An illustrious presence at the international seminar organised by the National School of Drama on the occasion of Bharat Rang Mahotsava 2006 was that of Richard Schechner who had come from New York where he edits TDR and heads the Department of Performance Studies. A leading avant-gardist of the 1960s, he is identified with environmental theatre for which he was inspired mostly by the Ramlila of Ramnagar. Chaman Ahuja met Professor Schechner in Delhi. Excerpts from the conversation.
On the current scenario of theatre in the United States
The scenario is complex because there is lot of activity of different kinds in different fields. The Broadway, which was once known for spectacular musicals, is now growing serious. Recently, there have been productions of O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet and a play called Doubt which was about scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. Anyway, being the capital of a capitalist country, life in New York is no longer culture-oriented; it is money-oriented.
The artistic people have started moving to places like Chelsea and Brooklyn. Theatre people in smaller distracts are doing interesting work like deconstructing classic texts or mixing theatre with videos, projections, constructions, fiction, information technology; in a recent production about identity theft, the technical people sat on the front of the stage and the actors performed on the back. Then we have the University Theatre, the Regional Theatre. And some political theatre, too: Bread and Puppet Theatre is there still, but it hasn’t been effective in bringing people into the streets or spurring them to take action.
On regional theatre
Regional theatre in India signifies theatre in a certain language using the form of region; not so in the States. Time was when there were professional theatre groups only in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles; in the 1950s and 1960s, with money from the Ford Foundation, there sprang up a network of theatre groups in cities like Minneapolis, San Francisco, Houston, Washington. This is what we call the Regional Theatre. Work here is not as exciting as the new works on the Broadway or as the experiments Off-Off Broadway. Broadly speaking, their plays are for the middle class audiences, usually re-runs of classics. With no region-wise peculiarities, it is the same kind of work for the same kind of audiences; what is more, the same actors keep moving from one region to another.
It is often assumed that happenings have happened and are happening no more. The fact is that the happenings have changed into non-dramatic theatrical performances — performances that have no stories with beginning, middle and end; instead they show people in different kind of situations.
Imagine a performance by a woman in Marina that lasted for 12 days — from 8 in the morning till 6 at night. She didn’t speak a single word; she was only seen in her "home" (comprising a bathroom, a kitchen, a sitting room), moving from one room to another, eating, sitting, sleeping, going to toilet, having a shower — sometimes dressed, at times naked.
Sometimes performing arts people tell stories about themselves e.g., Spalding Grey in his Sex in depth up to the age of fourteen or My life in the American theatre; his Grey’s Anatomy was about his body, about his medical problems. In Couple in a cage, two artists inhabited a cage like exhibits in a zoo and behaved like two newly discovered native Americans.
On the experimental trends
First and foremost, the integration of the media with live performance; next comes the autobiographical exploration of one’s own life or experiences. Then there is ‘documentary’ theatre that presents the current events in a critical way.
For example, when the homosexual Mathew Shepherd was murdered, there came Bellamy Project which was built on interviews with Shepherd’s friends and detractors. Sometime fictitious material is presented in the format of documentaries; a Lebanese production created a fictional world through interviews, video projections, techniques of the new media.
On the impact of the Asians and Africans on the performing arts
African influence is very profound, especially in music — through rap, hip-hop, jazz, blues, etc. The way the Blacks have impacted language and dress, one could even say that the American culture has been Africanized. As for the Asians, Chinese presence in American theatre has been noticeable through plays like Butterfly. Indians do their own plays occasionally but such productions are yet to become integral part of the mainstream.
On the way the ‘Eastward-look’ made an impact on the West
Broadly speaking, the impact has been on two levels. In theatre, it is through the training process — the way yoga and martial arts have been absorbed.
The American actor today is more physically trained than his Indian counterpart. In the realm of popular culture, films have been influenced by the visual culture of the East-witness, Flying Dragon, Crouching Tiger.
On a unified global theatre
That is not the direction I would like theatre to move into. India is a multiple nation with many languages, religions, customs, traditions — that is the beauty of Indian culture. I won’t be happy if everything is gathered and focused on a single enterprise. Ditto for globalisation. The over-arching tendency of globalisation is to systematise, synthesise or homogenise. Instead of supporting this process, culture workers should resist it. They should emphasise the particular, the decentralised, the local. I am all for ‘glocal’ — the local expression of the global.
On the westernisation of cultures in the East
The process of acculturation is quite intricate. People talk of colonisation of culture, but the fact is that at a certain level it is the colonial culture that gets nativised. At a certain point, after some generations, things become indigenous. Take English in India; it is now one of the Indian languages. When I read a novel by Rushdie or Vikram Seth, I am reading not an English novel but an Indian novel by an Indian who happens to write in English. Christianity in India: does it remain a western religion? Or, for that matter, architecture, painting and music.
On Indian theatre as reflected in Bharat Rang Mahotsava
I am impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of the people involved. However, overdone energy and passion lead to overacting. Indian actor is not well-trained in the proper use of the body and thus he tries to make up with body for the want of skills. In a great actor, only 20 per cent is visible, the rest is within; here everything is on the surface.
As for the use of technology, it is by no means very new as friends here tend to believe — nor is it as sophisticated and subtle as it should be; nevertheless, it is welcome. In Midnight’s Children, it did help the production. Without the projections, the play could not have been as powerful as it is. The images of the Partition, of Nehru, of Indira Gandhi, helped bring the novel come out on the stage.