Five directors and playwrights share how original scripts and realistic content are giving Chennai theatre some respite
We have theatre groups like Stray Factory, Evam and Crea Shakti that focus on the young and restless and give fresh ideas a new platform. Thanks to them, it seems like we have a play every weekend in well known spaces like The Music Academy, Museum Theatre, Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall and Alliance Francaise. The themes and genres appealing to these youngsters range from science fiction, reinterpreted mythology to musicals for children. We speak to five young directors and playwrights who dare to experiment and introduce new ideas like Sillambam (a martial art) on stage.
Back to roots
This year has been fruitful for Akhila Ramnarayan, 39, daughter of theatre personality Gauri Ramnarayan and one of the main members in the theatre group JustUs Repertory. She directed her play The Voice Behind the Fence this year as part of the Short and Sweet Festival and also composed music and sang for a production for Sahitya Academy. “I came back to India 15 years ago to join my mother’s theatre group and at the same time find my own voice,” she says, adding, ‘‘Mythology indicates how culture perceives itself. Much of our work has traditional and classical genres and it connects our present and past.’’ Details: email@example.com
Sunandha Ragunathan, 32
Brought up in Chennai, Sunandha Ragunathan recently launched her own theatre outfit, The Debauch Company and débuted at Live in August 2013 with four short stories of Guy de Maupassant. So now Ragunathan wonders, ‘what next?’ “I have just finished three interconnected monologues in Thanglish and Hinglish (the Hindi part will have to be provided by my collaborators) for the launch of an entertainment company,” begins Ragunathan who has been part of the theatre scene for eight years. “Currently,I am training in Kalari and Sillambam and hope to use it on stage,’’ she continues, admitting that it was V Balakrishnan of Theatre Nisha who asked her to write her first play in 2009.
There is a desire to label everything and it is a dangerous evil that must be weeded out
She wrote The Dark Lord, a story about Krishna and from then on, she has been writing full-length, 10-minute plays and adaptations. Ragunathan is grateful to Federico Garcia Lorca for making Duende accessible to English speakers. “Lured by this demon spirit, I channel my madness through the experience of Einstein. I read somewhere that he was able to postulate the theory of relativity when he was ‘spaced out.’ He highly recommends these flights through your imagination to boost your creativity,” she says. At a time when directors are exploring global themes, Ragunathan favours local experiments. “There is a desire to label everything – we place them in neat little genres like comedy, tragedy – and it is a dangerous evil that must be weeded out. A play is a play is a play. Calling it Indian is as irresponsible as clubbing Habib Tanvir and Vijay Tendulkar as Indian playwrights or calling William Shakespeare and Harold Pinter English playwrights,” she insists. Theatres, she declares, should provoke and disturb. “In Chennai, there are currently only two genres of theatre – funny and serious – what that means when people use these terms freely, you’ll have to ask them.” Details: firstname.lastname@example.org
Aruna Ganesh, 28
Aruna Ganesh’s Re:Play last month saw her experiment with traditional Indian games on stage. It was a hit. “Two performers take the audience through a journey of six distinct themes inspired by the traditional Indian dice. The performance was inspired by mythology, memory, events, Indian folklore, Indian history and fiction.
Research into traditional Indian games reveal links of various games to events in mythology and Indian history. From the story of Shakuni challenging the Pandavas to a game of dice to Chanakya strategising a game of Chaturanga for warfare, to the game of strategy played between the Tigers and Goats and personal anecdotes of people who have played these games through time, the performance is an aural and visual journey of the sounds, textures, stories and rhythms of Indian games,” begins Ganesh, who has spent a decade in the field. Her interest in theatre is attributed to a workshop conducted by Krishna Kumar of Masquerade in 2001. I made my stage début in Twelfth Night. Along with friend Manasi Subramaniam, I managed a youth theatre group called Landing Stage that was focussed on training young talent through workshops and giving them their first stage opportunity. With Landing Stage, I have directed Swami and Friends (in collaboration with The Madras Players), Kingdom of Fools (an Indian folklore), Aladdin, Rumpelstiltskin and a couple of other fairy tales,” she says. Now with her company Visual Respiration, Ganesh focuses on making original and devised work. “The company is known for productions where people making it as well as experiencing it can connect and relate to it in a more engaging fashion,” she says, adding, “We design performance that is visual and visually-led. I once got marbles to the studio, saw what sound they make and that gave us some ideas for the story,” she says. Talking about popular themes and genres, Ganesh says, “As makers, we should constantly take risks with our work and push boundaries. That’s when we will make fresh discoveries,” she concludes. Details: email@example.com
Rajiv Rajaram, 28
For those who do not know there are four Rajivs in the theatre scene in Chennai, we are talking about the youngest. He has a tattoo of his company, Stray Factory, on his arm. As a writer, Rajiv Rajaram feels compelled to write about something that influences his life or his surroundings. “I need to write about things that directly impact me. I wouldn’t know what it feels like to be in a foreign land. Themes like science fiction is not alien to us and according to me Sujatha (S Rangarajan ) is still one of the greatest science fiction writers this country has produced and I think is on par with someone like Philip K Dick,” he says. Currently, Rajaram is working on a political satire about two ideological idiots who work towards a political debate on what people deserve but will never get. It is inspired by the Kinsley Gaffe.
I need to write about things that directly impact me… I wouldn’t know about a
Rajaram entered theatre five years ago by accident and partly forced his friend Mathivanan Rajendran, 28, to join too, making him a partner in the company. He has written five plays and 14 sketches, and we notice a pattern – they all have their roots in India, especially Chennai. “I think Indian audiences like something that is more relatable. It is up to writers to come up with compelling new work that pushes the envelope. Mythology as a subject is huge. What I see as a huge influence is contemporary versions of epic and mythological heroes,” he says. Inspired by theatre personality Aaron Sorkin, Rajaram talks about the state of theatre, “Groups like Stray Factory and Evam have broken traditional barriers and made it across the seas. Comedy is always favoured. We need to push the envelope in terms of genre and content.’’ The group will soon bring down their famous production, My Name is Cinema, which initially premiered in Singapore. Details: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dushyant Gunashekar, 25
Dushyant Gunashekar, who turns 25 today, started his theatre journey in school. 10 years later, he is still hooked. The creative head of Crea-Shakti, Gunashekar is in charge of the youth initiatives at the moment, along with acting, production, direction and script writing.Their theatre initiative has been introduced in 22 colleges, in places such as Chennai, Kolkata, Manipal, Tanjore and Bangalore. “There are around 12 colleges just from Chennai and the most interesting part about our group is that we are all below 30, at least for now. We want to give opportunities to youngsters with fresh ideas,” he says. Most of Gunashekar’s plays have an Indian connection. “I am a son of the soil – obviously Indian themes resonate more with me. Perhaps it sounds more honest if it’s something closer home,” he begins. Gunashekar and his team are working on an Indian-inspired Taming of the Shrew, apart from the youth theatre festival that they organise annually. Crea Shakti is also organising The Mahesh Dattani Playwriting workshop in January. Gunashekar considers several people as his inspiration but the first name that comes to his mind is Mahesh Dattani. “Writers need to take inspiration from anything and everything. I have a personal connection with Dattani and have seen all his work. They are fantastic,” he says. Gunashe-kar makes it a point to have an Indian connection in his plays, his favourite theme being mythology, and he tells us how one cannot sell Shakespeare to the British, but that they will buy Indian. “There is a global audience for Indian themes. Just like anything else, there is enough scope to try new things. I don’t believe there are any genres that are popular anymore. Comedy always used to rule the roost – but that’s changed. The theatre group is working on several plays next month. Details: email@example.com
Shekinah Jacob, 34
I am a playwright simply because I can’t think of doing anything else. I inhabit several worlds simultaneously –- both domestic and cerebral– and I’m still finding my balance,” says Shekinah Jacob, who wrote plays instinctively during her high school years in Chennai.
She scribbled her first script in the back of her notebook and the sketch turned out to be simple but most importantly it came naturally to Jacob. She wrote her first script while studying at Women’s Christian College. But she learnt her fundamentals of playwriting during a workshop by Mahesh Dattani and was later trained by the Royal Court Theatre in London. Jacob is currently working on two plays. “Both are fighting for attention in my head, making me slightly schizophrenic– one centres around a very South Indian inter-cultural family wedding, and another revolves around the Indian elections. The inter-connected world of politics and economics and how these play out in the life of the common man,” she explains. She has four full length plays to her credit – Only Women, Seven for a Secret, The Long Way Home and the most acclaimed Ali J, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Talking about her inspiration, Jacob says, “I read as widely as possible– my favourite playwrights include Alan Bennet (for the brilliant way in which he captures miniature shifts of mood and the textured dynamics of relationships), also Tom Stoppard and David Mamet. And of course the immortal Shakespeare,” she says. According to Jacob, good theatre is like democracy, ‘by the people, of the people, and for the people’. She writes what she would like to watch as an audience. ‘‘I enjoy watching plays that are rooted in my world. Theatre should be like an ongoing dialogue between the audience and the actors.’’