THEATRE: A MEDIUM FOR CREATING SOCIAL CHANGE
When I was in primary school, I remember being a part of several school plays, where I elaborately dressed up as either an animal or fruit- only to take center-stage for a total of 0.004 seconds and dramatically elocute two lines in the sing-song tone of voice most children adopt during annual days. At the time, the only connotations I carried, of the word “theatre” were- lousy watermelon costumes and harsh artificial lighting.
However, over the years, as I stopped being a part of school plays, my previous superficial relationship with theatre dulled to a graying yellow tone- stowed away at the back of a closet like an unused piece of clothing, that I occasionally glanced at, but never bothered to wear.
Because now, theatre means so much more to me than just a few dialogues and unnecessary dance routines in the background. To me, theatre tastes like traditional savoury dishes- grounded in culture, but also rich with the international flavours of friendship, love and forming heart-felt connections. To me, it smells like the sharp, musty smell of social change and creating a global impact. But more importantly- to me, theatre sounds like a cry- a cry for attention, a cry for help, ringing in the ears of the audience, begging them to understand, to empathize, to make a difference.
And that is, perhaps, the most important facet of theatre and performance- its ability to make a difference, to bring about change.
Theatre has been used as a tool for activism over centuries. A famous example of which being Guerrilla Theatre, initiated by the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1965- which included theatre performances in public spaces that opposed the Vietnam war and USA’s capitalist policies. A major tool used as a part of the Guerrilla movement- is the usage of nudity, profanity and taboo topics, which would cause discomfort to the audience, and hence, have a greater subconscious impact on them. Another example of theatre-based activism would include Jana Natya Manch (1973), a radical street theatre group in India- committed to creating and performing short plays, dedicated to bringing about social change.
Currently, India is witnessing a number of emerging movements, and public figures who are intent on using theatre as a tool to facilitate the process of activism; one such person being Imogen Butler Cole, a theatre practitioner, trainer and activist. Connected with two major projects- The Consent Collective and On Road Media’s Angles, Cole actively campaigns against sexual harassment and assault. The Consent Collective is a non-profit organisation that spreads awareness about topics such as- sexual harassment and violence, gender, relationships, consent and other elements of sexual and social misconduct; whilst simultaneously providing their audience with an outlet to understand and talk about their experiences. The On Road Media’s Angles project, on the other hand, is a campaign to influence the way cases and concepts of sexual harassment are reported by the UK media. Media platforms today are overly-concerned about appearing “woke”, and hence, may often speak about social issues at length, using elitist language and hijacking the experiences of actual victims and survivors of sexual assault- which is, in all honesty, extremely harmful…Because although these media platforms may succeed in spreading awareness amongst their audiences- they’re failing to give a voice to the survivors and victims, who deserve to be heard and represented before non-survivors. Therefore, I believe that the Angles movement is one that actually understands the importance of handing the mic over to people who have had first-hand experiences of sexual misconduct.
Cole’s debut solo show, Foreign Body- is focused on life after sexual assault, employing a combination of literatim, movement-oriented theatre techniques and an original soundtrack- to spark empathetic conversations about sensitive topics, such as sexual assault. Narrated simultaneously from the perspective of the victim and the perpetrator, the play is gripping, but also liberating. I believe that it is absolutely essential for the audience to understand the perspective of the perpetrator as well as the victim- not to sympathize or justify the acts of the culprit, in any capacity- but merely to understand their context and perspective, so other people in similar contexts or sharing a similar perspective can be helped and guided to prevent more cases of sexual offence. Because we’re so often taught that we mustn’t let anyone else behave inappropriately with us, we’re taught that other people should respect our rights and our bodies, and we’re always told what we should do in a situation where we’re the victims of sexual harassment- but we’re never taught that we must respect others’ bodies, we’re never taught what to do if we’re the perpetrator of crime; and that is, perhaps, the biggest flaw in our system. We demonize perpetrators and behave as though they’re a strange, foreign entity, when, in reality, these people are living amongst us. They live in our houses and eat the same food that we do and attend the same prestigious universities as us- they appear to be exactly like us… which is why, it is so important to understand the perspective of the perpetrator of the crime, and not just the victim.
Moreover, the reason theatre is such an important medium for social change is because it has the power to change opinions and influence mindsets. It gives the audience a perspective into a person’s life that the audience would not otherwise have, which often results in an emotional response towards the subject matter. This has been supported by the results of a survey (Jacobs, 2012) taken from the audience members after a musical, which was based on the subject of hunting. The results demonstrated that there was a shift in people’s’ feelings towards hunting; and those who had an emotional response to the performance were more likely to change their mindsets. Hence, this shows that theatre’s ability to trigger the audience’s emotional response can be used as a tool to bring about positive social change.
And lastly, I think it is essential for our youth to be fully involved in theatre-based activism, as young people today are often more tolerant, evolved and aware of the social issues that plague our environments today. We’re not “too little” or “too stupid” or “not enough”; we’re equally important and equally powerful- and it is only if all of us join hands, that we can cross over to the other side.
The dawn of ‘A Whole New World’
Before beginning this article I decided to do the most ‘pop culture’ thing I could think of: watching a Carpool Karaoke of Broadway stars Lin Manuel Miranda, Audra McDonald, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Jane Krakowski geeking out over ‘One More Day’ with host James Corden.
It was majestic. That’s when it hit me. Somewhere down the line, the spectacle of musical theatre had crept up on us, out from the sidelines reserved for the ‘musical theatre nerds’ and become hip again. (I highly doubt Troy and Gabriella would ever need to ‘defy’ their friends in the present day.)
Musical theatre is grand, over-the-top and engaging: all the qualities required to transport the audience to a world of make-believe. And while the likes of Hamilton may have opened the floodgates, the phenomenon of musical theatre isn’t unprecedented. Only this time around, instead of bursting it’s bubble, mainstream cinema and television seem to have given musicals the boost they deserve. Somehow with movie musicals becoming a staple, be it La la land or Into the Woods or even Frozen, there has been an increased interest to catch the action live.
We, Indians are no strangers to spontaneous outbursts of song and dance to capture every spectrum of emotion. Heck, it is practically a given in our Bollywood-esque dreams. But our love for performance art forms predates most of the ones developed in the west. Right from Natya Shastra to epic poetry being enacted and to the religious tableaux of Ramlila or even the numerous folk forms that entertained and educated generations of natives.
Over the years, theatre-going audiences in India, specially in cities like Bombay and
Delhi, have been serenaded by productions infused with live music and dance, take for instance the lively ‘Piya Behrupiya’ or the soulful ‘Aaj Rang Hai’. With the path-breaking Jesus Christ Superstar in 1974 or the much loved Evita in the 80s, Indian audiences had their taste of the quintessential Broadway or West End style musicals and flocked the auditoriums for months to come.
Of course, musicals are an expensive deal to manifest. Not to mention a logistical nightmare. And while that seemed to fizzle them out for a while, the industry at large has been waking up to their potential. “The air is humming and something great is coming”, the big guns of the show business seem to be singing. It is easy to see why.
With the thrill of a live show and the razzle-dazzle of mainstream entertainment, musicals have the best of both worlds.
Unlike its other theatrical counterparts, musical theatre garners attention from a wider range of audience. In fact, the larger-than-life sets, lavish costumes, massive marketing budget, and essentially everything that adds up to the production costs, also add up to its appeal by manifolds. Scrappy productions aside, corporate studios and sponsors are now powering in. While musicals have long toured English-speaking countries, emerging markets like India and China have become exceedingly viable.
But for all its exciting rewards, musicals remain a risky proposition. Even in the established Manhattan and London circles, opening a new production comes with endless uncertainties. A successful show can make its money many times over but the odds of a show running successfully are stacked well against it. “You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing”, goes the Broadway adage. This leads to producers craving the familiar, the tried and tested products with their ironed out kinks.
This is a recognisable enough trend in the country at present. Be it ‘Sound of Music’ or Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and most recently ‘Aladdin’, production houses have cleverly placed their bets with timeless tales that are sure to resonate with audiences of all ages, shapes and sizes. And the success of these ‘experiments’ has been in more ways than one. While on the one hand it has exposed audiences to an exciting form of entertainment, it has also paved the way for development of the various resources required to put up a play of this scale and value. Right from infrastructure to training of talent in different aspects of theatre making. Building a world of fantasy is no ordinary skill, and is one requiring sensitivity, rigor, and nuance.
It is evident that sure-shot entertainers are central to the fiscal health and continuity of big budget theatre. These winners not only bring in the bucks but also offer opportunities to expand creatively. Much like every other art form, musical theatre has been a reflection of the society: constantly evolving, inspiring new writers and artists to make it their own. The marvel of hits like Oklahoma!, Rent and now Hamilton lies, more than anything, in their quest to innovate and stay relevant. And with audiences clamoring to witness the fresh and bold alongside the classic and heartwarming, there sure is ‘a whole new world out here and that’s where we’ll be!’
Esha PatilIf life were a musical Esha would share dance routines with every character she encounters and find it far easier to make friends. So while she figures out a way to break the (inverted?) fourth wall, she nerds out over what seems to be the resurgence of musical theatre.
A Descendant of the Wada
“There is some warmth in reliving the good old days, even if they are the debt-ridden last days of glory.”
I’m sitting in one of those squeaky soft chairs in Dinanath Mangeshkar Natyagrih, Vile Parle East – the kind of chairs that shoot their seats right back up if you get up for a slight second. So I am fervently hoping that they don’t play the national anthem or make me get up for the latecomers to find their seats. There is a lot of marathiness in the air, the kind you can perhaps only find in Vile Parle East. It’s nice. Most audience members are middle aged or older, and almost all of them are posh-looking people, prim and powdered. A lot of Marathi people powder themselves when they go watch a play, for some reason.
The event is a marathon of all the plays in Mahesh Elkunchwar’s ‘Wada Trilogy’, directed by ace director Chandrakant Kulkarni and performed by a stellar cast of some of the best in business. ‘Wada’ in Marathi means a sprawling house with sections and porches and wells, generally owned by upper-class and upper-caste Maharashtrian joint families. The play’s titular Wada becomes the central character in a story revolving around its occupants. The Wada is crumbling under the pressure of its legacy. The patriarch of the house has died and the brothers can’t decide who pays for the customary lunch for the entire community.
In 2017, the plays runs to packed audiences because people can still relate to it. The dry humour, the sharp jibes and the family conflicts come from our own living rooms. High-rise apartments now stand where the Wadas used to be, but the Brahmin angst and fervour have both stayed intact. So it is hardly a surprise that the play appeals to so many people as it finds lands in suburban Natyagrihas. It resonates with them on levels I can never understand. When the family struggles to find money for the community lunch, the people around me truly understand the importance of the said ritual. They sigh at the familiar adversity and laugh at jokes about two Brahmin sub-castes. They’ve known the struggles of the feudal system’s fall and legacy and it means way more to them than it does to my generation. There is some warmth in reliving the good old days, even if they are the debt-ridden last days of glory. And it’s during the heavy chuckling at a self-deprecating joke about Western Coast brahmins, that I suddenly realise what really makes the play click.
‘Wada Chirebandi’ has been noted for its accurate portrayal of life in Bramhin households in the post-colonial era. Funnily enough, both my parents come from migrated families so I have never really experienced the Wada culture first hand. But I went to an English school in Vile Parle and I know that, everyone in my row during exams came from Brahmin families. The upper middle class residents of the town, the posh and powdered people watching plays are all upper-caste. They are direct descendants of these stone mansions and the plays give them a nostalgia that is the privilege of only upper-caste families who could afford these mansions.
I’ve been brought up on regular doses of Brahmin pride. As Brahmin children, we’re handed the weapon of social superiority to play with at a very young age. If our parents don’t, other relatives teach you of the inherent pride. In a lot of ways, we’re also told that we’re at a disadvantage because of our caste.
As a 21-year old Brahmin boy sitting quietly amidst the chuckles, I am suddenly faced with the naked truth. You watch the family squabble over something as unnecessary as a social lunch, and you understand where the bitterness of the people around you comes from. All these years of built-up resentment suddenly seem shallow. My squeaky chair gets noticeably uncomfortable. When the family can’t fathom why their caste no longer entitles them to privilege, when they refuse to let go of old habits that will soon start eating at them from the inside, a polishe’d mirror held up by the playwright gleams brilliantly. The documentation of the priestly class in the 70s, becomes an unintentional commentary on the watching class. And the watching class seems oblivious.
In the sequel ‘Pond’, we see Wada’s second generation move further away from the caste system. One substitutes faith with science and the other learns new ropes of the power-hierarchy. In the third part, rightly titled ‘Apocalypse’, caste barriers have completely shattered in the face of a calamity. A decade passes between every part and the movement away from caste seems both natural and far-fetched. As existentialism takes over the Wada, a generation steps away from it; millennial presence in the audience is scarce. It is a pity, because the play feels like it was made for us.
But the legendary writing continues to stay relevant and the longer it stays relevant, stronger the impact, hopefully. Easily one of the best works of fiction in Marathi, it should see resurrections more often. To some it is the depictions of their life’s hardships, to others it is a wake-up call. Once I’m out of the theatre, I’m sent on an existential journey and forced to acknowledge my privilege. Inside the theatre, I’m glued to the squeaky chair for all three plays and for a while after that. When I get up to leave, the seat also slowly folds up the backrest, as if taking into consideration how shook I am.
– Kalpak Bhave
Rampantly Regressive Rangmanch
In the June of 2016, a calamity befell all of us at the Mithibai Drama Team – the official team representing our college at the Mumbai University. The adversary was a yearly occurrence; the university youth festival hosts an array of performance and literary events, awards the winning colleges with medal and points and eventually goes on to take the best performers to a national inter-university battle. Except it’s not as glamorous as it sounds. The competitions are riddled with badly lit dressing rooms, results that are even shadier, stinky kitchens and bathrooms in the week of the the shows. Even worse, ‘professional directors’ that direct multiple competing colleges are hired to direct the ‘youth plays’.
I was quite excited to perform at the Mumbai University Youth festival that year because the process from the previous year had had been great for the team. So as routine, an acclaimed director from the usual brood was hired by our college to ‘direct’ 4 drama events.
When the news made rounds that one of the plays has a feminist approach, I was quite excited. But the joy was short-lasting and major loopholes in the script started to surface.
The play is called ‘Chauthara’ and is based outside the infamous Shani temple in Maharashtra. The temple has been in news for its rigid ban on women in the premises and the subsequent revolt against it. The play is a dialogue between a chaiwaala-slash-caste-cobbler and a social activist who leads the revolt. I was to play the social activist and character sketch described a ‘modern’ ‘conventional’ girl – short skirt, slightly body fitting top, a purse and a very ‘girlish’ stance (a description that doesn’t really reckon with me but the thin marathi girl had walked out and they had no choice).
The play begins with the chaiwala literally leering at the social activist while she keeps mum (coz that’s how women’s right activists function lol). Instead, she indulges in a conversation with him further ladden with snide comments on her clothes and mannerisms. He ridicules her for her elitism (OF COURSE) and her education (OF COURSE). The writer of this play happily turns the girl’s opinions into ‘feminist cliches’ and brings them down with pride.
The point of the play is that these kind of rebellions are a nuisance for people like the chaiwala and other stall owners in the surrounding. Arre madam, you should go teach in schools no? Education is everything! In the first 15 minutes of the play, he’s already assumed her work and background and let the audience take this as fact. How many successful women do you know? Our feminst leader only knows the three names our writer knows – Kalpana Chawla, Savitribai Phule and Pratibha Patil. So he (the chaiwaala) gets further preachy and without giving her a chance to speak he advises her to go back to her roots.
It isn’t all that bad. There are times when my character launces into noteworthy monologues only to be torn apart by the sky-high wit of the chaiwaala. *Cue a lot of punchlines carved out for a misogynistic audience*.
The feminist play, the writer, the audience and the chaiwaala now all come together to declare the woman a rebel without cause. By the end of the tiresome rigmarole, the woman complies with the chaiwala (surprise surprise!), abandons the revolt and asks all the other supporters to go back home! Also, twist in the tale – chaiwaala has a wife and he ‘lets’ her work, ans also a one -year old baby that he benevolently looks after. The baby is called Savitri (like Savitri Phule, geddit?)
At one point, the script also tries to justify why women should not be allowed in the temple by comparing it to separate public toilets for Men and Women (The second year degree college student I was could see spot so many fallacies in this argument, but not our young woman).
So there it was. Just another patriarchal statement disguised as a play supporting up-liftment of women. A few friends and I tried to confront the college and the director about this issue that should not go unseen. Instead we received some condescending ‘kids think a lot these days’ and ‘don’t stress yourselves over the loopholes’.
The director’s assistants performed every bit of the play for us to mimic them. But that was nothing. Every break when I would lie on the floor on my tummy, they would point it out and ask me to straighten up. If i protested, I was a boy. The process got so mentally taxing for me. Now here’s what:
- As a young theatre enthusiast, I know of so many plays successfully changing the way society thinks. But here I was stuck with a play with such a strong stench of mysogyny.
2. The character had no justification. I could come up with more than one counterpoint to the chaiwaala’s points, but only to be constantly shut down.
3. The actual calamity? I was asked to wear a tummy tucker for this performance to fit their idea of a social activist. I raised my voice against this but to no avail. It led to me constantly questioning myself and my body type. Ek toh, I’ve never been uncomfortable with my tummy. But the directorial team obviously was. So I told them it made me uncomfortable and hampered my performance. I was last year’s best actress and awards mean points and more projects. So that was the end of the tummy tucker incident.
Cherry on the cake?
The play stood second at the Mumbai University zonal round. The audience loved the poorly researched play and an ancient ideology received terrific response at the Youth festival. The zonal round judges were literally nodding in approval throughout the show.
Did I stop?
No. I decided to fuel my fire for rebellion and went on to perform a mono-act on fat shaming at the same festival. My fellow rebel did one on marital rape. Would it really surprise you that both didn’t make it to the finals?
– Manavi Keer
Am I too woke for this?
Urban Dictionary user 1: A state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains by reading The Huffington Post.
Urban Dictionary user 2: Getting woke is like being in the Matrix and taking the red pill. You get a sudden understanding of what’s really going on and find out you were wrong about much of what you understood to be truth.
It’s an exciting time to be a theatre-goer in Bombay (said several people at different times, each convinced they were right). Especially as a person who sees politics in everything, watching a socially relevant play is not only common, but almost inevitable. “Moral of the story” theatre, or utterly allegorical theatre is how theatre was re-introduced to Mumbaikars, way back when theatre became an activity for upper-class Indians Without drowning in goody-goody attempts to reform the world, almost every play I’ve watched in the recent past has addressed a social issue, and attempted challenge prejudice.
In the past year alone, plays I’ve seen have tackled mental health (psychosis and degeneration), casteism, sexism, communalism, state repression, fascism, alternate ,gender identities, racism, ageism, homophobia – phew!
Only a handful of these plays actually named the practise they were addressing; discussing it openly seemed to make it a “social-issue play”, an adjective no one wants attached to their work. And yet, without a doubt, these plays took a stand, clearly making a statement, one way or another, ensuring the audience would agree with them by the end of the show. One would imagine that my political heart would skip and jump out of the theatre. Not quite.
Instead, my obsessively sociological brain and heart squirmed as a Brahmin man defines casteism while the Dalit man remains mute as ever. My eyes widened as homosexuality and a trans-gendered identity seemed interchangeable. Rape phobia quickly turned into the “manipulative woman” trope, psychosis was revealed to be the punchline, cross-dressing became the “comic relief”, and my heart dissolved into an acidic mess in my stomach.
Each attempt at social change, come with two servings of self-importance, and half a serving of research. Half-baked truths, innately regressive mind-sets had seeped through so many of the plays I watched, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t find it in me to rise with my co-audience for a standing ovation.
I wondered whether it was just me; was I the only one uncomfortable with the fact that an office drama had one woman on stage, that too for 2-3 minutes, and she turned out to be a Vishakha-guidelines-abuser? Was I over-sensitive in seeing an overtly Brahmin narrative describe the breaking-of-shackles by a Brahmin man of a Dalit farm labourer? Could it be that I was being “too Sociology types”, when a wedding-play decided to walk a path where neither the audience, nor the character is clear about the difference between a trans-woman, a cross-dressing man, and a homosexual cis- man? Quite likely…
It’s more than a little believable to me, that I am more sensitive to these issues than most people; that I demand too much correctness, one that is not necessarily the path that is seen as correct by the theatre-makers themselves. However, what perhaps left behind the worst taste of all, was the utter belief that each show was a pathbreaker, one that is changing the world, and the Mumbai theatre scene.
Certainly, they are bringing some change – to have plays that discuss these topics is a huge step, and I suppose my ultra-woke self will just have to argue away, until we reach the next level of political correctness (by which point, some snide little snot will insult me and my old-school ways). Until them, I am resigned to the fact that I might just be too woke for this.