Turbulent times for theatre

Hajrah Mumtaz

A basic lack of security and the impact of the global financial crisis have choked off funding for the performing arts in Pakistan. Despite this, big-budget stage shows and community development theatre are surviving against the odds. 

The price Pakistan is paying for its involvement in Afghanistan and the US-led ‘war on terror’ is reasonably well documented. But amid the many casualties, the one area that is often overlooked is that of cultural expression, the performing arts in particular. In today’s Pakistan, theatre can be seen as an analogy for Pakistani society itself: soldiering on in an increasingly hostile environment. 

Though the field has traditionally received little state support or funding, theatrical activity has maintained reasonable levels since the 1960s. The 1980s saw the ‘parallel theatre’ movement resisting the Ziaul Haq military regime, with many groups, including Ajoka Theatre, Tehrike-Niswan and Punjab Lok Rehas, still active today. State support eventually came in 2005 when a federal grant helped establish the National Academy of the Performing Arts (NAPA) in Karachi, the only institution in the country offering a diploma in theatre and music. With RADA-trained actor Zia Mohyeddin and senior composer Arshad Mahmood at the helm, the academy hoped to be able to turn the performing arts profession around. 

While there are regular hiccups in the release of funds, NAPA has indeed made a difference in raising the quality of theatrical work in Karachi. However, new challenges have come up. Director and NAPA faculty member Zain Ahmed refers to the worsening security and economic situation. “The economic slowdown has led to shrinking advertising budgets,” he points out. “Then, there is the security threat. Not only are people reluctant to expose themselves, sponsors are fearful of lending their name to a venture that may attract the terrorists’ attention. The media events that the companies do sponsor now tend to be private events with tightly controlled guest lists and security.” 

The lack of security and sponsorship has also killed off Lahore’s World Performing Arts Festival. Organised by the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (RPTW), this annual event once attracted hundreds of performers from different parts of the world. In 2008, a small bomb went off outside the venue. The following year, the organisers failed to find sponsors or get government support and the festival was cancelled; it has not been held since. RPTW director Faizaan Peerzada said that “ensuring the safety of foreign delegates has become a virtually impossible task.” 

This is not the sum of challenges facing the theatrical community in Pakistan. Scriptwriter and director Vasay Chaudhry points out the toll extracted by the country’s power crisis – business and industry have been hit badly by the frequent outages and breakdowns. “It becomes an expensive proposition to arrange back-up power supply and security on top of all the other costs involved,” he says. “Some theatre halls provide generators but even that often involves pulling strings and calling in favours. Otherwise, you have to rent generators. There is a limit to how far ticket prices can go.” This is why, he says, the big-budget performances that are staged cater to the affluent English-speaking elites. 

These (relatively) big-budget performances he talks of have indeed done well. A handful of directors and producers, including Nida Butt in Karachi and Shah Sharahbeel in Lahore, have, over the years, built an audience for their work – mainly re-creations of internationally acclaimed musicals such as Bombay Dreams (Sharahbeel) and Chicago (Butt), with Butt the name behind the very original Karachi, the Musical. The popularity of such productions, some argue, is due to their ability to provide some measure of escapism to a section of society that is not only able to afford high ticket prices – and thus demands spectacle – but is one step removed from the poverty and lawlessness gripping the country. 

“Turbulent times often produce the most meaningful theatre,” says Zain Ahmed. “But in Pakistan, not enough people have the academic and technical background that allows them to create new scripts and stories, those that refer to Pakistan’s modern-day realities as opposed to simply adapting from other sources.” Ahmed believes that there may be a measure of ‘audience fatigue’ setting in. “Plays by Chekov are fine, but we have our own stories and experiences that need to be discussed.” 

There are success stories in other types of theatre too. The Interactive Resource Centre (IRC), for example, was formed in 2000 by Mohammed Waseem. Influenced by Brazilian Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’, his aim has been to “explore new venues of community mobilisation and dialogue”. The process, which Waseem refers to as “forum theatre”, is very simple: instead of actors, community members act out an everyday issue, such as domestic abuse or underage marriage. Different people provide different solutions, thereby showing that concerns can be turned into dialogue and can be resolved in many ways. Over the years, the IRC has trained over 150 groups that have held thousands of such society-changing performances in urban and remote areas. 

Despite all the odds, it seems that theatre in Pakistan is not ready to close the curtains on its final act yet. As with many aspects of life in Pakistan, theatrical work is driven by personalities not institutions – and the personalities involved here are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the show on the road. 

About the author:

Hajrah Mumtaz is a columnist and reporter for Dawn, Pakistan's largest English-language daily newspaper


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