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Women as theatre directors

The idea of a woman’s voice in theatre is finally being heard, but prejudices still mar the space

Women as theatre directors

Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry

Let me start by being subjective and talk about the influences that created the contours of my theatre making. I had heard of Pina Bausch performing her latest production, ‘Nelken’ (‘Carnations’), in Delhi. Even though I was unfamiliar with her work, her reputation as a director was formidable. With my band of students from the theatre department at Panjab University, we hopped onto a train and joined the serpentine queue outside the theatre in 1994. I had no references about her work. Mere whispers of her being one of the most unusual theatre makers intrigued and propelled me to experience her work. It was the pre-Google, pre-Wikipedia era.

Seeing her work had me transfixed and bewildered. Her visual, textural and kinetic spectacle on the stage tossed my tidy and safe definitions on what was possible on the stage. The stage, covered with silk carnations, had dancers in cocktail dresses crawling among the flowers, giggling and playing leapfrog before they were confronted by passport officers and snarling dogs. Later in the play, actors sniffed onion slices and cried copiously while a nude woman carried an accordion, silently and hauntingly.

I remember one scene in which an actor emptied a bottle of coffee over her head, while reciting a poem. Buckets of water were thrown on the stage.

Pina Bausch, the legendary German director, ditched classical precepts (straight storytelling) and created shows that drew on, among other things, the performers’ childhood memories, dreams and subjective experiences. There was shouting, conflict, collision, and much rushing around to a soundtrack of popular songs and classical music. I found the work incoherent and illogical and had no tools to access it. My limitations in comprehending a new performance language made me restless. I took the easy way out and rejected it outright. But the show clung to me, gnawing at me, making me restless. My students looked at me for affirmation, analysis and a dialogue but I averted their gaze as I had no vocabulary to explain this performance.

Many days later, it dawned on me like an epiphany: the immense possibilities revealed through this artistic encounter. Anything can be made possible on the stage. It was empowering.

‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, performed by students of the National School of Drama and directed by Anuradha Kapur, made me realise that the lines between art and everyday activity, between play and playing, have increasingly blurred. The play used every nook and corner of the campus and took theatre out of theatre buildings, changing the relationship between the audience and performers. The audience became participants.

It also changed the relationship the audience had with each other. At that time, going to the theatre involved sitting in the dark and hardly acknowledging the presence of strangers with whom we sat shoulder to shoulder. Seeing a play where I, as an audience, was in a constant state of movement, changed my perspective on a play being a ‘frontal viewing experience’. Suddenly, the performance and life, art and everyday activity between the play and playing were blurred.

At the helm of these two plays were women directors. But what does it mean to be a woman director? Does it indicate women in general — such as those who are playing their role within the conventional formulations — or does it suggest a group of women who are holding a certain political position within a performance, and their vision and artistic choices?

The term ‘woman director’ implies a certain amount of ghettoisation. It suggests that, in some ways, women are different. This has changed drastically since I joined theatre in the 1980s. Today, women directors are acknowledged for ‘the art they make’.

Some questions persist nevertheless. Does gender affect the success and failure of one’s work? Do women coming from different regional and social proclivities share anything in common, beyond their biology? Are they accepted on the same platform as men, viewed through the same lens? Are the rules for both the same? The funding, the sponsorships…

Women directors, despite the unity of their concerns, have had an array of viewpoints, with diverse outlooks and practice methodology. The existing blueprints have been avoided, in fact unconsciously rejected, in the search for something new, something fresh. Innovation and experimentation are a heady mix, and women directors have plunged into it as they have nothing to lose.

The word ‘director’ has a resonance that seems to suggest male authority, and that has made acting the obvious career choice for women. In the past, if you were poor but pretty, or came from a family of dancers or musicians, theatre was a good alternative to penury. Even though some of the women left their mark on the professional stage, they never came into positions of power, restricted by the blatant prejudice of not allowing women any say in decision-making. They were completely disenfranchised and confined to a marginalised position, robbing women of their own representation throughout modern theatre history.

The inclusion of women in the pantheon of this male-dominated industry has been a slow and silent revolution. It was inevitable that very little notice was taken of the events that precipitated it. This, to some extent, became the by-product of the women’s movement, which encouraged more women to study direction and inadvertently change the templates of theatre-making.

The question now is that have women managed to create an independent form of aesthetics, a new way of looking at space, text and characters? Have they managed to move away from a stereotypical interpretation of gender? Is there a feminine way of doing things?

I think it was the urge to tell their stories from their own point of view and in their own voice that created this genre known as women’s theatre. It is not to say that women were not telling their stories before that, but they seemed to be more on the fringe, creating a peripheral contribution, while men were clustered at the top of the echelon.

But the real change is noticed in the choice of subject matter. Suddenly, large events and the spectacular were replaced by the quotidian. Women received their inspiration from daily life — the sound of bubbling oil, clothes being washed... Every day, mundane images were transformed and made ‘anew’ to be scrutinised, examined and interrogated. They saw in these little parts of life an importance, equalling those climatic events that are usually associated with high drama.

The historical development and forms of women’s theatre in India have one critical political lesson for us: the response to stasis, rigidity and formalisation is sometimes ordinary, fluid and quiet. The essence of earlier representations of women in the theatre — moving from props to images to clichés to absences — is now taken up as a mantle from where to begin. The images become the real, the absent becomes the visible, and the prop becomes the character — but not through a switch as much as a switch in perspective. Let women be absent, you hear them say, because in absence, when represented properly, there is great power. After all, modernism is as comfortable with mutation as it is with stillness.

If culture wants us to nurture and grow, we will transform, mutate and shake. That is how, beyond the manifestations of our methods, genders and ideologies, women directors are united through modernism. It is the womb that does not gestate as much as it accelerates.

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