Ajoka Theatre Executive Director Shahid Mehmood Nadeem is an award-winning Pakistani journalist, playwright, screenwriter, theatre and television director, and human rights activist.

Mr Nadeem was in Islamabad for a performance of Chaak Chakkar, an Urdu adaptation of renowned German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Dawn caught up with him and talked to him about his association with theatre and its present state.

Q: What brought you to using theatre for change?

A: I started as an activist and socialist as a student – I wanted to change the world, the system, in a more obvious way and we tried to do that by raising slogans, throwing stones, and organising strikes but I soon realised that changing the system is not simple – you have to first change minds and hearts and only then can real change come. Otherwise the change is cosmetic.

I realised that theatre and art can change minds and hearts. One of my earlier plays, Teesri Dastak, was about the whole process where people try to bring about a change but it only results in a change in the face of the ruling classes and dictators.

They celebrate the change but the new person who takes over is also an oppressor and then they go through the whole process again and at the end there is a third incarnation of the oppressor knocking on the door.

That was my natural drift towards writing, and theatre was a good medium to express reality in a dramatic form so that people can see the conflicts, contradictions and challenges. Live theatre can have a real life effect.

Q: Does theatre reach enough people?

A: Enough is a relative term, but whoever experiences theatre, it has an impact on them, more so than other forms like newspapers, television or film. Theatre has a live, vibrant interaction between the audience and the performers.

Whoever it reaches, it makes a difference to them, but obviously it has physical limitations.

You can’t travel all the time to all places. But theatre has existed from time immemorial for people to experience, to reflect and to have a dialogue about what exists in society.

If there were more theatre groups, more opportunities and the state provided certain basic trainings and facilities, then the cumulative effect of this would be multiplied.

Q: In your opinion, has street theatre found traction in Pakistan?

A: No, not in Pakistan. There were some attempts but they were for very limited periods, in very limited spaces, and the people involved were not experienced in the art of street theatre.

Street theatre implies a certain political dynamic linked to a political party and the theatre is a platform to mobilise and engage the audience. The politics in Pakistan does not have grassroots activities.

Then we are not really very tolerant or patient as a society so the necessary atmosphere for dialogue through street theatre is missing. We tried some street theatre activities but what really worked was community theatre where we go perform in the open in communities without any theatre facilities.

That sort of community theatre – theatre in the round – interactive theatre has roots in our traditions. We have plays that we perform for communities in the open so many of the elements of street theatre are present. But the sort of street theatre that happens in India, Nepal, South Africa, Latin America or the Philippines has not taken root here.

Q: Of all your plays, which is your favourite?

A: It is very difficult to say but two plays stand out for various reasons. One is Bullah which is on Bulleh Shah’s life and that was the first time that a Sufi character from Pakistan was made the subject of a theatre play.

Initially, the Lahore Arts Council refused to approve it because they said it was not a play but a biography. They could not see how a different kind of play which has a social purpose could engage and be presented as entertainment.

The other is a play called Dara which is about Dara Shikoh and his struggles, not only for the Mughal crown but also for a different interpretation of Islam which is more tolerant, inclusive and humanistic.

That play struck many chords here and in India and then it was translated into English and performed at the National Theatre in England for a very successful three-month run.

Originally published in Dawn, May 10th, 2018