The Other Side

22 May 2015

I am the Executive Director of The Other Side Intercultural Theatre, Inc. The Other Side is a 501(c)(3) non­profit organization based in Brooklyn, NY, USA. Our mission is to create a cross­cultural exchange of dramatic storytelling amongst girls which supports their common experience, inspires leadership, and develops community. Through drama exchange girls become invested in friendships created and stand up for themselves and each other. Using Theatre of the Oppressed and other devised theatre techniques, participating girls create plays, telling their own stories. Theatre of the Oppressed is a technique of doing theatre that addresses social issues in participants lives, and gives them a vehicle to rehearse possible action to make a change. As part of the creative process, each U.S.­based participating group documents and shares their plays with an international­based participant group, and vice­versa, thereby creating an intercultural dialogue and building friendships. Through these drama processes, performances, and friendships, the girls learn about each other, about themselves, and gain the confidence to create change in their communities and advocate for equality for girls worldwide. Like pen pals. But with theatre. 

In addition to all the administrative direction of the company, my very first love and strength is teaching. I have been visiting Pardada­Pardadi Educational Society in Anupshahr, Uttar Pradesh, India, since 2010, and it has completely inspired this whole company. In April 2015, I conducted my 3rd year of The Other Side drama exchange workshops with the students and community of PPES in Anupshar. 

When I got my ride to the village early Thursday morning, I was so happy to see a student of mine in the car with me­ Surbhi! Surbhi is a girl who used to work at the Call Centre, and some Other Side students in NYC might recognize her from photos, because she chooses to dress “like a boy.” Some students had asked about this, and she told us that it allows her to walk freely around town, and helps her have the confidence to achieve her goals. 

She told me two pieces of great news. 1) She is working at the PPES office in Delhi, as a regular employee (meaning that she a. is earning a living and b. NOT living in her village where there aren’t many opportunities for her.) 2) She has been accepted into a program to come to the US for one year! She is going along with Reeta and Bandana, two other Call Centre girls who I know. Some of you met Shivani­ she is in the same program as these ladies. We don’t find out what state they are in until around July, and they come to the US in August. So excited for these opportunities! 

Upon arrival at the school, it was like coming home. I feel really at ease in this society and culture, and so used to the way things are. I reunited with many old friends, students, teachers, and met new volunteers and new teachers as well. I was very pleased to find out that the new school year now begins on April 1st­ meaning I get students in the beginning of their term; no tests, no interruptions. So I organized my classes to match up with each participating Other SIde group. 

My work in Anupshahr is focused on gathering groups of girls to connect with our groups of girls in New York City. I organized my classes to match up with each participating Other SIde group. For example, we have 4 different participating schools in New York City (Bronx Writing Academy, Isaac Newton Middle School, Global Tech Prep, and Nightingale­Bamford) and I organized 4 different classes at PPES to coordinate with each New York group, to create a more personal exchange. 

Each group spent 2 weeks with our curriculum. I also have 3 ambassadors, teachers at PPES, who assist, translate, and continue with the exchange for the rest of the year. Madhu, Anjana, and Reena are these ambassadors, as well as Taruna and Usha who help out with some video and tech. 

The girls started by playing games to get their bodies used to expression. This has always been a big challenge with girls at PPES, as they are not used to expressing themselves, or being asked for their own opinions or feelings. We then do a Theatre of the Oppressed activity proving that we can change the way we think about things, and turn that change into actions, by following opposite action directions. (For example, I’ll say walk, but you do the action of stopping, and when I say stop, you do the action of walking.) I actually did this activity in Hindi, all I needed to do was learn the words for “walk” (ghumo) “stop” (ruko) “jump” (kudna) and “clap” (thali). This then leads to the concept of “Stereotypes” which was difficult in some ways to define, but not hard to identify stereotypes about girls in this area. Some examples include; Girls should be housewives, Girls do not go to school, girls should not wear jeans, only Sari or suit, and girls should not go outside of their homes for something like school or a job. 

From this list, girls think of stories when they’ve experienced one of these stereotypes. Maybe they wanted to go to school, or wear jeans, or tried to convince a friend to go to school. From these stories, plays are developed through our play­building process. 

The second week focused on watching videos from each participating group in New York, in which the girls there shared their own stereotypes, hopes and fears, and questions for the girls in India. 

The final product was a film that included the girls’ plays, plus introductions (“Hi, my name is Sonam, I am 13 years old, I love to play cricket...etc) any answers to questions and new questions themselves. All the footage was gathered, and a few select students who were particularly engaged in the activity got to help to edit, choosing music, titles for plays, and captions. 

The workshops culminated in a screening of all the videos for all participating groups at PPES. These films are also a part of the final days of workshops back in New York, which will end in May. 

In addition to the classes, we also had a few special live exchanges. 

The first was a skype exchange between Nightingale­Bamford, and a mix of girls who are all connected to the Call Centre in some way. The Call Centre is a project of Kingdom of Dreams to empower rural girls and connect them globally through call centre work. The call centre is based on the grounds of the PPES school. Many girls who graduate from PPES go through call centre training and become employees of Kingdom of Dreams, or have great communication skills that open up many opportunities for them (like traveling to the US, studying in Bangalore, working at the PPES office in Delhi, etc.) The girls who participated in the skype were excited and very nervous to speak English and perform their play­ which was about asking her parents for higher education. 

Although the session was only 15 minutes long due to scheduling, it was so much fun, and exciting for both groups of girls to learn about each other. They got to ask questions, sing songs, do dances, and watch a play. My hope for the future is that we have more time, so that both groups get to perform their plays! 

The second exchange was a taped blog radio show called The Voice of Leadership. Reeta, a 19 year old girl employed at the Call Centre and going to the US for community college next year, spoke with Lila, a 14 year old girl in Brooklyn who has participated in our teen internship program. Both prepared a monologue (and Lila a song) about the pressures their society puts upon them, just because they are girls. The show was hosted by Linda Lombardo, who facilitated a discussion in which we discovered how much these girls have in common as leaders in their community, how they feel when their society expects something from them, and their dreams for the future­ even though they come from such different worlds. 

The third exchange was with our Other Side house band­ H.E.R.O, which consists of 4 ten year­old girls playing their favorite pop songs. H.E.R.O was working on writing a new song about women’s rights, and asked if I could choose one girl from Anupshahr to write one verse of the song, from her perspective. 

The girl I chose was Sonam, and I want to tell you more about her. Sonam and H.E.R.O talked to each other on Skype and learned all about each other, as well as shared music and the song they are working on. 

Sonam, who is 13 years old, is living at the volunteer guest house. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a student living at the guest house; most students live at home and commute to school daily. Sonam is a student who comes from the poorest village in Anupshahr, Madar Gate. She is actually the only girl in her village attending school. 

Why is Sonam staying at the guest house, and not in her village? There are many reasons. While she was living at home, her parents were not letting her get to school every day, because educating a girl is not something they value. She has fallen really behind in her classes because of this. So the founder of the school intervened and insisted that she stay at the teacher’s colony so that she gets to school every day, and also gets extra tutoring from all the volunteers and teachers that live there. Her energy, spirit, and youthfulness has been really great to have around. She is also getting better and better at spoken English. 

I’d love to share Sonam’s verse with you here: 
Somewhere between mother and daughter … 
is a trapped dream. 
Somewhere between daughter and son… 
your love is not fair 
Somewhere between respect and crying… 
a girl has to ask 
Somewhere between father and son… is a woman 

In addition to my work with The Other Side, I also love spending time with my Anupshahrian family. I like to help out with a few additional projects that are somewhat unrelated to the drama exchanges, and spend time getting to know different teachers and community members. 

The third day I was there, I went with the Satiya Bharti principal, Ajay Chauhan, and a few other teachers to a village to try to convince families to send their girls to PPES. It was an amazing experience, first of all riding on a motorcycle through the fields and over the Ganges on a long bridge. Motorcycle is a very common way of getting around in this area, although there are very seldom women who drive them. 

We visited this village, Ajay spoke for a long time in Hindi. Then I spoke in slow English and he translated, about the importance of educating girls and what an incredible education they will get from PPES. It was amazing to see men nodding their heads in agreement as Ajay translated. (It was mostly men at the meeting.) I then did the same Theatre of the Oppressed activity about opposite actions to show that we can change our thinking. 

I was pleased to see a girl named Kavita who had been in my first class at PPES, along with Shivani and Reeta. Kavita comes from that village, and she is about to go off to Bangalore for Yoga instructor training. Leaving this small village as a girl to study in a big city instead of getting married is a wonderful success story and a big deal! 

When we finished our talk, we were given chai as is the custom for any visitor. But we soon learned that a boy in the village (about 20 years old) had killed himself a few days earlier, and his younger sister goes to our school. So we paid our respects to his father. It was a somber visit and more chai was given. But I think it meant a lot to his family that we came. 

On the ride back, we stopped at a Mela along the Ganges river. We went down to the river, ate some panipuri, took some photos, and then headed back to school. This day will always stand out in my mind! 

I also got to travel to Delhi with Satiya Bharti teachers and students, and the field trips are always fun. It’s a great way to see the girls discover the world outside of school, and to have fun hanging out with teachers. 

I visited a few teacher’s and friend’s homes in Anupshahr and surrounding villages, which is always a great way to get to know the lives of the people who live there. I love spending time with them, eating, taking photos, and singing. 

On my birthday, I wore a sari and performed some music for the lower school at their assembly. I played some of my original songs, some inspiring pop songs like Roar and Brave, and some music games. I also played the one Hindi song I know how to play, which was a big hit! I also learned another new Hindi song, and now it’s a gimmick of mine to play these two Hindi songs. (Tujise Bichaad Ke Jinda Hai, and Tuje Dekho Tho Ye Jana Sanam) 

Using drama as a tool for expression, communication, and aesthetics, girls in New York and Anusphahr connect with each other, share dreams and hopes, and also learn about their differences. The Other Side is just one small piece of the large puzzle of the community work of Pardada­Pardadi, to empower end educate girls and women in the rural area of Anupshahr. There is a lot of work to be done, a lot of mindsets to be changed, and sometimes I have to check myself; I am not Indian, I come from a very different culture, who am I to say what’s right for women? So I try to focus simply on storytelling. I can share my own personal stories, the stories of girls in the USA, and give the girls in Anupshahr a space to tell their own stories, and find community and sisterhood within them. The rest of the empowerment magic comes from what the girls choose to do with their lives­ and knowing that they have a choice is the very first step. ­

- Melanie Closs, Founder and Director of The Other Side Intercultural Theatre. PPES Volunteer 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015