January 18th, 2011
12:09 PM ET

Tiny theater's Afghanistan play heads to the Pentagon

As Iraq's insurgency was peaking, and American soldiers were dying at a dizzying rate from roadside bombs, a theater director in London was having an epiphany.

Plenty of plays about the Iraqi carnage were piling up on his desk, but there were none about the the calamities befalling Afghanistan.

It was then that Nicholas Kent, director of the tiny Tricycle Theatre - far from the glitz and glamour of London's fabled West End playhouses - decided to act.

"I became aware in 2007-2008 how it was all going wrong in Afghanistan," he said. "It wasn't being reported in the media and certainly there was no artistic response to it."

He commissioned a dozen writers to produce a dozen short plays on Afghan history. The result, "The Great Game," changed the Afghan debate in the United Kingdom at a stroke.

When the Chief of Britain's Defence Staff, Sir David Richards, saw the performance, he said, "I wish I'd seen it before I first deployed to Afghanistan in 2005. It would have made me a much better commander."

And the performance is now on its way to the Pentagon. Kent says Gen. Richards has been a significant driving force in bringing the performance to his American counterparts.

"The Great Game" is usually performed over three days, with four half-hour plays performed back-to-back each day.

Part one "traces the history of foreign and Western involvement in Afghanistan since the defeat of the British in 1842," Kent said.

The second installment of the trilogy "is more or less a reflection of now," he said: "The Soviet surge that fails over a decade, through the coming of the Taliban and the arrival of U.S. troops."

The final four plays highlight the problems facing aid workers, Afghans and troops today.

The British and American military are getting special performances, playing the whole cycle out in one day rather than three.

Kent wanted to stimulate debate and discussion on a conflict he felt was wrong.

"You are putting yourself in some one else's boots," he said of what happens to the audience. "You are empathizing, you are sympathizing with people, thinking what you would do in their situation."

He is thrilled that both the British and now the American military have taken such a significant interest in the production, saying there can be no better way to grapple with the complexities of Afghanistan.

"If you read a book you can put it down. If you read a newspaper you can turn the page. If you see some television you can switch channels," he said. "With a play, you are stuck there for some time, and in this case for a whole day. You have to really think about the challenges."

But it's not just his audiences who have been challenged. "The Great Game" has changed Kent's own views.

He now thinks pulling troops out precipitously would be a disaster and is increasingly concerned about instability over the border in nuclear-armed Pakistan - so much so that he's considering a play on non-proliferation.

Kent is a product of his own ethos, learning from his experiences.

"If people start to think outside the box and look at these issues through a different form, rather than in a lecture hall but maybe through an art form, they may learn quite a lot," he said.

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