Two Boards and a Passion

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Before William Shakespeare penned his first words, Spanish culture was ignited by a soldier, adventurer and scholar named Lope de Vega. Considered one of the great playwrights of all time, he transformed Spanish culture by creating simple character-driven plays, written for the first time in colloquial Spanish.

One of his most enduring pronouncements was that theatre consisted of nothing more than two boards and a passion. All that is required, he said, is a platform to stand on, and a script that evokes passion – in the character and in the minds of the audience.

Vanuatu’s own Wan Smolbag theatre shows us just how true this is.

In the late eighties, a young British couple arrived in Vanuatu. With nothing more than a bag of costumes and a few passionate companions, they created a revolution. What started as a dynamic troupe of players is now a national – and regional – institution, one of Vanuatu’s cultural crown jewels.

Twenty years on, it remains an energetic (sometimes frenetic) cauldron of creativity. With assistance from AusAID, NZAid and dozens of other partners across the region, its energy, commitment and enthusiasm bubbles out in all directions. This merry company of actors has transformed itself into a producer of radio and television shows, films, health, learning, sports and nutrition services.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that development professionals with experience throughout the region have called Wan Smolbag ‘one of the best NGOs in the Pacific’. Smolbag is remarkably – and in some cases uniquely – effective.

A proper listing of the programmes and services they deliver could fill volumes. Last year alone, 2000 young people signed up for youth project activities. A further 4000 people were treated at their KPH health clinic, 240 of them receiving confidential HIV testing and counseling. Their Luganville clinic saw 1800 people. They distributed 23,000 booklets, comic books, CDs, DVDs and the like to schools, churches and other organisations throughout Vanuatu and the Pacific. The vast majority of these materials were provided free of charge. They have centres in Vila, Santo and Pentecost and hundreds of volunteers throughout Vanuatu.

This is the kind of success we should all aspire to.

But the core, the very heart of Wan Smolbag, is its ability to deliver a message in language that people everywhere understand. Over the years, Smolbag has produced 25 films, dozens of episodes of TV shows and hundreds of plays including over 400 episodes of the radio drama ‘Famili Blong Sara’.

None of this would be possible without the driving passion of director Peter Walker and writer Jo Dorras. An observer watching rehearsals might be forgiven for mistaking Walker for a football coach as his impatient stride and tone moves the cast and crew through their paces. But his actors and staff see a deeply attentive, patient and humourous man interested only in drawing the truth out of every moment. Every actor I’ve ever spoken with (and that’s most of them) has expressed nothing but admiration and affection for him and his work.

Jo Dorras isn’t as immediately visible as Peter, but her quiet, unfailingly gracious presence is always felt. As with all talented writers, her crucial contribution is often overlooked, but without this platform to stand on, the inspired acting and mis-en-scène would not have half the effect it does.

Make no mistake, though – this is not at all an expat enterprise. Walker and Dorras are fortunate to have tapped into one of Vanuatu’s hidden treasures: a natural facility among ni-Vanuatu for delightful, capricious and remarkably naturalistic performance.

I once remarked to Peter and Jo that, back in my theatre days in Canada, I would have been grateful to have even three of their actors. That was a lie. Any one of them would have made waves in the hidebound world of North American commercial theatre.

It is this natural flair for drama, performed as directly and viscerally as any Hollywood star could ever hope to do, that sparked Smolbag’s incredible growth. For two decades now, they’ve taken on contentious and difficult topics, many of them directly confronting uncomfortable tabus. Without fail, they’ve managed to engage with people, to educate them and inspire them to action.

In light of the often intransigent, conservative nature of Vanuatu culture and society, I find their consistent success at once mystifying and inspiring.

Asked how they manage it, Jo Dorras says, “it’s been what we wanted to do and we’ve worked with the most amazing people who have the same love of making plays and acting as we have. And it’s been years about finding out about the way people live their lives and what is important to them. I guess the main thing is it never ceases to be new and interesting.”

A generation down the road, Wan Smolbag’s work remains new and interesting for everyone who participates, and for all who see the fruits of their labour.

What started as a small bag and a passion has a great deal more than that now, but the passion is as strong today as the day it was born.