2/05/2010 Magazine Staff

Carol Davis, Associate Professor of Theater

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Carol Davis is co-founder of the Nepal Health Project, an initiative she and her late husband, Peter, launched that uses street theater to teach rural inhabitants how to improve their personal health and safety. In the fall Davis was selected as a winner in the Half the Sky contest sponsored by The New York Times and columnist Nicholas Kristof. She was one of three winners out of more than 700 entries in the contest, which solicited personal stories about global poverty with an emphasis on women in the developing world.

Where did you get the idea for the Nepal Health Project?

I was in Nepal in 1994 to study a theatrical religious ritual of the Buddhist monks who live closest to Mount Everest. I was intrigued by the way the monks used dance, costumes, masks and humorous skits to express their religion, create community and teach. Afterward, I was walking down the mountain seeing children with runny noses and an overall lack of personal hygiene. I had gotten sick every time I went to Nepal, so I thought maybe these two things could be combined—that I could use theater to teach basic personal hygiene.

How did the project come about?

I met a German mountain climber there—my future husband, Peter—and we met with some aid organizations and discussed using street theater to spread this message and they said, 'Great idea, good luck—but don't come to us for money.' So Peter and I went back to our countries and looked for funding. A year later we returned to Nepal with some donated CPR equipment and one grant. We recruited five actors and crafted a play that was chock full of information but also had slapstick in it to keep the children interested. I had to train the actors in physical comedy because they had never seen anything like The Three Stooges. On World Theatre Day in 1996 we gave our first performance in a village outside Kathmandu.

Did the message come across?

We begin the play with a song about washing hands before eating or after using the toilet. Sometimes when we're leaving a village, we hear children singing it, so at least that stays in their minds, like a jingle. We have scenes about taking babies for inoculations because it's anti-intuitive to take a healthy baby to get a shot. And we have a scene about maternal mortality in which a mother and a baby die in childbirth and the king of heaven charges the audience with taking better care of their pregnant women. On the first day, a friend in the audience heard one woman say to another, 'This is our story.'

And this has been ongoing?

We did have to take a hiatus. The Maoist insurgency began in 1996 and became increasingly violent. Over time it became riskier for our actors, especially when nationwide shutdowns were called. By 2000 it was too dangerous for the actors to travel outside of the Kathmandu Valley. We continue to do a version of the program in orphanages in the city. I am in frequent contact with the actors and ask them if it is safe enough to resume our tours, and they say 'yes,' but then I hear about an explosion or an attack, and I'm not sure I'm ready to take a chance with the actors' safety.

In the spring you're producing a play on campus, Shirley Lauro's A Piece of My Heart. Why did you choose it?

We chose this play in honor of 40 years of coeducation at F&M. This play is about women who served in Vietnam during the war—nurses, Red Cross workers, an entertainer—and it tells the stories of many women. Playwright Shirley Lauro brought together many firsthand accounts to create the play. Women across the country volunteered to provide moral and physical support of troops in Vietnam, and the sisters and friends of women who attended F&M 40 years ago may have been there. The controversial Vietnam War was a focus of students on college campuses throughout the country. In doing this play we honor the women and men who served in Vietnam as well as the women who chose to attend F&M at that time. I was in Vietnam 15 years after what the Vietnamese call the liberation of Saigon. I helped to raise money and then, before American tourists were allowed back in, traveled the length of the country, from the Mekong Delta to Hanoi, visiting 30 orphanages and hospitals and giving them aid.

What is your favorite part about teaching theater?

Watching students blossom. Turning them on to theater and helping them become actors. Some come in knowing they are passionate about acting, some come in and discover it, some come in feeling they always wanted to try it, and some come in just to fulfill the arts requirement—then end up enjoying it.

What was your plan coming out of college?

My goal was to find out more about theater. I grew up wanting to be an actor, and I acted professionally for many years. I felt a little brutalized by the business and thought I needed to change my relationship to it. I traveled around the world and watched and participated in theatrical rituals and devotional productions, things that were vital to a community, which had to be performed, and had a different place in society than the standard Western theater I was doing at the time.

When did you realize you were destined for a life in theater?

At the ripe old age of 12. I had studied to be a ballerina since I was 3, but I was in my first play at 12. I made a major career decision then and haven't looked back. But I also love being in nature, trekking and backpacking, and part of what I love about the Nepal program is that I get to combine all of those things while helping others.

Is there a play or playwright that really speaks to you?

Well, there's no one like Shakespeare, which may sound like a pat answer, but he is such a gift to actors. He teaches actors how to act his plays, and part of what I like to teach is the key to Shakespeare—the key to understanding his language and the key to his direction within the language.

What was your reaction to being named a winner in the Half the Sky contest?

I was surprised, pleased and humbled. I had read some of the other blogs about the amazing projects that people are doing all over the world and was so impressed by them. I was completely bowled over that he selected me. The work Kristof does to get out the word about abuses against women, and particularly young girls, is so important.
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