For the jungle is large
The boy he is small
For the village is large
The people, they are small
For the world is large
And we are small
LET US THINK
....AND BE STILL
- Closing lines from the stage production
THE JUNGLE BOOK-RUDYARD REVISED
Having spent the entire month of September in California, totally immersed in the process-driven creation of the ambitious story of THE JUNGLE BOOK, I thought that this edition would focus on the insights and experiences gained from the project. Mowgli, the story of the boy in the jungle, though filled with colonialist land mines, has captured the imagination of readers, film and theatre makers throughout the 20th century and into the present day.
I have worked with PANGEA WORLD THEATRE in Minneapolis 25 years ago and watched how a fledgling South Asian theatre company slowly worked its way into the mainstream flow of the live arts. Every thought and act by founder/partners Dipankar Mukherjee and Meena Natarajan, was done with a view of becoming a force for change for people of colour, even before those terms BIPOC and other acronyms became popular. Today PANGEA is an award winning American theatre treasure house.
This kind of passion inspires me. I have walked much of that road, although I was never a corporate woman. I have used the backdrop of my business family to push me into developing modalities and templates of how to be a professional in the notoriously chaotic and feudal landscape of India's dance and theatre.
ENACTE ARTS is located in the wealthiest pocket of the United States. All the major Tech CEO's live here as well as the NRI billionaires. Instead of reaching into their pockets to support or even buy tickets for a show, they would rather buy their 4th home or 2nd yacht! The challenge for the Live Arts is endless. Everywhere!
However, there were so many takeaways from the 6 weeks of creation and rehearsal and I hope you will be interested in my observations.
So here goes!
Even before I entered the rehearsal space, all the actors were mandated to read/watch and sign the following.
1. Actor contracts.
2. Creating online accounts for time sheets and payment gateways.
3. Agreeing and signing off on behaviour rules and inter personal relationships between the actors.
4. #METOO warnings and other inter cultural triggers that may be misinterpreted during the rehearsals.
5. Weekly and then daily 8am and 8pm e-mails about rehearsal plans and which actors were required to be present.
6. Time allotted for grievances and concerns in private counselling.
7. Theatre timelines for costume, make-up and tech trials.
8. No accepting other performances during the final two weeks leading up to the premiere.
Yes! It was a bit overwhelming for me!
Cultural differences did rear up now and then. For example, when one of the choreographers wanted to get the actor's attention, he just clapped his hands quickly twice - like we would do casually in India to stop unnecessary chatter and to refocus attention - the reaction was not positive and interpreted as "deeply hurtful".
However, when some of the actors turned up in totally unacceptable attire, too much skin exposure or, in one instance, just a gold bra and tights - neither director nor the producer were able to make any comment since in America it is considered an insult to comment on personal choice of attire!
I was thinking of how easy it is for us in India to call someone aside and caution them about this kind of behaviour, and how sensible the uniform of the dance practice sari is for all classical dancers. Here, I could not dream of even making a comment to a fellow actor for fear of being "out of touch". When I was trying to correct the posture of one actor, I had to ask her for permission to touch her shoulders. Again, something we would do automatically in India.
California has such distinct employment laws and it is very expensive to create work of quality for a non-profit organisation. Interns have to be paid and all actors are paid minimum wage (around $17 an hour) for rehearsals. With 18 hour work week in the studio and two days off (Monday and Friday) it has taken ENACTE ARTS a full two years to bring this work onto the stage. Covid interrupted and pushed all schedules back by a full year and the added delays have cost the company thousands of dollars. 32 actors on stage, several understudies and a tech crew of 14. Administrative staff of 8. Lots of volunteers (this is where the Indian family culture of picking up snacks, chauffeuring guests to the local pharmacy or supermarket came in really handy) and costume assistants, speciality make-up people for the jungle face paint - it was literally like a small village on the sets.
All the adult actors were working at least 1 or 2 jobs during the day and were showing up for rehearsals at 6pm for 5 days a week. Minors were assigned one adult for the entire duration of the rehearsals. Every Monday the rehearsal plans were communicated to the cast via e-mail. Through a special software, all actors got paid every week like clockwork. There was someone assigned as rehearsal director, accounting, PR manager and communications. The social media and PR mandate was also clear. The hashtags, Instagram and Twitter handles were all covered in the guidelines. Each actor was taped talking about their character and back story. Varying media blasts every 5 days with the focus on one aspect of the show was also methodically planned. Everything was done online via daily uploads. Watching videos each morning of the previous day rehearsal was very helpful. It forced me to submit to a system and remain open to learning the new dynamics of production teams.
These clinical/tech driven methods are coming to India. I have just completed a very demanding set of forms for a festival and the amount of information needed in advance is frankly disorienting. In the spirit of being "professional", perhaps these young Indian arts managers are losing sight of the true spirit of the arts - being open, adaptive and flexible.
#THE CREATIVE CRUCIBLE
After many years, I was getting re-accustomed to working with a cast with varied abilities, several young children and lots of egos simmering under the surface (that last part was not new!). In my own world of dance and dance theatre, I have become set in certain ways of working and creating. Forcing me to shift was also a much needed jolt.
The TJB cast is so diverse - Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, Irish, African American, Puerto Rican, Mexican, several from the non binary denominations and of course, Indians. Differing body types, from very tall to very large and very petite make for an arresting diversity of visuals. Ages ranged from 7 to 70 years.
Watching daily warm ups led by different actors was a fun way of getting everyone to get involved. Applauding one or two actors after each rehearsal for giving their best made each of us recognise this process as an ensemble work. We were also encouraged to learn the lines and choreography of the actor we were sharing a scene with. As KAA, the mysterious and wise cobra, I have most of the scenes with MOWGLI but I tried to learn the lines of the jungle creatures as well.
Having special days assigned for "stumble throughs" and an "Italian run through" was something I had not done in a very long time. A STUMBLE THROUGH is when the play is rehearsed and stopped for corrections and sometimes scenes skipped for those that need more time and attention. An ITALIAN RUN THROUGH is when all actors sit around in a circle and say their lines super fast... like Italians speak... as a great memory trigger. We had daily vocal lessons in western and Carnatic scales, since we were all singing, dancing and acting with body mikes.
In an ensemble, one has to learn how to adjust and adapt to what the script demands. Although I am the senior most and best known name on the cast, I did not react when some of my lines were reassigned to another actor or when my solo was trimmed. It is what the story needed and making a fuss is not a professional way to behave. Discussing these changes privately with the director helped me understand that my presence was powerful enough to make an impact when it mattered.
#REVISED NOT RECLAIMED
One of the ways in which director/producer Vinita Belani has been able to re-tell this global story set in an Indian jungle, was to cast two actors - one as Rudyard Kipling, the British author, and the second, Mayur the peacock. In the original story there is no mention of a peacock but in this version, Mayur is the conscience that reminds Kipling that he needs to rethink some of his outdated concepts. Like casting the tiger SHER KHAN as the enemy - now that tigers are being hunted to extinction, and that there is no Indian word called MOWGLI. Kipling chose this name because he THOUGHT it meant FROG. SHER KHAN has been renamed as SHER BAAGH - a combination of tiger and lion and several mentions of "Bhabi", Mausi", "Chotebhai" locate the story in a North Indian village. Rear screen projections, great music by George Brooks (including a foot stomping, Bob Fosse jazz ending) and costumes by Oona Natesan and Sandhya Raman have contributed to making this a truly special production.
Working with choreographer Aparna Sindoor was a new experience. This Bharatanatyam dancer from Mysuru who trained with the hereditary guru K. Venkatalakshamma, has forged her own pathway in the US. Moving from Boston to Los Angeles has given her the much needed fillip to expand her choreographic footprint. Creating martial art based dance theatre work, Aparna and her artistic partner Anil Natyaveda, have been producing innovative work over the past 15 years. I saw clips of a 2009 stunning production called ENCOUNTER. Inspired by Mahashweta Devi's famous short story DOPDI (Draupadi), the show highlights reports of the Indian army's violence in the Northeast. The rape scene had Aparna hanging upside down for a full 7 minutes with three men stacked above her, also in suspension. The image itself was chilling.
I returned to Kalari positions as training for my body to get into deep lunges for the role of KAA. Yes, my limbs ached but after two weeks I felt stronger and more flexible. With Covid still raging everywhere in the US (and with several members of the cast) all our rehearsals were conducted with masks on! It was exhausting trying to speak, dance and sing but it helped the voice projection for the actors!
One of the rare opportunities for any India based dancer-performer is to move into the theatre and have three full days of rehearsals and tech. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of each week were spent in blocking and rehearsing in the actual space and having two full costume/make-up and lighting rehearsals. And four shows every weekend. Can we dream of this ever in India? Even one day is a huge luxury. But 3 days???
During opening weekend, there was a special reception for the patrons and donors to meet the actors in a relaxed back stage event after a matinee show. For the younger actors to listen to appreciation of their hard work was a huge morale booster The enduring impact of THE JUNGLE BOOK story on all ages and across geographies reminded me of the power of live performance.
My role is limited to the 14 shows in Palo Alto, Houston and San Francisco. An understudy takes over to continue the run. Creating the role of KAA was the experience I did not want to miss. It was not like I was stepping into a readymade work. This was being built step by step through discussions, improvisations and explorations. Spending 6 weeks in California gave me the distance to take a deep breath and reflect on my year so far. There was also the continuing responsibility of keeping up with rehearsal schedules in Chennai for the upcoming season via Zoom and the various webinars and talk sessions that never seem to abate. With the 12 hour time difference, I was sometimes speaking at 9.30pm after a 7 hour rehearsal day!
I recall the first version of A MILLION SITAS in 2010. Looking back, it was like a whole different avatar which evolved into the theatrical and prop infused version of today. It helped that 12 years of constant performances and touring helped make those changes. I am sure that this initial version of THE JUNGLE BOOK-RUDYARD REVISED will have that kind of opportunity. With several US tours and shows planned for 2023 and a possible India version for 2024, watch out for this show as it continues to march through hearts and minds of diverse audiences.
# MOZART GOES DESI
# CIRCLES/CYCLES OF LIFE
I liked what SNS Arts Consultancy created some time ago. On the similar lines to SPEED DATING, Shreya Nagarajan Singh organised SPEED NETWORKING, where artistes could pitch an idea and hopefully find a collaborator to help them along. It is these kinds of spaces that are needed more and more.
Akram Khan has been doing movement and choreography sharing through numerous workshops. Malavika Sarukkai and Aditi Mangaldas are also trying but there needs to be more listening rather than just teaching and preaching. There are very few safe spaces for young/emerging dancers in the diaspora today where they can discuss concerns and pathways for inspiration. The mostly top heavy system returns to the pyramid style structure with the leader/guru always giving advice and rarely encouraging frank and sometimes, uncomfortable comments.
If the super success of the Indian community overseas needs a geographical location, it is right here in Northern California. From tech billionaires to stand up comedians, chefs, DJ's, actors, performers, writers, drag queens, alternate lifestyle advocates and rangoli specialists, this slice of California has everything. Including a sprawling and drug infested San Francisco downtown. And yet the insularity of the communities continues to rise. The current celebrations of Navaratri and upcoming plans for Diwali are so extreme that all weekends are full with nonstop sari shows and GOLU HOPPING. Never mind that our show THE JUNGLE BOOK opened during the Navaratri weekend. We had more non-desis in the audience and that was a very good thing. The Indian community was elsewhere occupied.
# A MURKY MONARCHY
I write this against the backdrop of Queen Elizabeth passing and a new king of England on the throne. Twitter is aflame with rising waves of anger against a monarchy accused of "treason, looting and chicanery". Meanwhile lots of dancers posted pictures of themselves bowing before the late Queen. Others chest bumped with family photos of Her Majesty's visit to India in the 1960's. The responses revealed India's conflicted relationship with the British.
In India, the momentum is building for the December season. Navaratri performances are everywhere - a mini festival of its own. The two annual Chennai dance conferences are all mapped out. Last minute drop outs have been replaced and expectations are running high. Elsewhere in India, performances are occurring at a rapid pace. Crowds are growing. The homage to the late Bharatanatyam guru M K Saroja, mounted in New Delhi by her son ASHISH KHOKAR was a spectacular success.
Mallika Sarabhai is premiering an ambitious production of Jean Claude Carrière’s CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS in Ahmedabad.
In Kuala Lumpur, Ramli Ibrahim and SUTRA dancers completed a sold out 5 day run of JAYA RAM, a mega stage event.
The Tamil epic by beloved writer Kalki Krishnamurthy PONNIYIN SELVAN has hit the movie theatres. Directed by Mani Ratnam, it is a sweeping epic that combines mystery, power, betrayal and history.
Have the Navaratri and upcoming Diwali season perked up your spirits? I hope you find the time to be gentle to yourself, eat a couple of extra laddoos and barfis and not worry too much about some extra weight. Do pamper yourselves, dancers! We are surely worth it! But get fit for the season coming up!
Wear something new or something you love. Think about those who may have lost a family member this year. Include them in your circle.
Until next time,
- Dr Anita R Ratnam
California / Chennai / New Delhi
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
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