of whites attacked this march and threw stones and bricks. One hit Rev King on the head and knocked him down. This is memorialized, life-size, in one of the other stellae. King’s head is at eye-level so you can easily reach out and touch him and wince along with him as the stone lands.

This would be an example of freedom of assembly under attack. Fifty years later, there is an official monument to the marchers, in a park.

JohnJohn Pittman Weber at one of the three stellae of the Martin Luther King Jr monument in Chicago.

Here is is studio, showing some of his recent prints:

JOhn studio

 

 

Hotel Ragunath, Jammu and Delhi — April 14, 2018

Hotel Ragunath, Jammu and Delhi

To see where Jammu is, look at

http://www.maphill.com/india/jammu-and-kashmir/3d-maps/physical-map/

And for background: Kashmir, The Case for Freedom, Verso Press 2011 with chapters by Tariq Ali, Hilal Bhatt, Angana Chatterji, Habbah Khatum, Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati Roy.

Ragunath hotelSee the little black and orange sign with the arrow, half-hidden behind the striped awning? That’s the sign to our hotel. It was down an alley about 6 feet wide. It was actually originally a grand hotel — probably quite elegant and fine at the time of Partition, in 1947. The ground floor had an atrium lobby open to the sky 4 flights up. However, right now it was under construction. The meant that almost everything other than the front desk, tucked under the staircase, and the stairs up to our room, was either draped in plastic or else cloudy with paint scrapings. Lead? Don’t ask. Stacks of marble to be installed as flooring or in bathrooms lay about. My imagination tells me that it was once a choice destination for pilgrims to the Ragunath Temple  (Hindu). One door to the Temple was across the street; the main door was a hundred yards up the nearby street. But this would have been back before Partition, and it had been let go ever since.

I walked up the street looking for a place to buy shawls. This is the shawl market, and every shop has shawls. I chose one at random, went in, sat with the shopkeeper, looked at several dozen and chose three. These are the long, wide embroidered cashmere shawls, not the more scarf-like pashmini shawls of Nepal. While I was sitting on the long bench waiting for the shop keeper to wrap my shawls, four men came in. They stood to my left, immediately next to me because the shop was narrow, but paid me no attention. One of them spoke with the shopkeeper. My eyes were drawn to this man because on his back was an extraordinary garment. It spoke of poverty more severely than anything I had ever seen. It looked like the inside of a man’s tailored suit jacket — the brown satin that might have lined a jacket many years ago – turned in reverse and made into a vest, the center seam stitched together with big stitches in green thread. It reminded me immediately of the poverty quilts you see in the midwest, mostly in museums but sometimes in people’s homes, made of scraps of different cloth, scraps saved from clothing that had provided warmth for many people but finally could not hold together any more but could still be pieced together with other scraps to make a quilt and provide some warmth in cold seasons. The same for this vest. I could only see this man’s back, but he was big and strong — sinewey, with big hands, and he was leaning forward to talk with the shopkeeper. The stitches down the back of his vest were in heavy green thread. The vest fit him like a second skin.  While they talked, one of the other men, a quite young man, also dressed poorly in rough brown loose clothing, came and sat beside me. He took a package off the shelf across from our bench and studied it. I could see that it was a combination kurti and trousers outfit, in a green paisley pattern, the kind of thing a woman would wear.

The conversation between the large man and the shop keeper became a bit heated and the large man finally made a gesture and all four men left the shop, quickly, without buying anything. The young man sadly put the package back on the shelf before they left.

When they were gone, I asked the shopkeeper who they were. “Poor Muslim laborers,” he said. “He wanted to buy cloth to make a uniform for his daughter, so that she could go to school, but he did not understand that the kind of cloth he wanted was of such poor quality that it would not last.”

I asked how much money a laborer of that sort would earn in a day’s work. He said, “Three hundred rupees.”  A little less than $5.

He said that the younger man had wanted to buy a costume as a gift for his wife, but was unable to.

India,which rules this part of Jammu-Kashmir, is moving increasingly into a Hindu nationalist cultural and political regime. The majority of people in Jammu-Kashmir are Moslem. The part of Kashmir that is in Pakistan is Moslem. Part of Kashmir is also claimed by China.

Ragunath Temple

We went to the Ragunath Temple, but you had to hand in your backpack, purse, everything including phone to get put in a locker before going in, so I have no photos of it. The front gate has a booth within which a soldier sits behind a gun, its barrel pointed straight out the grill at about shoulder level. Once inside, we found ourselves in a series of courtyards with small temples and various statues of gods and altars in them. Priests stood in each temple and showed us things and asked for donations; since my purse was in the locker, I could not do the donations.  One, a priest whose temple enclosed a gigantic (10 foot high on a pedestal) lingam which he poured oil, water and milk on and then pasted flowers on, gave us marigold garlands, asked if we were married, then gestured for me to kiss Joe’s feet, which I did very lightly. I think this was a marriage ceremony. He then asked for a donation.

We were puzzled by the arcaded rooms in the corners of the temple, which seemed to house flat beds of small stones, thousands upon thousands of them. Later we were told that these are fossils and that fossils are one manifestation of Krishna. Not knowing this, wandering through these cool, dark rooms with no other people, and looking at these stepped trays holding thousands of small round objects, we did not know what to think. I remember one of the Ursula LeGuin stories in “Changing Planes,” about a plane on which people never die; after several hundred or thousand years they have simply withered down to things that look like mushrooms or stones. Fossils, yes, but not living in this case. No pictures were taken of this, however.

After we dumped our stuff in our room, we found a taxi to take us to the theater. We had a certain visibility as the only foreigners in sight and the young people who were running the festival found us a table to sit at and brought us some food and talked with us. They are not drama students; one is a dentist, another a businessman. They are volunteering at the festival.
Jammu producers

This man is the technical director for the theater. He told us about the ancient theatrical traditions of India and drew pictures of three types of stages that are described in texts 3,000 years old — the Aristotles of India.

stages

I was surprised that the theater was not sold out every night — although since the tickets were free, sold out isn’t the right word. Later I wondered if this project in Jammu was not part of a “confidence building” project — which would be consistent with the fact that all the actors, from all the companies, were put up at the government hotel, the Ashoka.

One night after seeing a play we got back to our hotel and were trying to see if we could get something to at. The it turned out that a hole-in-the-wall space on our alley, where a man had been busily scrubbing metal trays this morning, had been turned into a restaurant and was now open and cooking. So we went in. We had just sat down and ordered “thali’ which mean a plate of various things when these women came in. I couldn’t stop myself — I  said, “What beautiful women!”  out loud. They came over and we took pictures of each other but there were no words — zero words! in common for us to talk with  each other. They stared at me and I stared at them. I have shown this picture to people in India an asked them who these women are — sisters? Are they old or young? And all people can say is that they are from North India.

beauti women

This man might be a brother or the husband of one of them. Great picture-taking took place.

3 women selfie

And this guy, who said he publishes a magazine called “Revolution,” but it is about tourism.

tourism rev

One day we took a taxi and drove around the city. The driver took us to a palace on a cliff top over looking the Tawi River where there was a palace with, among other things, a giant gold throne and a room full of miniature paintings of the story of Nala and Damayanti. I can’t find copies of these miniatures on line anywhere, and there was definitely a sign forbidding photographs. But just imagine, over 100 miniature paintings. In several of them you can see Nala entering Damayanti’s court, only he’s invisible — you have to look so hard to find him!! He is drawn in faint sharp pencil lines.

https://www.exoticindiaart.com/book/details/pahari-paintings-of-nala-damayanti-theme-IDE098/

We also were taken to a wild animal park where we saw leopards, but they were asleep, and to a hilltop water park where kids and teenagers played in and out of the  running water.water park 2

 

water park

I’m going to skip to Delhi where we stayed in a B&B in this “colony,” a gated neighborhood, and ate our only expensive Indian meal at a restaurant in Connaught Square. air B&B 2

Our AirB&B was in the top floor of the building on the corner. The hosts, or owners, were a mixed Indian-French couple that lives part time in Paris and owns numerous AirB&B properties. 

colony

A street in one of these gated communities or colonies.

Delhi is a place where one could be very comfortable. If you were a British colonial, coming back to London after living in India would be a terrible let down. India, at least the part of Delhi that we saw, just roars with wealth. One of the B&B hosts told us proudly that he has five maids: One to cook, one to sweep and dust, one to change the beds and do the laundry, one to clean his car and one to shop.  Miles and miles of parkways thread through walled precincts behind which seem to be government offices, a golf club (right in the city), military barracks, and otherwise huge houses — among them the Mother Teresa complex which is as big as anything else. These parkways intersect in enormous roundabouts planted with brilliant flowers. I chose our Air B&B’s based on location, but I got the scale wrong; what I thought was walking distance was 10 kilometers. Connaught Square itself is vast. Below is a restaurant where we had our only elegant fine dining in India. It was indeed really wonderful.

fine dining

It was very easy to imagine what it might have been like to be a British colonial in India when India belonged to Britain. The wealth of this country would have seemed like an endless feast. No wonder they called it “the Jewel in the Crown,” and referred to Mountbatten as “the man who lost India.”

I was unable to take any photographs of the Red Fort that would have begun to indicate how big it is. The street facade alone was 3 kilometers. Inside, the vast gardens were full of families strolling, sitting on benches, or spread out in groups on the grass. As usual, we were nearly the only Westerners, but here, unlike in Jammu, no one tried to take our photo — we were not “giraffes.” The Red Fort is the place from which the Peacock Throne and the Kohinoor Diamond were stolen by the Persians. At this point, my ability to describe just flags.

Back to the US on an endless China Southern flight, with long stopovers in Guangzhou and Wuhan, involving standing in line to enter and then, soon, to leave China. Wuhan, which I knew nothing about, is enormous.

 

Anne Frank’s Diary at the 8th World Theatre Olympics in Jammu and Delhi — April 1, 2018

Anne Frank’s Diary at the 8th World Theatre Olympics in Jammu and Delhi

 

About a year ago, Deborah Merola and Rajkumar Pandasani submitted a video of the One World Theatre’s production of Anne Frank’s Diary to the Eighth World Theater Olympics competition. It was accepted for the 2018 festival, to be presented at two of the eleven festival sites, Jammu and Delhi. The World Theatre Olympics is a vast event that takes place every four years. Countries compete to host it, and the Greek government oversees it. It lasts from mid-February through early April, staging over 50 performances including plays, classical, ancient and experimental, and dance and music events. For winning entries, the Indian government pays transportation and expenses for the entire cast and crew to come.

Deb poster

The poster announcing One World Theatre’s production of Anne Frank, one of many erected along the drive into the Abhinav Theater in Jammu. The theater itself can be seen behind trees in the rear. The red carpet is an outdoor performance space where dances, music and village plays were performed. 

We went first to Jammu, which is in the northwest of India, right along the border with Pakistan. The Kathmandu -Delhi- Jammu flight passed along the south side of the east-west range of the Himalayas, which seemed to go on forever. The size and beauty of those mountains is beyond anything I imagined. The peaks extend into the distance as if they cover a whole planet. Yet people live right up close to them — in tiny villages, farming on terraces. The area is called Jammu-Kashmir, or J-K.  Kashmir is up in the mountainous part.  As we descended into Jammu we were above a wide flat plain.  I could see that the land was laid out in villages surrounded by tilled fields. The river courses are natural despite the fact that in monsoon season they must swell over their banks.

village and fields

Kashmir is said to be the most beautiful place in the world. At one time it was going to be “the Switzerland of Asia”. But then came the Partition, in 1947. India and Pakistan were divided along the Line of Control, hundreds of thousands of Hindus fled east to India and Muslims west to Pakistan, and the contested border between Pakistan and J-K, as people call it, became a low-level but persistent war zone. In fact, just now as I looked up “Line of Control” I saw that there was firing on villages in the general Jammu District last night. The report said that women and children ran; men stayed in the villages to watch the animals.The word used by people we met in Jammu to describe this fighting was always “terrorists.”  They were never “Indians” or “Pakistanis” or Hindus or Muslims. It was always just “terrorists.”  Apparently at night the India side of the whole Line is illuminated by a line of lights that is visible from space.

So in Jammu, despite the presence of the Theater Olympics, there were no Western tourists that I could see. Our hotel keeper knew the Abhinav theater (he said there was only one theater in Jammu) but not that the Olympics was happening there. I was not able to buy a SIM card because it is not allowed to sell them to “people from outside” “because of terrorists.” In fact, the security at the airport exceeded anything I have ever experienced. Entering the airport on our way out of Jammu heading back to Delhi my bag was x-rayed five times. I also looked up Jammu and Kashmir on travel.state.gov, the US travel advisory, and saw that this is a “Do not travel” area. No wonder! On the other hand, the absence of foreigners was wonderful in many ways. No Starbucks, no western chains of any kind. No Uber. And perhaps because large, old white people were so rare, many families wanted to have their pictures taken with us so when we went out we were constantly being embraced and pulled into family photos, with lots of smiles and thank you’s.

This is all to set the scene at the Abhinav Theater where One World Theater would perform The Diary of Anne Frank.

The Troupe as a Traveling Unit

The One World Theater was founded in 2011 and many of the people involved have been together since then.  They haven’t worked for One World exclusively; there are five “real” — meaning live – theaters in Kathmandu, and people work around in them and in film whenever the opportunities arise. No one in Nepal can make a living working for just one theater. But these actors have cycled in and out of different productions with each other over the years. This means that they have taken on different roles with each other, not just as actors playing different characters but also as stage hands, designers, lighting techs, house managers — all the different jobs that have to be done in order to put on a play. They have both grown together as a group and been able to incorporate new people as time goes by — the actress who played Irina in Three Sisters, for example. Over time, they have become a core group almost like a repertory group.  Traveling together, therefore, did not present the kinds of difficulties that, for example, a touring group of strangers might face.

The whole troupe, fifteen people altogether, gathered at the Kathmandu airport early Tuesday morning. As far as people who would face or not face physical difficulties getting through airports and into and out of planes goes: on the one hand there was Rojita Buddhacharya who would play Anne, and who would leave Delhi immediately after the performance to go join a team of women journalists (she is a science writer herself, with a bi-weekly TV show)  who were planning to summit Everest. On the other hand there was Rose Schwietz, the director of Three Sisters, who was just barely recovering from bad tonsillitis. Then there was Loonibha Tuladhar, who would play Mrs. Van Daan, along with her husband Gopal Aryal who would play Mr. Van Daan; they were bringing their very lively, very cute 3-year old in his stroller. Then there was Alize Biannic, who would play Margot, who had had an important career as a ballerina which was abruptly ended when a dance partner dropped her, crushing her knee. She would be walking slowly, with a cane, or using a wheelchair getting out to the plane.  Alize played one of the body doubles for Natalie Portman in The Black Swan, so her dancing legs, intact, have been immortalized — she would tell this as a kind of joke on herself, without any indication of regret, although it must have been terrible to lose that gift.  Therefore the group as a whole would sometimes straggle, sometimes come together, but in a certain way, just as on stage everyone was aware of where everyone else was, they never lost anyone.

 

Rose airport

Rose Schwietz, only partly recovered from tonsillitis, pushing the prop box through the airport. Behind her, Gopal, father of the 3-year old, and Sajag Rana who would play the dentist, Mr. Dussel.

Raj prop box

At the check-in counter it turned out that the prop box was too heavy; it had to be repacked before it could get checked as baggage. The set design was realistic: props had to include frying pans, enough plates for everyone, empty liquor bottles, and kitchen equipment.

And we re-convened first in Delhi, where we had a layover, and then in Jammu, where a government van arrived to take the troupe to the Ashoka, a government hotel some distance from the city center. Joe and I followed the troupe to the Ashoka and then took a different cab to our hotel, about which more later in a different post, deep in the Hari Shawl Market and near the famous Ragunath Temple itself.

A Different Kind of Play: Not Chekhov

Deborah Merola describes The Diary of Anne Frank as a “well-made play.” This does not just mean that it is well-written; it means that it belongs to a certain genre of play that drew on the classical principles of Aristotle’s poetics adapted to become the standard for popular European plays of the 19th century. “Well-made plays” are carefully structured and written to build suspense, using something that the audience and maybe one characters already knows to create a feeling of dread and sympathy for the characters, whose lives are moving inexorably towards a crisis. In this case, both the audience and the character Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, know that the whole family — Jews in Amsterdam, hiding from the Nazis in an attic in a Gentile friend’s office building – is going to get found, seized, and shipped off to concentration camps and killed.

What links the crisis to the drama of the play is Anne’s diary, left behind after the family is taken. Mr. Frank is visiting the attic where the family spent nearly two years in hiding; he finds the diary, opens it to read, and the play proceeds from there. The audience has to know something about World War II, the Nazi persecution of Jews, and  the ultimate outcome of the war in order to understand what is going on, but there is enough expository dialog in the play to fill in other necessary details. The rising drama of the actual play is the coming of age of Anne, who is 13 when the play opens and 15 when it closes. She struggles with her anxious mother, opens her heart to her father and sister, and falls bit by bit in love with the shy, sweet but timid boy Peter, played by Amrit Dahal, the son of the Van Daan family who share the cramped hiding. They finally have a private conversation with each other, together in his room — with the door shut, despite her mother’s plea — before the end comes.

One way in which the play differs clearly from the Three Sisters in terms of the demands on actors is that the actors move the action forward directly in their dialog. When a character is worried about something, they say so out loud: they wonder where Miep (played by Pooja Lama) is, why she’s late, whether they should answer the phone or not, what time dinner will be. They say what they feel: I am so ashamed, my mother doesn’t understand me, I am hungry, etc. They do not have to create the story line through physical gestures or whole-body movements that confirm or contradict what they or someone else is saying.

This should mean that this is a good choice for an English language play at this festival: lines, clearly and loudly uttered, should be understandable to an audience with some English ability. English is the common language in India in the sense that government business takes place in English, but I was told that there are at least 17 “official” other national languages, and many more that are not official.

Another way in which The Diary of Anne Frank is unlike Three Sisters, which is really about everyone in the play, this play clearly has a main character, Anne. Her beautiful childishness and her personal development is completely open to us, both through her diary (which works to communicate directly with the audience almost like the monologues in Hamlet) and through her actions onstage as she moves from what she is thinking into something she decides to do. Sometimes she surprises us, as when it turns out she has been all along making Hanukah presents for everyone and gives them out as gifts at the Hanukah dinner, astonishing the other characters as well as the audience, but most of the time our emotions track her experience. The actor playing Anne, Rojita Buddhacharya, captures the beauty and innocence of Anne perfectly. Her growing love for Peter is reciprocated eloquently by the actor Amrit Dahal, who plays the character as so shy that he seems to peek out from his own eyes.

Apparently last year, during the first production of this show, Rojita was much smaller and lighter than she is now, and therefore could easily taken to be a young girl; this year, she has been training to summit Everest and is, if not any taller, a lot stronger looking. However, by the magic of theater, she still conveys Anne as a very young girl.  The other women on her Everest team are fellow journalists; she herself has a bi-weekly science TV program in Nepalese.

Preparation for the performance

The day after we arrived, Deborah and Rajkumar came down to the theater and had a meeting with the technical crew of the theater. Meetings were outdoors around tables under the trees. Hemanta Chalise, who played Kulygin in Three Sisters, will be the stage manager for Anne Frank and is in this picture, listening. There will only be one tech rehearsal and it will take place immediately before the performance, so there will just barely be time to get, for example, the lighting plan in place.  The technical director of the theater is the man in the striped linen kurti who is sitting with his back to me. Earlier, he had come sat at a table with me and Joe and sketched out the shapes of theater stages from the written documents of Indian classical theater, 3,000 years ago.

The measurements and specifications for the Anne Frank set had been sent down to the theater in advance and built on-site. For something that has to be built and set up and then taken down after one performance, it’s a big set: three acting spaces (Anna’s room, the living room-kitchen-dining room in the center, and Peter’s room) separated by doors that have to open and close.

Raj tech mtg Jamm

That afternoon, Joe and I went to a production of Of Mice and Men, put on by a theater group from Rajasthan, in Rajasthani. The moment the play opened the intensity, the wildness of the performance was at boiling hot level. It felt almost operatic, in the sense of big gestures and multi-octave vocalizations, as if some style of some kind of classical training had been applied to this show which in productions I have seen elsewhere is a kind of small, sorrowful tale about people with few choices and few opportunities to love. An example is the scene in which the workers drink and dance. The last time I saw this performed in the US, the workers did a kind of shy, inhibited square dance, men dancing awkwardly with men. Here in Jammu the actors playing Rajasthani workers jumped and leaped and waved their arms exuberantly, with no problem at all about men dancing with and around other men.

mice and men

This is the curtain call for the Rajusthani language production of Of Mice and Men. George is the actor with the red scarf, standing by the hay bale. Lennie stands behind him. One of the comments from the audience afterwards was that in the script, Lennie is supposed to be a big guy. The actor who plays Lennie in this production is tall and skinny; you can see him standing behind (not to the side of) George. When Lennie goes off, worked up into a frenzy, he starts to hop and spin and takes up a great deal of space with his flying arms and legs, as if he is exploding. So it is his craziness that is frightening, not his size. 

The hall was not full, despite tickets being free. There did not seem to be any publicity around in the city. The older members of the audience were all men, as far as I could see. There were some women present but most of them were young, student-age, and seemed to have official roles with the theater, as volunteers, ushers, technical workers, etc. The same situation would be the case in Delhi, with the difference that tickets were not free and weirdly, you had to buy them on line and get your ticket confirmation texted to your mobile phone; there were no paper tickets.

So the One World Theater production took place after one tech rehearsal. There was not time enough to really work out the lighting, so that at one point Anna was reading her diary out loud in the dark. However, despite the fact that the actors were still recovering from their various illnesses, crises or just travel weariness, the show went on and ran smoothly.  It was not a brilliant performance, but everyone did a good job and it was good enough, and people gave it a standing ovation at the end.

After the show Deborah and Rajkumar were called to the stage for a Q&A.

Deb and Raj onstage Jam

Deborah and Rajkumar in a post-show discussion onstage.

Below is one of the village plays, done outdoors on the red carpet. These were all done in the multiple languages of India. I sat next to a young woman who told me the plot of one of these: an old grandmother tries to get her daughter-in-law to abort a female child; the town rises up against the old grandmother. The old grandmother is played by an over-the-top comic male actor.

village play 1

On to Delhi

In Delhi, the Olympics took place at the National School of Drama, the NSD. Below is a food court, surrounded by booths with all kinds of Indian foods and handicrafts. In the rear is another outdoor stage where dances and drumming were performed. There were two regular theaters within a short walk of this School itself where the staged plays were performed.

food ct

This time the Anne Frank performance benefited from the continuing recovery of the actors, plus a smaller stage which meant a tighter set, giving a stronger sense of the degree to which the characters are really trapped in a small space for months on end. Again, the audience did not fill the hall – perhaps due to the lack of publicity and the difficulties about buying tickets, which were only available on the same day, on line or via cell phone. But the response was enthusiastic and the actors delivered a strong play.

After the show was performed, people had a day to relax, go and see other plays, and eat and sleep.

Rose and Hermanta

Here are Rose and Hemanta, relaxing on the day when they did not have to perform or work.

I have not written much about what Joe and I did in this post; that will come next. Mainly, I found AirB&Bs and was able to download and use Uber.

Back to Kathmandu: Planning for the year ahead for One World Theater

Back in Kathmandu, Deborah Merola, Rajkumar Pudasaini, Rose Schwietz, Amrit Dahal and Bruno Deceukelier met together at the Amore Guesthouse to talk about planning for next year. Deborah and Rajkumar are Co-Artistic Directors, Rose is Managing Director and has also been Director and actor; Bruno directed The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later and is slated to direct Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde; and Amrit Dahal is the manager of the budget.

planning 2

In this meeting, the group was discussing the next season, including dates, what was going to be produced, people’s schedules and, of course budget along with potential funding sources for each play.

planning all 5