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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

September 10, 2000, Sunday

Connecticut Weekly Desk
Playing the Fool and Connecting Cultures

TO quench his unquenchable thirst for comedy, surrealism and otherworldly experiences, Eliot Osborn of Salisbury got into the business of merry-making in far-flung places. In time he and his wife, Louise Lindenmeyr, began using humor, music and drama to address issues like the AIDS crisis in Africa.

For more than two decades, Mr. Osborn, 51, and Ms. Lindenmeyr, 47, have raised money to send small bands of pranksters, clowns and minstrels to places like Brazil, Liberia, China, Haiti, Senegal and Lithuania to create measured doses of pandemonium.

"There are definitely people who look at this and say, 'This is a scam, they're just having fun,' " Mr. Osborn said in an interview at his family's cozy home in Salisbury with a panoramic view of the Taconic Range. Though they don't deny the kicks they get from going to remote and often desperately poor places, Mr. Osborn and Ms. Lindenmeyr have learned not to worry about cynics who suspect the trips are more play than work.

"We go to be among the people, not apart from the people," Mr. Osborn said, citing the effort, risk and commitment it takes to sustain their missionary approach to performance. Between trips he has earned money teaching music to blind children in the Bronx and playing in a rock band.

He and Ms. Lindenmeyr created Project Troubador, which now has 350 members who donate between $25 and $2,000 a year to further a brand of foreign policy that places friendship above diplomacy. More than 75 performers have gone to 13 countries reaching a quarter of a million people since Project Troubador's first outing to Belize and Guatemala in 1978, Mr. Osborn said.

Early on, he told donors that their money would help counteract negative images of Americans abroad. There was an element of connivance to that pitch, Mr. Osborn admits. What really drove him was his lust for the bizarre. He becomes whimsical as he recounts experiences like dancing with a leper who had no feet, for which he received a live cow as a token of gratitude, and a late-night encounter (brokered by a truck driver in exchange for a Janis Joplin tape) with an Algerian mystic.

But he always believed that he had hit on a way of creating connections across cultures by using fools and jesters to demolish barriers unbreachable by more serious methods.

Adding AIDS education to their mission five years ago showed how much they could accomplish with "a real ax to grind," Ms. Lindenmeyr said. Three years ago Ms. Lindenmeyr, a nurse practitioner and mandolin player, heard about Kongadzem, a women's social action group in Cameroon. She made a connection, which so far has yielded three invitations to tour the Northwest Province of that African country. The trips included scheduled appearances in schools and spontaneous performances in village squares.

They performed in Roh-Vitang Tah, a village of 400 people where most of the 3- to 8-year-old children died of measles a few years ago. Now, as in much of the continent, AIDS is a dagger at the heart of the next generation.

Young people in Cameroon knew more about AIDS than many Americans did, Mr. Osborn said. People wanted more information, and gravitated to messages spread by laughing at a grim subject. Skits, like one about a girl forced to sacrifice her career dreams to marry a wealthy philanderer, became catalysts for long and sometimes funny discussions.

To settle one dispute over whether condoms sold in Cameroon are inferior to those available in rich countries, someone ran to a market stall to get one to compare with a sheath the troubadours had from the United States. They were inflated like balloons for an endurance test. Neither burst, even after considerable punishment.

Sharing lessons and experiences from abroad with Americans is the other side of Project Troubador's work. The troubadours of yore were like today's gossip columnists, Mr. Osborn said. Roving merrymakers carried irreverent tales of what they saw back and forth between communities.

Returning Project Troubador performers often speak in schools. The annual Grove Festival they hold by a lake in Salisbury brings international performers to the northwest corner of Connecticut.

Mr. Osborn grew up in Salisbury in a milieu he characterizes as the "arts and intellectual Mafia" of the 1960's. His father, the illustrator Robert Osborn, socialized with Arthur Miller, William Styron and Alexander Calder. Impassioned, searching political discussions were commonplace.

"They really lined up the issues and went after them," said Mr. Osborn, crediting that influence for some of his motivation as a performer. He plays guitar, keyboard and fiddle, but regards songwriting as his primary artistic vocation.

In the audience of this year's Grove Festival was the actress Meryl Streep. A friend of the Lindenmeyr-Osborn household, she has followed their work since moving to the area 12 years ago.

"They've done a lot of very innovative AIDS education," Ms. Streep said of Project Troubador. "It's hard to get that information into a format people will turn out for."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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