Acting out with the Living Newspaper
CHEREE FRANCO EXPRESS TRIBUNE
On a balmy Tuesday, 20 third-year Szabist film students cluster in a small, dingy studio. The midday sun streams from the skylight, testing everyone’s patience as they attempt to mark scenes in a series of fact-based plays highlighting human rights violations in Pakistan. Under Dr Framji Minwalla, Head of Media Science at Szabist University, these students and 50 of their peers researched, wrote and are currently staging a specific type of play — The Living Newspaper.
“Living Newspapers is a theatrical form that became popular during the Great Depression to tackle immediately relevant social and political issues that affected the lives of working and middle class Americans,” says Minwalla, who seems at home in the studio, even in a crisp mint button down and khakis.
As one group finishes rehearsing a talk show scene where a 1970 cyclone victim and a 2010 flood victim discuss their respective governments’ responses, Minwalla straddles the back of a chair and addresses his students.
“Did it take everyone a while to figure out that they’re referencing the flood that happened in East Pakistan?” he asks.
“But he had the accent,” protests Maria Mumtaz, the writer/director of the flood play.
“He may have had the accent, but you need to make it clear,” Minwalla says. “After the cyclone, aid came through Islamabad and most of it didn’t filter down to the areas hardest hit. With this play, you may want to show that this situation was largely responsible for splitting the country in half.”
Begun as a means to spread propaganda in Bolshevik Russia, Living Newspapers is more commonly associated with the US’s Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s, which the government designed to employ Depression-era actors in public service. The plays took a journalistic approach to issues affecting US workers, rejecting conventions of realism and complicated set design and relying on abrupt lighting choices, flexible use of space and a narrator or ‘loudspeaker’ to offer references and commentary.