December issue 2011
Staged Action: Young Pakistanis Embrace Theatre
In the midst of violence, civil war and CIA-ISI tiffs, young Pakistanis are leading a significant resurgence in theatre. Staging performances that make you laugh, get goosebumps, tear up and even question the norms of Pakistani life, these groups mark a new beginning in the industry.
Cogito Productions is at the forefront of such developments. Founded by Shehzad Shaikh in 2009 and run entirely by students, it aims to present thought-provoking ideas through the performing arts. It believes in promoting original theatre instead of presenting adaptations of popular musicals and plays.
“When I went to LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences), I realised that Lahore has a much more vibrant theatre culture than Karachi,” says Shehzad. Seeking the magic ingredient, Shehzad stumbled upon a key inspiration: Ajoka theatre. “Where other groups perform adaptations, Ajoka raises the bar by presenting original scripts and addressing local issues.”
In keeping with this tradition, Cogito’s philosophy has more to do with improvisation than script-based acting.
In January 2010, Cogito presented Yeh Bhi Ek Kahani Hai, their breakout play. Unafraid to be honest, it involved a married couple who visits Swat on vacation and encounters extremists who brutally torture the wife. Techniques such as miming and shadow lighting were employed to drive their point home. “We like to push the boundaries,” says Shehzad.
For all their cutting-edge artsiness, the group still has a strong conscience. They staged Aise Kiya to Sab Agaye — a hilarious play about a prince and princess at college — at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in August 2010 to raise funds for the flood victims.
Just two months later, Cogito organised the Cogito Youth Performing Arts Festival at the Arts Council, to create awareness and raise funds for the legal aid NGO, Madadgaar.
Cogito has also made sharing their strategies a priority. The production company held workshops conducted by professional actors from the National College of Arts (NCA) at the Arts Council in the summer of 2010. And in June and July 2011, Cogito held performances entitled the First, Second, Third and Fourth Act at The Second Floor (T2F) in Karachi. The idea behind this was to provide a platform to fledgling actors and to create an environment conducive to learning and performing. “Performing without the support of a heavy production team or a set and having the chance to [connect] directly with the audience on pertinent social issues like women’s rights is a humbling experience. For example, I wrote Khalla after reading about how mental disorders are diagnosed as madness in Pakistan and people suffering from them are shunned by society,” says Shehzad. He is currently trying to contact various NGOs to help perform plays that touch upon social issues such as women’s rights and mental illnesses from their platform.
On July 30, Cogito held One Night Stand at the PACC. Featuring back-to-back performances by the members of the group and three stand-up comedy acts, it was a clear success. Even the not-so-comedic play Seven left the audience in a state of awe as Cogito masterfully depicted the seven sins. The play that stood out was Zanana Banana, in which Cogito created a woman’s world. For instance, one scene involves a man leaving his house to get water from the well and encountering a truck-wali who teases him. He responds with: “Ghar mein bhai baap nahi hain kya?” A few minutes later his mother comes and begins to scold him, “Ghar ki aurtein mur gayee hain jo tum akele chaley aye?” Later, she takes him to the panchayat where the ruling is in favour of the woman.
“When you write a play, you don’t just write it, you write it with a purpose, keeping in mind what will register with the people, what they will take out of it. So even if we are doing a funny play, we want to make people think. [We do so with] a strong medium: theatre. If we don’t think now, when will we?” implores Shehzad.
Another notable group is Firefly Theatre. Originally from Larkana, its founder Zuhaib Shaikh moved to Karachi in 2002 and founded Firefly Theatre in 2009. “What inspired me was the very medium of drama. I was initially fascinated by the big screen. The first time I went into a cinema hall and saw people crying with the actors and laughing with them, was when I understood how powerful a medium acting is.”
Firefly, too, tackles difficult, oft-ignored issues, albeit often in a light-hearted way. It has performed plays like All in the Family (a comedy about a dysfunctional family that reunites, rediscovers and mends broken ties), Thora Pyaar Thora Murder (a comedy about five college friends who are in search of a killer who murders one of them), and a local twist on the popular US and UK Television Series, The Office. And, going beyond the stage, Firefly has also started an innovative professional drama-based training programme. Instead of honing communication skills by showing slides with bullet points on them, they simply act out different everyday scenarios. According to Zuhaib, drama’s application in everyday life heals people and provides them refuge from troubled times.
A group that has successfully managed to do precisely this is Aisa Karogay Tau Kaun Ayega. Their first show, a biting improvised satire at the PACC was unprecedented in Pakistan — and it was all unscripted! Azfar Ali, the founder of the troupe, now lauded as Pakistan’s first Urdu improvisational comedy group, says that this idea stemmed from his fascination with improvisation done by comedians on an American TV show, Whose Line is it Anyway?
A team of six people were chosen for Azfar’s troupe after intense auditions which lasted for one month. After their 15-minute act at the PACC, they performed 30 times over a period of one-and-a half years.
The act was initially designed for television and stage was merely the practicing ground. Azfar was looking for a reputable sponsor and when Lipton approached him, he sealed the deal for television. The troupe now performs on a show called Light On Hai, which is telecast on PTV Home, Ary Digital and Play TV. Azfar is confident about his future success: “I’ve always done new things…because I’m not afraid of failure.”
However, although student-run groups are on the rise, performance legend Sheema Kermani points out that scores of troupes have started out with a bang and then closed shop because “there is a lack of state support and performance spaces. And, most importantly, groups need an NOC (No Objection Certificate) for all public performances.” This, Sheema explains, leads to ticket prices often reaching exorbitant amounts, in the thousands per head. “How many people can buy tickets for Rs 1,000 to go and see a play? Consider a family of five — how many can spend Rs 5,000 in one evening?”
But today’s theatre groups seem aware of such hurdles. Unlike their predecessors, they seek private sponsors instead of looking for elusive state support. This, in addition to their often-spare minimalist ideas about sets, enables them to price tickets reasonably.
Groups like Cogito Productions, Firefly Theatre, and Aisa Karogay Tau Kaun Ayega are coming up with fresh concepts and plays relevant to the contemporary realities. We may be a country at war, but the flourishing creative arts symbolise hope for a brighter Pakistan.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Newsline under the headline “Staged Action”