By Imran Iftikhar
Last year , I, along with my theater company, performed at the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Oregon, USA. It was a play about Pakistan that we had written and were then performing for an American audience. The response was unbelievable. We had a total audience of about 3000 people. We were humbled by the love and respect we received from the American people, but it also saddened us a little to think that this kind of reception was unimaginable in Pakistan.
Theater is not given its due appreciation in this country. And this is especially true for Islamabad, where Theatre Wallay, the small theater company I’m a member of, has been operating for the past 13 years. We have seen people pay thousands for concert tickets and food festivals, but there is visible hesitation on having to dish out a few hundred rupees to watch a play. Even when we’ve charged as little as Rs. 300 (a little over $2) for a performance we’ve still received calls asking for discounts.
This is an insult. When people say that Rs 600 (about $5) is too much to pay for a play, they are not only insulting theater as an art form, but they are trivializing the months of hard work that the actors, director and production team put in to prepare a performance. It is a systematic, strenuous and time consuming process, which goes far beyond learning lines and saying them aloud on stage, which is the least of what an actor has to do.
Actors in Pakistan face an even greater challenge: none of us can pursue acting as a full time career because there is simply no money in it. In Theatre Wallay, we are a motley mix of school teachers, accountants, engineers, RJ’s, people working in the development sector, people working sales. We all have to go to work during the day, and our evenings are dedicated to theatre. A lot of our team members leave for work in the morning, go directly to rehearsal from work, and then go back home at 9 or 10pm.
We have to sacrifice a lot: birthday parties, family gatherings, weddings etc. I actually alienated a lot of my family members and friends because I was unavailable to hangout or visit during rehearsals, especially the final stages when we had to rehearse pretty much every day. For this reason, being a theater actor in Pakistan requires double the dedication than in places where art is appreciated because here, we volunteer to do theater, on top of our day jobs, without any expectation of monetary gain.
I was introduced to the world of acting about 3 years ago, quite by accident. And it is an exciting job, which requires hard work and quite a bit of creativity. It is also extremely satisfying for me. But sometimes, and I can say this for many of my fellow actors in Pakistan, I wonder if what I do really does make an impact. I love going on stage and playing my character with as much flair and gusto as I can muster [frankly, I don’t know if I’m any good]. And usually, I don’t care about the number of people sitting in the audience. But sometimes, if only for just a moment, when I notice only a handful of seats occupied in the house, I wonder if all the hard work and labor is really worth it.