Enter Sabine Lehmann: The Adventurer, Hotelier, Actor/Director

Features Issue 32 Aug, 2010
Text by Vaishali Pradhan / Photo: ECS Media

Rarely does one come across an adventurer, hote-lier and actor/director all rolled in one. Yet Sabine Lehmann is all that and more. For some time I had been looking forward to meeting with her. Through her many successful theatre productions, her fame only seems to have grown with time.

Finally, we meet over tea at Hotel Vajra, which is near Swayambhu. With a warm smile she instantly makes me feel at home. Accompanying her is Cindu, a huge German shepherd. “This is my oldest friend in Nepal, he has been with me for seven years now,” she says. The weather is hot so we both opt for coke and our conversation begins to flow right away.  

Strong, healthy and charismatic, Sabine hails from Germany and loves the oceans. Born on July 11th 1945, she grew up in Bonn until she finished High School. “The first play I attended was a Shakespeare and I dreamed the whole night in verses,” she says looking back on her childhood. It inspired her and since the age of eleven, her mind has been on theater. At the “European Youth Theatre Festival” in Amsterdam, she won First Prize for her part in the play “Antigone”. Her lessons at the Acting and Music school had paid off. She spent the years from1969 to ’72 with two theater schools, the famous Grips in Berlin and later, the Freie Volkbuehne, also in Berlin. She moved on to the Hochschule Fur Musik U. Darstekkebde Kunst and Max Reinhardt Seminar. Sabine then landed up in Dusseldorf but soon returned to Berlin, because, “That’s where it was all happening—the art, the freedom movement or liberation from established norms. The call of the day was ‘Let’s change the world’. It was the time of the flower generation in America,” recalls Sabine. In Berlin she met the American Theater group called “Theatre of All Possibilities” and the next thing she knew, she was off to roam the world with them.

Sabine left Berlin around 1974 and recalls, “I burned all my bridges and never looked back. I even left theater and went to see the world.” She was in Africa when the American group left and she stayed behind and got holed up in Morocco. Then she visited Berlin once and left again with friends and wound up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There she discovered the American freedom movement and got involved in architecture. She learned the art of building, helping to build the Geodesic dome in the desert outside the city. It was designed by Buckminster Fuller. There she met Phil Hawes, a pupil of the great Frank Lloyd Wright. It was then on to building jobs overseas when she built adobes, Mexican style but fitted with high tech equipment like heating under the tiles. It was then that she learned to mix architecture and nature. The result of that lesson is apparent all around Hotel Vajra.

Never wanting to be stuck with one thing, Sabine then took to building sailing ships in Oakland, California. “You never swim in the same river twice,” is how she puts it. She and her friends numbering thirty people, spent 1 ½ years working every single day to complete the ship. It was made of ferro-iron and christened “Heraclitus”. They left California under glorious sunshine, sailing under the Golden Bridge, but once out in the ocean, they were under the mercy of a severe storm. “We knew nothing; we were so naive. We had not tied the barrels of food, which was all beans and lentils. The barrels fell and spilt the beans all over the deck and we were slipping over them, The life boats were swept off, but later returned by the US coast-guards. I thought it was the end,” says Sabine laughing out loud. But she stuck on and went around the world in Heraclitus.

The big adventure started from New Mexico down to Panama and San Salvador where they got embroiled in the political upheaval. They sailed through the Panama Canal down to Venezuela. They visited the islands and then made it back to Miami for repairs. Sabine and Greg Dugan, the skipper of the ship then got married. Their next adventure took them to Bermuda and over the Atlantic to Europe through the straits of Gibraltar. In France they were surprised by a huge mass of enthusiastic French people who received them in Marseilles. It was big news in the local papers the next day. They sailed further to Italy and reached Egypt in the mid ‘70s. It was troubled times and a pilot had to guide them through the maze of mines. They discovered corruption when the pilot began to pick and choose what he wanted from the ship. They went through the Suez Canal and came to rest on the Red sea where they did diving and discovered she was pregnant. The next big reception the crew received was in Bombay (it was still Bombay then). The entire crew was made honorary members of the Royal Yatch Club of Bombay, which was then run by the Parsees. The Indian Express (Bombay) of October 4th 1976 ran headlines saying “THIS YACHT IS A VARSITY” and described their journey around the world as a learning experience.

Then it was Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia and Bali. “I learned so much on the ship. One can’t learn much staying in one place,” quips Sabine. They ended up hitting a coral reef in Surabaya but managed to salvage the ship. She remembers, “Broome in Australia was an incredible place. I learned so much about nature and people.” Even after setting up Hotel Vajra, Sabine managed to sail to the Amazon through Brazil and Peru. “I simply love to sail. I love the oceans and the adventures I get to experience,” she says.

In 1978, she caught a flight to Kathmandu to attend the Mountain Conference where she met people like Karna Shakya and Hemanta Mishra. She then visited Switzerland with the American group until one day she decided to leave and the group came up with the bright idea of opening a café or a hotel. They had money, but finding a suitable place in Bombay proved difficult. The name of Kathmandu came up and the idea of Hotel Vajra was born. Flying to Kathmandu was unplanned, but making up her mind to stay back was, as Sabine puts it, “definitely intentional.” She said to herself “This is the place I need to be, leave the oceans and move to the mountains.”

She came back to Nepal in April 1981. With a very keen interest in Asian religious theater, she agreed to work for the American project that built Hotel Vajra. It was an excellent opportunity to mix her acting hobby with the business chores of being the Managing Director of the hotel. “I thought I would definitely do it as I could get to run a hotel and at the same time get to know the Asian drama and above all, have my own theater,” says Sabine.

Staying back in Nepal initially was no honeymoon. She had her share of problems with government officials and locals as well. Rumors were spread about her identity and people looked at her with suspicion when they tried to make the building earthquake proof. “Why are they digging so deep? What are they hiding underground?” were some of the questions asked by suspicious minds. But she kept her hopes alive. “I never fell into the traps set by those people and above all, my friends were always by my side to help me through those difficult times. The good thing however, is that everybody in Nepal was not as bad”, says Sabine with a smile. The best thing that she likes about Nepal is its people, though she quickly adds, “I don’t say that they are all angels, but they definitely have a heart”

Sabine’s life was dominated by the three A’s—art (theater), architecture and adventure. She knew little about hotels, so when the chance to manage one cropped up, she flew to Scotland and studied business tips on how to run a hotel. All prepared she came back and took control in good time. What she likes best about Vajra is its architecture. With her keen interest in the subject, she knows every intricate detail about the hotel’s structure and she explains, “The base is very strong and the entire structure is earthquake proof. A pupil of the revered Frank Lloyd Wright built it and it embodies a marriage of nature and architecture”. The building offers an architectural feast, harmonizing beauty and practicality. Sabine goes to great lengths to describe her fascination with the hotel. “Utam Raj of Patan, did the rich carvings on the doors and windows and the ceiling frescos of the Great Pagoda Room was painted by Rinchen Norbu, the great Tibetan Master,” she explains.

Her fascination for Vajra does not end there. One of her most prized possessions is the Naga Theater where most of her Studio 7 productions are held. An International Actor’s ensemble, Studio 7 was founded in 1981 and since then has performed various plays of true variety under the direction of Sabine. “Oh! We have performed plays of various kinds. I love Asian art and rituals and this is visible in most of my plays. I try and reflect the culture into my creations,” says the director. Chandeswari: Myth of Nepal, Ling Gesar: Myth of Tibet, Milarepa: History of Tibet and Shakuntala: A drama by Kalidas, all reflect Asian myth and culture. Studio 7 at present has actors, dancers and musicians from Nepal, India, Tibet, USA, Germany, France and England. Plays directed by Sabine also revolve around Newari folk tales and the existence of the Himalaya and its rulers. In 1998 Sabine directed The White Tiger, based on the book by Diamond Sumsher Rana, which got rave reviews and brought alive the palace intrigues that accompanied the rise of Jang Bahadur Rana- events that had a tremendous impact on Nepali history. Some other plays directed by Sabine are The Tempest – by W. Shakespeare and The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha.

Sabine has directed a host of plays; does she feel the same about all of them? Sipping her glass of coke she gets all excited talking about her experiences. “Every time I do a play I have a different feeling. Every play has something different to give. My plays revolve around situations of life. I try and reflect things that happen in real life through my plays. The three-penny opera in 1981 was about people making money out of the poor. I did it because it was reality. People would amputate hands and legs of the poor and keep them outside temples and pilgrimage sites so that they could get some money out of them. This was one play which I really liked”, she says. Another play that is close to her heart is Gopi Gayan and Baga Bayan by Satyajit Ray. Sabine admires Satyajit Ray. She loves his movies, every one of them. She also feels honored to have got a chance to meet him for tea at his place in Kolkata. “I did that play in his memory the year he died. It was a wonderful story and the play was fantastic too,” she says. In her long list of plays, her latest gem is The Fire Raisers. A brilliant show with exquisite props, intriguing script, musical discoveries and awesome local talent, this play everyone said was really worth watching. “I couldn’t help but choose this story. It related so well with what actually happens. People invite evil themselves not because they want it but because they cannot face situations,” she opines. Barbara Adams wrote about the play in the Nepali Times, “The stage set by Ludmilla Huberman is unobtrusive perfection, as is the innovative direction of Sabine Lehmann.”

Sabine’s eyes twinkle with joy while she elaborates on what theater means to her, “Theater is my platform where I express myself. It is my entrance to understanding human nature. When I do plays of cultural myth it just does not remain a mere play but my way of understanding the deep roots of the rich heritage of Nepal. We cannot understand enough by just reading a story. Theater helps us live the story. Whether they are comic, tragic or romantic, drama recreates moments of birth and death. Theater gives us a chance to step out and live every moment of the story and it does not matter whether that moment lasts for a minute or an hour. What matters is just what you feel then.”

Hidden behind that stern façade is a nature lover — you can often find her at the Nagarkot Farmhouse Resort, a place conceived by Sambhu K. Lama and herself. She loves to unwind at the resort that enjoys a vista of the eastern and central Himalayan range. Other than art and architecture what else did she enjoy? “I take Cindu for long jungle walks. We have our own peach orchard and I also have interest in medicinal plants. I also love paintings; I actually did have an art gallery here in Vajra itself some time back. The other thing I love to do is listening to Nepali music. The young singers today are really good and I also love watching Nepal Television,” she says.

Sabine is an exemplary role model for local theater artists. The younger artists look up to her and see her as someone full of life and really nice to work with. They find her colorful and think she stands out as a great individual. In the words of Shahani Singh, (she played the part of Bebette in The Fire Raisers) “I have always been in awe of Sabine. Working under her, I have seen what it takes to be a great director— patience, love, humor and infinite energy to name a few. She has been very caring towards me, and I am extremely grateful for that”.

My rendezvous with Sabine was almost over. To draw the curtain on the interview, I asked her to describe herself in one simple sentence. It was definitely a difficult task for a person larger than life, but she took it in her stride. “I am someone who tries to understand human nature, its implications and express all of them through theater and architecture,” she concluded flashing her warm smile.