I’m an Actor and proud to be one!

I was at an event last week with a friend, and at some point, we were introduced to another guest as Actors. The apparently humorous response of said guest to the one who introduced us was something to the effect of, ‘Oh, did you have them come to cheer and provide the high energy in the room?’ – And me being me, who can’t seem to suppress my utter disdain, especially when it comes to stereotyping in all its forms and interpretations, ended up saying, polite yet firm, ‘Umm, we’re not for hire, we’re here to support a friend’. Mind you, said guest didn’t make his comment from a place of intentional arrogance, but maybe ignorance, based on his perception of what actors do, and their quality of life and work.

Ironically, I came across a Forbes article not too long ago titled, “Are Creative Careers Now Reserved Exclusively For The Privileged?” –  Even though its a writer’s perspective, it will resonate with anyone in the creative field. It took me down memory lane to my year right after graduate school, and the years that followed – to the incredible artists I crossed paths with, ‘privileged’ and not, NYU-Yale-Columbia-educated and not, struggling and not – and the one thing that seems to have kept us all going, is the sense of passion, community and support for one another. The ‘privileged’ on the other hand, a good percentage of them, seem to prefer creating reality TV shows to showcase their dog or cat or newly done breasts, possession of narcotics, drunk driving and frequent arrests, over practicing the craft and applying it to actual work.

I had quite a few thoughts and questions already brewing in my head when I came across this video titled ‘THE AUDITION’ by Celia Rowlson-Hall floating around the social mediasphere this weekend. It was hard to watch. My reaction went from hysteria to feeling myself cringe, and finally a sense of heartbreak sweeping through.

My mind has been spinning ever since – all of this speaks to a higher question: What is the perception we are giving out as actors?

We are probably the most hardworking and multifaceted personalities, whose drive is fueled by Passion more than anything else. I can’t speak for everyone, as there are always exceptions who have self-centered and gratuitous reasons for being in the business; but for me and the community of artists around me – all we want is to do what we love, tell stories. No actor has just one job – we use existing skills and develop new ones in order to pay our bills, take classes, audition and live the life of an artist. Some of my dearest and most talented actor friends and colleagues from all over the world are my biggest inspiration – jumping through hoops of how to make rent; how to figure out a way to stay in the country legally (or not); how to be okay with the choices made, whether to move away from home, or lose an opportunity of being with someone were circumstances a bit different, or the fact that people around you, including your own family, don’t ‘get’ you or what you do; how to balance the work-life dynamic so that it is in fact possible to fall in love with someone who actually understands and respects the art form; how to then make decisions about having a family, of being a mother, a father, and figuring out the path to continue living the artistic life; how to stay inspired and creative during dry spells of no auditions or work coming in; and in spite of all those challenges, have the incredible courage to be open and vulnerable enough to share personal stories, have the innate curiosity of wanting to know more, of wanting to be better, of wanting to tell a story in the best way possible. And if you’re a woman and/or an actor of color, add to that the consistent battle with under representation, stereotype and caricature.

Viola Davis said it best in her Tavis Smiley interview on PBS when he told her and Octavia Spencer that he was ambivalent about what they were winning for, in context with them playing maids in ‘The Help’ and being nominated for Academy Awards. She said, “That very mind-set that you have and that a lot of African-Americans have is absolutely destroying the black artist. The black artist cannot live in a place — in a revisionist place. A black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy, people are messy.” Once again, a statement that resonates with anyone who has been boxed in by stereotype.

And yet, as actors, we are the most willing, resilient and courageous people you will ever meet. Though we may or may not move on to wear different hats later on in life, and add other titles to our resume; the training of an actor, the experience of an actor, the WILL of an actor, is what ultimately shapes us, and feeds our future endeavors. Writers, directors, producers, casting directors, talent agents, publicists, pretty much anyone in the business has most likely been drawn into the world through an acting class, or two – No one knows more about the human spirit, the human condition, and what makes us and our relationships ‘messy’, flawed and complex, more than an actor. Not even psychologists, in my opinion. Because we not only explore and learn it, we internalize it, live it, and then offer it right back to the world, staying truthful, present and in the moment. That takes exceptional skill, craft and vulnerability. That is Art.

We have so much to give. We have so much power within us. We go through so much to do what we love. Then why do we end up giving it all up, including our sense of self, in this career path that we chose for ourselves? Why do we have the need to give someone else that power? Ultimately, it is a collaboration isn’t it? Why don’t we stand up for our own talent and hard work, and draw the line? Who decides that the casting table in the audition room needs us less than we need them? Why do we refuse to support our own choices and our own selves? (And when I say ‘we’, I ask this of myself as well) I know actors who have stopped introducing themselves as actors and prefer to either include the other credentials first (writer, director, producer, teacher, filmmaker), or not mention ‘actor’ at all. Why? Because standing alone, the term emanates a vibe of neediness and limited credibility. Aren’t we ourselves responsible to a great extent for creating this perception? And if perception is based on what we give out, then what’s stopping us from reclaiming that power and credibility, owning who we are and what we stand for? Let’s move from a state of desperation and need, to a place of empowerment, self respect and pride in our craft. I bet you, perceptions will change.

If you’re not an actor and are reading this, don’t feel bad for us or pity us, just be glad you know us. And if you are an actor (or any artist for that matter – a singer, dancer, painter, writer, director, producer, poet, anyone) and are reading this, say it with me – I’m an actor and proud to be one!

August in Bombay – A visual delight!

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It starts with Rakshabandhan - siblings pledge to take care of each other, more so the brothers! Sisters tie rakhis, (beautiful, ornate wrist-threads) to their brothers, who in turn shower their siblings with gifts. Photo: Deccan Herald

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Gokulashtami celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna. Human pyramids form to get to the top to smash the pot (traditionally full of buttermilk, but now also full of money) suspended mid air. There is a lot of intoxication that goes with the celebration. I was almost a victim of a water bag and banana peel thrown in my direction. The roads are full of trucks carrying youth on a mission - to break as many pots as possible!

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15th August - India's Independence Day.

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Parsi New Year - Soonaiji Agiary all lit up on the eve of the occasion.

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Eid - Thousands celebrate at the Mosque at Haji Ali for the next few days.

A Zoroastrian in Zanzibar

If you are familiar with the Zoroastrian community, you probably know that it is one whose numbers are dwindling very rapidly with an approximate world population of 300,000, including both the Iranian and Parsi Zoroastrians. When 2 Zoroastrians meet for the first time, there is an instant sense of familiarity followed by a barrage of questions inquiring about families, home towns, ancestry and a whole lot more. Yes, I am a Parsi Zoroastrian.

During my conversations with the locals when I heard, first of a likelihood, and then a definitive assurance, that there was indeed a Parsi family still living in Zanzibar, there was no way I was leaving the Island without meeting them. Finding out where they lived wasn’t as difficult as I would have thought. Just then, Amanda told me she had read an article not too long ago of the existence of an Agiary (Parsi Temple) in Zanzibar, relatively close to Stone Town. I was now on a mission! However, not too many people knew about this temple. Although there was a thriving Zoroastrian community in Zanzibar for hundreds of years, a majority of them had left during the revolution. Those who stayed on had slowly passed away. We tried to find the woman who had written the article on the internet, but to no avail.

After more inquiries, I found out that the Agiary had been sold a few years ago, to the Muzammill family – they own high end appliance stores in Zanzibar. The building was supposedly still there and if anyone would have more information about it, it would be one of the owners at the Muzammil store. I was supposed to leave the next day, but decided to extend my stay for a day. I had to meet this Parsi family, and visit the Agiary.

Upon inquiring at the store the next day, I was told to come back later that afternoon which is when one of the owners would be there. A bit despondent, I headed towards the house of the Parsi family. There was a Tourist Safari Agency on the ground floor. I asked them how I could get to the apartment upstairs. I was directed to a doorbell outside the building and told to stand there, in full view of the windows above, so that I could be seen and approved, before anyone came to open the door. I rang the bell and waited. What was I going to say? I looked up to see if anyone was at the window, but all I saw was closed curtains. After what seemed like an eternity, a woman opened the door. I introduced myself, and as soon as I said I was Parsi, I saw that smile of familiarity on her face. Diana Darukhanawala, was warm and more than willing to talk to me. I wasn’t the first stranger to ring her doorbell. She said lots of Parsi travelers managed to find out about her, and came to pay her a visit. She lived with her 83 year old father. Her mother passed away last year.

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Diana

Diana’s grandmother was from Zanzibar and grandfather from Bombay. It was an arranged marriage. He came to Zanzibar on one of his work trips, and decided to stay on after the wedding.

She spoke of the thriving Parsi community she had grown up in, and when it became unpleasant to live there, they all moved away; to Canada, India, America and England.

When I asked about the Agiary and if I could go see it, she warned me that it was now nothing but a dilapidated building. Community representatives from London had come and taken all the scriptures, books, alter materials and paintings in an effort to preserve them. She spoke of visiting the Agiary as a child and her memories of the beautiful rose gardens; she had never seen anything like those blooms.

Soon after my visit with Diana, I headed on my walk towards the Agiary. I was told to ask for Shamba ya Parisi (Swahili for The Temple of the Parsis). 30 minutes later I was at exactly what I was told to expect – dilapidated building hidden amidst unattended grounds that once used to bloom exquisite roses.

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Shamba ya Parisi

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I met John, the old caretaker of the property. He only spoke Swahili. Luckily, his daughter Mariam, who is expecting her third child any day now, spoke English and became our translator. He had lived there all his life, caretaker of the grounds since the time it was an Agiary. They didn’t have keys to the locked building. I saw an open window and climbed up to it, to see if I could get a glimpse of anything – no luck.

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Window view

The Muzammils are using the property as a go down for storage. They’ve hired John to keep the place going. He showed me where the priest lived with his family, and then took me to the cemetery attached to the grounds. Walking through the wild, tall grass and taking pictures of hidden tombstones; obituaries inscribed on stone, on marble, some in English, some in Gujarati, others in both, reading names and brief stories of a generation twice removed from mine, was probably the most beautiful of my experiences.

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The Cemetery

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On my way back, I got a spurt of internet signal where my emails started coming in on my phone. One of them was from my mother wishing me for my birthday (the Persian one) – Zoroastrians follow the Persian calendar and hence celebrate two birthdays. After showering me with blessings as only a mother would, she told me to make sure I did something special that day.

Thoughts from The Island

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Nungwi, Zanzibar

If you had told me in a distant past that I would one day live and work in East Africa, even if it is just for a month, I probably wouldn’t have taken you too seriously. But as I look back, I don’t believe I was here. And unlike the exotic perception that the term ‘East Africa’ evokes, there was nothing tourist-like about my time here.

If being in Tengeru and Arusha reminded me of parts of India, Zanzibar was more like being in my backyard, if I’d had one. Initially, some much needed beach-time was probably the only factor that drew me to the island. But within the hour it became a revelation for me. Even though it is part of Africa, part of Tanzania, it strives to be independent of both. Primarily Muslim in faith, the population is a mix of African, Indian and Arab ethnicities.

The businesses are primarily Indian-owned and we gasped as we spoke with each other in Gujarati (who would’ve known!!!) with a mutual curiosity, full of questions and stories to tell. A familiar smile broke out when upon inquiry, I told them I was Parsi. They spoke of ‘Parisi’ (Parsi in Swahili) friends they had once known who lived in Zanzibar, and that everyone had either passed away or had left the Island during the revolution. The world continued to shrink for me. After all, it was only an ocean, albeit a busy one at the time, that separated the Island from India.

On the surface, the eye sees the tourist destination, exotic and cocooned within the walls of expensive resorts, with exquisite sunsets and turquoise green water seemingly an arm’s distance away. Burgeoning underneath is the living, breathing Zanzibar where everyone is trying to learn to live with one another amicably, locals and expats alike.

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This is the world I got to know through the eyes and life of the amazing Amanda Lichtenstein. A former ITLP Teaching Artist, she fell in love with Zanzibar 3 years ago and decided to find a way to live there. Fluent in Swahili, Amanda works directly with the University of Zanzibar heading a student program in partnership with the US. From the difficult conversations we’ve had covering delicate topics, sharing stories and experiences, raising age-old questions we cannot necessarily answer, it feels surreal that we met just a few days ago.

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Lovely Amanda!

Amanda lives in the heart of historic Stone Town, a tourist hotspot, but still very much grounded in a spicy blend of cultures, languages, personalities and beliefs. The easily accessible and tempting life of the Mzungu (Swahili for White Person – whether tourist or expat) did not influence this Chicago native when it came to being a resident of Zanzibar. She seems to integrate all aspects of her life experiences into her work, with her students, with the school trips she organizes, and the Poetry Night she heads every month at a quaint little bookstore in town – all this in an effort to continue to create and maintain balance within the community she has formed for herself.

I got to attend Poetry Night on my last night in Zanzibar. The little bookstore, ‘A Novel Idea’ was packed with eager ears. The theme for the month, Ukarimu (Swahili for Generosity, Compassion), was interpreted in so many beautiful ways by voices old and new. It was so special to be part of this community where people showed up on a Tuesday evening, after a long day’s work, full of poetry and support to share with one another – that in itself being an act of Ukarimu.

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A Novel Idea

The last few days haven’t been as much a holiday-by-the-beach as it has been a study of culture, race, personality and society. I’m exhausted, but my senses are up and about taking in as much as possible. Over the last month I’ve been pulled, pushed, stretched, wrung, in every which way, and just when I felt like I reached my threshold of staying present, open and receptive, the familiar strains of languages and Bollywood tunes playing in the streets melt my heart and create a welcoming respite.

There are times I dream of an uninterrupted night’s sleep, without the sounds of dogs and goats and cocks and calls to prayer, without the nightmares of missed flights, without jumping awake at wee hours with the sudden urge to journal; and yet, if I could do it all again, I would.

Curtain Call

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I’ve been thinking a lot about how this Blog entry would shape itself and best describe our last day with the kids. And then I have to resign myself to the fact that it’s going to be impossible to put into words what that day meant to each of us.

Since the eyes are the windows to our souls, and pictures speak a thousand words, I’ll let a combination of the two tell the story.

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It was a day of love, joy, pride, celebration, emotion and passion. All of us left a part of ourselves with one another amidst the ‘please come back again’, ‘I’ll miss you’, ‘I love you’, ‘Facebook me’, ‘We are so proud of you’, and so much more…

Spora

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She has one of the most beautiful and deceptive smiles. A quiet leader, hard worker and talented artist, this 20 year old spirit has left an indelible mark on my experience in Tanzania.

I met Spora when we went to stay with Mama Tesha. She is one of the orphan house girls there who learns to keep house at a young age in exchange for room and board, instead of money.

She spoiled us daily with her masala chai and delicious food. When it came time to wash my clothes, she wouldn’t let me. In her soft, gentle, yet firm voice she let me know that we were doing such wonderful work all day, and that we needed to rest. “That’s what sisters do.” She didn’t take no for an answer.

Every morning a little before 7, while we were waking up, she would be in the middle of mopping the floors singing softly to herself, with breakfast and chai ready at the table, and the brightest smile on her face.

One day Ione saw her at the table with a bunch of cut out paper, and fabric. She was making cards for a big order she had received – the very first one where she would sell them and get to keep the money.

I have never seen something as beautiful and unique as those cards. She cuts out the paper in various shapes, takes the fabric, irons it into folds and places it in the cut outs. It’s hard to describe, but you really have to see these cards to understand the painstaking detail that goes into making them.

A volunteer had come to her school to teach origami. Her teacher saw her talent and asked her to come to her card-making class. She was one of two who mastered all the techniques. The school would use those cards to raise money. She never saw a penny. But she loved making them.

I asked her if she had the time to take another order. She said yes. I placed an order with her that grew in number through the week. I kept asking if she had the time, and each time she said yes with the brightest smile, even though every time I saw her, she was in the middle of house work.

She had them ready a few days ago and they were as gorgeous as the ones I’d seen her make for her very first order. Papyrus could learn a few things from her. The man who placed that order, instead of paying for it and taking the cards, bought just a few, leaving her with the rest with no apology or explanation. Our program director, Grace, who had come with us, was more than happy to buy them off of her. I requested her to write “Hand made by Spora” at the back of each of them. I would want each person who gets these cards to know of the girl who made them – one who sees her glass half full, grateful for what she has, and hopeful for what she doesn’t.

This day was also our final goodbye to her. She asked us to wait and brought out a book of short stories. Her creative writing teacher had worked with the class on autobiographical stories which she then got published as a book. We read Spora’s story. She wrote of a girl and her best friend. How she was separated from her, how she lost her family, how she still pursued her dreams, became a lawyer, and was reunited with her best friend, now a doctor. She wrote of living in a house by the ocean, surrounded by trees and a cool breeze.

It was hard not to hold back tears, and as I looked at her wishing that every dream of hers came true, there was that bright-eyed smile again. I hugged her tight, not able to speak.

Spora has applied to University for a degree in Nursing. She should hear back within the month. As she waits, ITLP plans to keep her busy with more card orders.

If you are reading this, I ask you – whatever your belief, please say a prayer, make a wish, send her light, good energy or vibes. If she is accepted, she gets to have a career, a chance to stand on her own two feet, a chance to live a life of independence, and hopefully still continue her art.

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Two down, One to go

We are exhausted and exhilarated from the whirlwind week / weekend of preparation and performances.

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All smiles after an awesome first show!

All three classes from the 2 schools, Nkoanrua ( the high school classes) and St. Margaret’s ( the middle school class), have had 2 shows, both of which have been huge successes. The first one was at the respective schools, and the second one was at the ITLP Play Festival in a soccer field – turned – performance space in Tengeru. That was the day the students from both schools got to meet for the first time. I was so lucky to witness the Nkoanrua kids go over to the young, shy St. Margaret ones, ask them questions and wish them well, like older siblings, in an effort to get to know them.

We had an overwhelming turnout with families, friends, and high school students visiting from the USA on a two week community program with Global Leadership Activities ( GLA). They are staying at Mama Simba’s Lodge as well. Some wonderful supporters included members of ITLP’s first class in Tanzania. Laurent came with his son Lewis, who he hopes can attend an ITLP class one day. Elibahati, who was in the same class as Laurent, was a teaching assistant at Nkoanrua this year.

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Laurent with his son Lewis.

How did the shows go for our St. Margaret kids, you ask? Well, they sure got to experience the theater in all its glory! We worked them hard – there were tears, there was enthusiasm, and there was an understudy! They were so calm about filling in for someone at the last minute. They knew the blocking and the lines, and when given the choice to rehearse the scene, they decided to pass.

For our second show, when we found out we would have to cast 2 under studies, the headmaster Mr. Magaya, drove to one of their homes so that we could have a near perfect cast. Oh the drama of the theater! But it always works out beautifully in the end.

The Nkoanrua plays were performed first – this was a boon and a curse for our kids. They were SO nervous, but their show was unlike anything Ione and I had witnessed before. Watching their older peers go on stage with attitude, confidence and projection, fired something up in them that was just phenomenal!

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Lions come alive in our magical forest!

Each play was so profound – themes of love, abandonment, betrayal, female empowerment, political corruption, forgiveness, parental control – it was jaw dropping to see the magic that had been written and created by these wonderful young minds.

Some of us teaching artists stopped by to talk to the GLA high schoolers about the plays they saw. They had so many questions for us, and were blown away that these plays had been written and created by the kids themselves. That was a moment of introspection for them as the world began shrinking in front of their eyes.

We have one last show this week for the entire school. I can’t believe how fast these 3 weeks will have gone by! Goodbyes are never easy, so for now let’s just say Tutaonana… (See you later)

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Post show jammin'!

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