“Theater,” proclaimed the world-renowned French director Ariane Mnouchkine, in a lilting accent, “is more important, more revolutionary, than any other art form,” and–speaking of Afghanistan, a country ravaged by years of discord and strife–“priceless in a society based on the refusal of the Other.” Mnouchkine spoke on July 28 in New York City to an admiring audience in a conference room of the George Soros-funded Open Society Institute.
The event was a “conversation” with Mnouchkine about her attempts to revive theatre in Afghanistan, where she and forty-two members of her company, La Theatre du Soleil, spent three recent weeks under the behest of the Kabul-based and Soros-sponsored Foundation for Culture and Civil Society (FCCS). Daily workshops in the foundation’s walled garden saw French actors, directors, costumers and set designers teach and perform alongside nearly 100 students from Kabul University’s Fine Arts Department.
Mnouchkine was in New York to oversee La Theatre du Soleil’s US premier at Lincoln Center of its six-hour epic Le dernier caravanserail, which is drawn from letters written by Afghan and Kurdish asylum seekers held in detention camps in the Pacific.
FCCS’s executive director, Dutchman Robert Klyver, sat next to Mnouchkine at the OSI panel and placed La Theatre du Soleil’s Afghan sojourn in the context of a greater struggle over the war-torn nation’s image and identity. While development and aid experts abroad puzzle over Afghanistan’s infrastructure, economy and security, few, according to Klyver, recognize the importance of a dynamic cultural life. Much of the “international community’s efforts,” he lamented, “are based on a vision of an old-fashioned, rural Afghanistan…of long-bearded, deeply conservative men with Kalashnikovs.”
Following a slide show of images depicting the ghostly shells of Kabul’s devastated stages and movie halls, Mnouchkine mournfully noted that “whenever soldiers entered Kabul, the first buildings destroyed, the first things to be shot at, were the theaters.” Her hope is that a regenerated, vibrant and cosmopolitan artistic scene would go a long way in healing many of the wounds of Afghanistan’s traumatic past.
This resurrection, as far as Mnouchkine is concerned, begins, if not ends, with masks. She and her company made a very deliberate decision to tailor their workshops exclusively around forms of comedic theater–from Italian comedia dell’arte to Japanese kabuki. Comedy, she insisted, would “bring theater as quickly as possible” to Afghanistan; its irony and satire would open “a different perspective.” Masks, elemental pieces in most forms of comic art, would allow French and Afghan actors to inhabit the Other and celebrate the “universality” of their art.