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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.