Western Maryland grad India-bound on Fulbright Scholar to study plays by women

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Let's face it, not many of us would hop on a plane and fly halfway around the globe to catch a one-woman play performed in the shade of two trees in rural India.

But Kristine Holland, a 1993 magna cum laude graduate of Western Maryland College, can't wait.

"These plays are out there on the edge, breaking boundaries. I like that in theater," says Ms. Holland, who learned last week that she has been selected to receive a Fulbright Scholarship to study women playwrights in India.

The 23-year-old is one of 26 Marylanders recommended by the Fulbright screening committee for the prestigious international study grants this year. The resident of Glenelg in Howard County is one of the youngest nationwide to receive the award.

Ms. Holland will leave this month for a nine-month stint in the world's largest democracy, studying current playwrights' works and the feminist issues their plays explore.

Her studies will be based at the National School of Drama in New Delhi, India's capital.

Among the authors Ms. Holland hopes to meet and interview is Jalabal Mehta. The playwright's avant-garde Tree Theater -- performed by a lone actress between two trees -- brings theater LTC and feminism to India's rural villages.

Ms. Holland is eager to meet Vijya Mehta, a director of plays on women's issues. She plans to visit Calcutta, a teeming, colorful city with a sophisticated theatrical community, and Bombay, a hub for the country's flamboyant commercial plays.

Gregory Alles, an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Western Maryland College, is a former Fulbright scholar who spent eight months in India for his study project four years ago.

He says Ms. Holland is likely to encounter an array of feminist issues being explored by woman playwrights in the country of 840 million.

"There hasn't been much written here about current feminist issues in India," Dr. Alles says. "She'll really be one of the few Westerners going there to find out what's going on."

Among the women's rights issues Ms. Holland may encounter, says Mr. Alles, are female infanticide, the murder of wives for dowry money, abuse of women by police, and genetic testing to determine sex in a country where female fetuses are often aborted because of employment and dowry considerations.

"I really didn't expect to be selected," says Ms. Holland, who spent the summer working as an editorial assistant for Allegro Communications, a Baltimore publishing firm.

"When I tell people about my trip, they usually say, 'Great . . . but why India?' "

Her grant didn't surprise Melvin "Del" Palmer, professor of comparative literature at Western Maryland College. He serves as an adviser to students seeking national and international study grants and awards.

"From day one, she took the whole application process seriously, and she kept following through on everything that needed to be done to get the application in," Dr. Palmer recalls. "I've been helping students with these applications a long time, and I've found that the ones who get working on their applications early improve their chances of an award greatly.

"A lot of students come in to see me and express interest in the grants, but over the summer they get caught up with other things and don't follow through. Kristine was different. She started making contacts as soon as she decided this was something she was going after."

No other Western Maryland College student applied for a Fulbright this year, said Dr. Palmer, though about 30 expressed interest last spring when the application process began. The school had its last Fulbright scholar -- Nancy Weitzel -- in 1986.

"We're all very impressed with what she's accomplished and what she hopes to do when she gets back," Dr. Palmer said.

Ms. Holland says her interest in Eastern culture stems from her childhood.

"When I was growing up, my house was almost always filled with people from other cultures," Ms. Holland wrote in the biographical sketch she sent to the Fulbright screening committee.

Those visitors were Asian students whom her mother tutored in English as a second language.

"I remember listening for hours to stories about their homelands and wished I could visit them myself. The stories that intrigued me most were the tales women could not tell in the presence of their husbands about the hardships and joys of being a woman in their cultures."

In high school, she took up drama and dance to overcome shyness. Her interest in drama deepened while pursuing an associate arts degree at Howard Community College. She was hooked by the medium's power to explore and connect a diversity of concerns, from psychology and philosophy to culture and history.

"What I really like about the theater is, there doesn't have to be boundaries. You can connect all this stuff together and it can change the way people see things," Ms. Holland says.

While studying for a bachelor's degree in theater arts and a minor in writing at Western Maryland College, she became intrigued with Eastern philosophy and mythology, and developed an interest in feminist issues. She began reading plays by the Indian playwright Sir Rabindraneth Tagore, which she found particularly moving.

While studying at WMC, Ms. Holland wrote her own play -- then cast and produced it at the college.

The work, "Races Nurtured in the Dark," revolves around a female character with a multiple personality disorder.

Ms. Holland is among a wave of Americans just out of college who are getting Fulbright grants this year, said Theresa Granza, director of U.S. Programs for the New York-based Institute for International Education, which administers the Fulbright Scholarships.

About 4,000 applications nationwide were received for the grants this year, Ms. Granza said. She said about 845 U.S. citizens, or about 21 percent of applicants, will receive grants averaging $13,000 each.

Launched in 1946 by Congress to honor former Sen. J. William Fulbright, the program originally was intended for undergraduate scholars, Ms. Granza said. But in the 1960s, program administrators shifted emphasis to people who held graduate degrees and were working toward doctoral degrees.

"We're trying to shift the emphasis back to young graduates. The hope is [that] we can attract young people into the international fields," Ms. Granza said.

Ms. Holland is uncertain whether she wants to pursue a career in the international arena. But she does want to write plays drawing from her experience in India, and, in the process, to break down walls between cultures.

"India seems vastly different from our culture here," she says. "But I'll be looking for the similarities, too. That's what helps people cross boundaries."

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