by Fizza Hasan
The number of theatre groups in Pakistan I can count on the fingers of one hand. Two in Karachi, I think, a couple in Lahore, and our group in Islamabad. Over the years there have been a few groups that have popped up and then disappeared when they realized there was no money to be made in this pursuit.
We came into being about eleven years ago, as part of the French cultural Centre in Islamabad. For several years they sponsored our work; that means that they gave us a space to meet and rehearse, they encouraged us, gave us administrative and logistic support for our productions, made us tea while we worked, brought in audiences, and most important of all, they bore the expenses for all of it. In return, we volunteered our time and energy, gave freely of our creativity, and helped them develop a reputation as an important cultural centre in the capital.
And then one day it stopped. The reasons for it were many and complex, but the end result was that we were on the road, a homeless theatre group, rich in ideas, but penniless.
We decided we wouldn’t die. We would show them. We’d show them that theatre could survive without them. Surely there were others out there who would want to help in the name of culture, of art?
But there was no one. Corporations wouldn’t support us (as they did some others) because our productions had no glamour (in Pakistan, that equates to girls in skirts dancing to Indian film songs on stage). Government institutions wouldn’t support us – we performed plays that made them uncomfortable and questioned the establishment. Other groups like us couldn’t help – they were fighting for survival, like us.
However, they say that in unity lies strength. We decided to join hands with these other groups and continue to work in collaboration with them. Some people had venues, others had technical know-how, we had our art. We survived.
And then their venues and space were shut down by the city authorities. Commercial activity in residential areas wasn’t allowed, they said. Commercial?! What a joke!
So we were on the road again. This time, we headed out of town, and our aimless wanderings brought us to a high white wall with a big orange gate. We opened it and stepped inside. And we were home.
It was a disused poultry farm with a couple of large sheds, a butchery, a courtyard, a couple of filthy toilets. But what we saw was nothing short of a vision – an outdoor event space, an indoor event space, an art gallery, a café, a studio, a rehearsal space…
The owner was willing to rent it out, it was outside city limits, miraculously we could afford it. And so we called it home.