‘Hi. I’m Nasiruddin Yousuff from Bangladesh. I’m six feet tall, dark complexion, oval face, grey hair, wearing specs, blue shirt, blazer, pants and shoes.’ This is how renowned film and theatre director Nasiruddin Yousuff introduced himself to the visually impaired at the Unlimited Festival this year in London. The festival has been celebrating the artistic vision and originality of artists with disability since 2012. On the occasion of International Day of Disabled Persons, which was celebrated on Monday, December 3, the director spoke to Dhaka Tribune Showtime’s Sadia Khalid about his experience of working with disabled artists.
How did you first get involved with the Unlimited Festival?
British Council informed me that there will be a festival about disabled artists called Unlimited Festival. They asked if I could join the festival. We produced a theatre play called "A Different Romeo and Juliet” with 13 disabled actors in 2016. We included artists with three types of physical disabilities. We started the project in 2013 and were able to stage the play three years later at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. As British Council was the main promoter of the play, they suggested that I should attend the festival.
What were the challenges of working with actors with disabilities?
We couldn’t take the play outside of Dhaka, because they would need special cars, special arrangements at the venues and at the hotels. In Bangladesh, we don’t have any bus, any house or even sidewalk, which is accessible to the disabled. It’s as if we think they don’t exist. But 10% of the population is disabled. Shilpakala wasn’t well-equipped as well, but they made changes to accommodate us.
There are many more barriers for disabled artists. They spoke in local dialects. Everyone always assumed they are good for nothing. They don’t know much about theatre or acting. We brought disabled artists from all over Bangladesh. There was one singing troupe from Bogra. Except for one, the rest of the troupe was all blind. It wasn’t an extraordinary production, but was good enough for a start.
How long did the renovations and preparations for the play take in that case?
We made ramps for them. The preparation took more than two years. Jenny Sealey, who is disabled herself, directed this. Esha Yousuff, Samiuz Zaman Dola and Wasim Ahmed were the assistant directors. It was a costly production. We got transportation from CRP. We housed them at the BRAC Centre in Savar, because they had adequate facilities. We needed elevators, bigger doors, different toilets, even different sitting arrangements at dining tables.
How was the “A Different Romeo and Juliet” different?
We had two Romeos and two Juliets on stage. One talks verbally and the other talks through sign language. It was a very interesting journey. If we staged the play at all eight divisional headquarters, we would need about Taka 35 lakhs. We asked the cultural ministry for the fund, but they refused. It would’ve created mass-awareness among disabled parents and families.
So, you only staged the play at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy?
The British Council asked me to record it. Now they are showing it at different events. Hundreds of parents of disabled children come to these shows and they get very emotional. They find it hard to believe that their children can accomplish such a beautiful thing. They demand more productions of this sort. I dream of spreading such plays all over the country. Theatre is a tool to express your mind, your soul and your heart. I saw the disabled audiences get emotional to see their representatives perform.
You had directed a Shakespearean play before at the Globe Theatre. How was that experience?
In 2012, Globe Theatre asked if I can do a Shakespearean play. To celebrate the 450th birth anniversary of Shakespeare, they arranged a festival where they invited 37 directors from 37 countries. I was asked to stage “The Tempest.” I tried to see Shakespeare through an indigenous, musical lens, even though this was not a musical. The festival was a prelude to the Olympics in London. Before us, no one staged a play in Bangla at the Globe Theatre. After our production, 1200 audience members gave a standing ovation for 10 minutes. So, British Council wanted me to direct another play.
But you ended up producing “A Different Romeo and Juliet?"
After a few days of rehearsal, I realized it was too difficult for me to direct. So, we hired Jenny Sealey and I became the producer. Jenny was British, hearing impaired. Her interpreter hears the English from Dola or Esha or me, who translates the Bangla of the actors. Their sign language and the Bangla sign language isn’t the same. We brought someone who knew the Bangla sign language. Esha and Dola learned sign language. It was a tedious process, but we enjoyed it thoroughly.
What was the impact of this play?
It had a social impact as well. Disabled audiences started going to Shilpakala more after the production. It opened up a new horizon for the participating artists.
Will you be joining the Unlimited Festival again?
The Unlimited Festival will take place again next year, late in the summer, by the bank of Thames. I’m going there next year. I’ll try to take two or three disabled actors with me. I went there this year. The city council, British Council, government– all help out in organizing this event. There were disabled artists from about 40 countries this year. It was an eye opener for me.
How can we include more artists with disabilities in the mainstream theatre?
Selim Al Deen once said: “He sees with his ears and hears with his eyes.” I think we can make a theatre out of them. Other troupes need to create inclusive characters for disabled persons and crawl out of this current state of complete exclusion.