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 pay tuition expenses, as long as children agreed to stay in school and continuing participating in Zara Aina activities. 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 school, improving education conditions for the local students and encouraging them to stay in school.
In 2015, during our third residency, we worked tirelessly to expand our Youth Company to 45 at-risk middle school students, as well as hire a paid staff of five, including an operations manager, two trained social workers to interact directly with our children’s families and schools, a dance instructor, and an English teacher. We also implemented our pedagogy and curriculum for the first time, and set a weekly schedule, allowing our Youth company to meet six times per week for rehearsals, English classes and creative arts programming. We rented a new temporary Center to house our programming and act as a centralized location for our children to receive nutritional and medical aid.
Also in 2015, 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 embarked on a four-phase project that included 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 helped spread the word about the importance of vaccination and empowered the Malagasy people to combat the crisis themselves: to become ambassadors and mobilizers for their communities.
During our 2016 residency, we took our original kids on tour, and they saw the ocean for the first time in their lives. At the end of our residency, 12 children became the first-ever Zara Aina Youth Company graduates, completing our 3-year theater curriculum and moving onto a brand new practically-focused fourth year, featuring tutoring, test prep, and additional English and French instruction, to prepare our children for their middle school and high school entrance exams. Children could also receive guidance on vocational training options and internships would be offered inside and outside our Center.
2017 saw the Zara Aina Center serving 80 children in four classes. The third year students decided to tackle Shakespeare: they built their own “Malagasy version” of King Lear. The American Team helped them, once again, tour their show around the country, and at the end of the residency, another Youth Company class graduated from our theater training and moved on to the fourth year.
Also in 2017, Zara Aina purchased its own piece of land, right in our childrens’ neighborhood, in order to one day begin construction on a new, permanent Zara Aina Center.
2018 and 2019 saw a gradual reduction in U.S. operations, as the U.S. staff moved to volunteer capacity. Slowly we worked toward a transfer of power, control, and ownership to the Malagasy Staff–a goal since the beginning, for, of course, they know their country and their people better than we ever could. The Malagasy Staff worked to continue securing in-country partners and fundraising methods.
2020 has brought the COVID-19 pandemic, and a drastic reduction in activities at the Center, due to government regulations. Until operations are safe to resume as usual, the Malagasy Staff is pursuing alternate uses for their Center, including as a co-working space, in order to continue to strive towards fundraising and self-sustainability.
They have a plan to finally build a permanent Center on the piece of land purchased in 2017, so their work can truly be sustainable for years to come.
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