If I Had Titled This Article, I would Have Missed Another Deadline
I didn’t think I could be anything other than a writer. Of course I didn’t know this when I was studying economics and writing law entrance exams, but now I can say with heart-warming conviction that I didn’t think I could be anything else. I write all the time, always have. Sometimes good writing, mostly nonsense. Essays, scenes, poems, blogs, long angry messages, journals that I hope no one will ever find. None of this is material that ever seems to make a play. Instead of talking about myself and my ‘work,’ and for the hundredth time be astonished by how seemingly little there is to say, I will talk about how messy being a ‘playwright’ can be and how I figured out what it means to me.
It’s easy to be sucked into a web of questions, which, as important as they are, really only serve as aids to serial loll-abouters, which if it was unclear thus far, I tend to be. Many unanswerable and torturous questions. Where do I fit in, in this world of theatre? What kind of theatre do I want to make? What do I want to talk about in my work? What gives my privileged little self (not so little as too many entitled goons have taken the liberty to point out) the right to say anything about the world? How can I talk about anything when the experience isn’t mine to talk about? And the worst question, or most important, depending on your judgement is – why am I doing this? The ratio of time spent lolling to time spent in focussed hard work is skewed. When I finally sit down to write after a deadline has zoomed past, the result as one might have seen in movies is electrified hair, sleepless nights, disorientation, talking to a lover amidst some very vivid dreams, and a crazy look that you’d last seen in a centre shock ad.
This isn’t normal. It isn’t supposed to be like this. Young playwrights don’t need to be nutty people with erratic behaviour and an abundance of issues. Thank you, cinema, for this bogus idea of brilliance. We can in fact do life without compromising our sanity and still produce works of art and literature (should that ever be the high-handed goal). What nothing but time could have convinced me of, was that we can also not write, be calm, and still call ourselves writers. This is the hardest to do.
I wrote my first play in 2015. More important I think, than what the play was about, is how it managed to get from my head onto a word document. Though if you really do want to know what it’s about, it is very easy to get in touch with me, I love mails and calls.
I did, still do probably, have a chip on my shoulder about women engaging in political debate. Why is it that men get to talk about politics and society, but when women do so it must be through their personal experiences? But also, what makes personal experiences less political than mainstream public debate? With my mind rife with such self-righteous questions, I set out to write my first play. The play started off being about caste, set in a world and in a time that I knew nothing at all about. But I was determined to do the research and use recently acquired skills to write this script. What I ended up with was a play that talked about questions I didn’t even know I had, in a style that I never thought had any place in a piece of writing. To top it all, it took two excruciating years to finally arrive at something that I felt had achieved its objective.
This was only partly due to procrastination. There were several hours spent making character graphs and charts and scene plans in various colours. Several hours of writing and rewriting the same bullet points over a very tired notebook and many friends and well-wishers who kept following up with ‘hey what’s happening with your play.’ I suppose this is how it must be for a first play. Now after another couple of short plays sitting on my laptop, I am, I suppose reluctantly calling myself a playwright.
I was just told, not too long before I wrote this, that I can call myself a budding playwright. I may never bloom but for now I can certainly call myself at least that much. It’s a rather distasteful joke, but one gets very quickly accustomed to that as a young working woman. It’s stored in my memory for the next time I have to write a skeevy male character. However, the thought itself is slightly scary because of how real that possibility is. For any writer. What do we write about next when we’ve already written about everything that we are passionate about?
Here’s when it’s so important to treat writing like a job. I do subscribe to the belief that writing needs to be treated like a 9-5 job, that waiting for inspiration to club you on the head is a lazy excuse. I also know that it’s a need and if I am not writing now, it’s because I simply haven’t given myself anything to write about. Leaning on someone else, taking someone else’s ideas and turning them into something, writing a play FOR someone else and not because you have a personal dilemma, isn’t a problem, it’s exactly the same process with possibly a better outcome because this play is now in two people’s heads. All I’ve got to do is provide the words in the sequence that makes me happy.
I am currently sitting on the second draft of a play whose idea was not born in someone else’s head. Did anything change this time around? Not really. As usual, I procrastinated, struggled, made numerous useless colourful diagrams, talked the ear off anyone would listen, did several hours worth of google research, and finally sat down to write, too far past the deadline. Unfortunate as it is, this is just part of my process. I can’t skip it. I HAVE to see what Wikipedia says before I can proceed to do anything else. I know now from having learnt the hard way, what to promise the next person who approaches me. I know what to promise myself, and have no concerns that it won’t happen. It doesn’t make me less of a writer.
So now it’s been two years since my first play went into production, and my second should be out in another two years. What the hell have I been doing in the interim?
Incidentally, I started a theatre company with a director whose vision complements mine. We did so because the best way to find space for our work was to create one. KathaSiyah is a group focussed on storytelling, finding narratives that emerge from marginalized sections of our immediate worlds, and being accessible to young theatre artists. We’ve produced four plays since we began in 2015, and I have met more people through this journey than I could have ever imagined, being cooped up in my room, writing. I trained as a director and I have in two years directed more than I have written. This was bound to be the case.
As far as possible, I try not to say no to any work. I love working with different people in different capacities. However, when you say yes to directing something, it means there are other people also involved, who are in this with you. I love working with children, and go for Bharatanatyam classes twice a week. In my free time I play with my unwilling cats, stare at walls, eat a lot of noodles and watch reruns of shows on Netflix because I just couldn’t be bothered to start something new. Now that I’ve described myself as a vegetable of some sort, here’s the other part of this. My mind is always thinking about the play that I am going to write. I note down everything I think is relevant. I mull over the same thing a million times. I have explored a hundred plots of which I barely remember the one that made it into a draft. I judge every idea I have harshly. This is not a good thing, but possibly almost instinctive for creators. If we don’t chuck the idea that first ideas are always to be discarded without due exploration, we could be lying in bed waiting for a second idea for a very long time.
One thing that was ingrained in me, both by myself, and by circumstance is that I am not doing enough. It may feel like that because the nature of work can be inconsistent and we can have long periods of time when we are not working. I become itchy, and tell myself nothing has happened in so long, lord o lord how can I go two weeks without knowing what I will be slaving over for the next few months, but it’s never as dire as I imagine. One can’t be JUST a playwright. And if they are, they’ve found a way to make all the itchiness and loitering work.
As a director, the stories I am interested in are in multiple languages, and accordingly the language of my work is determined. But I write in English, because I think and feel in English. The language in which I learn dance is something else entirely. My processes as a writer, director, someone who is running a company, are always going to be different. My languages are going to be different. And more often than not I will be fluent in none. The only way to navigate this is to be completely honest with myself of what I need, and what I can do. Even though it feels like the entire world revolves around every small decision, it doesn’t, and things always fall into place in the most unexpected ways.
Here and Now!
I started investing my time in listening to stories at a very young age.
I grew up with my grandmother and my grandfather. My parents were always busy with their job… father worked for the central excise then and my mother was really busy setting up her own business.
We used to live on the first floor and Pati (grandmother in Tamil) would live on the ground floor. Going to her place after school and staying there until my parents came back from work was my routine.
I think Pati realized that I really miss being around my parents and to help me forget that, she would tell me stories. A new story every day. In fact, now that I look back, I wonder when and how did she even find the time to read so much for me. I would happily escape into her stories in the noon.
At some point I remember she couldn’t find the time to read anymore. How many times could she keep narrating Ramayana, Mahabharata and folk tales, so she started making up her own stories. She would establish characters, subtly put them in their background references of who they are, what they stand for and where they come from, and then slowly introduced a conflict and then the resolution.
These stories really helped me imagine things that didn’t exist and yet connect to it.
Never did I ever realize then that she was cooking those stories up as she was speaking. I couldn’t sleep without them, without her, without her stories. Her stories, I remember were so relatable. It seemed like she was talking about people whom I know personally, sometimes it seemed like she was talking about me! After so many years, the tables have turned and now she enjoys my stories and has seen both my plays and several others I have acted in.
I was 13 when we moved out of that place. Parents got a new apartment and it was not close to where my Pati lived. I remember not being able to sleep at nights because were no stories. I realized then, how important these stories are.
I realized, a dull monotonous Monday can suddenly become interesting if we have a new story to tell, or a new story to listen.
I started participating in school plays , elocutions and debates . For the longest time I remember my birthday gifts being comics, Enid Blyton novels, (Five find outers and the dog was one of my favorites) P.G Wodehouse and so on.
I started learning how to play the keyboard. Classical music was fascinating. I would imagine Mozart and Bach playing behind every story I read. It was that simple.
Doing plays in my college days were so much fun too. In fact all I have from my college now is my rehearsals and shows memories. Merchant Of Venice, Tughlaq, Moliere…oh it was so much fun.
A lot of choices I made relied on how well I could narrate stories. I remember doing an internship in the eastern Europe and evenings were all about how things are in my country as compared to what it is there where I was (Romania) and slowly and steadily everybody would join in talk about theirs (it was like an exchange trip).
My interest in just simple and honest storytelling increased copiously.
One whole year in The Drama School Mumbai for me was about a lot of things. It of course helped me understand the craft a little better, a lot better actually. But the most important thing for me, was about learning how to be present and mean every single sentence, every single word that you say no matter how difficult it seems to be. How we can draw from our own experiences in some way or the other and make the text we are working with, our own. Abhinav and I would have really long discussions about how important the text that you choose to play with is. How devising, improvising, movements should never take away what the script intended to say. A lot of plays that I saw from 2010-2015 were adaptations of already existing scripts, classics or a clown version of the classic, just retelling a classic with just movements. While I enjoyed and loved (genuinely loved) a lot of them I really missed listening to stories that I connect to, relate to. That I can look at and say “Damn it! This has happened to me”.
One of the short stories from my play Crumpled, “The connection” which is about a couple going crazy in the house because the internet connection stopped working was something that really happened to me. There was no internet for 20 odd days in my house and I didn’t know what to do.
Realizing that fairytales don’t exist (“The Wedding story” from Crumpled), trying to fit into a culture were connections are made on apps first and then actually meeting the one who you connected with (“The Tinder date” in Crumpled), understanding that dreams shatter and relationships don’t work out yet you get up, dust yourself off and move on (“The American dream” from Crumpled), meeting people who you genuinely connect when you didn’t expect it at all (“Ola share” in Drum Roll), couples trying hard to keep the friendship in a marriage alive (“The Ritual” in Drum Roll) were all stories that I think and I genuinely hope were stories that people would connect to (at least my generation).
Every story in Crumpled or Drum Roll are stories that I think is an attempt to tell stories that my generation connects to .
I still feel somehow that writing short stories is easier than writing a full length play and people connect and enjoy them a lot considering how bad the attention span of this generation is in fact everybody’s.
So my challenge now is really explore different forms of storytelling, adapting classics (maybe) and make it super relevant to today’s time and stories more that can transport or teleport people from one place to another in no time, and yet have them be Here and Now.
writing stories that appeal to my generation!!
Writing a play has always been a daunting task to me –it has not become easier with time. A playwrighting teacher at university read a draft of my short play once and told me that I was “vomiting exposition like a novelist.” I initially thought it was a compliment, dreamily imagining myself giving the acceptance speech for the Booker Prize in 2030, but a quick look at her face corrected my understanding of her intentions.
In 2014, I had just graduated from university and moved to Canada, where my family lived. While puttering around somewhat aimlessly through this new and uncharted phase, I always kept coming back to theatre – volunteering in theatre festivals as a stage hand, auditioning for various roles around the city, and eventually, daring to respond to calls for script submissions. One such draft, of a play entitled The Creases in My Sari, was chosen for workshopping and a staged reading at a festival hosted by Alumnae Theatre , a vibrant theatre company whose presence in the city spanned many decades. One of the producers of the festival, Carolyn Zapf, adopted my play (and along with it, me and served as my dramaturg, sitting patiently with me as I revised the play about a dozen times.
The story that I chose to tell was a result of my experience of moving to Toronto in 2009, less than two months after the Sri Lankan civil war ended. I was born and raised in Sri Lanka in a somewhat apolitical Tamil family. My family, unlike thousands of other Sri Lankan Tamils, did not leave Sri Lanka because of political persecution, but because they wanted to pursue economic opportunities in the “First World.” We moved to Scarborough, home to many Sri Lankan Tamils, many of whom fled the war. In various corner shops and bakeries, I would see pictures of the recently killed Prabharan, leader of the Tamil Tigers, glaring down at us from walls, adorned with flowers. I was shocked and stunned because in Sri Lanka, support of the Tigers was rarely expressed publicly. So conditioned was I by my Sri Lankan upbringing that I thought I would be arrested for walking into such a store.
The Creases in My Sari tells the story of Maheshwari, a young woman in her twenties whose mother fled to Canada from Sri Lanka when she was still a baby. Feeling detached from her Sri Lankan identity , Mahesh meets Chanaka , a Sinhalese man and falls in love with him, to her mother’s disapproval.
All of this is set against the backdrop of the end of the Sri Lankan war, during which time Toronto saw a variety of protests and road closures because of the masses of people opposing the Sri Lankan government’s treatment of civilians. After the reading in March 2015, I took the hard copy of my script and put it away, promising myself not to look at it for a year. By the time 2016 came along, Alumnae Theatre told me that the play had been chosen for a full staged performance as part of their FireWorks Festival.
After revising the play and handing it over to the director, I mostly stayed removed from the rehearsal process because I had moved to India by that time. I excitedly waited for friends and family to share their feedback with me, and I could never fully fathom the fact that all this effort was going into a play that I had written.
The Creases in My Sari, as a piece of dramatic writing, is not something that I am proud of. There are some plot holes, and as an ambassador of my culture and experiences, I am always wary of appropriating my own culture or “exoticising” it. But the actual act of writing and developing with it all the tools and resources that I had has been one of the most important experiences of my life – it is intensely humbling, and is a testament to how the creative mind is fluid and is constantly reinventing itself. It has shown me that it is okay to be embarrassed by our own work because that embarrassment will be an agent of change, proving to ourselves that we are dynamic, changing human beings, making sense of the world in newer and clearer ways as we navigate our way through it.