Deborah Merola – Nepal 2003 & 2011

PLAY IT FORWARD

How serendipitous that the 10th Anniversary of One World Theatre in 2021 is happening in the same year as the 75th Anniversary of the Fulbright Program, because it was Fulbright that directly led to the founding and flourishing of our social justice theatre company in Nepal.

In 2003, there was no Department of Dramatic Arts or formal theatre training in Nepal. English professors taught a few classic western dramas, but most students had never seen a live play. So, my first Fulbright embodied the idea that English faculty could benefit from a practical experience of how plays, meant to be performed, could be imagined and realized on the stage.

Together with a TU faculty group, we created a cut version of The Conduct of Life by the contemporary Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornès, which performed for the Literary Association of Nepal, Amnesty International and International Women’s Day. Although set in an indeterminate Latin American country, the play’s subject of hidden state torture reverberated with the paused Nepal Civil War.

We then produced the familiar Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, but adding sections in the Nepali language and Hindu funeral rites. This production encouraged an extensive exchange between the TU faculty actors, the U.S. Marines who taught the Nepali actors of Biff and Happy how to throw an American football, and three Masters-level American interns.

My second Fulbright in 2011 solidified the academic and theatrical connections that would become so crucial to OWT’s future success. With a rare collaboration between TU University and the growing professional Gurukul Theatre, our Nepali language production of Desire Under the Elms featured a highly experimental staging, American period costuming, and Nepali folk dance and song. The production was widely reviewed and praised and extended to a six-week run, viewed by over 5,000 Nepali and international audiences.

We then introduced Angels in America: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner with two professional guest actors from America, and Nepali professional, community and student actors. This splendid play about love in the time of AIDS, Reagan-era politics, Mormons, and Roy Cohen had never been produced in Nepal and its subject matter of gay love was quite daring.

In November 2011, we founded One World Theatre (OWT) as a legally registered, nonprofit theatre in Kathmandu, Nepal, dedicated to presenting intercultural, social justice productions in English and Nepali, especially plays from South Asia, the Western canon, and contemporary American dramas that are affordable, experimental, professional, and relevant.

True to our social justice mission, the new theatre company choose Oleanna by David Mamet for its 2011 Inaugural Production, which performed for the public and at the Institute for Advanced Communication, Education and Research (IACER) and Tribhuvan University. Some 750 students saw these university performances and participated in thoughtful talkbacks about sexual harassment and political correctness in the academy.

In the next decade, OWT went on to become the most active English language theatre in Kathmandu, with some 40 productions of world dramas, and the only theatre focused on modern and contemporary American drama. We achieved the truly remarkable production record of 22 American plays, including such iconic dramas as Golden Boy by Clifford Odets, A Moon for the Misbegotten and Hughie by Eugene O’Neill, The Goat, or Who is Silvia? by Edward Albee, and True West by Sam Shepard, making One World Theatre a kind of American National Theatre in Nepal.

The US Embassy and Public and Cultural Affairs in Nepal have contributed to this growth, including a big tent production of Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy Ah, Wilderness! for the AMA July 4th celebrations. We again collaborated with the Embassy on a bi-lingual docudrama Nepali Aama, about a Gurung hill woman, as a part of the return of the Peace Corps after the Nepalese Civil War and 50th Anniversary celebrations of Peace Corps in Nepal, followed by other dramas.

Our notable record of LGBTIQ+ productions includes The Laramie Project by Venezuelan Moisés Kaufman and Members of Teutonic Theatre Company, a docudrama which told the story of Mathew Shepard, the young gay man murdered in a hate crime and recently interred in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. We followed this production with The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, with added stories from the Nepali queer community, and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.

We continued to celebrate American diversity in Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz, the first Cuban-American play to be performed on Broadway, and In the Red and Brown Water by African-American Terrill Alvin McCraney, recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant and scriptwriter of the Oscar-winning Moonlighting. Our recent original production of The Little School, an original adaptation based on the renowned memoir by Alicia Partnoy, often taught in Latin American Studies programs in the USA, featured the author playing herself on the stage.

For several years until their move, IACER provided a home base for OWT with free rehearsal space and my employment as a Guest Lecturer, allowing me to continue the “From Page to Stage” approach. We read lesser-known works by revered authors and more cutting-edge dramas, often paired with viewing live performances and participation in audience talkbacks. Actors visited the classrooms and selected students even assumed acting and production roles, with several resulting Masters and MPhil dissertations focused on aspects of American drama, and new plays being added to the TU and IACER curriculums.

One World Theatre also introduced new theatrical forms to Kathmandu artists and audiences, including staged readings, devised dramas, docudramas, and site-specific productions. Perhaps most striking was Arjuna’s Dilemma (2016), a 70-minute contemporary fusion opera by the American composer Douglas J. Cuomo, with text from the ancient Indian epic the Bhagavad Gita and the poetry of Kabir. The opera/drama was sung in Sanskrit, Hindi and English, and performed to standing room only audiences in the historic Patan Museum in Patan Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site, including benefits for the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust. A renowned American conductor and world class American opera artists generously shared their expertise with professional and community Nepali actors, choristers, instrumentalists, and technical workers.

Indeed, our productions of American plays have brought gifted American artists and interns to Nepal on a kind of informal exchange and training program that has greatly enriched the local theatre community and created lasting friendships between artists and our two nations. We are very excited that this same group of American opera artists is returning in 2022 for Macbeth Massacre an original fusion Shakespeare drama and Verdi opera of Macbeth.

The positive effects of the two initial Fulbright grants play forward with an average of 100 Nepali theatre artists employed and trained each year, many in several productions. a decade-long teaching and production history of iconic and cutting-edge American drama, collaborations with world class American artists and volunteers, and important connections with pressing concerns in Nepal and the world, such as transitional justice, human trafficking, sexual harassment, LGBTIQ+ rights, gender violence, and cultural diversity. Our English and Nepali language theatre is truly a powerful communicator of American values and genius, and a model for intercultural friendship between the USA and Nepal. Our gratitude to the Fulbright Program is immense.

 

-Deborah Merola, Ph.D.

2003, 2011 Senior Fulbright in Theatre in Nepal

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