Treading the Boards in Pakistan, by the notable veteran Portland actor and director Tobias Andersen, is a time capsule – a day-by-day record, Pepys style, of an adventure undertaken more than a quarter-century ago, written at the time of the adventure as a diary, and finally, this year, put into book form.
In 1997 Andersen and Allen Nause, at the time artistic director of Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, were invited through the United States Information Agency to fly to Lahore, Pakistan, to take part in the city’s Second International Theatre & Dance Festival, marking Pakistan’s fiftieth year as an independent nation after its separation from India. Their project, with Nause as director and Andersen as actor: a series of performances of David Rintels’ one-man play Clarence Darrow, about the early 20th century legal champion of civil liberties and labor rights who was perhaps most famous as the defense attorney in the Leopold and Loeb murder case and the Scopes Monkey Trial.
- By Tobias Andersen
- Independently Published, 2023
- Hardback, paperback, Kindle; 202 pages
Like Pepys’, Andersen’s journal (which also touches briefly on their travel time in Thailand) records the little events of the day: the meals, hotel rooms, sights and sounds of the cities, the people he meets, observations of customs that were novel to him as a Westerner, rides in taxis and rickshaws, chats with shop owners and diplomats and fellow artists. And he writes about the challenges, bumps in the road, and occasional triumphs of introducing a character like Darrow to audiences in a country that knows nothing about him.
Andersen presents himself as something of an open naif, unfamiliar with the customs and beliefs of the nation he’s visiting but eager to learn. And learn he does, in many ways and from many people, including the armed guards who’ve been assigned to protect him and Nause, who have had the misfortune to arrive in Pakistan shortly after four Americans have been shot and killed in Karachi in politically motivated assassinations. He learns from the amazing Peerzada brothers, their hosts and key figures in the festival (Usman Peerzada, the festival’s president, is also a well-known Pakistani movie and TV star); and from their many fellow festival performers, who have gathered from Sri Lanka, South Africa, Denmark, Russia, and many other countries – even India, from which Pakistan had had such a stark and violent separation a half-century earlier. In spite of its participants’ many social and cultural differences, an aura of hope and possibility pervades the festival, at least in Andersen’s view: Perhaps cultural exchanges truly can make a difference.
A quarter-century later, a certain air of innocence pervades Andersen’s journal. He and Nause were in Pakistan before the geopolitical crisis of 9-11, which sparked years-long wars and occupation of neighboring Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden’s refuge and eventual killing in his far-north Pakistani compound, and the extraordinary population growth of the early 21st century in the country’s sprawling major cities, and the devastating 2022 flooding that hit a third of Pakistan’s land mass. But Treading the Boards is a snapshot of a certain time and place and experience, and valuable for that.
Andersen and Nause spend most of their time in Lahore, but also travel for performances, workshops, and meetings to Islamabad and Karachi, getting a taste of the differences among Pakistan’s two biggest cities (Karachi and Lahore) and its more modern capital (Islamabad).
And among the parade of faces and names and brief encounters and traffic scares and impulse buys and ever-present Nescafé as the only coffee choice available and other minutiae of the days, things stand out: moments of clarity and astonishment, as in Andersen’s witnessing of a performance by the great Kathak dancer Nahid Siddiqui.
“Her hands are astonishing; the most fluid, graceful pair of hands I have ever seen,” he writes. “At times they resemble white fronds under a clear sea, then seem to flicker like tongues of flame. I cannot relate the story they express, but you simply can’t take your eyes from those hands; that is, during those moments when she chooses for you to look. Her black eyes seem to radiate some ancient energy and they carry a silent, yet unmistakable, message: ‘I am the best. And this is beauty. Look at me and I will show you.’”
On this cultural and literary journey, Andersen looks, and sees, and learns, and writes.