LISTEN: From Participant to Intern: How Listen has Inspired Me

Maryam visits the Pardada-Pardadi office in Delhi, India, with her family in June.
Maryam visits the Pardada-Pardadi office in Delhi, India, with her family in June.

by Maryam, July 2013

LISTEN is an amazing theatrical, empowering, exchange between myself, three other American teens, and about 50 girls in a women’s school four hours away from New Delhi, India.  I first heard about LISTEN when starting off as a teacher’s assistant for fourth graders at my Jewish congregation. My co-worker (she later became so much more) Melanie Closs, after finding out that I am half Indian and greatly interested in Indian people and culture, asked me if I was willing to assist her in finding the right teenage girls to make a theatrical project based on our lives as women in the USA. And she didn’t have to ask me twice.

Theatre has always been my main passion, the thing I felt the happiest doing. For as long as I could remember, I have struggled greatly with academics. Math and science I still can’t really understand. However, expressing myself with my voice, my ideas, and with the different characters I was given the opportunity to perform never was a challenge. And knowing that whatever I did with Melanie would be given to the girls of India–the people who live in my second home-made the opportunity to be in LISTEN seem like a experience I had to be a part of. So, I gathered together my two friends Katherine and Jojo (who both received an award for Creative Arts at our school last spring, and whose theatrical talents I witnessed first hand when we were in the 8th grade play together) as well as my newest friend at the time, Cara (also a very talented writer) to help out with making the LISTEN dream a reality by joining me in being the teen participants.

The first day we arrived, none of us really knew what to expect. We started off by showing the physical positions we took when feeling empowered and confident versus weak and judged. There was a noticeable difference between these two stances, so we built off those by talking about what it is like to feel oppressed, and gave examples of times in our lives when we felt that way. A favorite example that was in the show itself was when I pretended to walk down the street feeling really confident and happy with how I looked, until three guys (played by Jojo, Katherine, and Cara) started whistling and cat-calling at me, suddenly making me feel creeped out and uncomfortable. The show consisted of these types of moments, which I hoped could be understood by the girls in India since our show was filmed and sent to them. Luckily, it really was.

Since the girls had such a good reaction to our theatre pieces, we were able to return back to Brooklyn to create part two of LISTEN, and to respond the the theater pieces they had made in India for us to see. It’s hard to describe how I felt seeing these theatre pieces. The girls obviously have had a much harder time than we have trying to be heard as women in their society. At one point in their piece, a girl was beat up by a man because she had become a powerful woman in her community. And I know from first hand experience (I lived in India for a year and a half and visit each summer) that women are definitely not on the same platform of power as men; whereas women in the US have stronger laws that allow them to be treated as an equal for the most part. However, I knew that whatever we created as our last theater piece would be seen by countless hopeful girls, so we worked very hard to create theatre pieces that would inspire them.

The performance went very well, and consisted of four skits (we each made one based off a time when we felt insecure) relating to testing, teacher’s favorites, boys, and being ignored. Between each piece was a portion of the video the girls had made to show us. And we left the performance with jewelry and notes the girls had sent us (so sweet of them) and the feeling we had made a difference.

As of now, Katherine, Jojo, and I have all become interns with The Other Side for the summer before our sophomore year of high school.  During my visit to India in June, I was able to visit the office of the Pardada-Pardadi school with some of our own American jewelry and letters for the girls as a response to what they have given us. My experiences in India, and in Uruguay (I went for 5 weeks this summer with a group from my camp and met many Uruguayan teens) is that girls from outside the USA really look up to us American teens, and hold the same fascination towards us as we seem to do with celebrities. What they don’t realize, is that we feel the same way about them. So, I think that we should take their interest towards us and use it in the best way possible: to collaborate, connect, and inspire each other. The Other Side,  with the right type of support and creativity, has the power to establish and foster this theatrical exchange.