Nahin started off by talking about the 2012 London Olympics as well as its Paralympics, where specially abled athletes competed for the first time. From way back then, British Council officials wanted to work on the sector and see if they could add something more to it.
Many projects on community theatre were being held around Bangladesh. They thought, “why not theatre, then?”. Renowned Bangladeshi stage and film director, Nasiruddin Yousuff Bachchu, was also working on a similar project. The British Council contacted the UK for a resource person who could train the specially abled for the stage. The UK office then contacted Jenny Sealey, the artistic opener of the 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony and Artistic Director of the Graeae Theatre Company, UK. She instantly agreed to the offer. Then the tryouts began.
The organisation had done numerous projects before, but nothing as challenging as casting people with disabilities for a play. The whole idea and its execution was a challenge for the British Council. According to Nahin, 10% of the total population of Bangladesh are specially abled people but none of them are associated with acting as their career, particularly when it comes to stage drama as it has no scope of cuts and edits. After carefully screening for three years, the team finally chose 16 talented artists for the production, out of the 170 that applied.
Nahin said: “The next challenge was to make this possible, as 16 of them had 16 types of limitations. The journey to train them began in 2014. 2016 was the 400 year anniversary of Shakespeare, and the British Council felt the timing was perfect to bring Shakespeare to the audience in a different light. Jenny Sealey first proposed “Romeo and Juliet,” as the mission and vision of this project was to raise awareness on equality, diversity, and inclusion, with words of love. That is how ‘A Different Romeo and Juliet’ took off.”
The authorities have taken this project very positively after the two successful shows. National Drama Theatre set up ramps for wheelchairs permanently after these shows, which they did not have previously. The story of this special production has been circulated all over the globe by British Council. After this successful production Pakistan and Sri Lanka have shown interest in producing shows like this. Nahin said India has invited the team of “A Different Romeo and Juliet” to perform there. But that was not possible for many reasons, the most common among them being finding a suitable place to camp during the rehearsal process, as most of hotels and resorts are not suitable for disabled people. She said they also had funding and transportation problems for their special artists. At one point they were only able to provide three rooms for the whole team.
Nahin thinks that over time, people will gradually change their attitude towards the disabled who are part of our society. “When they(the disabled)can come on stage it will show they can do theater too. We are using the arts as a tool of change here,” said Nahin.
“We have two main goals with this project. One is to create confidence among the specially abled, and the other is to create a bridge between them and others through the performing arts. Also to create another perspective in society that will cut words like ‘no you can’t’ and other demoralising things like that,” said Nahin.
That is why this initiative is not just a project for its members. Asaduzzaman Noor, the cultural affairs minister, praised the initiative. The current project is on a road show and the play is currently in the process of being staged in six divisional states. Nasiruddin Yousuff Bachchu is filming the whole roadshow with his own camera team. When he is out in other states during his film projects he is talking with film theatre owners to take necessary measures for a disabled audience. “The goal of the stage production was to circulate this message all around the country and that is happening, which will gradually help specially abled citizens gain confidence in their daily lives,” said Nahin.
The whole play was designed by two Romeos and Two Juliets as one pair uses sign language so that an audience with hearing disabilities can also enjoy the show.
Nahin also talked about Shakila who plays the role of Juliet in the play. Shakila who is a girl from Khulna was socially awkward with her disabilities and was called a “curse in the family” by her own family members. The people who said this now come to see her acting as Juliet on stage and applaud. For Nahin, this is the project’s biggest achievement.