“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being,” Thornton Wilder, an American playwright, novelist and winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, once said.
As Pakistan grapples with a multitude of problems, it may be wise to ponder over Wilder's words, particularly how the nation can claim back its rapidly dissipating humanity. Theatre, the arts, they may seem frivolous in such times but their role and impact on culture can never be overstated.
Performing arts, if you really think about it, are an inherent need of all humans, for communication is at its heart.
Theatre, in particular, has played an important role in bringing about social change in developed countries, Faisal Malik, a graduate of National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa) and a fellow of The John F. Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, said on the sidelines of the World Theatre Day, celebrated in Pakistan just like the rest of the world on March 27.
Though the golden period may have passed, theatre in Pakistan is experiencing a resurgence of sorts with many institutes offering courses and some formally establishing independent theatrical arts departments, Malik adds.
Malik credits the country’s fast-growing television industry which has made ‘people realise that there is no harm in choosing theatre or in any other form of art, as a career.’
“Nowadays, acceptance is increasing and TV has played a major role by portraying arts’ different forms to the audience.
“It creates breathing space for artists. TV dramas have created an appetite for live plays as well,” Malik says.
According to Malik, who is also an artistic director of Pakistan-based theatre troupe Thespianz, there will always be segments who deem theatre and the entertainment industry in general as an unacceptable career choice. But in a way it makes plays even more socially relevant and its role as an ‘educator’ is enhanced.
Malik, who has performed in more than 18 countries, cites the example of the subcontinent where theatre flourished and played an important role outside art.
“It was an essential part of the Indian culture — widely practiced and participated by both Hindus and Muslims.
“There were many playwrights, musicians, theatre actors, directors who were producing some of the best work in the region’s theatrical history,” says Malik.
“Even after partition, theatre continued to entertain people with plays written by Saadat Hasan Manto and Khawaja Moinuddin. Those were the times when Urdu literature and fiction was being explored at a large scale.”
Recalling a few popular write-ups from the early partition days, Malik says literature such as Hoshiar Pur Se Lahore Tak, Ali Pur Ka Aeeli, Khaak Aur Khoon and Dastaan were developed into theatre plays and regularly staged in Lahore and Karachi, playing a pivotal role in promoting the art.
‘No support from government’
Malik says to bring theatre into the mainstream again would be impossible without government support.
“When we are invited to perform on a global platform, the government’s cultural department is least supportive. Whenever we contact them, their response is the same: ‘We don’t have such provisions to provide air tickets to stage performers’,” he says.
“In order to create more opportunities, the government should build academies for professional training and establish more theatre spaces in the country,” he adds.
Malik cited Paris-based International Theatre Institute as an example.
“Founded in 1948, ITI was introduced to promote theatre globally among general audience, especially youth. It is now a very profitable initiative which not only creates more jobs, but also generates heavy revenues for their government.”
“We need to promote it in our society, as theatre is one of those human activities that doesn't really hurt anyone or anything.”
In fact it has been used as tool for upliftment as was demonstrated by a Unicef Puppet Theatre programme after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.
The Ministry of Culture would do well to take the lead from private groups works towards sustaining theatre in the country, they are after all the central actor in the overall narrative. They must all play a major supporting role as well.