IMG_0449These past weeks have held plentiful reminders of the horrendous things we do to each other as people and societies. In the face of large darknesses, we often for get that ignorance and intolerance are bred and cultivated in much smaller arenas long before they grow into mass malignancy. I myself have found it difficult to find anything to write about of late, and I am one of the most pragmatically action-oriented people I know.

With this in mind, I have decided to devote this blog and the next to arts-based projects that are creating opportunities for connection and knowledge. The texts about the three projects are directly from the blog articles themselves, and the title is linked to the original. Here’s an added bonus– you can become involved in these yourself, in one way or another!

Women Artists and Wikipedia

“Many women’s arts organizations have worked to increase the visibility of women artists online.

Women Arts logo

WomenArts created our online directory of women artists, the Women Arts Network, in 2003 because we wanted to encourage women to increase their presence on the web. Any woman artist can create a free profile page on our site, and we currently have about 1,600 active profiles. We have also compiled a list of other directories of women artists. If you know of a directory that should be added to our list, please contact us.

It is important to keep adding information to our women-controlled websites, since Wikipedia has rules and a culture that will be challenging for some women artists, but we agree with the founders of Art + Feminism that we need to make sure that women artists are fully represented in this online encyclopedia that so many people are using.

Documenting women artists worldwide in all art forms is a huge task that will require input from thousands of women, but it is something that all of us can work on – either on our own or in groups. If you are looking for something to do with your friends this year on SWAN Day, this could be a great choice. If you are a teacher, this could be a great project for your students.

Art + Feminism has created some excellent Wikipedia articles to help you get started. There is an article about how to organize an edit-a-thon MeetUp group, and their own Wikipedia Meet-Up page has links to upcoming events and helpful articles about creating and editing Wikipedia listings.”

Raven promo pic

From Raven Brings the Light, with Kakeru

World Theatre for Children and Young People

This is from a Huffington Post blogpost by Lauren Gunderson.Not to sound overly grand (too late), but so much of the toxicity in this world comes from a collective draining of empathy. We don’t understand each other, and we don’t want to. But theater invites us — no, forces us — to empathize.

As my friend Bill English of San Francisco’s SF Playhouse says, theater is like a gym for empathy. It’s where we can go to build up the muscles of compassion, to practice listening and understanding and engaging with people that are not just like ourselves. We practice sitting down, paying attention and learning from other people’s actions. We practice caring.

Kids need this kind of practice even more than adults do. This is going to be their planet and they’ve got more time to apply that empathy and make a difference. Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax challenges us to actively and specifically teach children (and vote for presidents with) empathy. Why not take your child to the theater to do just that.”

“Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here”

This is holly again, speaking about this book that shares with us the incredible work of artists and performers of Muslim faith striving against the oppressions of fundamentalism. I first became aware of this amazing book and the work of some of the people profiled in it when I read a published excerpt in Theatre Without Borders newsletter. I quote from the book’s description on Amazon: “From Karachi to Tunis, Kabul to Tehran, across the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and beyond, these trailblazers often risked death to combat the rising tide of fundamentalism within their own countries.

But this global community of writers, artists, doctors, musicians, museum curators, lawyers, activists, and educators of Muslim heritage remains largely invisible, lost amid the heated coverage of Islamist terror attacks on one side and abuses perpetrated against suspected terrorists on the other.” IMG_0728 (1)

So there it is. Read the book, or add Women Artists, or support incredible theatre for children— it is with these small actions that we change the shape of a landscape or the course of a river.

 

IMG_1094(Music plays) “The Earth is a magnet. It’s the (beat) third planet from the sun. Flowing electrons and protons/come together to make things run!” The Kid Scientists and Benjamin Franklin sing valiantly through an explanation of their thinking while the storm rages and the flying kite conducts electricity down to their home-made motor. The adults watching in the seats of the professional theatre are grinning, completely enchanted as the first group of fourth-graders performs the play they wrote—complete with important plot-driving song, thank you very much.

I am once again at the Hangar Theatre for the Project 4 performances, crouched down-stage-right near the ‘vom’, next to musician John Simon, battered script in hand for the occasional whispered prompt. This is my 17th year with the Hangar Theatre’s project in the fourth grades, and I have loved it throughout its many incarnations, performance locations, and structures. I have IMG_1075loved it when I am up at 2am and growling at my computer as I try to piece together the scene bits and improv moments the students have created; I have loved it when I am scraping my car at 7am to get to school and sleepy nine-year olds who aren’t terribly keen on an 8am acting warm-up and a theatre/science lesson; I have even loved it in moments of miscommunication and distress that compel me to call my supervisor for help and advice.

What keeps me coming back is the dynamic, intriguing, social justice-laden, mutual listening and learning process that makes the project happen. That and I fall madly in love with a couple dozen brilliant minds and wonderful souls every time.

IMG_1166Logistically, what we Teaching Artists do is first meet with the teachers, who target a specific piece of their academic content that they feel the students need to understand more deeply, and often talk about how they want the students to grow socially. We as Teaching Artists plan the arc of our lessons accordingly, each day with academic, social, and theatrical goals; each day forwarding the delicious and terrifying progression of moving from having absolutely nothing to conceiving, then writing, then rehearsing, then performing an original piece of theatre. Did I mention the kids are nine and ten years old?

I return again and again to this project because it is like magic. I am well versed in the science and social science behind the success of performance modalities as ideal teaching tools, so I am not surprised at the deep learning of the curriculum content and of language arts skills that happens. It is nonetheless a delight, anticipated and appreciated like a favorite dessert. But for me, that which strikes me with wonder anew in the way that sunsets, stars, and storms do, is their deepened compassion for each other, their growing awareness of social structures and how they can be changed, and their discovery of their own bravery. It’s pretty IMG_1134hard to perform in front of people, especially something you yourself wrote. What better circumstances to practice going forward anyway, even though you are scared, than in this gentle, fun, supportive environment? Life presents us with bullies and plenty of situations where we are pressured to keep silent in the face of something that is wrong. This project is about having an idea and finding a way to voice it—in collaboration, on paper, and out loud in front of lots of people you might not know.

My second group of fourth graders comes to the close of their show, the Kid Scientists having learned about wind, water, and solar energy with the help of various mythological gods. They sigh with relief and triumph as Zeus delivers his final lines, and musician John Simon plays part of the song they wrote. They take their places and bow all together, radiant and magical.

At this point in my life, I have worked in many environments, including being a teaching artist in Kabul without much Dari, working with folks with pretty much any atypical situation you can think of, and had crazy weather do its very best to wreak havoc. Generally, we find a way to manifest a successful outcome, and I am able to be in the smooth problem-solving zone (especially as I gain experience with age).

That being said, my latest project has me laughing as I realize that the boy ‘on the spectrum’, the girl with Muscular Dystrophy, and all the other kids with their wide-ranging challenges are teaching me to what it really means to be patient, roll with the punches, and remember that life is washable.

Here’s the backstory. “Life is Washable” is the tagline for the wonderful, ability-inclusive organization called The Magic Paintbrush (www.magicpaintbrushproject.org) that is sponsoring this latest project. I quote their website:

The Magic Paintbrush Project provides family and community engagement programs that serve individuals of all ages with special needs. Our programs include innovative workshops, activities and materials designed to creatively engage ability and invite involvement with families and caregivers.  The Magic Paintbrush Project creatively connects those we serve, including individual families, agencies, integrative programs and classrooms. We have successfully served thousands of individuals leaving a lasting impression for all.”

The Magic Paintbrush Project is run by the delightful Jen O’Brien, who originated it years ago as a response to a lack of creative opportunities for her own children with special needs. Jen and I had worked together at a few symposiums and helped each other with resources over the past half-dozen years, and when she contacted me last spring, I figured it would be another one of those types of calls.

But no.

She wanted to create a theatre company with kids with special needs. They would meet once a week (not counting holiday weeks), would learn about performing and playwriting, write their own piece, and finally perform it in a professional theatre… within about three months. She was hoping I would be willing to be the person to lead the workshops, facilitate the script development, and direct the show. Exciting and a lot to accomplish under any circumstances, never mind that although theatres have wheelchair-accessible seating, they do not often have wheel-chair accessible greenrooms and so on. But, what the heck, life is washable, right? I said, “THAT SOUNDS AWESOME!!!!!!!”

Then we had what I think many of us have experienced: ‘floating stakeholder syndrome’,  followed by outreach challenges, and everyone’s perennial favorite, scheduling obstacles. I had nearly given up of having the project happen at all, when Jen phoned the day before our first day to say we had four kids for sure. Not what I was hoping for, and four kids is the bare minimum needed for a fun and full theatrical endeavor. Add to that a cold day, an outdoor delay, and a broken thermostat in our working space…

 

Magic Paintbrush Project logo

I brought that stress into the arena. I shouldn’t have and I know that, but the best I could do was keep it on the inside, and wonder how I could meet everyone’s needs and forward the project so we could somehow meet stakeholder expectations and various deadlines. I began to do what I know how to do, begin the process of becoming a writing/performing ensemble. The kids began to do what they know how to do: listen for the important things, find their own way to connect, and not mind the mess/chaos…because life is messy, life is crazy. Nothing is designed for this particular group of differently-abled kids whose physical needs are so varied, and they are ready to roll with that because we have decided as a team that this is our trajectory. We will create our and perform our show, because I will teach them what I know about theatre, and they will teach me what they know about living vibrantly in a messy world.

Although I have returned to the United States from Afghanistan, my heart is still in a small bright classroom filled to capacity with girls bright, ferocious, and beautiful as fireflies.

I plan to write soon some funny and stressful details of my time there and plans to return, but for today, I would like to focus on the MMCC (Mobile Mini Children’s Circus) itself, and the incredibly important work they do.

I quote their website below; photos provided by MMCC  😮

The Mobile Mini-Circus for Children (MMCC) and its local partner, the Afghan Educational Children’s Circus (AECC), together form a cooperative International/Afghan non-profit organization dedicated to empowering young people. MMCC is the supervising umbrella organization under which AECC operates. Activities, however, are run jointly and cooperatively…Established in 2002, MMCC/AECC has grown into a countrywide education program focusing on teaching children to lead. MMCC/AECC’s basic philosophy is that children know best how to communicate with other children. The goal is to give children the tools they need so they can themselves develop creative and novel ways of spreading fun education throughout Afghanistan.

Since 2002 MMCC and its local partner AECC, Afghan Educational Children Circus, has performed and made workshops for more than 2.7 million children in 25 provinces all over Afghanistan. The combination of entertaining and essential educational messages such as health, landmine awareness, peace and back to school/importance of education, delivered by professional Afghan artists in a pure local context, has proved to pave the road for cultural activities even in parts of the country where music, singing and other forms of artistic expression have been suppressed or forgotten for decades.Each year MMCC and AECC bring together children from across the country for numerous big events such as festivals and children assemblies. When children play, practice and perform together, they become much more than just representatives of their background, region or ethnicity. They become friends, active members of a joyful family and advocates for national unity.Circus and especially social circus as developed in the frame of MMCC/AECC in the past 10 years, is much more than physical art. It is about using the amazing capacities of circus as a tool to make positive social change for children.

Where every child is acknowledged, a community can blossom. A primary target group and main concern of the MMCC/AECC are the challenged children and youth including orphans, handicapped, street working- and internally displaced children living in refugee camps.  These are the most vulnerable in society.
Through comprehensive outreach programs, children from all different backgrounds are involved in the activities.

Outreach 

In one of MMCC/AECCs larger outreach programs, children from IDP camps first visit the Kabul capacity center where they are introduced to the world of social circus. Afterward, a group of MMCC/AECC trainers visits the camps regularly with circus and media equipment to teach children how to play, juggle, perform, interact and express themselves through photo, radio and video productions. 
Some of the best camp children become part of a trainer program and network supporting them to continue and sustain the activities in the camp.

Cheerful Anniversary Celebration of MMCC/AECCWhat are the best moments in life? 
Isn’t it the time you are so happy and full of joy that your laughter is so intense you can’t control it anymore, until your eyes are full of tears? 
Many believe you first need security, shelter, health, education, economical stability, infrastructure etc., until finally you could have those fancy moments. 10 years ago MMCC (Mobile Mini Circus for Children) started from the other end, practically bringing those laughers and good moments to millions of children in Afghanistan: our Social Circus brought the laughter first, which makes all problems seem less horrible and put a focus on the fun and positive side to bring hope. A hope that can rebuild the country: MMCC incorporates information and education into performances and workshops, so children learn through fun. 
Since 2002 many children have been motivated, educated, and inspired to a healthy, wise, hopeful, dynamic and positive life through the MMCC. With or without security, infrastructure, etc., they have had at least lots of fun and now after 10 years they are forming the new Afghan generation. Besides the joy and laughter a broad range of cultural and educational services have been provided by MMCC since 2002 such as:Since 2002, 2.7 million Children have watched the live educational performances of MMCC in 25 provinces of Afghanistan.

Hundreds of events, festivals of circus and theater, pedagogy workshops and beautification of schools and championships in many different provinces have been organized.

Hundreds of radio, music and TV programs plus magazines have made for and by children.

A numerous local and national Children Assemblies (Shura-e-Atfal) organized.

International performing tours of children to Japan, Italy, Denmark and Germany.

There are different ways to help us to cover the young artists costumes and equipment to keep them performing for thousands of children. One way is by direct contribution, and the other is via your social media. Click HERE to spread the wealth or the word!

Me again…..Folks, check it out, and please spread the word. To fight anything else, we must first fight despair. Yours in joy….

I write this on my last day in Kabul, where for the past 10 days I have had the honor and joy of working with children at the Afghan Mobile Mini Children’s Circus and being a supporting team member for Eva Vander Giessen in Afghan Friends Network meetings. I have been able to wear bright clothes, walk by myself to the circus in the morning or home at midday, and been to restaurants where men and women are allowed to eat together (although they are uncommon, and are generally referred to as ‘restaurants for foreigners’, even if mostly Afghans are there). Girls go to school in Kabul, and I have met AFN scholarship students, men and women, who are studying engineering, art, medicine, and so much more in Kabul’s many universities.

However, it is best if women are in pairs or more, and it would be very very dangerous to go out on foot after dark. A German woman I have met is careful not to take the same routes all the time, as sometimes foreign women can be ‘tracked’–I am grateful to look somewhat local (I have been mistaken at first glance for being from here), but I am careful not to make eye contact with men, to physically step out of their way, to shield my face from too much attention especially when I am walking alone.

Kabul is a dynamic place where change is happening, albeit slowly. The provinces, the villages, and so on, are another story entirely, almost like another country. There is tremendous pressure to keep women from becoming educated, often to keep them from ever leaving the house, and these two ideas converge in the suppression of women voting. The pictures following are from Bond Street Theatre, and used with permission.

Bond Street Theatre is fostering an incredible Women’s Theatre Company in Afghanistan for women to reach out to other women —including performances in their homes—to make them aware of their rights and the importance of voting. As Artistic Director Joanna Sherman said, “Theatre brings crucial information to life.”

So, here in Kabul, I am encouraging you to learn about and hopefully support this incredibly important project!I quote Bond Street’s Blog “On the Road” :

This is a time of hope and possibility. A new generation is voting for the first time in Afghanistan, and half of them are women. Women’s right to vote is a hard-earned victory, and yet many women are unaware of their right to vote.This is a time for crucial change. In the past decade, women have made great strides, setting Afghanistan on a promising course. But conservative factions are working hard to reverse these advances and prevent women from enjoying the most basic human rights.

Bond Street Theatre has been working for Afghan women for more than 10 years. We trained four women’s theatre groups to create theatre — by women, for women — to spread the word about women’s right to vote, why each vote counts, and how to register. They are a first in Afghanistan!

These women are role models: they encourage women and girls to speak out. Theatre shows like these have a ripple effect through the community and a huge impact. In order to reach as many women (and men) as possible, we must raise $10,000.

Visit our Indiegogo page Afghan Women Speak Out through Theatre to contribute!

Women’s voice in government and participation in the election is essential to protect and advance their rights!

“This theatre project has given me new courage to speak out!”

(Ayesha, member of Nangarhar Women’s Theatre troupe in Jalalabad.)

More about this Bond Street program (from a press release, used with permission):

Bond Street Theatre has been working toward peace and social improvement in Afghanistan since 2002 through programs that build the capacity of local organizations and promote creative thinking and problem-solving, especially focusing on women and youth. The Election Fraud Mitigation project builds on BST’s 2010-2012 Theatre for Social Development program, which provided artistic and practical business training to prepare local theatre groups to use their skills for public education.

The six troupes will present 70+ performances in multiple provinces between August 2013 and April 2014. Elections are scheduled for April 5, 2014. Performances are followed by direct activities with the audience to explore potential solutions to voting issues. The goal of the project is to use interactive, mobile performances to educate the electorate on the value of a strong, legitimate government achieved by a fair election process and effective fraud prevention strategies.”

How awesome is THAT?!?!?!?

Please at least check it out—the news media is so very seldom about this kind of incredible work.