Finding your voice Part II

In a recent lecture for the National Centre for Biological Sciences, musician T M Krishna spoke about the challenging journey of an artist in search of his own voice. If one has grown up surrounded by a homogeneous world, as Krishna was, one is conditioned to construct notions of the ideal voice as defined by and within that world. One imagines one’s own voice as belonging in this world, and internalises aspirations towards this constructed ideal. Referring to the need for the artist to engage in dialogue with voices and cultures different from his own, Krishna said “ listening and receiving are the foundations for discovering one’s own voice”.

When one comes out of the insular world one had been inhabiting, engages with different constructs of the ‘good’ voice,  allowing oneself to be vulnerable, by truly listening and receiving these different ideals, one’s mind opens up, and a new, often subtle, shift happens in one’s own voice. The shift may be really subtle, almost imperceptible, even to oneself, but the road to discovering one’s own voice has opened up. One realises that it was never about mastering the form that one grew up revering. Discovering one’s true voice, not echoing someone else’s, makes the form come alive in one’s practice.

In the Sound and Movement Transformation game (Finding your voice Part I), everyone has a chance to experience  vulnerability, to make themselves uncomfortable, and come out of it. It’s just a game, so no harm done. But the potential to learn something valuable is there.

There are lessons here for me as a facilitator.  When I started in 2011 as a new Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner, the form excited me, and I was eager to start work. I began by imitating my teacher, in everything from how to create a safe space, instructions for games and exercises, debriefs, and even how I sequenced the different activities. 

As I started to feel more confident about the form, I began to ‘see’ my groups more sharply, felt a need to change a few things in my facilitation. Sometimes it was just a word in the instructions. Believe me, it was not such an easy decision, because I felt every word was sacred!  But my 25 years of classroom experience began to kick in here. I connected with groups effortlessly, I enjoyed working with people. And I allowed my intuition to guide me about the changes I wished to make. I shared stories from my life, I experimented with different ways of introducing the theory of Theatre of the Oppressed, and grounding it in local context. I also experimented with different ways of responding to the oft repeated question : Do we have to use the word “Oppressed”? It is so unpleasant.  My groundedness in the form felt firm, and allowed me much moving room.

I now began to feel a strong desire to understand the form from other perspectives.  So I read, attended a Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference, experiencing other Theatre of the Oppressed facilitators. I spent a week at Jana Sanskriti, attending their forum festival in the villages, and closely watching what the non Indian participants took away from the experience, comparing it with my own. When I was invited to lead workshops in the US, I closely watched my facilitation in an alien cultural context. I made copious notes, before, during and after every workshop that I led. And I talked. I discussed my experiences with close friends and colleagues, shared my thoughts, my feelings of inspiration, excitement, anxiety and doubt.

In 2016, when we decided to invite David Diamond to hold workshops for us in India, it seemed like the obvious thing to do, a logical extension of this journey of exploring different perspectives on Theatre of the Oppressed. Theatre for Living was a deliberate movement away some of the central principles of Theatre of the Oppressed. I had to find out what Theatre for Living was, and experience the difference for myself. David called this invitation a “very brave thing to do”. Looking back, I can see that I challenged myself in a big way. The month long immersion in Theatre for Living pushed me to make a choice. Making my choice, and articulating my reasons for it, I realised that my engagement with Theatre for Living had enriched my practice deeply, and also helped me find my true voice.

That was in 2017. I have continued my quest for different voices, and for my own.

Finding your voice Part I

We’re standing in a circle. One person (A) comes into the circle making a sound and movement, moving in the circle with that sound and movement, enjoying it. Slowly, she starts to look around the circle, identifies a person (B) to whom she will give her sound and movement. A goes and stands in front of B, still making her sound and movement. B receives it, starts to make A’s sound and movement, and when A is satisfied, she invites B to step into the circle, herself taking B’s place in the circle. B is now moving in the circle carrying A’s sound and movement. B may be enjoying it, may be uncomfortable in it, but stays with it until he/she starts to feel another sound and movement emerge from within his/her body. B moves around in the circle with this ‘new’ sound and movement, until he/she finds someone to pass it on to. The process repeats itself till everyone in the circle has experienced receiving, holding and creating new sounds and movements.

Sound and Movement Transformation is one of my favourite games from Boal’s Games for Actors and Non Actors. The facilitator’s instructions, and support for participants through the game are very very important. The initial instructions emphasise the stages in the process – we have something of ourselves that we wish to pass on, we choose a recipient and try to ensure they have received it right. The recipient carries your legacy with respect, fully experiencing it, until she feels something new emerging from within it, from within herself. This will be her own, yet influenced by what had been given to her. This new message is passed on, and this continues, so that the last sound and movement to be created in the circle is a collective creation. Every time a message was passed on, a dialogue took place between giver and receiver. Every time a ‘new’ message was created, it was the result of a dialogue between the old and the new. The group has witnessed a process of collective creation.

The process is not always as ‘beautiful’ or smooth as I have made it out to be. We see a whole spectrum of responses to the different stages in the process. We see joyous acceptance of what is given, and happy creation. We see awkwardness as someone receives a sound and movement that they dislike but feel obliged to mask their real feelings. We see them change it as quickly as possible.  There is anxiety about performance. There is collective appreciation for someone’s sound and movement. The game is powerful in what it reveals.  It provides opportunities for dialogue, but in the language of sound and movement, and this simple shift in the communication tool, from words to the body, shifts power equations in a group, letting hitherto unheard voices emerge. A simple game that allows everyone to experience the challenge of true dialogue. 

Working around language Part 2

Image Theatre had created a transformation within the group – from being disjointed, they had become a cohesive group, with a strong desire to do something that would redeem them in the eyes of the school. Every person in the group was now visible, heard, and included in all activities. A lot of the low grade violence that had characterized their interactions earlier had disappeared. We agreed that once our Forum scenes were ready, we would perform it in school, in front of whoever they chose as audience.

They produced three short scenes : The Insult, set in a classroom, Where do we belong, set in a playground, and Freedom, set in a home. The scenes and the characters in the scenes demanded two languages, English and Tamil. As a group we discussed the propriety of doing these scenes in school, discussing the content as well as the language, and the girls put forth well reasoned, logical arguments. They had completely got over their discomfort over expressing themselves in Tamil. They were extremely nervous about performing, though.

On the day of the forum, the girls stunned their audience completely. They were disciplined, they acted, spoke and were able to improvise lines in English, and they   performed the Tamil scene confidently, with no sense of fear or shame. The girls were also quite overwhelmed by the wholehearted audience participation.

Parikrma forum 1
“You’re a girl!” from the Forum play Freedom

Parikrma forum 2a
“I know where you come from” from The Insult

Watching the Forum plays, the interventions by the audience, the discussions between the students, and finally, reading the feedback from this group on the workshops, I feel that language played an important part in their learning. When we were not using language at all, but working with images, some significant learning happened for the girls. They learned about themselves and their struggles. This learning translated into a greater eagerness to express themselves and a greater proficiency in working with this medium. When they saw their images being understood by the whole school, they wanted to create scenes with language. By then, their relationship with both Tamil and English had changed. They realised that language was meant for communication; that when communication was authentic, and  sensitive to the context, language serves as a ready tool.

There were many kinds of learning for the girls. They were now  more confident about speaking in front of a group, about handling themselves in their own class where boys had earlier bullied and frightened them. They had learnt to think about their issues logically. This new found skill had made them better able to handle academics, leading to better academic performance. All these contributed to their self esteem, and made them more confident about using English. So, in a strange way, circumventing English and circumventing language altogether, brought them back to language and to English with greater confidence and greater fluency.

We did it!!


Read Part 1 of Working around language here.

Working around language Part 1

 ‘A difficult class’ was the label they came with, this group of 13 year old school children.  Six months of TO with these girls illuminated for me a very profound dimension of language – the relationship between language and learning.

The 14 girls took some time to accept the fact that we were speaking Tamil inside the school. It was an English medium school, with consequences if you were caught speaking in any other language. But it was important for me that we work in a language that would help the girls be themselves, and  express themselves freely. I was emboldened by my guess that the headmistress would neither be interested in nor have the time to come into our classes.

As soon as the group came out of the classroom space into the makeshift workshop space, the ‘difficult class’ became a riotous mob. The strangeness of speaking Tamil inside the school sent the girls into uncontrollable giggles. The Theatre of the Oppressed games also spelt complete freedom in that the girls didn’t have to do anything they didn’t want to. Gradually, through repeated reinforcement, the group learned to respect a few of the workshop agreements. They started to listen to each other. The quiet ones began to be seen and heard. Freedom from the tyranny of English was something new and they still did not fully get how these workshops were going to help them. Running around playing games, and speaking in Tamil did not seem like a plan to restore their tarnished image in the eyes of their teachers.

The turning point came with Image Theatre. I introduced it as a new language that completely did away with words. I was not prepared for what next happened. They took to it effortlessly, expressing themselves with their bodies in a way that language had not allowed them to. The stories that emerged  were personal, powerful and told with fierce honesty.

I was so overcome with emotion that I had to pause and confront what had just happened. As a facilitator, I knew the group needed to know what they had just accomplished. And I allowed TO and Boal to guide me. I told them that Image Theatre was a language they had just started to learn, and within a few minutes, they had graduated from alphabets to writing sentences and then whole paragraphs in this new language. The girls looked at each other with shy pride, and were eager to do more work with this new language. They produced three group images and felt confident enough to present them in front of the whole school at morning assembly the next day – without any supervision on my part. The applause from the whole school boosted their confidence even further. They were ready now to work on scenes.

Budding Jokers! Facilitating an image theatre exercise


A time to go back to the basics

I find it difficult to imagine doing theatre, such an embodied practice, online. Without being able to feel, and touch, and smell bodies standing near you in the same physical space.

However, the COVID 19 pandemic and the extended periods of lockdown have challenged us all to rethink many familiar and comfortable assumptions. And to consider what our options might be, given the uncertainties surrounding both the duration of the lockdown and the nature of the ‘new normal’ post lockdown.

Many theatre practitioners across the globe are experimenting with digital workshops, and even shows. I want to share what I discovered and have come to believe after a few  weeks of trying to keep an open mind.

My first experiment was fun, exciting and opened my eyes to some possibilities of this online format. I was invitedainvited to lead a 45 minute Image Theatre session with a small group of teenagers. Their great enthusiasm and keenness to do and learn something new carried me along, as we moved past the technical challenges, and managed to see and experience the possibilities of Image Theatre.  But I could not help feeling that the experience would stay superficial, would never get powerful or magical as Image Theatre sessions do. Maybe it was because the new format slowed us down, or because someone joined late and instructions had to be repeated.

The question is: is what is missing critical to the experience that I was trying to create for the participants? I believe it is. The power of Image Theatre comes from its nonverbal nature, which gets us to stay with our body and listen to the body. The instructions from the facilitator to ‘not get into your head’, to follow your instinct, to make an image in 5 seconds and freeze, are all vital, to ensure the experience is deep and in the body.

Is anything else happening in this format that is new and different from the earlier on site, face to face experience? How vital is this new element?   Unless we ask these questions we cannot move forward. As more and more experiments happen, what is needed is serious documentation, feedback and analysis.

Augusto Boal the man who created Theatre of the Oppressed drew his inspiration from the educational ideas of Paulo Freire. The central philosophy of the pedagogy they both believed in and promoted is: respect the wisdom of the communities you work with. Both Freire and Boal created teaching/learning strategies that honoured the participants and their stories. We need to keep this in mind as we experiment with TO.

There are TO practitioners who address the kinds of struggles Boal initially looked at in Brazil, struggles of people who are economically, socially and politically marginalised.  When Boal was forced to live and work outside Brazil, in Europe, he created structures – Cop in the Head and Rainbow of Desire – that address  internalised oppressions. These have become very popular worldwide, especially among urban educated populations. Both these kinds of work are important and necessary.

As we try to reimagine our work in COVID times, it is good to remind ourselves of the purpose and the meaning of the work. It is so easy to get carried away by the novelty of the new medium, the excitement of learning new technical skills , and the joy of connecting with people.


What Karur teaches me


Karur is a small town in Tamil Nadu, known for its bed sheets. It has a central town area, bustling with shops, hotels, and schools and colleges, and then hundreds of villages and semi urban districts.

Before April 2013, I had never had occasion to think about Karur or its women. Now, I know a few things , and each one is a treasured experience.  I like Andipatti for its calm but am not sure I can take that level of quiet; I really like the  temple by the river, sitting on the steps leading down to the river and talking and laughing, as the sun sets, with the hum of the mosquitoes the only other sounds we hear,  Kombupalayam, the unbelievably clean streets and houses, the Cauvery, the luscious green trees,  and Jaya’s*  mother who lives alone in the family house in the village, and, like so many of the village women I met, can put so many so-called feminists to shame. And of course the town, the crazy traffic on shop-lined streets, young girls in salwar-kameez and married women in saris going to work at the crack of dawn, the sudden reality of Tasmac, the government –approved ‘wine shops’ every hundred yards or so, which makes you notice the many men simply lounging around, not working; and I know the hotels by the morning coffee they serve.

When I took up this project I was too excited – and perhaps too arrogant in my confidence in Theatre of the Oppressed- to worry about the challenges there might be.

The excitement came from the vision of the organisers. To create a space for women to come together, share their experiences, talk about problems, learn to believe in their own capacity for change, and gradually become change agents within their families and their communities. The organisers believed that Theatre of the Oppressed could give them such a transformative experience, for themselves first, and then the training to carry this into their communities. I believed it too.

Every single visit, every single workshop threw up new challenges. I quickly abandoned notions that had been sacrosanct before. Notions such as coming on time, or not missing sessions. I cannot talk about punctuality to Vani who takes two buses and travels two hours to come to the training- and the buses are every hour, so if she misses one by even 2 minutes, she waits a whole hour. Uma does not know if she can come for the training, until she after she has sent her children off to school and checks on her husband’s mood on that particular day. Andal and Kamala are housewives coming out of their homes for the first time, so if one is sick or has a family function and cannot come, the other is too timid to venture out alone. Just as you start to think, ‘but surely after two months they must feel bold’, you make a trip- in an A/C FastTrack taxi- to their Panchayat Level Federation meeting,  travelling 40 kms one way, and you are grateful they come when they come.

Then there are questions that follow me like shadows. I know they will not go away. Not soon at least.

What should I do about Gayatri, fiery and boldly articulate, who had everyone laughing and applauding her performance in the forum play – and never returned after the first training?  I find out that her husband has forbidden her to come to ‘these kind of things’.

My first visit to Andipatti. The women look cheerful and ready to play games. I think it would be fun to do Big Wind Blows and start to put chairs in a circle. Kamala whispers in my ear that we could play without chairs. I say no, no, it won’t work without chairs. She insists that it’s best not to have chairs. I get it- there is a problem here. What? Two of the women are from a lower caste than the rest of the group, and will not sit on chairs in their presence. What right do I have to walk in and disturb structures I don’t experience or understand? Can I sleep in peace, knowing I have not confronted what I feel is a wrong?

The training sessions swing me wildly between despair and joy.

I design an exercise to explore the concept of ‘space’- an alien notion to the women, it appeared at first, and am thrilled when they reveal wonderful bold understandings of personal space.

There seems to be no Tamil word for ‘facilitator’. So, I write ‘facilitator’ in Tamil on the board, we practise saying it, and get on with figuring out how to facilitate sangam meetings.

I am trying to do Freire without mentioning his name. Or even Boal. Or Theatre of the Oppressed. Keep whittling the ‘content’ down, till every single thing we’re doing is dictated by the needs of the women in the field. It feels a little strange initially, but gradually I get used to it, and in fact, I am energised by the freshness of everything I do.

And these workshops in Karur develop a special flavour – as delicious as the kal dosai at Veera’s Veg/Non-Veg.

*all the names of women appearing in this piece have been changed





Of men, women, and dialogue

I have been re- reading Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In his Introduction to the book, Donaldo Macedo quotes Freire on dialogue: “ In order to understand the meaning of dialogical practice, we have to put aside the simplistic understanding of dialogue as a mere technique…. Dialogue is a way of knowing and should never be viewed as a mere tactic to involve students in a particular task… I engage in dialogue because I recognize the social and not merely individualistic character of the process of knowing. In this sense, dialogue presents itself as an indispensable component of the process of both learning and knowing.”

Recently I got to experience first hand how challenging it is to get people to actually dialogue with each other. Engage in dialogue in order to truly, sincerely, find out, know, or understand things, and not to show what one already knows, to prove oneself right, or put anyone down.

It was International Women’s Day, and I had the opportunity of doing a short activity with a group of senior citizens. Except for 2, all were married. Some were now single, having lost their spouses. There was an almost  equal number of men and women.

Everyone was given a piece of paper and a pen. They were asked to close their eyes and think of the most important quality that they felt a woman needed to have. Having identified this quality, they wrote it down. A woman volunteer went around and collected the chits from all the men; a man collected the chits from the women. The volunteers then read out what the men had written, followed by what the women had written.

I paused, then asked the group if they observed anything about the two lists.

“We’re all educated, living in the 21st century, yet our thinking is old fashioned and traditional. All the qualities put down were so traditional.”

“Most of the qualities were the same, in the two lists.”

Were there any that were different, I asked. “Yes, self confidence.” How many had put that down as the most important quality for a woman to have? The volunteer who had read out the women’s chits said “ Three. The qualities were self confidence, and self esteem”.

I turned to the group again. How many of you feel this quality is important for a woman to have? Almost all hands went up. One of the men spoke up: When you asked us to identify the most important quality for a woman, I wrote spontaneously. But now, thinking about it a little more, I can see that self confidence is important.

I pointed out that there were no right or wrong answers to this question. We were simply recording our observation. And what we observed is that none of the men, and only 3 women, thought  “self confidence’ was the most important quality for a woman to have.

One of the men observed that the framing of the question was faulty. He explained his stand thus: we were asked to identify the most important quality, and we did. We’re not saying ‘self confidence’ is not important. But you asked for only one quality. I asked, did you put down what you thought was the most important? He said, yes. Then there’s no problem, I said. If what you identified as the most important quality in a woman was not ‘self confidence’, it’s ok. We’re not saying that all the other qualities are not important. The gentleman did not seem entirely satisfied, but stayed quiet, and I decided to move on.

I now asked the group: Why is self esteem in a woman important? What would happen, for example, if a mother had low self esteem? How does it affect the family?

A woman spoke up: A woman with low self esteem brings up children with low self esteem. They then struggle in their own lives.

Do we see low self esteem as a problem for women in many Indian households? Many voices chorused ‘yes.’ Does this have something to do with how girls are brought up? The many messages  of fear and doubt that a girl grows up hearing, that hit at her self worth, implying that she is not good enough as she is, but needs to acquire a large set of skills and qualities – you are finally going to another house, another family; don’t do anything to bring dishonour to our family; learn to cook; listen; adjust; etc etc. ? There was silence and many heads nodding.

I repeated my earlier statement about there being no right or wrong answers. This was simply an attempt to capture some of our thoughts, feelings and ideas around women. Some of our articulations today may have been generated by feelings of the moment, and may well change tomorrow or the next time we answer the same question. On International Women’s Day, acknowledging that men and women need to work together, let us also try to understand how men and women think about our common issues, and why.


My Space? What is that?

Most parents of teenagers are used to being told “ Give me some space!” . We are also familiar with “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.”( Gibran) So the concept is not new. However, it seems to have become associated more commonly with urban living and urban thinking.

I would like to share a small exercise that helped me explore this concept in the small town of Karur, in Tamil Nadu, with a group of women. The women were wives and mothers, for whom the home was where they spent most of their time. Although a few of them also worked outside the home, the home and the family always came first.

I was training the group in exercises from Theatre of the Oppressed, to help them explore the definition of a community leader, and understand how the ideas of participatory democracy worked in community spaces. One of the exercises I wished to do with them was the Bus Forum, which Augusto Boal uses to demonstrate the idea of Forum Theatre. In this exercise, a few chairs are arranged to recreate the inside of a bus , and two volunteer actors play the two characters, a male and a female passenger. The female passenger gets in at a stop. At the next stop, the male passenger boards the bus, and although all the other seats on the bus are free, occupies the seat next to the woman. The woman is visibly uncomfortable, but does not raise any objection. She chooses to silently suffer her discomfort.

The task before the audience is, first, to identify the problem that the scene highlights, and then,  replacing the female protagonist, take some action that will rid her of her discomfort.

This Forum is one of the most often used exercises from Boal, because it is easy to set up, does not require any rehearsal, and the theme is universally relevant. Most audiences identify the problem as ‘invasion of the woman’s personal space.’ However, sometimes the question of personal space itself is debated on. One argument being that the concept is ‘Western’, and that in a country like India, with so much poverty and so many slums, the concept, if it exists at all, needs to be redefined. Or, that the man was simply sitting in the seat next to the woman, and as long as he is not touching her physically or abusing her in any other way, there was no violation of her space. The concept of space seemed negotiable.

This was the reason why I wanted to do a preliminary exercise with the Karur group, before getting into the Bus Forum.

The group sat in a circle, eyes closed. I asked each woman to think of her favourite place in the house. Once they identified the place, I asked them

How much time do you spend in this place?

How do you feel when you are in this place?

When they opened their eyes and shared, they spoke of the kitchen, the sofa in the living room, the space just outside the house under a tree, the terrace. One of them said her favourite place was not in the house, but a particular spot in the local temple.

The amounts of time they spent in their favourite place varied from an hour or two to a few minutes, sometimes at a stretch, sometimes spread out through the day.

Most interesting were the feelings they described. Their faces came alive when they described what they do when they are there. One woman spoke about feeling happiest when she is cooking for the family. She knows the family enjoys her cooking, and there’s a great sense of achievement at the end of it. She does not think of it as ‘work’. One woman spoke of watching TV around 11 in the morning, sitting on the sofa in the living room, after the husband and children have gone off for the day. She feels free, relaxed, and happy. Yet another spoke of the hour or more she spends in the evening, relaxing on a charpai under the tree in the compound of her house, from where she can see everyone passing by, and maybe talk to a few people. Coming out of the house feels good, she said. One more woman spoke of a place outside the home. This place, near a particular pillar in the local temple, was ‘her’ spot, she said. Once when she went to the temple at her usual time, she found a group of 2-3 young men sitting there. She felt extremely upset, thought she couldn’t ask them to vacate the space, as it was a public place. But she felt restless and agitated that whole evening.

When the day’s work is done, a few minutes alone on the terrace is an absolute must, this young woman said. However busy the day, however late it was, and however tired she felt, she would go to the terrace before she slept, even if for a few minutes. Here, she felt that her head cleared, and she could think creatively, and find solutions to problems.

At the end of the session, we all sat for a few minutes, thoughtful, silently processing all the information we had received. We had tried to identify what ‘my space’ meant to each of us, and it appeared to be a combination of place, time and feeling. In doing so, we had shared with the group something very valuable for us. Revealed a part of our identities that we hold dear. Raising the question : what will we do if this was snatched away from us?

A good way to enter the Bus Forum!

How we tell stories II

“Oh God, I’m terrified when I think of my husband retiring!” said S.

We were a group of women, all of us nearing 60 or past 60, members of a senior citizens club that met once a fortnight. The talk somehow came round to retirement, particularly retired husbands, which was when S’s outburst happened. When the laughter died down, we considered making a play on this theme. Our previous forum play had been on dementia, and S had been wanting to do something light and funny. A play about the travails of a wife having to babysit her freshly retired husband seemed the perfect choice.

Creating the scenes was effortless. Everyone contributed real life scenarios, and our play was ready in no time. Scene 1 showed the husband – let’s call him R – returning from a leisurely morning walk, taking off his shoes and relaxing on the sofa with the morning paper. His wife- let’s call her S- emerges from the kitchen and says, “It’s 8 30”. No response. “Chandra will come.” “Mm”. After a few minutes, “ Why can’t you read the paper after your bath? If Chandra goes, who will clean the bathroom?” “Alright, alright! “ Paper flung down on the coffee table.

Two more scenes, in a similar vein, and the more S and R talk, the farther apart they seem to grow. If S wants him to eat hot food, he will chat with his friends on the phone, letting the food go cold. He buys her a fancy kitchen gadget, and all she can think of is “ It’s so expensive, I can’t give it to Chandra to clean!” The play ends with the husband saying in frustration, “You will never understand!”

It was time to rehearse. We invited one of the men from the club to play R. He was recently retired. As we went through rehearsal, the play began to change, quite significantly. In Scene 2, S leaves for a lunch party with her friends, leaving R’s lunch on the table. R is watching TV. He then calls his friend at the office. We had decided to let the actor improvise this conversation. The actor playing R greets his friend, and exchanges some banter about work and other friends. It is lunch time, the friend is on his way to the canteen, and teases him about being privileged to enjoy hot home cooked food. R mumbles an inaudible response, and changes the subject. This telephone conversation, played by a man who was recently retired, was more authentic than anything we could have written, and subtly but definitively let us know that the man was an equal protagonist in the story.

We did 3-4 shows in Bangalore. We got a lot of laughs, at all the right places. Chandra was a big hit- it was obvious she was a big presence in people’s lives. Audiences really got involved in the story. In one of the shows, a spectactor replaced the husband in the first scene, and when the wife says “ Who will clean the bathroom?”, answered without hesitation “ I will clean.” A woman sitting in the audience yelled out “ Yeah yeah! Then you will fall and break your leg, and I will have to look after you!” Almost every exchange gave rise to laughs.

We mostly played to senior citizen audiences, and we had men and women eager to replace both protagonists. Sympathies were clearly divided. But it was not until our 4th show that we realised how much more the play had to offer. It was a mixed audience of men and women, in the age group 60-80 years. After several interventions and different strategies were tried out, we reached the final scene. R walks in with a box, “S, see what I’ve got for you!”, and when S sees it’s an expensive food processor, she refuses to be excited by this gift, and the scene- and the play-  ends with R’s final line “ You will never understand!”. The audience was silent, not laughing. No one came up to intervene in this scene. After a pause, I asked, “What is it that she is not understanding here?” “His love”, said a woman from the audience. “Why do you think she is not able to see his love?” “ It happens in all families. When you are young, you are busy with your career, your children, their education, etc. You have no time for each other. Then when the children are gone, you are like strangers living under the same roof. ” The whole room was quiet, and heavy with sadness. After a moment, an old gentleman from the front row got up to replace the husband. He looked at S with a smile, “It’s ok if you don’t want to use this. I got it because you stand in the kitchen for so long, and this will save you some time. I was thinking of you, but if this was the wrong choice, we can get something else.”  S smiled back. We all smiled, feeling so much lighter. We needed that magic moment.

Would the original husband, who is coping with retirement, have been able to overcome his frustration of the moment and speak to his wife in this manner, expressing his love rather than his hurt and anger? This is what, as the forum joker, I would normally ask the audience after such an intervention. That day, I chose not to. As I said, we needed that magic. Much more than the so called real. And who’s to say it’s not possible?

To push or not to push

“Ma’am, we don’t know what you are expecting from us.” I was not prepared for how sad these words made me feel. I wanted to take back everything I had said, start over, find a different way to say what I wanted to say. Anything but look into these eyes, hear these voices – I was desperate to wipe out the we-give-up narrative unfolding in front of me, and go back to the start.

We eventually found a way, across the chasms that seemed to be dividing us, this bunch of 18 year olds and 66 year old me. But that moment really rattled me. I did not want to come across as impossible to please, having impossible expectations, and judgemental. The questions buzzing around in my head gave me no peace. If I had not pushed them, would the group have produced the kind of powerful scenes that they did the next day? If I had not realised how terrified they were of my expectations, and eased up on them a little, would they have shut down completely?

This workshop threw up two important questions for me. There were several more, many of the usual facilitator issues, but these two questions came up in a new way, and as connected to each other. The first – how does one know, as a facilitator, where to draw the line between pushing and letting go? And the second – how does one stay true to oneself without imposing one’s opinions on the group?

In this particular workshop, it was the moment I describe in the opening paragraph when I came face to face with my confusion. Do I know who or what I am? If I’m confused about what I believe in, how can I have clarity in my work?

Although I hate to admit it, is there something about ‘this generation’ that I find myself disapproving of? Worse, does this disapproval communicate itself without my knowledge, when I facilitate, during debriefs and discussions?

I believe in the principles of Theatre of the Oppressed. I believe we need to create spaces where people can come together and feel heard, respected, and valued. Where difference is respected. Where we learn to raise our voice against oppression, wherever and in whatever form we see it. Oppression based on age, gender, class, caste or language.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” I believe in this, and therefore do not hesitate to encourage my workshop participants to dig deep into themselves, no matter how uncomfortable it gets. So, when my 18 year olds were reluctant to express and explore their feelings, I understood the reluctance but felt I needed to push them to get into unfamiliar territory. For their own good. I assumed it was reluctance. I did not realise until they told me in so many words that they had no idea what I expected from them. They had played the game, they enjoyed it. They simply had no clue what more was expected of them.  “ nice”, “fun”, “enjoyed”- why were these responses not enough? Why did I feel let down?

I stayed with my questions one whole evening, and resolved to try very hard to stay true to the moment, to really listen, and not have any other predetermined agenda. When I met the group the next morning, I announced that we would begin with a few games, and they were delighted. I also announced that the rest of the day would be more serious work, based on the sculpting they had learnt the previous day. It helped that they had actually enjoyed the sculpting exercise, and also felt the power of it. After the games, I introduced the process for creating images of moments of conflict, an intense, deep and often disturbing process, essential to creating personal stories of struggle. I was prepared to see resistance. In the middle of this eyes closed process, two students opened their eyes, came up to me, and declared that they wanted to sit this out. I could see that the process had disturbed them deeply. The rest of the group completed the exercise, which culminated in short scenes of personal struggle, all based on real, shared stories. The two who had dropped out of the exercise, joined in the playmaking process later, without sharing their own stories. Before the performances started, I told the group that although they had created and rehearsed their scenes that morning, all in the span of 2 hours, actually they had been working towards this from Day 1.  That every game, every image they had made, in the 2 days prior to this, was in fact a preparation for the plays. I saw thoughtful understanding on many of the faces.

When the workshop ended that afternoon, I felt that I was not the only one feeling a huge sense of accomplishment.

Some excerpts from the feedback:

“ When we were playing these games and doing these activities, they actually reminded me of the events, encounters that I’ve had previously and it felt amazing and in some cases depressing also, because not all these encounters are happy. I feel I was able to face these ‘demons’ that people call in a more welcoming way than before. It felt nice addressing these issues that were inside me.”

“I think expressing what you feel is very important. It can be right or wrong but it will always give you something. [ This workshop] also helped me to be myself and share my thoughts instead of just being in a group and do whatever they do. Although it scared me, it also gave me ideas to think about.”  

 “The thing that I’m taking away is some peace of mind. The thing is I was really a very happy person, but I am being sad these days due to some personal reasons. This workshop made me a little happy”

“There are many memories which are unforgettable in this workshop. I really got the capacity of hearing to someone which I don’t have.”

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