Thursday, August 12, 2010

Curtain Raiser of ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ at Upper Deck a Quirky, Riotous Affair

Originally printed in THE NEWS

by Osman Khalid Butt

Upper Deck Supper Club, in collaboration with Grapevine Events [headed by Tallat Azim] and NCA Department of Theatre, held a first of its kind Dinner Theatre on Saturday, the 3rd of July. The plat du jour, if you will, was a curtain-raiser of NCA’s debut production ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ by Nobel Prize winning playwright Dario Fo [adapted into local context by Sarmad Sehbai, and directed by Claire Pamment.] The star-studded evening featured Indu Mitha, Rezz Aly Shah, Sarmad Sehbai, Ali Saleem, Parveen Malik [President ASG], and Shireen Mazari, amongst others, in attendance.

The press release promised audiences a ‘hearty meal spiced with comedy and musical flourish.’ After watching the vibrant display of theatrics by actors Syeda Yasra Rizvi [who directed the stellar ‘Bench’ with Szabist], Usman Ali Khan [who recently left audiences in splits as Roger De Bris in ‘The Producers’], Mohsin Ejaz [known for his quirky characters in Kopy Kats’ productions], and debutants Aroosha Zahid and Farhan Sami, one can safely say: encore! But more on that later.

So what’s the play about?
‘Can't Pay, Won't Pay’ was originally written under the title ‘Non Si Paga, Non Si Paga’ in 1974, against the backdrop of Italy's economic crisis and a period of political radicalization and frequent strike actions. As one of Dario Fo's most performed plays, it has been adapted to many languages and contexts.

This present adaptation by Sarmad Sehbai is set in contemporary Pakistan, at a time of inflation, load shedding and downsizing. Shahana and Riaz Butt, and Saira and Navid Khwaja are neighbors in the same rundown apartment block. The cost of living is spiraling out of control, and with neither couple having paid the rent or utility bills for months, the threat of eviction is looming close. The husbands, pre-occupied with the axing of jobs at the steel factory where they both work, are unaware of the toll that taxes on home life. In order to give relief to their fragile predicament, the wives from the neighborhood lay siege on the local market, taking its stock without paying. Shahana, knowing her law-abiding husband would not condone her actions, needs to hide the 'stolen goods'. What follows is a chaotically comic sequence of events that include phantom pregnancies, shape-shifting policemen, and an original score of song and dance numbers.

The performance began with Yasra Rizvi and Aroosha Zahid moving on the ‘theatre’ space like seasoned pros; quickly establishing their characters, and aided by the fast-paced script [Desperate Housewives meets Pakistani Lower Middle-class Misfortune], they proceeded to engage the audiences with rapid-fire dialogue [featuring a deft play of words from colloquial Urdu language] with confidence and great panache. Both shared excellent chemistry; Yasra brought her character to life, and then some, while Aroosha was a revelation [leading Ali Saleem to later remark: “The debutant was exceptional; it was unbelievable the way she exuberated the confidence she did.”] The proceedings got even more interesting with the introduction of Usman’s character: the husband/wife banter [between Yasra and Usman] was played to great effect. Mohsin Ejaz, as a police-officer sympathetic to the woes of the lesser privileged, had great command over his character. The preaching became a bit overt in his scene with Usman, but the audience seemed to lap it up, enjoying every punchline. The performance ended with all the actors performing an original song, “Khayali Palao” [my favorite part, apart from the laugh-out-loud lyrics, was Farhan Sami’s little rap sequence]. The song, although just a tad bit too long, was nevertheless truly the ‘showstopper’ of the performance.

Though the performance is more than three weeks away, it seems as though the actors [especially Yasra, who was in her element throughout] are well-prepared to open, with the only glitches being a couple of silent pauses during the performance, and certain dialogues seeming too much like sermons.

Instep spoke to Yasra Rizvi to know more about her character and her experience in the play. “This particular subject is just the kind of theatre we need. It is current, socially relevant, and highly original. Shahana’s character is much more than your average scheming housewife; she is a survivor, still standing in the face of adversity. She is an example of what’s keeping the Pakistani masses alive.” She said that the creative process was challenging but rewarding, and was particularly excited about the live-singing [goodbye, lip-sync, and good riddance.] “It’s a wonderful step towards educating audiences; an eye-opener that pinpoints our own problems. It is necessary for audiences to be made aware of the problems facing the lower-middle class, and [we hope the play] generates compassion towards their plight,” she added.

Usman Ali Khan was honored to be part of a play that was adapted with the permission of the author [Another first!]. He was confident that people would enjoy the dialogue and the storyline. Speaking of director Claire, he said, “Claire is a very demanding director, but at the same time gives actors a participatory role in building [and eventually owning] their characters.”

Ali Saleem, one of Pakistan’s finest hosts, actors and impressionists, was highly impressed by the acting level of the cast. “Being an actor myself, I understand they were not on their home-turf, but they were nonetheless confident, energetic and performed very well.” Claiming it to be a wonderful teaser, he said that he now looks forward to watching the entire production.
Rezz Aly Shah found the evening enchanting, saying, “These kinds of events are important, because they promote art and the hidden talent Islamabad has to offer. [With this play,] I feel proud that young talent is coming out of my city.”

As if being the first original musical production wasn’t enough..
In collaboration with the British Council, UK scenographer Paul Burgess has designed the sets, and will be leading a number of workshops as part of the event. Tariq Ameen is the production's stylist. Choreography is by Indu Mitha, Saima Salahuddin and Fadi Gujjar. With the collaboration of the Italian Embassy, Dario Fo's protégé, the actor Mario Pirovano, who has worked with the master since 1983 and earned his admiration as a great storyteller, will be in Pakistan holding workshops, performing dramatic readings from Fo's work and engaging in dialogue with local theatre practitioners as part of the theatre event.

Instep caught up with director Claire Pamment after the curtain raiser for a round of Q&A:

Why choose Dario Fo’s play as NCA Rawalpindi’s debut theatrical production?

Dario Fo evokes the long tradition of jesters, clowns and tricksters in world theatre. With material culled from the Italian giullare jesters and bards, commedia dell'arte, Shakespeare's clowns and Molière's plays, he carries the streak of incisive social criticism found in our own legendary jesters Nasrudin, Dopiaza and Birbal. To my mind, Dario Fo is the world's most performed living playwright, not just because his themes strike resonance beyond the borders of Italy, but so do his performative modes, which celebrate comic defiance over human oppression through the liberating power of laughter. ‘Can't Pay, Won't Pay’ is an insightful take on our contemporary socio-political scene. As NCA Department of Theatre's inaugural production, the play ventures a socially relevant and high quality theatre.

In a city ruled by opulent musicals and bedroom farces, do you believe the play will click with audiences?

NCA's intention is not to follow market trends, but introduce audiences and practitioners to a range of theatrical approaches. We have incorporated original musical numbers into the play. The play is open to all... the audience's response to the curtain raiser promises its success.

How has the experience been like for you - Working with Islamabadi talent comprising of mostly youngsters?

We have so many talented young performers in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, and they need theatre training opportunities and academics. There is a need to recognize theatre as an academic discipline, not just as a hobby, which will move theatre from amateurism to professional excellence. The cast for this play has gone through a process of readings, character analysis, movement and music sessions, field research and scene practice. I feel it’s the process which is the backbone of a good production. These young actors have shown a lot of understanding and passion for this play.

The play opens at PNCA on the 29th of July, and will run till the 3rd of August. If the curtain raiser is anything to judge by, audiences are in for a subversive yet sublime theatrical production; a socially relevant message behind a clever smokescreen of unbridled comedy.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

BA Degree in Theatre

Originally printed in THE NEWS on 3rd December, 2010.

The single overarching aim is to develop the intellectual and practical artistry, craft and attitude of highly trained professional actors and directors. The course will provide a safe environment in which experimentation, innovation and creativity are a highly valued part of the learning process. The aims of the degree are designed to provide an integrated academic and professional training environment conceived and structured in such a way as to enable students to gain the knowledge, understanding and skills to pursue and sustain worthwhile careers in the performance industries.

The 4-year degree programme is comprised of two semesters per year, each of 18 weeks duration.

Level 1 (Year 1)

The first level equips students with foundational practical skills and theoretical knowledge upon which students can develop their own methodologies, and is comprised of core modules in acting and theory, theatre history, dramatic texts, music and voice, dance and movement, production analysis, scenography and a production studio. The first level provides a broad overview of Pakistani theatre, within historical and contemporary perspectives, and inducts skills pertaining to classical and modern theatrical approaches: song, dance and acting and the synthesis between them.

Strong emphasis will be placed on training the physical body, voice, presence and energy of the performer. Training draws upon regional theatre practice, contemporary theory, together with philosophies of theatre from world practice to create a holistic approach to the acting medium.

Islamic Studies and Pakistani Studies are modules shared with the other departments, facilitating interaction between other students and faculty. Further, components of the foundation Visual Theory may be incorporated into the History/ Dramaturgy strand, as appropriate.

Students can expect to perform in at least 2 directed studio productions over the year which will bring together all of the skills and ideas developed.

Level 2 (Year 2)

The second level challenges the processes students have acquired at level 1, and encourages them to discover their own creative processes.

This year continues with core modules at a more advanced level in music and voice, dance and movement, acting and direction theories and practice, dramatic texts and a production studio. Dramaturgy modules replace the History modules at this stage of the programme to strengthen theoretical perspectives and explicitly forge a nexus between theory and practice, aimed at transference of taught theory and concepts through a practical workshop orientation.

At this stage, students have the opportunity to choose minor electives, informed by their own career pathways.

The production studio enables students to participate in ensemble creation, direct elements of their own training, and consciously choose techniques to develop a contemplative approach to the creative processes of theatre-making.

Level 3 (Year 3)

From the third level, students will take one of two major electives: acting or direction. Students will receive training pertaining to their major, strengthened by core courses in research.

Students have the opportunity to choose minor electives, informed by their own career pathways.

At this level, the focus of the course aims at inculcating a professional work ethic in the students, and they have the opportunity of working each semester on a large-scale production with professional theatre directors, undertaking an internship in a professional environment and finally producing a self-directed large-scale performance.

First Urdu play recreated at NAG

Originally printed in DAWN on 22nd March 2009

By Jonaid Iqbal

ISLAMABAD, March 19: An appreciative audience watched the lecture and musical performance of the first Urdu play Indar Sabha performed at the National Art Gallery on Thursday. The programme is part of a series of lectures and performances organized by the Theatre Department of National College of Arts (NCA), Rawalpindi campus as an exercise to generate a new literary renaissance through folklore traditions.

This aspect of the new study was also explored in the second of four lecurers and performance workshops organized by the department.

The sond lecture in this series was on the first Urdu play Indar Sabha, written in 1855 by Agha Hasan Amanat Ali. This was followed by a performance of the same musical drama.
These two presentations served as an apt hark-back to our past literary and musical traditions as the nation prepares to commemorate the 49th anniversary of the historic Pakistan Resolution four days hence.
Indu Mitha, the well-known classical dance exponent, choreographed the music and dance part of this drama that, incidentally, could also be called the first Urdu opera. Some snatches of this opera were performed by some of her students in the three acts we witnessed Ms Mitha successfully demonstrating the secular nature of arts, dance, music and literature which prevailed in the Muslim courts, particularly that of Nawab Wajid Ali Shiah in Oudh.
As the opera was being performed on a make believe stage of the National Art Gallery lecture room, Mehwish Bandaley sang from Amir Khusrau to the accompaniment of dances by Farosk Hashmi, Noor Cheema, Amna Mawaz, and Ayesha Iqbal. Mahnoor Khushnood recited lilting poetry.

To revert to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, he was an accomplished poet, writer and artist of great repute in performing the Moghul kathak dance. In the words of Russian Oriental scholar Anna Suvorova, who in her lecture informed the audience that Urdu theatre was born at Lucknow. She said the splendour of this city (Lucknow) vied with the most magnificent courts of the world, including the Moghul Court, of which Oudh was a vassal but later came under the suzerainty of the colonial empire founded by the East India Company.

In her talk Anna Suvorova also referred to the popularity of Indar Sabha which had many features of folk theatre as well as its derivation from the popular dance drama Rasleela, combining kathak dance with Hindu mythology about Radha and Krishn. In fact the popularity of Indar Sabha spread to Europe where it was adapted as an opera with different situations yet retaining the theme.

National Language Authority Chairman Iftikhar Arif who chaired the lecture programme referred to Anna Suvorova as an orientalist of international standing, international stature as well as specialist in Islam in the South Asian Subcontinent and also acknowledged as reputed scholar of South Asian literature in Russia.

In regard to the popularity of the Urdu drama Indar Sabha, 70 editioons of this play are preserved in tIndia Office Library at London, in addition to several editions of the play in the India and Pakistan subcontinent.

The book Early Urdu Theatre written by author Anna Suvorova was also launched on the occasion. The 204-page book added to eight pages of indice, as well as appendix containing summary of selected Urdu plays staged by Parsi Theatre.

Claire Pamment is doing a fine job of work in developing theatre at the centre of renaissance of arts and literary revival in the federal capital, Iftikhar Arif told Dawn on the sideline of the performance.

Indu Mitha also paid compliments to Sarmad Sehbai as a problem solver and said, " When something went wrong she found Sarmad at her side to clear the confusion."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

NCA launches its Bachelors Degree in Theatre

RAWALPINDI, The National College of Arts (NCA), Rawalpindi campus, has launched a four-year degree program in theatre.

The initiative was taken after two years of creative theatre activities in the college nurtured by performing arts luminaries and academics like Arif Jafri, Fazal Jatt, Indu Mitha, Zia Mohyeddin, Claire Pamment, Farooq Qaiser, Fasihur Rehman, Sarmad Sehbai, Rehan Sheikh and Dr Anna Suvorova, says a press release issued by the college.

The NCA is the only institution in the country which offers an undergraduate degree in theatre.
The degree program is aimed to develop the intellectual and practical artistry, craft and attitude of professional actors and directors who have a comprehensive foundation of all areas of theatrical practice.
The program is led by faculty comprising eminent academics and practitioners from within the country and abroad.It is anticipated that the students after graduation will bring further activity to the city by joining the college’s theatre as repertory artists.

‘Open Act’ blazes new theatre trail

By Mushir Anwar

Originally published in DAWN on Wednesday, March 12, 2008

We from the partition time who happen still to be hanging around, with or without our Victorian hang ups and Muslim League mindset, need some education about this third generation of ours that is now preparing to enter practical life in the all round chaos that we have created for it. Sure until now of the soundness of our life view, I was rudely nudged into this idea of a refresher course, or more correctly re-education, about the English spitting youths whom we generally consider unworthy of carrying the heavy coffins of our post-Persian wheel illusions, by a performance of spontaneous theatre that a group of cheeky rascals presented to the roaring applause of an audience that was just not prepared for a surprise of this calibre, this richness and relevance.

Quite aptly called ‘Open Act’ the fifteen piece group and solo encounter was the work of a voluntary team of theatre enthusiasts, Insolent Night, that Claire Pamment, head of the Department of Theatre at the National College of Arts, Rawalpindi Campus, is currently working with to ultimately evolve a faculty and induct a trainee group of its own. From the first performance that was presented by this collaboration on Friday night, the idea of giving expression space to new performers and create a contemporary theatre of our own — away from the current sterile, prescriptive formula output of our stage, cinema and television — looks promising. If pursued with seriousness it has seeds of growing into a creative parallel even to the protest theatre which, with all its relevant trappings, is kind of stultifying. Then for a few years past Islamabad has seen the staging of fully borrowed plays, like the Phantom of the Opera that Shah Sharabeel, an enterprising young man who is into many things than just theatre, skillfully produced and which initially provided an opening to young people here to perform on stage besides generating interest in live performances, being all in English and lavish cost wise, which have had a limited reach to the upper class only. The NCA approach, though still loaded with much English content, is not stuck with any elitist notion as to language or class. English, Urdu or Punjabi, it is the unabashed iconoclastic nature of the material, this initial work presented, is what gives hope it is creative independence that they are trying to nurture. The roaring applause from the audience was not for the language proficiency so much as for the freshness of themes and their socio-political relevance.

Among the sharp and cutting satirical pieces were Satan’s Trade by Wijdan Khaliq that skillfully tossed the metaphor of toilet paper by dilating on the crap world politics has become engulfing all from the Potomac to Euphrates to our own sweet smelling Leh. Survival 101 by Tulin Khalid Azeem and Wijdan preparing toddlers for the war on terror, What’s Genocide by Palvashay based on Carlos Andres Gomez’s poem, Peace be upon Him by Faheem Azam — a dialogue between the 15th century and our present day Islam, Exorcism of the politically rebellious by Osman Khalid, with Ahmad and Salman; Sarmad Sehbai’s From the dark room, by Faisal Kamal Pasha who also read a poem by Sahir Ludhianvi, Optophobia by Natasha Ejaz who joined in a number of other acts with Papaninjinho who composes instant interactive verses, raps and rolls on the ground and looks like someone out of MTV. Natasha and Usman also performed Sale, Sale, Sale by Atif Siddiqui.

There were flashes of brilliance in other acts too; the variety itself allowed no dull moment, one sat on the edge all through the show as the audience roared in applause refreshed by each sparkling event. The murky puppet theatre hall of the Liaquat Auditorium was packed with a fairly mixed gathering of boys and girls at ease with their physical being and comfortable with inter gender proximity that we, of the old lot, have no experience of, since our joints have long been stiff with a prudish rheumatism that has not allowed our limbs to open up and taste the ecstasy of free movement. The generational contrast was astonishing, yet despite the fact they could still be dismissed as a lot deep fried in American margarine, albino souls struggling to emerge in Anglo-Saxon plumage, migratory birds mostly of the ‘70s and ‘80s motley flock, without cultural roots or national awareness, they could not be ignored. It was time we took stock of ourselves and saw the world from their angle also, from their direct knowledge of it through tools that we find difficult to handle, that they use habitually now. They may not be a rebellious horde ready to soldier a revolution of our liking but they seem to possess the kernel for change from the martial syndrome to a more livable social order with space for evolving a society based on values different from ours that may come about in spite of us.

Open Act is going to be a regular feature of the NCA programme and aims at providing a platform for new talent and experimental performance. The department of theatre is also conducting discussion forums with performing arts exponents.

Amad Festival starts at National College of Arts Rawalpindi

RAWALPINDI: ‘Amad Festival’ at the National College of Arts (NCA) is a celebration of improvisational theatre, which is one of the primary techniques in theatre practice that challenges performers’ imagination, spontaneity and ensemble work.

The festival features two events, ‘The Challenge’ that was held on Thursday night. It was a competition between selected theatre troupes from Rawalpindi and Islamabad who created short unscripted extemporaneous scenes out of a few hints and guesses. These groups included ‘Party Quirks,’ ‘Vaylae Mushtandae,’ ‘The ‘Unknowns’ and ‘Dimagh ki Lassi’. For many of these performers, their exposure to improvised theatre was new.

The competition was set in a modest stage design by Fatima Hussain, who has created an intimate studio space in the Liaquat Hall. The groups were given different situations on which the characters competed with each other, performing with the props, creating spontaneous humour and depicting the pictures and generating instant dialogues on given situations.

Department of Theatre Head Associate Professor Claire Pamment introduced the judges to the audience. Judges of the competition included renowned puppeteer Farooq Qaiser, poet, playwright and director Sarmad Sehbai and one of the leading stars of the popular stage Babu Baral, who is known for his brilliant improvisations.

‘Damagh ki Lassi’, which were the winners of the competition, would spend the weekend working with Babu Baral and NCA faculty in creating short pieces for performance. These short performances will be showcased in a programme titled ‘Kuch Kaho’ to a public audience on Monday, October 19, at 7 p.m. It will be followed by a public discussion on the art of improvisation through the life and work of Babu Baral, chaired by Sarmad Sehbai.

‘Aamad’ is one of many outreach activities the Department of Theatre has been conducting over last two years at the NCA based in Rawalpindi at the Liaquat Hall Complex.

These activities have invited theatre practitioners, groups and young aspiring performers to participate in performances, discussion program, workshops and conferences, generating public theatre awareness. In January 2010 NCA will begin its regular BA Theatre Degree programme, for which admissions will be open in the next month.

Giving the background of the improvisation, Associate Professor Head Department of Theatre Claire Pamment said that in the 1960s and 70s improvisation began to enter the Pakistan Arts Council through performers from the dwindling folk theatres and local city circuits.

These improvisations began to re-interpret the European style drawing room comedies in form and content, and gained popularity. In the 1980s the popular improvised comedy on the urban stage began to flourish in the Arts Councils — a return of the primary sources of inspiration in theatre arts.

NCA to highlight origin, evolution of Urdu drama

Originally published in The News on Wednesday, March 18, 2009

By Schezee Zaidi

The Department of Theatre (National College of Arts, Rawalpindi Campus) will hold a series of lectures and performances at the National Art Gallery from March 18 (today) to 21 to highlight the origin and evolution of Urdu drama and theatre.

Supported by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA), the events, to be held daily from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., would include lectures, performances, excerpts and discussions on ‘Early Urdu Theatre: Traditions & Transformations’.

Starting from the first play of Urdu theatre ‘Indar Sabha’ and a lecture on ‘Bhands’ along with their performances, the event would also draw attention towards the Shakespearean influence on Urdu drama and theatre and Agha Hashr Kashmiri’s dramas.

Eminent writers and scholars, including Dr. Anna Suvorova, Zia Mohyuddin, Aslam Azhar, Iftikhar Arif and Claire Pamment would deliver lectures and chair the discussion forums.

Participating scholar Dr. Anna Suvorova is head of Asian Literature Department at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. She is a widely published scholar in the Indo-Islamic Culture, Sufism, Comparative Literature, South Asian Theatre and Contemporary Fine Arts. The NCA Department of Theatre is hosting Dr. Suvorova for an HEC-funded residency and launch of her new book, ‘Early Urdu Drama on Stage: From Beginning to Agha Hashr Kashmiri’, by the Research & Publication Centre, NCA.

Zia Mohyuddin is chairman of the National Academy of Performing Arts and a highly acclaimed actor and theatre director.

Aslam Azhar is the founder of Pakistan Television (PTV). He is an acclaimed theatre actor, who initiated the Karachi-based theatre group ‘Dastak’ in 1983.

Iftikhar Arif is an eminent Urdu poet and chairman of the National Language Authority (NLA). Claire Pamment is head of the Department of Theatre at NCA, Rawalpindi Campus, and is currently pursuing her PhD research on ‘Bhands as a Trickster Mode in Pakistani Theatre’.

On the opening day today (Wednesday), a lecture would be presented by Dr. Anna Suvorova on the ‘Origins of the Urdu Theatre and Drama’ followed by another lecture by Claire Pamment on ‘Bhands’ accompanied by a performance by ‘bhands’ Munir Hussain and Zulfikar. The discussion would be chaired by Aslam Azhar.

On the second day, a lecture by Dr. Anna Suvorova on ‘Indar Sabha: First Play of Urdu Theatre’ would be followed by performance excerpts of Amanat’s ‘Indar Sabha’. The discussion session of the day would be chaired by Iftikhar Arif.

The third day would include another lecture by Dr. Anna Suvorova on the ‘Shakespearean Influence on Urdu Drama & Theatre’. It would be followed by a presentation by Zia Mohyuddin on ‘Staging Safaid Khoon’ and performance excerpts of Agha Hashr Kashmiri’s ‘Safaid Khoon’. The discussion forum of the day would be chaired jointly by Zia Mohyuddin and Dr. Anna Suvorova.

The concluding day’s events on March 21 would include lectures by Zia Mohyuddin and Dr. Anna Suvorova on ‘Agha Hashr Kashmiri’s Dramas (1879-1935)’ followed by performance excerpts of Agha Hashr Kashmiri’s ‘Khubsurat Bala’. The concluding discussion forum would be chaired by Dr. Anna Suvorova and Zia Mohyuddin.

The performances are directed by the NCA theatre faculty with theatre direction by Sarmad Sehbai, choreography by Indu Mitha and music direction by Arif Jaffri.