Play: On Account of Being A Woman
Script: Manasi Subramaniam
Direction: Yours Faithfully
Performed by: The J Theatre
Produced by: SIE Trust & JBAS College for Women
Rating: 2 and half stars (may be!).... out of.... PITY!
I survived. It was not as bad as I feared. Believe me, at one point, it just wasn't happening. Not especially when a key player drops out of the show on pretext of parental disapproval a week before the show and a new person - who has not been physically optimal - has to step in to all those lines and reblockings! We just barely scrapped through 2 run throughs before the show. And everyone except myself were optimistic the show is going to hit headlines for all the wrong reasons. Well... as for me, I was realistic that this is a still-born. And so we moved into the Tech day, where to further add value to my negative beliefs, a lighting rig and focus that normally takes 5 hours took 8 hours. It was not complete when we decided to stop the focus to bare minimum and get on with the tech as the players had to go home, each carrying an IPC 144 (read Parental for P) and curfews ranging from 5 pm back home to 8 pm. I went home blissfully sure that the infant J was headed for crucifixtion even before the wine and wafer day!
And then it all kind of came through on the opening night. I would attribute it mainly to a 400+ strong home crowd. It was like a local cricketer going into bat on home ground. Of course, the cast slipped and shlepped around initially. But once the initial jitters vanished and the crowd warmed up, they went through it smoothly. I wouldn't say this production is my crowning glory. It won't even get into my Top 20 productions, it won't! But no damage done. The tech areas worked pretty smooth. Since the set was unit and needed no change... since the props were not too many and the cast handled the same themselves... and we had focussed hands on sound and lights... things seemed a lot better than I sound. Had it been otherwise, the onstage performance would have looked bad. It had its draggy moments, to confess. I stand charged for this offense and accept the verdict.
It was amateur theatre, no doubt. Some of them have diction problems even. But again, considering the background of some in terms of their lineage, as well as their past institutions, it was like adult education programme in theatre. Add to it, couple of them are first generation college goers. Probably that was the most significant aspect of this. Early evening, before the show last night (24th), I was talking to a press friend of mine who had come to meet us. I told her precisely this. I may not have got the same satisfaction had I worked with any other college (that leave alone has a heritage and tradition in theatre) where some of the students come to do studies after having matriculated from some of the creme-de-la-creme schools in city and elsewhere.
I am not trying to make it sound like these are losers of the planets when it comes to education; but: there are some very bright kids. And pedigreed financially and/or culturally as well. I mean, these kids have basic theatre skill sets in them. This is one thing for which I am jealous at them. Some of them from the not so upper echelons of schools in Chennai have an active street theatre background or more zealous school-day-affairs, they come equipped with a good body language. Add to it, having been through life with a big L I F E at an early age, they are able to identify layers and subtexts in the script.
It is not an easy script. It may look straight-forward and black&white, but believe me, Manasi has done a pretty good job. The craft is pretty decent, the way the script swings between dealing with the issue seriously and providing comic thrust when the going gets a little too grave. And by design or accident, she has also provided enough scope for people to double up, get enough time to change costume, be in two places at the same time without making it sound obvious... etc. And it ends with solving the problem it started with. Not the core of the play's thesis is sorted out. Which is a good thing. You can only present problems on stage and leave the end ambivalently. Apparently, I was told, one newspaper that carried the story about the show yesterday (yes, story. Where do we get Reviews these days!!!) signed off saying the end left the audience puzzled. Can't the audience be given the liberty to conjecture? Have the comedies by the city theatre groups dullened the intellectuality of theatre going audience? I guess this is where my crusade in theatre is. Veer off those hard-core comedy only audience back to THEATRE.
This is a play within a play. A journalist whose ass is being hauled up now and for good, has to get a story to convince her editor-boss to get a stay on her job. It's a man's world. And she has a Jerry on her hands whose lazy-bone attitude stalls things. He is chill madi-ed so to speak your local teen lingo. In this situation, she stumbles on a group of women who have taken refuge inside an NRI woman's organisation and refuse to go home until their husbands sign legal contracts to treat them better. And the cops are having a tough time, being the only ones who are let in there because of their badges... but are let in to provide protection to these women who are striking against beings of their (read men) own ilk.
Talking of body work, the Act 4 interrogation scene of one of the victimised woman (a hallucinatory scene) I had designed as a mime on domestic violence with actors also doubling up as molesters and sadists. The afternoon 11.30 show for college students actually left a few girls genuinely crying at the sadism on stage. For all that, these girls didn't even put their finger nail on the victim, in the course of mime. I thought that was success with S for them. When your audience identify with your character and not just laugh...laugh...laugh... Anyone with a 8-bit memory in their backsides for timing could make any audience laugh!
Talking of laughter, the play turned out to have plenty more to laugh than we had expected. The performance was 1 hr and 2 mins long. Dealing with DV and Harassment. And when I cumulatively put together the audience reaction over three shows vis-a-vis laughter (hahaha sort, not just the grin on your face!), each show had an average 40% laughter. And that's not bad. The play was entertainment, gave people something to laugh at... no mere punch-bag foot-longs of one liners. And when the audience identified themselves with the script and hooted and jeered the men as well as clapped for the women who took aggressive stance at men... it was EMPOWERMENT all the way. This was one production that I have done till date that was entertainment cum empowerment, proving once again my belief that theatre is not just a 9-inch long battery operated gizmo that gives shocks of laughter-release for the unreleased, but a cutting edge tool that can truly respect and seek to elevate their higher cerebral functions even while providing them a certain emotional cathartic release. Would you believe: I made announcements to the crowd to put their mobiles on silent, not bring beverages or crush plastics while eating inside audi, etc etc... and also said "feel free to applaud or even whistle".
90% women... clad to the extent where I have never before seen such a densely concentrated assemblage of black clothes from the crown Jack broke to the heel Achilles got hurt, with an occasional flash of a pair of eyes and uncreased foreheads. I truly felt like that Doctor chap in Rushdie's Midnight's Children, having to get to know his patient (in my case, clientele) in EMIs through two holes in a bedsheet! But when my announcement went on air and the play started, I could see pairs of hands from inside these black hoods creeping up, flashing gleaming nails polished with flourescent reds and irridiscent blues, vanishing into their labio-dental openings! And what whistles we had! All in the secure knowledge of their anonymity insured by the darkness enveloping the audience part of the venue.
At the end, when the Feminist activist slaps her Superintendent husband, couple of older women actually stood up and gave a standing ovation. My god... Manasi you missed the afternoon show of your own script! It was, to get back to reality, not even a 70% good performance, as the cast was still groggy from the hangover of the previous night premiere. But the hysteria they whipped up! So, it was at the end, not a nightmare as I had thought earlier at all. It was not something I would get delirious over. As I said, I had done at least 20 more better shows than this. But for the sheer experience of realising what it is to be a woman... and a woman inside those mass of textiles with so much pent up... to be a first-generation learner getting empowered to speak for themselves... it was worth it. In the process, I became aware what it is to most of the times be a man (sometimes I felt like the sole survivor after the 7 day deluge left on Noah's Ark only the denizens of Amazonia and myself as I walked the last 2 months into that campus on MKB Road, connecting Mount Road on the West and TTK Road on the East)! How inspite of the fact that this Unicorn walking inside their secure precincts could throw discomfort. It was like Abimanyu creating chaos inside the Kuru Chakra Vyuha... only to be decimated to a higher realisation. POWER IS ALL ABOUT POSSESSION OF SPACE. SPACE THEORY IS REAL. MAN STILL HAS NOT LANDED ON MOON. Because when I searched for him in the moon in the light of the lamp held by the Lady in the Moon, I couldn't find him; but I found myself! A new dimension added to the artist in me.