In 2012, Broadway actors Lucas Caleb Rooney and Bryce Pinkham founded Zara Aina in an effort to create a cultural exchange, or “sharing of life” between impoverished Malagasy communities and American actors.
Zara Aina launched its first official residency in Antananarivo, Madagascar in 2013. On that pilot trip, a team of ten American volunteer artists and teachers spent a month living with a Malagasy Youth Company of 14 middle school students, engaging in a cultural exchange and building and rehearsing a show based on a Malagasy folktale. The children performed all over Antananarivo, and also took their show on the road, touring it to rural communities.
Following this first residency, our Malagasy facilitators continued to work with our students after school multiple times a week throughout the year, building and rehearsing new shows and providing English lessons. In the meantime, we raised money to keep the children in school and as long as they participated in Zara Aina activities we paid their tuition expenses. Thus, our Zara Aina Youth Company was born.
In 2014, a team of Zara Aina artists returned for a second residency, rehearsing a new show with an expanded company of 30 at-risk middle school students and performing at venues around Antananarivo, including at UNICEF’s 30th Anniversary Celebration for over 3,000 people. For the middle two weeks of the residency, the American artists conducted a workshop tour that included more in-depth work with the children of the previously-visited communities of Ranomafana and Andavabato, as well as the establishment of a new relationship with a Malagasy arts-based NGO in the coastal town of Morondava. Other work during this second residency included rebuilding Andavabato’s schools, improving education conditions for the local students and encouraging them to stay in school.
In 2015, during our third residency in four years, we worked tirelessly to expand our Youth Company to include 45 at-risk middle school students, as well as hire a paid staff of five, including an operations manager, two trained social workers who interact directly with our children’s families and schools, a dance instructor and an experienced English teacher.
In 2015, we also implemented a new curriculum and weekly schedule, allowing our Youth company to meet six times per week for storytelling performance rehearsals, English classes and creative arts programming. We rented a new temporary space to house our programming and act as a centralized location for our children to receive nutritional and medical aid.
Zara Aina’s relationship with UNICEF was strengthened when we were hired to use our theatrical storytelling work to educate communities about Madagascar’s polio crisis in a new and unique way. We have embarked on a four-phase project that includes training Malagasy artists from every region of the country in our pedagogy. We also sent our American and Malagasy facilitators to different regions to create performances that help spread the word about the importance of vaccination and to empower the Malagasy people to combat the crisis themselves: to become personal sellers, ambassadors and mobilizers for their communities.
We believe it’s important to bring our work in Madagascar home with us and complete the “Sharing of Life” on American soil. Various American Zara Aina volunteer artists have begun to bring our pedagogy to New York-based organizations such as the Win Homeless Shelter, the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, The Shakespeare Society, and Rhinebeck Middle School.
At every turn we share stories from our experiences with the children of Madagascar to help bridge the gap between our two cultures and worlds. Our goal is to maintain a spirit of devising and teaching year-round and to cultivate a larger community of volunteers in the U.S. that are well-trained and well-tested in our pedagogy, and who are helping year-round to develop strategies for achieving program sustainability in Madagascar.
as told by Artistic Director Lucas Caleb Rooney
at Zara Aina’s first benefit in 2012
“I went to Madagascar last year and bought a motorcycle and basically rode around. At first I was looking for lemurs and biodiversity—basically eco-tourism—but pretty quickly I was blown away by the Malagasy people. They are living in a really desperate situation and at the same time are generous, playful and welcoming. They taught me their language and invited me into their homes. But mostly I was affected by the kids.
Malagasy kids are so bright—there’s no other word i can think of to describe it. I would stop to eat or read a book and within a minute would be covered in children, laughing and playing and being awesome. I started to dream up a way to work with them and to see if the skills I have as a theatre artist could help.
I spent the rest of my trip riding around looking for ways to put this plan into action. I emailed Bryce Pinkham asking if he could cover my classes back home, because I might never come back. This place is busting me wide open. The hard part is putting it into words, I know, because there’s a part of it that can’t be described—that can only be shared, like art.
I was in a city called Antirabe, and I went to a ritual called a famadihana where families gather to honor their dead ancestors — and party like crazy. I met these young guys who had a rap group and I hung out with them in this basement laying down some dope ass rhymes with the phat beats and the flowing. These kids would organize big concerts, and the cool thing is that all the proceeds would go to the poor people in the villages.
I was blown away. I mean here are these kids—teenagers—full of all that angst, ambition, and hormonal stuff, and instead of rebelling and crashing cars, they are using their mojo to help each other. And when I asked him why, he said “when you are in a situation where nobody has anything, you all have to work together to survive. You have to Share Life! Zara Aina.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that. Share Life. Zara Aina. I wrote it over and over in my journal. The next day I found them and told them I wanted to do my own Zara Aina and they were like go for it. That’s what it’s all about. I told Bryce all about it in the diner after he picked me up from the airport.
That’s how it works, right? People have been coming out of the woodwork to be part of this thing. After I told Bryce, he started blabbing about it, I walked into the Malagasy embassy in New York, and they immediately welcomed me in and encouraged the project. This thing has been growing like mad. Like a fungus—like a crazy fungus of wild good will.”
—Lucas Caleb Rooney