To Russia to Zimbabwe to Kathmandu to Thailand to Morocco as Harold Clurman in “LET IT BE ART!”
by Ronald Rand
For the past sixteen years I have been traveling with my play and teaching across the globe, experiencing the challenges and joys of performing, when all you can do is trust in the moment and “give over” with complete and utter faith, allowing you to play with harmony – to be fully present. Sharing in the ritual of theater I always feel blessed.
This past year I was the first American invited to perform in his own play in many years in Minsk at the Palace of Culture, and then invited as the first American artist to appear in the renowned “Voices of History” International Theatre Festival in Vologda, Russia presented by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, the Theatre Union, and Vologda Region Government.
Svetlana Smirnova of the Vologda Region Department of Culture and Cultural Heritage Preservation had invited me to come and perform in their most unique Festival. Over the course of my time there, I traverse the beautiful paths and streets of Vologda along the banks of its graceful river founded in 1147. Getting to know this lovely city, I come upon plaques and statues, homes of famous writers and poets. Vsevolod Chubenko, an honored artist of Russia, invited me to visit The Actors House, a three-story large wooden house all in blue, which serves as a meeting place for actors, a museum, restaurant, and where visiting artists can stay and perform when they come to Vologda. Lining the walls are portraits and photos of important Russian artists, and a beautiful photo of Stanislavsky holds a special place, a vase of flowers next to it.
The “Voices of History” Festival is held in many theatres, including a huge outdoor theatre sitting just inside the walls of the Kremlin. Among the productions, I relish the most during the Festival was “Moscow Choir” brought to life by the gifted Maly Theatre actors, and “Maria Stuart” by the Bolshoi Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg.
I am given the opportunity to visit the Ignaty Bryanchaninov Manor of 1812, completely rebuilt, and walk through its gorgeous gardens. It felt as if I had stepped back into another time. Sitting in the garden I feel I’m sitting in “The Cherry Orchard.” Around me are the constant humming of insects, a cobalt sky above, shimmering lakes, fields of bright purple flowers, and white birch trees. Another day I’m taken to the magnificent St. Ferapont monastery near a sparkling lake. I view St. Cyril’s original long cloak, and his original wooden tiny church. When I visit a small village, I taste home-made potato soup and bread, and climb to the top of a local church to ring bells for good luck, and afterwards, visit the shrine of St. Kseniya. The area near Vologda between St. Petersburg and Moscow is especially rich with shrines for many holy people of Russia.
At the end of the Festival, I’m invited to attend a special reception where I meet Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Pozgalev, and talk with Chief of the Department Valentina Ratsko. After several toasts, I’m invited to give a toast. I speak about the honor of coming from America to Russia to share Harold Clurman at this important Festival, what it means to me, and how much we share through our cultures, our peoples, and the theater.
My next journey lands me in the southern regions of Africa, when I fly to Harare, Zimbabwe. Margaret Chigumira of Patsimeredu Edutainment Trust warmly greets me at the airport. I have been invited as the first American in the BAFA International Festival of Arts; my visit is being co-sponsored by the U.S. Embassy.
Harare is the capital city of Zimbabwe, named after the Shona chieftain, Neharawa. The Festival takes place in Harare’s Theatre in the Park, and I listen to young students read their poetry, native dance groups perform, and young actors perform original plays in a large tribal hut made out of sod and straw. Bleacher style benches surround the playing area, and audiences enthusiastically react out loud to the performers.
When I bring Clurman alive in the tribal hut to a packed house, I’m surrounded on all sides by the audience. It’s the first time I had ever done the play when all Clurman had to do was turn to his side and have a conversation with someone sitting at his elbow. It made the entire experience much more intimate. I thank everyone at the conclusion saying: “Ndinotenda Bafa Festival nemi mese muripano. Zvakakosha kuti tidzidzisane tsika nemagariro.” In the evening I attended a Welcoming party in a traditional hut at a nearby consulate, where Jasen Mphepho, Director of Patsimeredu Edutainment Trust welcomes everyone.
The next morning I share my workshop with the students and actors in a tribal hut. I listen to their thoughts on how they approach creating roles and watch stories they act out – a truly illuminating experience.
My being in Zimbabwe touches me as I have been invited to perform and teach in the heart of Africa, while knowing my country at present doesn’t have official cultural relations. Yet I feel a responsibility as an educator and performing artist to come and share with these vibrant young artists-to-be. To explore and grow together through our common language of humanity.
I have also been invited to perform and teach at the Kathmandu International Theatre Festival in Nepal. As we make our approach towards the capital city, we’re told visibility is bad, and if it doesn’t clear, we’ll have to turn around. I can see between the fog – patches of layered terraces of farmland nestled on tops of hills. After several passes, on the final one, we’re going down; there is certainly still no visibility. Somehow we land in the bowl-shaped valley surrounded by its four mountains: Shivapuri, Phulchowki, Nagarjun and Chandragiri. Kathmandu is a city of nearly two thousand years old.
Meeting Sunil Pokharel, the Artistic Director of the Aarohan Theatre Group, I know I have found a kindred spirit of the theater. His deep dedication to all the possibilities of creating theater inspires countless young people in this golden city.
My workshop is held in one of the theaters at the Aarohan Theatre Center, a wooden structure covered by paintings by a local Tibetan artist. Thirty young students bow as do I, and we greet one another warmly. When I visit the revered Swayambunath Stupa, I climb up the steep stone steps, finally reaching the golden temple with its painted roof and large eyes, multi-colored flags flowing out from it in every direction. Worshippers line up offering sacrifices, while monkeys hang from statues and roofs. Bells ring loudly, and the smell of incense fills the air. Everywhere I feel the sensation of reverence and wonder. Below me is sprawled the glowing city of Kathmandu.
In the evening as I prepare for my performance, I can see the nearby mountains, and know just beyond lay the mighty Himalayans and the top of the world, Mt. Everest. An overflowing enthusiastic audience of young people greet my performance as Clurman with rich laughter and contemplation. It’s truly a very special evening of sharing.
During my time in Kathmandu I’m fortunate to visit the unforgettable Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square – a complex of temples and the Royal Palace. In one area, thousands of pigeons fill an entire square, sitting on sacred cows and holy shrines. Another day I walk around the Great Stupa of Boudhanath, one of the most important places of pilgrimage with its dome of 120 feet. I also find myself in Pashupati – a complex of historical temples and shrines, some dating back to the year 459. The Pashupatinath Temple itself was built in the 7th century and stands on the bank of the sacred Bagmati River. Groups of chattering monkeys run everywhere. I observe holy rituals of parting taking place, black smoke at times blocking my view. Sitting on the steps leading to the river’s edge sits an old, deeply sunburned holy man washing himself. He slowly dips his thin fingers into the water and sprinkles it on each part of his body – this is his bath. In front of a cave up the river, another holy man meticulously prepares a fire for his dinner. Ages of time and life permeate the air, mingling sorrow with re-birth as I sit and slowly breathe, taking all the sights in.
When I takeoff in the morning, directly across from the plane in the shimmering sunlight at 36,000 feet are the Himalayan Mountains. The peaks, covered in deep snow, majestically glow, are breathtaking and riveting.
A dream comes true of performing in Bangkok when I’m invited by Toby To, the Arts Coordinator of the famed Patravadi Theatre. It is the only theater allowed by The King and the government to be built directly opposite from the Grand Palace. Patravadi Mejudhon, the founder and artistic director of the theatre, has been a pioneering force in the Thai arts scene for more than thirty years. The beautiful arts center consists of a 300 seat garden theatre, restaurant, and rooms for visiting artists. The room I stay in has a view of the Palace and the city from its balcony.
Every day I take the waterbus across the river to explore Bangkok, known in Thai as Krung Thep, meaning “city of angels.” Walking through the crowded cramped streets, I view colorful shops and statues. At one temple, I meet the over 200 feet long Reclining Buddha, and then experience the unforgettable golden splendor of the huge temples and shrines of the Grand Palace. When I climb to the top of Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn), below me is played out the entire drama of Bangkok, as the Chao Phraya River snakes its way through the city. One evening I am taken to see a traditional masked dance performance at the Royal Museum. When Burmese rule was overthrown and King Taksin died, King Rama I used theatre to unite the people of Thailand. King Rama I’s adaptation of the Indian narrative Ramayana became Ramakien, a story that follows Prince Rama and his wife, Sita, and their struggle between good and evil. Performed in various theatre forms, it remains Thailand’s national epic.
My time in Thailand becomes an even richer experience when I’m invited to teach for a week at the Yamchao International Theatre Festival in Patumthani, an hour south of Bangkok. Founded by the very well-known actor, Khru Chang and his wife, they have built out of the ground their own theater and house made of mud, creating Moradokmai Theatre Troupe: a Community and school for dramatic arts and development. Each year they host hundreds of international actors, performers, directors, and teachers providing an opportunity to share performances and workshops with over 300 Thai students from across Thailand.
Each day I conduct a workshop with a group of enthusiastic junior high school students, working on vocal, breathing, improvisation, and acting exercises. We also present our own class performance at the climax of the week at the magnificent National Artists Hall.
Soon I travel to Morocco to perform and teach at the International Intermediality & Theatre Conference presented by the International Centre for Performance Studies, and its President, Khalid Amine, Ph. D.
At the crossroads of civilizations, Tangier was founded in the 4th century as Tingis. First coveted first by the Phoenicians, then the Romans, Vandals, Spaniards, Portuguese, and English, the city’s rich history is legendary. In the 1920’s, it became an international zone, and over the years, countless artists, painters, and writers have fell captive to its magical spell, including Tennessee Williams, Matisse, Genet, Paul Bowles, Delacroix, Burroughs, Vidal, Ginsberg and Capote.
Right after my performance in the17th century richly tiled marble-columned open courtyard of the Palace Dar el-Majzen in the Casbah of the Medina, I have the privilege of teaching my workshop to many Moroccan students of English and literature, and teachers and professors from the Conference. We conclude with Pushkin’s words on the chart: “The truth of passion, the verisimilitude of feeling placed in the given circumstances, this is what our passion demands of a writer or a dramatic poet.” I remind them to follow their passion – that is how we can ultimately share our gifts, our talents with the world. • 2011