The process of making a political play online and its effects IRL (In Real Life)
Ponni Arasu and Marappachi Theatre
One day, during our weekly COVID-time Zoom meetings of Tamil speaking theatre folks, we tried to sing the chorus to a song together. I remember this vivid feeling of hopelessness as, after trying a few times, we realized that it isn’t possible to sing in unison over Zoom. For me, the weekly calls helped me to hold on dearly to my beloved theatre during this time and to reshape it. I had to heed the call to not give in to the specter of doom that live art forms will meet their end in this new normal where the human subdivision can no longer share physical space with one another, touch freely, or breathe the same air.
When we began these weekly meetings, we did not have such intense feelings of dread about our form becoming redundant. It was the early days of the pandemic. We didn’t quite know the shape it would take. None of us had, yet, lived through the deaths of millions of people worldwide, and hadn’t faced the turmoil of falling ill ourselves, or watching our loved ones struggle to breathe. All of these realities caught up to us very quickly.
One morning Mangai sent me the video of Maya Angelou reading her poem ‘We wear the Mask’. The poem is about survival and about laughing through life in order to survive. Angelou was writing about the lives of brutally oppressed Black folks and the women among them. The poem could speak to the realities of the oppressed everywhere and to human existence in general. I awoke that morning and for no rational reason embarked on a translation of the poem. Translating poems is not easy and so this was a strange choice! That translation was further sharpened by V. Geetha and Anita, and formed the backbone of our play Siripputhaan Varuthu—One Can Only Laugh.
Rehearsals began as more and more text was put together on the range of issues that were and continue to confront all those living through our times. Sukirtharani, a Dalit feminist writer in Tamil, responded to our request and wrote on issues brought forth by the group. Mangai and I wrote a few sections. Many concerns addressed in the play were specific to India. They included right-wing Hindu fundamentalist government and its crackdown on democratic and citizenship rights; the plight of thousands of migrant workers who built the cities of India, who were left uncared for during the COVID crisis; brutal caste violence and so on. These, along with ongoing sexual violence and the claustrophobia of the ‘home’ and family for non-normative folks of all hues, all became part of the play. However, the essence of the play, as we learnt later, touched audiences everywhere.
In this essay, I reflect on theatre, its relationship to human relationality, and the intricate way in which this element of theatre makes it a very unique tool for socio-political thought, critique, and change. The process of making the play with its many challenges and hurdles had a profound influence on the final product and is a good place from which to start this analysis.
First, one of our possible actors had to drop out of the production very early on. She had to move out of the city to a small village due to lack of economic resources. She was not able to support herself and her family, including her small child, during the COVID crisis. Although the internet is affordable in most parts of India and we would have pitched in for her to connect from wherever she was, the lack of network, among other exigencies that were present where she was going, made it impossible for her to commit to the play. Second, one member of our cast, who is also a Thirunangai (member of the traditional community of transgender persons in South Asia) had to keep shifting between her mother’s place and her place of residence with community members since their life came to a standstill during the lockdown. Once back to her own community home, she had to continue their routine of begging for a living. It wasn’t until she moved to yet another place for rehearsals and a much more expensive internet connection, weeks into the process, that we even got to experience her acting prowess. She is an experienced actor and far from being a novice to the stage. The medium of being live on the internet seemed to be claustrophobic for her. I say ‘live’ as she did otherwise have a rather spectacular TikTok presence! Third, one of our cast member’s wife contracted the virus. He tested negative and his wife tested positive and they have two small children at home. She quarantined herself at home and he rehearsed with us during her quarantine while also caring for the children full time. Finally, Mangai lost her father, and I my grandfather, to the virus during the rehearsals. Apart from the death itself, the experience of dealing with the immediate aftermath in the ‘new normal’, and how little space there was to engage in any of the usual forms of individual and collective mourning was astounding. These are just the few overwhelming occurrences during the time of evolving the play. Apart from this, there were the everyday trials and tribulations of living.
In this context, we mostly worked off unpaid Zoom accounts that only allowed for forty-five minutes per meeting. We learnt quickly to divide different elements of rehearsal into ‘Zoom time’. It was only after the Chennai Theatre Academy, a local theatre group and training space, lent us their paid Zoom account that we had uninterrupted two-hour rehearsals. Perch, another theatre group, helped us with the seed money to afford technical support and preparation of the props.
While these were the so-called external conditions of work, the process of making theatre itself had to go through some phenomenal changes. The actors, director, and tech team were all habituated to working in big groups. Much of the experience of being theatre people for us was about the space of rehearsals where, whatever else was going on in our lives, we felt free, light, and engaged in work that let our own and others’ bodies, minds, and hearts shine. So, how do we recreate this in front of our computers or cell phones, with headphones in our ears, a shaky internet connection, and a Zoom call that will abruptly cut us off at forty-five minutes? What follows is a sharing of the transmogrification of our rehearsal space, keeping that which was dear to us, while missing so much that we could not have or feel.
In theatre, it all centers on the body. I have been on stage since the age of twelve, so an entire phase of my physical, cognitive, and emotional growth happened with theatre being an integral part of it. I live in my body with this experience. I am thankful for it every day. I have a body that is wise, that can protect, connect, and reenact reality with integrity. My body can reach the depths of emotional honesty in ways that still surprise me to this day. What I had taken for granted however is how ‘interdependent’ this body is. That the essence and energy of those around me in a rehearsal space made me the actor that I am and gave me valuable lessons for life outside the theatre. This realization of interdependence was stark for me primarily through the energy it took to muster openness of my own energy during rehearsal to share with others, without any touch or real life presence but through a device.
Slowly, over time, through the arduous work of sharing our energies, we became a team. Some of us had known each other many years and others had met one another for the first time. Slowly but surely we became ‘a team’. We committed to the process and kept coming back. While the lightness and euphoria of a real life rehearsal could not be recreated here, a version of it kept us coming back with glee even as the pandemic and all its resultant effects intensified all around us. The joyful humor of the rehearsal space thankfully made it into our online space. The regular physical exercise made a difference to our bodies even though we did them ‘alone’. As the play took final shape there was no denying that every rehearsal and show felt heavy. The content, as you will see, left no room to hide from the realities of our time – the loss, the inequalities, injustice, and the relentlessness of it all.
Our immediate intimate surroundings and all the humans and other creatures in it became part of our production as our home was our stage. Here we all learnt about the place that our art practice holds in our shared intimate lives. However different this may have been for each of us, the play became an integral part of our homes and all those around it had to deal with it. Some may have loved it, others liked it and some others may have tolerated it. But there was no hiding.
All of these mixed experiences, somehow still brought hope to those of us who were part of the production. We were thankful for the technology, but it wasn’t so much that the technology was our hope. It was that we were able to recreate some version of the energy exchange, the camaraderie, the collective exuberance and strength of theatre, even though we all came into the play through our devices. To witness that we could recreate this, that we hadn’t lost it, was a huge relief and an energizing hope.
It is with this feeling that we went into our first invite only show for friends and then four shows that followed in quick succession within a month. Just before the very first show, we had what was perhaps the most moving moment with regards to negotiating a way to share energy across technology. We usually have the practice of standing in a circle with the right palm above and left palm below, holding one another’ s hand. The understanding is that we give from one hand and receive from another thus creating balance together. On the day of our first show we held out our hands to the camera with the right palm facing down and left facing up. For a brief moment there, the extent of effort we were putting in to recreate theatrical energy, the unwavering hope in the midst of such disruption to our form, and our stubborn commitment to keep making theatre, all manifested itself in our palm. This may sound ‘dramatic’ but theatre is an affective process and it is this nature of it that has made it a relevant art form for ages before us and will remain long after we all leave this earth. And moments such as these are at the crux of it.
This heart wrenching process notwithstanding, the goal of theatre, especially of the kind we practice, is to share this process with our spectators. We never quite know if this will happen, to what extent and in what way, until we take the stage for our first performance. There is always a small kernel of doubt that all our efforts may not rise up to the task and fall flat until a few moments into the first show. And so, with that healthy trepidation, we began the show.
The play inaugurated the All Women Federation Tamilnadu’s (a broad coalition of women’s organisations across the broad left progressive spectrum) campaign—“If we do not Rise,” on September 2, 2020, as part of the national resistance of women against anti-democratic forces in India. There were technical hassles. There were voice lags. For the twenty odd minutes that the play lasted, all of us—the actors, the tech crew who were doing their tasks diligently, and the director who was breathing breaths of assurance and support—held the energy, in spite of the glitches. We could not have scripted what followed. Our first audience and those that followed were moved to tears. Some found it hard to watch as the play rather brutally exposes all that is around us. Others found the fact that we chose to highlight laughter as the mode of survival, inspired by Maya Angelou, to be painful and cathartic. A barrage of stories flowed from the spectators of the horrors they had seen in the past few months which are but a consolidation of ever-present injustices. For us, the team, it was a huge sigh of relief. A slice of all that we felt while making this play came through to those watching. For that we were glad. I was personally worried that we were holding up too brutal a mirror without enough space for healing. I believe theatre must also commit to healing. But it seems as if the play made spectators face up to realities, harsh as they may be, and begin the arduous, yet essential, process of healing through the truth rather than bypassing it by disassociation—disassociation from ourselves, our bodies, society, and the world around us.
September 2, 2020 Discussion
Our first international show was nerve wracking for many of us. We had used ‘I can’t breathe’ as a refrain, thus referencing the horrific loss of Black lives and the reclamation of these words as a slogan for truth and justice. The show took place on September 5, which was also the day that the progressive journalist and voice for justice, Gauri Lankesh, was murdered by right wing goons in Bangalore in 2017. Our audience and panel represented dear friends, collaborators, and comrades who are artists, activists, and art curators from different parts of India and North America. This audience understood the play through subtitles. None of us could ever fully know what that felt like as we all understood Tamil. We quickly saw from the comments that the subtitles were forming a text of their own. This text also bridged the gap between our performance and the technological glitches. Powerful words flashed in front of audiences who were reading them even if the actors were stuck in the technology wormhole of voice lags and failing connections. We had a scintillating discussion about how profoundly the play spoke to such diverse contexts. Most importantly, the play and the panel made clear that theatre was alive and well, not just as a static video experience but as a living breathing entity with which, we could still interact in real time even if not IRL (in real life).
September 5, 2020 Discussion
This highlights a very important element within the experience of spectatorship of this play. We chose not to upload a well-produced, subtitled, video version of the play until at least a few live online shows were over. In the meanwhile, shows were livestreamed on the Facebook pages of those who invited us to perform. The first show for the All Women’s Federation was streamed on their Facebook page. The second show went live on Chennai Theatre Academy’s Facebook page. We also performed for the Democratic Youth Federation of India, Tamilnadu chapter—the youth wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) on the Tamil Dravidianist ideologue Periyar’s 142nd birthday on September 17. The Indian Association of Women’s Studies in collaboration with the South Asian feminist Network—SANGAT organized a show for one of their Women’s Studies online courses on September 28, 2020. All of their Facebook pages and that of our collaborator, the Chennai Theatre Academy, posted the video online after the livestream. These videos, through different Facebook accounts, have reached a diversity of audiences. As I write this, we don’t know how much the videos have circulated online. We have received some responses from audiences of being moved by specific elements in the play after watching the videos. Complaints about the technical glitches were, interestingly, a lot more common from those who watched the videos after the shows.
I am interested in the difference between watching the play live as opposed to afterwards on video. I found myself encouraging friends and loved ones to watch the play live if they could, especially when I heard the now-common question: “will there be a recording so I can catch it later?” I wasn’t sure, rationally, why I was encouraging people to join us live. For one thing, as a team, we are clearly more interested in the live shows. While we are happy to have the show be online, especially accompanied by text and analysis as here on AGITATE!, in a forum run by friends and comrades, we are not impassioned about it in the way we are about live shows. Needless to say, for those performing, including myself, it makes a huge difference to know that there is a live audience.
We don’t have enough information to be able to ascertain the difference in experience for the audience. It is, however, possible to speculate on a few things. Videos of the shows were seen as much more effective with the accompanying videos of panel discussions. The panels which started off discussions where the play left us, we were told, made the play that much more effective. Both of our panels after the first two shows were of this nature. Both were moving and on point about precisely the kind of social, political, philosophical, and artistic questions the play left us with. For example, A. Revathi, a transgender activist and performer broke down during the panel after the first show and spoke of how the current regime in India was passing many unfair laws, including the Transgender Act, under the cover of the COVID lockdown and the resultant shrunken space for protest. She connected this larger political reality to the plight of violence against individuals from the transgender community. Transgeneder people are already vulnerable, but the pandemic has increased this vulnerability because public spaces where they sleep are empty due to COVID. This increased visibility has led to a rise in brutal attacks on individuals from the transgender community. Across discussions, panelists spoke movingly about how the play laid bare truths of our realities while also inspiring catharsis and hope that the arts can remain a vibrant voice for social change and justice. Many who watched the videos enjoyed the panels as something of an accompanying text for the play.
Here a brief interlude about the panels is in order. For us, the panels and other comments after the play served as much more of a mirror of the performance itself than it might have in IRL shows. This was because we didn’t have the blessing of feeling the audiences energetically in our space, at least not in the way or to the extent we would in an IRL show. We also had other panels that were marked by a performative lack of interest in the artistic and political hope (the two are impossible to disentangle in our art practice) that the play could inspire. In one panel, for example, we had two comments that are worth considering closely. For one Feminist performing artist, the play had not pushed the boundaries of artistic possibilities vis-à-vis the camera as a tool with its own character. This, of course, has truth to it and is a very welcome comment. For another grassroots-level theatre activist, the play reaffirmed her ongoing belief that the theatre as a form is dead in the current context. She saw anything online as intrinsically elite. This we argued with, as did others on the panel and in the audience that day. While both speakers were on two ends of the spectrum in terms of how much they valued the play – the former, enough to give constructive criticism and the latter to dismiss it as a politically unsound cultural act – they had one thing in common. The play did not move them into a place of reflection and an uneasy quiet which would hopefully be followed by some version of catharsis. Or, even if they did go to that place, the performativity of the panel itself perhaps pulled them out of there. But during this panel, many of us in the team watched our spectators. For me, I saw them move further and further away from the affective element of the play and the experience of it. It felt like, at the risk of sounding presumptuous, the movement away from the play’s affect seemed to align itself with their own performativity being increasingly disassociated from themselves, their bodies, and hearts. Even if the latter is a presumption, what still remains as the important insight that, in this form of theatre, the actor, commentator, and spectator are all seen by one another through the same frame – the screen. This is very different from theatre otherwise as the actor remains in focus visually and thus emotively. Following this, perhaps we could go as far as to say that the spectator has even more control than they usually may have over the extent to which they let a performance ‘touch them’. This makes it that much harder for us, the performers and theatre makers, to do the magic that theatre can do, to move human hearts through a conversation between our spirits and that of our audience.
Returning to the question of the difference between watching the play ‘live’ online as opposed to a recording, at the bare minimum we have learned that the awareness of human beings actively doing something in real time, even if not in real space, does make a difference to all those who are part of the experience. It is the difference between a video call with a loved one as opposed to a video message from them. This is an important lesson about human relationality. The fact that lack of shared space does not take away from the importance of shared time is an important lesson. This is true in relationships between individuals as well as in broader collective processes, especially those that are based on the bridge between the self and the other such as processes of social critique and change.
Siripputhan Varuthu | One Can Only Laugh
The performance you see in the video above was made only for this recording and was not a live show. The circulation of this video, internationally, with subtitles, accompanied by the panel discussion, will give us some insight into how the play can be experienced in its non-live format. These insights will prove useful in the future.
As of now, the play and the process of making it are all, perhaps ironically, part of a broad process of rooting ourselves in our bodies, hearts, and spirits, as well as in the times we are living through and the immediate space that we, especially the actors, were in. The spectators saw one part of our homes as they were with minimal props for the play. Many commented on how that too added a layer of insight to the performance. All of this, while all of us—performers and audiences alike—are suspended in the seeming abyss of connecting through technology.
We have since made it to the Finals to perform at an international competitive theatre festival called The Good Theatre Festival organized by The Red Carpet International Theatre. A chance viewing of our play by one of the Organizers of the Festival along with a recording made it reach the final nine. None of us are big on competitions. It has never been our jam. We do theatre as part of social movements and in that world there aren’t many or any competitions! But this turn of events is important in the context of the affect created by the play. Even though our bodies never shared space with one another or with an audience, someone who cares deeply about theatre was able to sense the collective bodily expression we were hoping to foreground. This expression was a mirror that the play held up to society, for ourselves and our audiences to see.
We will come to see as the play lives on, live and on video, whether it is able to continue to do this through passing time. But for now, ‘One can only laugh’ makes one want to scream out with glee, “Long live theatre! Long live art for social change!” As Boal says, theatre is but an “art of looking at ourselves”. That is a key step towards fundamental, radical, and sustained social change. And as Brecht has told us and many more after and before him, “yes, there will be singing in dark time. About the dark times.”
(exit stage/screen left)