Two Afghan policemen stand paralyzed by fear in front of a plastic cup. But this is not some farcical scene from the battle against the Taliban — it is a sketch from a new clown show in Kabul.
The performance, put on by nine members of the Azdar troupe, seems improbable in a country locked in a nine-year battle between US-led NATO troops and the Islamist militants.
But it is part of increasing efforts to foster a revival of Afghan theater, which enjoyed a golden age in the 1960s and 1970s before being hit hard by war and the closure of theaters under the hardline Taliban Islamists, who took power during the mid-1990s.
Azdar was formed in 2006 by Guilda Chahverdi, vice president of Kabul’s French Cultural Center and a drama professor at Kabul University, with a group of her former students.
Its previous productions include a staging of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s "The Little Prince" in Kabul but Chahverdi turned to clowning for the latest show in a bid to expand the actors’ skills.
However, things are not always easy — it can be difficult to persuade young Afghans to take to the stage, Chahverdi said.
"The best students want to study medicine or business, while the less able end up studying the arts," she told AFP, adding that some Afghans see clowning as "shameful."
Others complain that even small amounts of funding for theatrical projects are hard to come by despite huge sums spent on other fields.
In addition, many talented Afghan actors go abroad to pursue their careers away from war and hardship. Some audiences also struggle with the productions.
"People say to me: ‘when you go to the theater, daily life pulls on you so much that it’s hard to concentrate,’" said Sylvain Malgouyres, a Frenchman who worked with the troupe to help teach them the art of clowning.
However, some of the actors involved say the power of their shows has persuaded their loved ones that theater is not a waste of time after all.
"Until last year, my family would not let me do theater," said one of the actors, 19-year-old Gulab.
"But when we put on ‘The Little Prince’ in Kabul last September, they came for the first time. They laughed and clapped, like everyone else."
The latest show played at the French Cultural Center in front of an audience of about 60 people last month.
Some of the actors in the Azdar troupe are also involved in Parwaz, a company of puppeteers who make regular tours around schools in Afghanistan’s provinces, putting on shows about social issues like war and corruption.
Despite the work, though, many of the actors balance a passion for what they are doing with an acknowledgement that they may not be able to stay on stage for long.
"I want to keep on acting. But if that’s impossible, we will go back to being farmers, like our fathers," said another actor, Nasir.