Children's theatre "Thank you for coming to my country"

H2O in Mumbai
H2O in Mumbai | Photo: © Michael Lurse

Taking the joy of water to South Asia – our mission has been formulated. Michael Lurse, artistic director of the HELIOS Theater, on a tour of India, Pakistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in February 2015 with H2O, a play for children.

Delhi: Learning to have fun with water

First stop, sensory overload since our arrival. Shows chock-a-block, followed by kisses, heartfelt thanks.
Many Indian theatre practitioners, familiar and unfamiliar faces, again and again: thank you very much, I am simply unable to cope with all this, feel as though I am in a film that is playing too fast, the city, the human being, completely new dimensions…
An Indian lady gives me a good reason for our performances of H2O: She believes it is extremely important to perform this play in India. Because Indian children rarely learn to have fun with water, it is either dirty, e.g. on the streets, or is simply not considered important – other things appear to be far more important. Taking the joy of playing with water to South Asia – our mission has been formulated.

Karachi: Opening up room for imagination

Schools today rarely have the courage to take their classes on a school trip. Karachi is a barricaded city, enormous police and army presence, tank traps, the hotel is a fortress – guarded by many men with machine guns. A city within the city, with restaurants and shops.
The theatre institute in what was once a Hindu temple is an island. Loud bangs – what does gunfire actually sound like in reality? – no gunfire while setting up, fireworks instead, there’s cake and a modern, young, urban society celebrating the tenth anniversary of the theatre institute, a dream?
The children come in a line to the theatre, hands clasped behind their backs, their upbringing is strict, therefore they know how to exploit any available loophole for a small taste of freedom, every laugh sweeps over the hall like a wave. After the show, a talk with the theatre students, confusion and elation, but I also sense that these young people want to tell stories, are moving on the edge of the permissible, to be able to live their lives openly in their city, the lives they are already (secretly) living. They are not thinking about children’s theatre just yet, they want to articulate themselves in a restrictive society, are full of hope. They really appreciate the performative aspect of our production, seems to open up room for imagination. Suddenly, theatre projects seem more feasible to them, I understand.

Teheran: Adapting the costume concept

Arrival at the airport, a driver is waiting for us, a quizzical look as he sees us, four men with eight large suitcases and hand luggage, but then he does go to get his car.
It turns out to be a small limousine, but he starts to pack and to stuff the car, five suitcases on the top, secured with one (!) rubber strap. We travel squashed together, open boot, exhaust fumes drift into the car.
The driver is in a good mood, chats, and keeps driving faster, eventually touching 130, and we have to request him to slow down. Just short of the city centre, he brakes suddenly and unnecessarily, and manages to dispatch our five suitcases from the top of the car down to the street. I see our tour already at an end, but, by some miracle, all the suitcases remain intact.
Teheran appears amazingly tidy, life seems tranquil, many people highly educated and up-to-date when talking about the latest trends in art in East and West. We decide to play safe and ask if it’s okay to wear shorts. A lady is called, we show her the shorts that come down to the knees and then there are the rubber boots. Definitely only male knees to be seen. But the lady would rather have us wear trousers on stage, which somewhat modifies our costume concept, as none of the actors has trousers of the right colour in his suitcase. The performances bring tears to our eyes, such sincere and prolonged applause.
KANOON, a cultural organisation and our host, runs a theatre truck, media buses, a mail-order library and much more – the director of the theatre department is a well-known animation filmmaker who has been nominated for an Oscar. He invites us to come the following year and put on 30 shows for his organisation.
He finds H2O educational and imaginative, a play that involves the children. This sounds a bit as though these are the criteria to be met for children’s theatre. Ideally, he would like to seal the business immediately with a hand shake (that’s the way it is here, says Mr Buhtz, Director of the Goethe-Institut). Of course I can’t do this, because here I am in a wet costume, without a calendar, my spectacles, or any other aids. After all, I was brought here directly from the stage, fortunately, Mr Buhtz has put his coat around me and there is hot tea and delicious cake.
Several people thank us for having had the courage to come to Iran and we realise just how important it is for them that we see their country in its positive aspects.
At dinner, an unknown elderly gentleman speaks to me in broken English: ‘Is it a good country Iran?’ I can only agree, because this has been my experience. Of course I have not engaged in politics…
That evening itself I write a proposal for the director of the KANOON theatre department and hope I can return someday to experience more of Iran.

Pune: Flooding the auditorium

The first major disaster: We are to perform outside, next to a large road, and in India, that means deafening noise.
A misunderstanding? No, there is a lovely auditorium in this school but they are afraid we could damage it with our water. I refuse to perform in the open and Renu, the poor staff member from the Goethe-Institut, starts to lose her mind because she has had a massive rostrum and stage built for us outside. The man who has rented out the stage and the technical equipment seems to be very enterprising, insists on bringing material that we do not need, and so had probably also convinced Renu of something impossible.
Pressure is now building in the school, an old man appears, he takes care of the parquet floor, he looks very serious and I assure him that we will not flood his sacred floor, no way. He thinks for a moment and then gives us the hall, we all relax, we can put up the show.
Before the performance, the water hose bursts, fortunately in the yard. Five technicians manage the broken hose during the performance, one watches through the gap in the door, gives a signal to the other at the water tap which is opened or closed, depending on what is called for at that particular point in the performance. On one occasion, the man giving the signal hesitates and I go outside, in the midst of the performance, to ask for water.
When dismantling the set, the man renting out the equipment and his assistants are clumsy and the floor does flood after all, fortunately not our fault and hopefully no permanent damage….
Our first excursion, with an Indian driver, to an open market. Incredible what one can buy here, and the workshops are at the back. Everything is produced on open streets. I observe a couple of young men who are scraping paint residue and removing product stickers from paint buckets. The buckets thus cleaned are re-sold. Impressive, the business sense and creativity of Indians. People are always inventing a new field of business, with recycling and upcycling playing an existential role.

Chennai: Shifting the generator

Suddenly the sea, the Indian Ocean, just 100 metres from our venue. SPACES was founded by Chandralekha, the Indian dancer who has also worked with Pina Bausch. An enchanting place in this teeming megacity, a simple and elegant temple for art and nature.
A half-open venue greets us, yet it radiates such an aura that we agree to perform there. After setting up we realise that sound and light are supplied by a generator. It is behind a wall, but near the stage. The noise and fumes of diesel drown out all the quieter moments in our production. The audience does not seem bothered. Again we are thanked and praised profusely. For the second performance, the generator is shifted and it is relatively quiet (by Indian standards). We are visited by an Indian theatre practitioner from Madurai. He has travelled for six hours just to see H20!

Mumbai: Playing for street children

Ayaz is our hero in the next megacity. He had already paid us a visit in Pune (six hours by train to Pune and six hours back!) and was present throughout, while setting up and during the performance. He wanted to make sure that everything would go well at his venue in Mumbai. And it does go well. The ice has frozen perfectly. What at first had seemed to be an alarmingly decrepit-looking factory, very poorly equipped, is converted into an enchanting theatre, carpentered in the backyard, especially for us. This is where one of India’s strengths becomes apparent – manpower, virtually unlimited and affordable.
The first performance is held for street children and ends with our pool overflowing for the first time, because some of the children, when playing after the show, slap the water out of sheer joy, and half the theatre is under water. Had this happened in Pune, the keeper of the parquet floor would have been incensed, but here, in Mumbai, it’s not a problem. All laugh and enjoy themselves.
The second performance for families and (up-and-coming) theatre practitioners is enthralling for all present, nobody wants to go away afterwards, a theatre festival.
Then a round of talks with children’s theatre practitioners from Mumbai. They desperately want to know how a work like H20 is created, learn about the working methods and approaches. An intensive discussion that wants no end. Central question: How does one do plays without narrating a story? I give some explanations and describe some of our artistic approaches and yet, well into the evening, the same question again and again: How does one start with a play when you have no text and no story…
Of course the theatre practitioners also describe their problems that are of a structural nature, huge problems, yet I am reminded a great deal of my beginnings as an independent theatre practitioner in Germany. Even I had not been asked by anyone, and all of a sudden I was there, had finished university, had to create structures for myself in order to earn an income.
Borrow money to rent rooms for rehearsals, convince culture departments in the government, ministries, schools, kindergartens, so that I could set up something over several years that today is a renowned theatre. Even this know-how – and I mean particularly that of independent theatre practitioners from Germany – is much in demand and could help in creating structures for contemporary children’s theatre in India. An enormous task for the young generation of theatre practitioners, given that they also have to develop a new aesthetic of their own.
Interesting, the approach taken by the GI here, namely to no longer go to parts of a city, with smaller formats, not only to places of high culture, to work together with NGOs and other organisations and thus to reach out to people who would otherwise never come to theatre, e.g. the street children who, by the way, were a wonderful and lively audience. These children probably thought of us as aliens from another planet. But aliens who come as friends and bring with them something that provides for a hell of a lot of fun: H2O. So alien the wonder in their eyes and yet so close the encounter.
A mail from Mumbai reaches our office:
Hi! great show...
Absolutely loved your show H2O in Mumbai - India.
Kindly keep me posted if your coming to Mumbai for any of your shows... my
daughter has never ever loved anything so much.
thank you,
A post on facebook:
Your performance, last evening, was extremely engaging and wonderful. Me and my friends wore a smile all through the performance. We wish to see more of such performances by you, here in India.

Bangalore: Drawing attention to the essentials

Late arrival and drive from the airport through an illuminated Bangalore at night. The city seems incredibly western and rich, even if the typical Indian ingredients are missing. Great performance in the evening and the organiser asks why we did not allow more than 120 people in. At that moment even I don’t know, it would have been possible. Because what we do here is popular theatre, not theatre for little children. In the evening, a meeting with India’s first theatre practitioner who has done a play for little children. She is unsure of her work, has many questions, e.g. why we don’t play roles, how do we go about studying material, because she also bases her work on material, why we don’t use texts.
I explain to her that if we were to play characters, attention would be diverted from the most important thing, namely water. High above the roofs of Bangalore the evening comes to an end with home-brewed Indian beer.
At the airport, a mail, the hall at the Goethe-Institut Colombo has no technical equipment, we fear the worst.
The next day a mail from the staff of an institution for the disabled in Bangalore. They were in the theatre for the first time and are very grateful, also for being able to play in the pool afterwards.

Colombo: Squealing with happiness

Arrival at night. You think you are in Europe, everything so clean and tidy. The hotel is directly by the sea, the murmur of the water revives us after the long hours spent travelling. The following morning we go to the GI to set things up. Indeed, the technical equipment is somewhat thin but Enchanta, our technical advisor, conjures up whatever is possible and we can work with it. The audience is very mixed – from five to around 13 years old, but that’s not a problem. All seem to like the performance even if it evokes a stronger response from the smaller ones who laugh out loud and squeal when the water sprays.
At the end, the children do not want to accept straws from us, as though somebody has told them to stay away from European-looking people, tourists, in other words. We learn later that these children come from villages and anyway have perhaps never been near a white-skinned person. The expression and the wonder in their eyes support this conclusion.
We are all delighted by Colombo, simply relaxing after loud and dusty India, which I loved, but now realise what a relief it is to be able to use tap water to brush your teeth, for instance. We are free of the stress of having to protect ourselves and, as we also have our first free day in three weeks, Colombo is good preparation for Dhaka, which even many Indians say, is loud and dirty.

Dhaka – Feeling the enthusiasm

The first impression outdoes everything that I have seen so far, we had already been warned by the Indians and apparently they did not exaggerate. Poverty in all corners and mosquitoes – for the first time I use the mosquito spray and hope that these creatures do not like it and stay away from me. Initially, I don’t have the courage to go out of the hotel, because even the tuk-tuks here have bars – must have a reason. Yet there is enough building activity here to make you dizzy.
The opposition parties under the BNP have called for blockades, there are arson attacks every day, heavily restricted traffic, and many people are staying at home to avoid putting their children and themselves in danger. Fortunately these protests are not anti-West because we seem to be the only Westerners in Dhaka. Many people look at us as though we were from another planet. Generally few tourists here.
The venue at the Shilpakala Academy is a surprise. Large and adequately equipped. We set things up in the blink of an eye, the hall then full of people and, after the performance, thanks to the enthusiasm of the audience, we are completely taken up by the city and its residents. A power outage during the performance does not disturb anybody, not even us. A boy of about 12 thanks us in good English for having come to his country! Another says he thinks he has never been so ‘happy’ as during our performance!
Students surround us and question, question, want to know how one comes up with theatre like this, where do the ideas come from, how long did we work on it, etc. – suddenly the city opens up, is friendly and inviting and even the mosquitoes are more gentle. In the dense pedestrian traffic, I miss a fence with barbed wire and injure my arm slightly. Immediately a helping hand, a young man in a suit, he leads me a short way out of the danger area and wishes me a friendly good day. The people here are incredibly friendly, at moments almost tender and caring, that takes you by surprise in this overwhelming chaos.
Twice I am almost hit by a car, the traffic here is simply unpredictable and for a European it is virtually impossible to cross the road. Yet brakes are slammed at the last minute and I am unhurt, nobody curses.
The next day is the highlight of our trip. A group of students takes us on a guided tour of Old Dhaka. They want to save the old colonial buildings from falling victim to the manic construction activity everywhere. We wander for four hours through bazaars full of artisans and goods of all kinds, look at buildings, the dereliction and patina radiate a beauty that can barely be expressed in words. We take a break in a student hostel and have interesting conversations with the students and residents and with the vendors in the area. A brief cricket intermezzo on a small roof terrace, a visit to the family of one of the students and impressions that can only be passed on through photographs. After an amazing ride in a tuk-tuk, we return to the hotel exhausted and happy. This unusual tour has reconciled us with Dhaka and made us want to return one day and to hopefully see the one or the other old building in its new look!

A few more thoughts…

The entire region seems to be energised – it can be frightening. The countries are literally boiling and burning, genuinely in the fires of the poor on the streets of many cities, more from the chimneys of workshops and factories, in the engines of the many motorcycles and cars. A heady feeling, yet it also makes it difficult to breathe. Many people are suffering from respiratory diseases and it first knocks me over fairly hard, bronchitis – feels like a cold caused by dust and soot.
The enormous disparity between rich and poor really does not need to be described, it is well known, yet it never fails to surprise one how uncomplainingly the poor accept their lives, manage to salvage something from the garbage and make money with it. The garbage in the open dumps all over the place looks very different from ours. As though it has been shredded over and over again, only this has not been done by a machine but by human hands. And when they find nothing more that can be of any use, there are the cats and dogs that take out the very last bits, before the arrival of the waste disposal trucks.
It is amazing that H2O is universally understood, I never have the feeling that I am confusing the people. The water speaks and everybody understands its language. The manner in which we perform, the way the play has been created is met with repeated wonder that gives way to enthusiasm. That’s how theatre can be done, that’s great, say the people, and want more such shows.
Adnan, the technical director in Dhaka, sums it up: ‘The children have their level where they can enjoy having fun with water, the adults make their stories and come up with their thoughts, nobody gets bored.’
In all the cities on our journey I meet or see young people who would not attract attention in European cities. They are dressed like us, educated like us and many share my thoughts of a world that is more just. Again and again it becomes clear that the main problem lies in corruption and in the unfair distribution of wealth. The people know exactly what makes them suffer. We all know than more than a trillion dollars of Indian money lies in Switzerland.

And the end…

I am unable to draw a conclusion from a trip like this, so full of impressions.
It was strenuous, confusing and always extremely exhilarating. So many encounters with places and people – I often wished I had had more time.
I realise that my media-shaped impressions of all five countries are highly unsatisfactory.
The many conversations with the audience and theatre practitioners have convinced me that the tour will leave a mark, not only on us but also on the people we met. I needed two weeks before I was mentally able to arrive back in Germany and I sincerely hope to return one day to India, Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.