We’re back with an extended Season 2 for Unrehearsed Futures! At our 21st conversation, we had Lecoq pedagogue Norman Taylor and UK-based director, actor and teacher Dr. Ellie Nixon, deliberating on the differences between pedagogy, training, technique, system and curriculum.
Nixon believes that part of pedagogy is about really listening and watching and being watchful of the contexts within which one teaches, who one teaches and what one teaches. She sees pedagogy as a journey of mutual discovery between the student and the teacher. “I think pedagogy is about doubt. The questioning is absolutely about inquiry, rather than mastery. So, I’m really interested in people’s visions and views and experiences of inquiry-based pedagogy. I see pedagogy as a voyage of mutual discovery,” she said during the conversation.
Taylor, who is widely regarded as one of the finest international ambassadors of the pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq, said that doubt within pedagogy always led to questions. “Look for a question. You’ll find a question and then you can learn something,” he said. “It is about listening and watching, not hearing and seeing. When you’re on stage, you want people to watch you and listen; you don’t want them just to hear you and see you occasionally.”
The rest of the conversation had people in the room sharing their understanding of pedagogy and training and delving deeper into the etymology of the word “method” and the intrinsic relationship between teaching and being taught.
STAY TUNED! We will be publishing a long-form article about the talk and the ideas/themes that emerged during the session on our blog in the coming weeks.
It has been one and a half years since the pandemic changed our lives in unimaginable ways. It has changed the way we think about theatre and performance and the digital space. Unrehearsed Futures began with a view to understand how to disseminate theatre pedagogy through the online medium and has now grown into investigating the various aspects of theatre and the possibilities, pluralities and the planetarity that lie within it.
At the 20th session of Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2), co-curator and head of Drama School Mumbai Jehan Manekshaw invited participants in the room to share how the conversations and ideas one encountered here (and elsewhere) around the pandemic moment have manifested in one’s practice.
Starting off the session, Manekshaw shared that his key manifestation through this series of conversations has been embracing and owning the idea of theatre as a process as opposed to theatre as a product. “I’m even trying to figure out how students can work and recognize this within their own practice. I want to foreground how they are improving as human and social beings in their classes and give them that central awareness and connect how theatre practices help them become that,” he said.
The other discovery he has made is the kind of transformational experiences one can have in the digital medium. “The idea is that space can be successfully held here, in this digital space. I’m trying to hold space right now with you guys,” he says. “That’s been a big one. And so suddenly, everything we’re doing in our work is recognizing and embracing that and then looking at how we can robustly and strongly hold quality space for learning, even though it’s digital.”
Art as a whisper-y campaign
For American playwright Kamili Feelings, the past year has made him think about how art therapy, teaching theatre, doing theatre, sharing a conversation with somebody in the street that is inspiring has become more amorphous. Having been part of Unrehearsed Futures conversations has helped be more “artsy” in his teaching and move away from a “do this-do that” approach.
“Art is much more of a whisper-y kind of campaign. It is belief, ultimately,” he says. “You keep whispering. And you say this is what you do. Your kids start repeating things you say, because it’s been inundated in the household, so they start saying the same things and doing the same thing. I think art is like that, too. It’s a process.”
While he is becoming more comfortable in settling into art as a process, he reckons he still doesn’t know how to deal with the theatre industry that is still about making the headlines, showing something, and making yourself useful.
Ruminating about how the lockdown increased the anxiety around “not being productive enough”, co-curator and lecturer at Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies Mbongeni Mtshali talks about Mark Fleishman and Mandla Mbothwe in their conversation about ways of engaging with the ruins of the past. “It really is about being okay with the practice of sitting in them and recognizing that they’re there instead of trying to slip past them, to imagine something new,” he shares. “In fact, the most rich, productive stuff helps us engage with our present, develops our capacity to work with those remains, the rubble, the detritus of these multiple paths we come from.”
Making connections through conversations
At the beginning of the pandemic, co-curator and pedagogic director at Embodied Poetics, Amy Russell, was a strong advocate of bodies in the same space. But over the course of last year, her views have changed. Attending and being part of Unrehearsed Futures has become like a form of theatre, she says. “It seems to me that there is something about people talking across otherwise inhibiting distances. There’s something about that connection, which to me, feels very theatrical.”
Theatre-makers have been living in perpetual anxiety over the “mass extinction” of theatre for the longest time. But the pandemic has heightened these anxieties even more. “Under the pandemic, it seemed to even flower even more,” she comments. “Everybody was able to ask each other across huge distances if theatre was dying over there and how is one keeping it alive. It’s a wonderfully melodramatic thing.”
The pandemic forced theatre practitioners to embrace the void, the unknown. Jenny Lovell, a theatre lecturer at the Melbourne Polytechnic says we need to sit in the void like one does at any traumatic moment and see what comes. Having attended several Unrehearsed Futures sessions, Lovell has found herself going back to the classroom and discussing with students the ideas she came across in the conversations. “So, I’m trying to open up the world to them, because we can get very isolated and isolationist, as well,” she shares.
What she has also begun focusing on more and more is encouraging students to think about what all they do with the skills they learn as theatre-makers. “They get very sick of the Zoom classroom. So, I say to them go on, as an actor, now, you need to audition on this medium, you need to find it, make it your friend. It’s not a horrible thing you’re being forced to do because of a pandemic. How can you use this? How can you create and monetize it for yourself as a young performer?”
Collective reflection has taken on a whole new meaning during this time for South African theatre-maker and academic Lesego Chauke. “A big thing about this kind of medium that has come into my practice and into my teaching, is the importance of collective reflection. Sitting together and reflecting thoughtfully and deliberately,” she says and adds that while students were made to write in their journal and send course evaluations, but the pandemic has given them an alternative way of reflecting that’s more meaningful in many ways.
Adding to this, Feelings argues that it imperative to teach children to invest in process, not product. “We have to push people to say, no, it’s not about you getting something out and you being a great performer and somebody liking you. It’s something else going on. And we need you to record that.”
Look to the future
Regarding using technology to do theatre, Rodolfo Vázquez, founder of SP Escola de Teatro in São Paulo in Brazil, feels that at the moment it is technology that is giving people an opportunity to be together, in different ways. “We should look for the future, not for the past. For example, Google is already researching holographic presence, and I’m sure in 10 or 20 years, we are going to have holographic theatre,” predicts Vázquez.
“And who is going to teach that and learn how to do to deal with that, if not us? Many people are refusing this medium. They are struggling against the future of mankind, which is unrehearsed.”
Sophia Stepf, artistic director of the Berlin-based performance company Flinn Works opines that working online is a fruitful experience for students in terms of building an audience. “It is a space, potentially, for students to figure out how to work digitally, find a really small niche that they are interested in and then see how they can build a worldwide audience,” she says.
As the conversation draws to an end, Vázquez asserts that theatre must occupy the digital space, where capitalism thrives. “We should go there and manifest our or resistance, and also other points of view and find ways of expressing art through a very, very controlling system,” he says. As makers go into this space, one will have to come up with a set of morality and ethics to follow in the digital medium and have more conversations about the value-added processes of theatre.
At our recent conversation for Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2), we were joined by Neil Coppen, a South African theatre-maker and co-founder and co-director of Empatheatre in Durban, and explored collaborative methods of theatre-making to identify matters of concern and a pressing central question.
Since 2014, Coppen shared that the Empatheatre team has tackled social concerns ranging from land based mining and displacement, street level drug addiction, the vulnerability of migrant women and the impacts of xenophobia, gentrification and public housing conflicts, and more recently, ocean heritage and governance. They believe creative and empathetic methods can facilitate deep listening and sharing knowledge across diverse communities.
Coppen, since the beginning of his journey, has always invested in research-based performances. With his partners in crime and co-directors of Empatheatre, Mpume Mthombeni and Dr. Dylan McGary, Coppen has worked with different communities such as the Fuleni and Somkhele communities, people affected by the use of Whoonga, a drug found cheaply in KwaZulu-Natal among others.
Sharing the process of collecting research for Ulwembu, the play on Whoonga, Coppen said that actors became ethnographers and went out into the communities to talk to people affected and collect their research. They spoke to Whoonga users, social workers, police personnel etc. “We were able to say, well, let’s get together and do a year and a half research process of trying to understand this problem. Not just from the perspective of a neighbor or a user, but let’s go speak to the police, to social workers, speak to activists. Let’s spend a year just listening to the stories and attending to those stories first, before even trying to devise some sort of theatrical output or shaping an advocacy strategy through the theatre. And that project was incredibly, incredibly dense and rich,” Coppen shared during the conversation.
The South African theatre-maker also said that their aim was to bring about a transformation within the oppressor and the oppressed. “If we’re not using theatre to actually challenge and change oppressive behaviors then how is transformation or change ever going to be possible through storytelling?” he asked. In Empatheatre’s productions, performances are shown to strategically placed audiences with different levels of agency, power and privilege in relation to the matter of concern. They also facilitate post-play dialogues between different stakeholders, holding space with empathy and co-creating knowledge.
During the course of the enriching conversation, Coppen also shared how he gathers funding for their productions, principles they follow to guide them in their research processes and how they foster communities of care.
STAY TUNED! We will be publishing a long-form article about the talk and the ideas/themes that emerged during the session on our blog in the coming weeks.
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we look at the world around us. It has highlighted existing ruptures, be it climate change, caste-based violence or racism, economic instability etc. In all this, what role does embodied creative practice perform in moments of resistance and rupture? How does the work of activism, political organizing, and social movement building require re-imaginings of theatre and performance pedagogy?
Tackling these questions and more, South African creative social activists and educators Pumelela ‘Push’ Nqelenga and Alex Sutherland engaged in a recent Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2) conversation where they looked at some of the ways in which theatre performance and political activism have interacted in the South African context.
Rupture and resistance
When Nqelenga joined the academic world as a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in 2015, she found herself teaching in a moment of rupture and protest during the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which had begun in March of the same year. It was originally directed at bringing down a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The protests garnered international attention and led to a wider movement to decolonise education in the country. It quickly spread to other universities within South Africa and inspired the emergence of allied student movements across universities in the country and around the world.
In her experience, Nqelenga found that the theatre department at UKZN has had to engage with protest and activism. Considering herself as an activist as well, she says, “I think it is in moments of rupture where my moment of activism really starts to be performed.”
Reflecting on the moments of rupture she has tackled, Sutherland, who taught devising and performance practices in higher education contexts for 17 years before moving into political education in the social justice sector, recalls that apart from the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall protests, they had an important rape protest at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in 2016: #RUreferenceList.
The “reference list” campaign at the University had released a list of alleged rapists linked to the institution on social media, sparking a national debate about rape culture on college campuses in South Africa. Protesting students drew up a list of demands to the university management and threatened to shutdown the campus if they were not met.
“There was this massive protest against rape culture, inaction and silencing of some women’s voices about a culture of rape on campus, which is a worldwide problem, as we know,” explains Sutherland. “And there had been a systematic silencing from senior management about some of the voices. This then erupted into to a very, very angry protest that had been simmering for a long time.”
In all this, Sutherland and her colleagues had to continue teaching as though nothing was happening outside, which she found violent and unethical. But she also saw that it was a moment to gather the students together. So, she quickly designed a workshop using Augusto Boal’s techniques for students to reflect in an embodied collective way about how senior management and many other aspects of the University had responded to this protest.
“As usual, students were criminalized (during the protest). They were pathologized. They were just seen as angry black women. How do we process that in a collective embodied way?” asks Sutherland. “It was an incredibly important moment of using a collective embodied practice to process and think through in terms of the mind and the body, and to express it in a particular way. And it was a very, very powerful moment.”
However, shortly after, the University interdicted the protest and part of that interdict was for silencing academic freedom in fear of stirring students up. Describing how she felt at that time, Sutherland says, “I feel it was the first time in my teaching career that I’d been scared that I was going to be in trouble because I ran this workshop, and that maybe people are taking pictures. It became a really confusing time in this moment of rupture.”
It forced Sutherland to think back to how, under normal circumstances, her attempts of critical pedagogy and asking student to think through difficult situations were earlier lauded by the University. “But as soon as the gaze was turned back on the University itself as an institution of repressive power, there were many, many layers of silencing that went along with that. I think about how, when the body came into pedagogy, there was a particular silencing about that as well. I’m thinking about the naked protest that went within the #RUreferenceList, and how there were layers of surveillance and judgments about that as well,” she recalls.
Sutherland shares another reflection of how she understands “rupture” through creative embodied practice. Having worked with prisoners for a long time, she says she opens up the space for storytelling by telling them that they need not share the story of why they are in prison. Some of their crimes are violent but what she finds interesting is that when one doesn’t start storytelling with a particular identity, it opens up space for many other stories, beyond the crimes one may have committed.
“As soon as we do that, there is a rupture,” she explains. “So, it doesn’t matter for me whether I’m doing theatre making processes in a prison or with university students, the opening up of storying and storytelling through embodied practice is, I think, a deeply political act.”
Changing pedagogical notions of teaching during protest
By 2016, physical intimidation and violence became more visible with the arrival of police on campus at UKZN. “So, guns are pointed at you by the gate and when you’re working. We absorbed this into the body,” recalls Nqelenga. “And we often forget that there is an absorption of this violence in the classroom as well.”
One of the things she noticed at this time was that teaching during a time of rupture and resistance was a modality of activism. “As lecturers in the drama department, we had to question the complexity of our own position. In this moment, what are we doing here? How are we part of the impact?” she asks, sharing some of the questions they faced as pedagogues. “Students, who were activists, found it difficult at times to engage with the body because it was still arrested in the terror of the violence, specifically by the security.”
In 2016, the violence accelerated with the arrival of the police on campus, who began to terrorize students. Nqelenga and her colleagues would hear about situation reports in the morning saying there was a slight unrest at 2 am. But when they listened to voice notes from terrified students, they learned that students were being shot at. “This was terror, not a ‘little bit of unrest’,” she says, adding that UKZN officials were manipulating language and not telling the truth.
The way forward for the department was to engage with this violence (both physical and silent) creatively. “We were finding ways of interpreting life experience for the students and ourselves, so that you hold this complexity in this violent moment. It’s hard to make sense of this context. However, narrative storytelling, song-dance etc. began to use the imaginary as a critical space to make meaning for ourselves and for the students. We opened the complexity through an embodied creative practice. We couldn’t ignore it, in other words. The embodied engagement seemed to hold this difficult space,” she describes.
All of a sudden, the protests began to inform the curriculum and vice versa. Nqelenga says, “We started to see this beautiful dance between the two. We expanded our pedagogical notions of how we can teach during times of protest and rupture. And it also then draws to that question of the decolonial moment that we’re always trying to talk about in academia in South Africa: How are we decolonizing the curriculum?”
Using moments of rupture as opportunities to publish
It fascinates Sutherland that theatre practitioners and educators often talk about – issues of representation, who is telling the story, whose body is on the stage, what it means. They ask these critical questions while making work yet there is a strange juxtaposition from certain academics who then write about a moment of rupture.
“They will write about performances during Rhodes Must Fall, never having even attended a protest, put their bodies on the line or spoken up against anything. Those performance activists become an object of their own research,” she describes. There is very little said about it and critique on it, she adds.
“I found that really disturbing within the academic project, that when you are writing about something, it’s open season, apparently. But when you are in the classroom, as an artist, educator, practitioner, you’re thinking about notions of representation and story, what does it mean, and who we are putting on the stage and who’s witnessing issues of power,” Sutherland says.
During the Fees Must Fall movement, Nqelenga realised that who narrates what’s happening is as important as who takes part in the protests. She recalls instances where there were conference panels for students about Fees Must Fall but not a single panellist had been a part of a protest.
In another instance, a group of academics came together to write an article on “professors of protest” alleging that professors who supported these agitations were instigating students to burn buildings etc. Nqelenga and her colleagues decided to reclaim the term “protest professors” and began calling themselves that. During the student-led protests, UKZN wanted Nqelenga and her colleagues to do a conference. It felt like it was done to serve an agenda of the institution. The lecturers wrote back extensively and said they couldn’t do a conference when students were being shot at. In their response, the institution threatened them by email, insisting they go to the conference.
“I remember feeling extremely, extremely angry at the institution, and how it was violently ignoring the fact that we were in protest, and that we were in a violent situation,” she recalls. “I remember going into this conference on decolonizing Shakespeare, and feeling a sense of defeat, and a sense of, what are we doing as, as academics, in our practice? What are we here to do, really, if we are not engaging with the context, if we’re not engaging with what’s happening outside?” In that moment, she says, she realized that the neoliberal institution itself was as violent as the police at the time.
Bodies on the line
“The bodies that are on the line are usually the bodies that are often targeted, that are most often hyper visible,” comments Nqelenga. When she first arrived at UKZN, she strongly felt the black body was a target. It had guns pointing at it from classroom to classroom. The articulations of protest began to embody the violence. She vividly remembers being in a meeting with the deputy vice chancellor of UKZN during the Fees Must Fall protest and asking why security officers were present in the room. At first, the officials said they were present to protect the professors. Upon being asked from whom, officials didn’t answer as the Human Resources department had forbidden them from saying that the security officers were there to protect professors from students. Technically, campus security is meant to protect the students as well. Eventually, after a moment of anger, says Nqelenga, the deputy vice chancellor said the security officers were there to protect the buildings more than anything else.
“That spoke volumes to how these bodies were not cared for. The bodies were coming from rural areas. They were black bodies. They were poor bodies. It will take about three to four weeks for the media to pick up a protest at UKZN. And that spoke volumes to who cared about that type of body. In society, we just didn’t. And so therefore, they were disposable. And the only way to be visible and to be recognized in this violence, was to meet the violence with violence,” she elaborates further.
As conversation winds down, Nqelenga talks about how they had to find alternative ways to articulate protest and subvert the neoliberal institution and its agenda at play.
For a while now, we’ve been exploring how the pandemic has affected theatre pedagogy and learning. But what does it entail for writers? What kind of theatre writing is expected of writers in and beyond this pandemic moment? What social responsibility do they bear?
Discussing this and more, playwrights Abhishek Majumdar and Kamili Feelings shared their thoughts during a recent session of Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2).
During the pandemic last year, Feelings shares he felt more confident about everything than he does now. “As a theatre artist, I believed as soon as the ideas I have can be implemented during the pandemic, things will sprout and things will magically take place,” he says. He also related to how the problems the pandemic put into focus were likely to press through our lives, and what that meant for theatre as well. In his mind, he still sees theatre being a space for a collaborative, imaginative project, close to how his mother used to read to him as a child.
“I always felt that while she read to me, I could read off of the page and I would be halfway building the house with her that she was constructing while she read it to me. That’s how I always understood theatre, to work as a verb. It possesses certain rituals that we get into. The only way I could participate is when I read along with her in the story,” Feelings shares.
The American playwright goes on to add that when actors come on stage, they speak to the audience, creating the world with them. The audience goes on a journey with them in an otherwise bare blackbox theatre. “And for me, I have to believe in what they were doing in order to go on that journey with them,” he says.
Challenges of being a playwright in a COVID world
Speaking of belief and challenges of the moment, Bengaluru-based Majumdar shares his experience of creating his play Tathagat for Jana Natya Manch (Janam), a historic street theatre company in New Delhi. Their work is known to be highly political and relevant to the time they perform in. Tathagat, a street play about caste politics, was developed in 2018 to mark Janam’s founder Safdar Hashmi’s thirtieth death anniversary. Set in a fictitious Buddhist kingdom in ancient India, it is about a shudra sculptor sentenced to death for creating a Buddha statue with black rock instead of white stone. “It is a play about who does God belong to,” says Majumdar. The play was also performed during the ongoing farmer protests in northern India during the past year.
The pandemic exposed existing social inequities in India more than ever before. Daily wage labourers, who comprised the audience for the shows of Tathagat, were taking the largest hit in cities during that time. “Which means that even politically, they were at the most marginalized place and they needed to have the greatest warriors,” says Majumdar. “But at the same time, Janam couldn’t go out and perform in large groups because they would also be placing these people, who they are becoming a political voice of, at risk by performing. It was a continuous Catch-22 situation with this play,” he describes and adds that whether one performed it with the original intention, it was not possible to do so because it is impossible to social distance at crowded Delhi market.
When the theatre community talks about protecting the theatre, it is often about protecting large, proscenium stages, feels Majumdar. “And I wonder, what happens to all these other theatre(s), which is performed amongst the people? How does it get protected?”
Contemplating on some of the challenges he currently faces as a playwright and a human being, Feelings shares he always has to gaze through a lot of filtered understandings of America as an American citizen. “In other words, somebody says they’re helping me because they’re interested in black lives. But there’s no material advantage. They’re just doing something that says they’re doing something and again, I can’t tell anymore. As a black American, I’m often completely confused by someone saying they have my best interest at heart,” he expresses.
He reveals he has lost a lot of faith in the American political system as a black American. “And as a sensitive person, as an artist, when someone lies to me in front of me, and we both know they’re lying, I don’t know what to do with that, because that feels forced. That feels like hostility, it feels like somebody’s punching me in my face,” he shares.
Feelings lost many friendships through this pandemic as people began negotiating their relationships on Zoom. He says these are people who may not be able to face multiple lies. “And this is what I think is happening in society, at least in my society right now. Which is that sometimes when you’re caught, you say anything. But once you say anything, you set something in motion, you free up a demon. And now you’ve got multiple demons being let loose every time you say something, because you’re lying. And now you can’t catch all those things and they’re just flying around the room.”
He describes the political experience of a black American to be to go along with whatever the Left is doing or saying, because it is far too complicated to understand it through all the other filters. “I, as a black American, need to tread very lightly and figure out how to abstract what I do and say, so that it seems as harmless as possible, even to the point of removing myself from authorial presence in terms of the writing. This is only because I don’t know what my face really means to people other than an opportunity to take advantage of it. Because I’m black,” he says.
This feeling of exhaustion among black Americans was not like this five, or ten years ago even. And it disturbs Feelings to see no material progress. “When I was a kid, I could trust most black people that I ran into because we were navigating some sort of underground, even in the 1970s. I don’t know if I have that same feeling anymore,” he shares his anxieties.
Violence, of any form, has become a huge part of our current existence. But what is one to do with forces that don’t feel so malevolent but aren’t benevolent either, asks Feelings. What is an artist’s responsibility in such a situation?
Responding to this, Majumdar says he has had his fair share of death threats over the last 12 years. While it doesn’t bother him much, he admits the effects a writer’s politics can have on their family is enormous, resulting in conversations over whether they should send their daughter to school or home-school her during the furore over staging of one of his plays Djinns of Eidgah in 2019.
What is more dangerous, he says, is the benevolent racism he has experienced while working abroad. It is a violence of its own. “What is hard is that you realise after two or three years in a relationship that the other person is not hearing you. And they don’t want you to argue. Their notion of an Indian is somebody doesn’t argue, somebody who’s spiritual and who always checks in with themselves and is full of wisdom,” he outlines while adding that not everybody is like that.
“This is a problem in many international curations when you start arguing. I suppose that’s the kind of racism that is hard to unpick because that’s the racism of the benevolent which is infinitely more damaging than the racism of a person who is clearly racist.”
Picking up on Majumdar’s thoughts, Feelings posits that perhaps the revolution lies in presenting fables or morals where one puts oneself into a contention around what one wants versus what other people need and want around us. There is a component to this that features and favours us relearning empathy, even if we think we have “enough.” “And I think as an American, I see those morals needing to be retaught to us in certain ways whether you colour it, texturize it or put a different kind of spin on the story. I think the story still needs to be that we as Americans have a reason to take pride in having this lens of focus on our meeting,” he asserts.
It’s one of the things Feelings is concerned about articulating through writing in a post-COVID world. “I spoke with one of my colleagues about figuring out levels of abstraction. Am I going to talk about COVID whenever we’re able to get back into the theatre space? Am I going to talk about it as a direct correlation to what has happened in my locality? Am I going to abstract it in some way so that we’re talking about COVID, but there’s something little bit tingly about the fact that we’re putting the parallel experiences together really close by? Or am I going to abstract it to the point of where we’re just talking about large shapes and sounds? Is it going to be like children’s theatre? What’s healthy?” he ponders. What is helpful right now for the audience, he says, is the crucial question.
One of the pre-requisites to becoming an actor is being able to embody neutrality. Most drama training programmes around the world circle back to the idea of being neutral – neutral bodies, neutral faces, neutral voices. There is an emphasis on being present in the body, releasing tension within in.
A list of do’s and don’ts comes into an actor’s head when they head towards neutrality before launching into something else. Don’t shuffle your feet, don’t lock your knees, keep your feet hip-distance apart. But what is neutral? Is it unlearning and getting rid of what makes our bodies unique or is it inhabiting a neutral state of being? How do we know it when we see it? Why do we even want it? Is it a help or hindrance to actors in training?
Tackling some of these questions, Indian Kathak dancer-choreographer Madhu Natraj and UK-based director and teacher Dr Ellie Nixon engaged in a conversation with Franc Chamberlain (on behalf of Embodied Poetics) at a recent Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2) session.
Emptying the vessel
Nixon’s interest in neutrality is currently rooted in the book she is currently writing Imagining Bodies and PerformerTraining. The book is about connecting the poetic dimension to Jacques Lecoq’s training to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard and connecting relationally with the world, particularly with the preset Socratic elements of earth, air, fire and water. Having trained at the École internationale de théâtre Jacques Lecoq, Paris, she also trained with the neutral mask. Through her journey of discovery there, she found it to be a rethinking and reimagining of teaching and learnings.
“So, rather than thinking of it as a corrective tool, if we think of neutrality as something that helps us to make connections, to reveal, to think about space, to think about the world and to think about connecting with others, rather than that sense of being in your own head, it can decentralize one’s dependence on the role of self,” believes Nixon.
For Natraj, the founder of STEM Dance Kampini and a self-confessed ‘Lecoq pariah’, she finds many resonances of neutrality within the Indian dance pedagogic techniques. Though, as a concept, neutrality is not taught as a separate phenomenon within Indian dance, dancers are led to that space through several processes, she shares.
“The first is something that is common to almost all classical dance and martial art forms, which is the concept of saadhana or the riyaaz. You iterate, constantly repeating, until your mind and body are saturated with the learnings, that you find a point of counterbalance and equipoise. And there you find your sense of neutrality.”
Natraj adds that the rhythm cycle in Kathak is called sama or sam, which is the Sanskrit term for neutral. Time is considered to be cyclical – be it for 10 beats, 16 beats etc. “That becomes your mandala to birth neutrality – in the sense that you travel, you collect all these experiences and then you find contiguity. In India, you don’t separate, you keep collecting until the point where you can distinguish,” she says.
The Kathak dancer-choreographer-educator also speaks about patrapravesh, a concept present within Indian dance theatre traditions, especially folk operatic forms. “The patra is the vessel, but in order to take on the shape of that vessel, of that character, we first have to empty our own crucible in order to receive that new experience, and to become that character,” Natraj explains.
Holding on to one’s cultural compass
Responding to Natraj’s provocations, Nixon reflects neutrality is often defined as feeling indifferent, nothing in particular or a lack of preference for one way or another. “I think neutrality doesn’t mean ridding yourself of all your personal traits of moving, talking or being. It doesn’t mean ridding you of your habits, or finding a correct posture. It temporarily shatters our habitual ways of seeing, doing and feeling. And it brings us back to that state that scholar Donna Haraway also terms as ‘not knowing’,” explains Nixon. Haraway describes it as a quasi-Buddhist value and an appreciation of not knowing and letting that be. It is a kind of letting go.
“It is that sense of starting from the same point, going on that journey, coming back to the same point, having that space where you can shift direction, change your ideas and be open to new ones,” she describes.
In Kathak, neutrality is an undercurrent. Natraj gives the example of ekpatrabhinaya, where one person takes on several roles. To show one dancer playing different characters, there are several devices used, one of which is palta. “You turn and you become a character. And it’s almost like working with the polarities. A mature dancer, I think, is the perfect conduit because you have collected those experiences and you can shift from that space of neutrality to becoming the character and back,” she says.
Natraj agrees that neutrality is not about forgetting who one is and leaving one’s cultural compass behind. “I think neutrality in that sense has to do with holding on to your distinction in some manner before you transfer me to another character. So, I will perform my ekpatrabhinaya differently from Ellie, for example. But we will still create the same rasa (emotion) in the audience.”
Picking up from what Natraj says, Nixon adds that there is no such thing as an absolute and universal neutrality. It is merely a temptation. “But that sensation of calm prior to action, a state of receptiveness to everything around us with no inner conflict is absolutely, I think, a felt space. I don’t think it’s a rigid. It’s not a ‘nothing’ space. It is something that we can discover and feel and sense ‘I am in a neutral space’ as a reference point. And then when you do have to shift from character to character to character, you’ve been through that rigour of that training, and it becomes second nature to you,” shares Nixon.
Neutrality: Help or hindrance?
Nixon also looks at neutrality as a stepping stone to something else, a pre-performance of sorts. She recalls when she watched Lecoq put on the neutral mask in the 1980s in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. She says, “It’s about carrying a vibration, an amplification or reaching out. The walls of the Queen Elizabeth Hall seemed to disappear; his presence went beyond that.” It is about tuning into that disposition, into what that mask offers.
Natraj emphasizes on a balance between iteration and somatic intelligence to achieve neutrality. There are pieces she has performed for over 30 years. The steps are so ingrained in her muscle memory that she can dance without having to think about it. “This means of coming in and out allows me to also forget.”
In neutrality, there is an openness, feels Nixon. “It’s an active space, a space of readiness, of being in the moment, a way of corporeal or bodily listening. It’s a sense of vibration with the outer world rather than a solid form.”
As the conversation comes to a close, Natraj describes coming back to the neutral state as coming home before taking off to another place. “It’s about coming home, in a sense, before taking off to whatever it is that I am being that day, whatever it is that I’m becoming. I’m becoming my dance in that way,” she believes.
A year later, our world is still in the midst of a global pandemic while being compelled to engage with social justice movements across the globe. Since lockdowns were announced around the world in March 2020, theatre practitioners were forced to stay inside and figure out how to create art from domestic spaces. What felt harder and stranger was to create theatre or make it relevant while people were dying in large numbers every day.
We often perceive performing arts in contexts outside of reality – yet each performance is often a reflection of society and holds up a mirror to our times. In our recent Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2) conversation, this hard truth was brought to light by jackï job, a South Africa-based dancer-choreographer and senior lecturer at the Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, University of Cape Town. She acknowledged the current violence unfolding in South Africa over the recent imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma, and how artists position themselves in relation to such local and global crises. The global pandemic is another example where theatre-makers have been compelled to evolve during such crises.
During such times, how can dance, performance and art help us move across these imagined fault-lines?
Shifting notions of presence
“When we were in the middle of our second wave in January this year,” shares job, “I was putting on a live stream film that I’d made of me prancing around as a praying mantis.”
I remember thinking how do I justify this? How do I sit and go ‘Welcome to this show’ when we know that we’re experiencing such heartache right next to us right off-screen?”
At that point, job reminded herself of the deeper meaning of presence and that it was not only about her physical body being present at that moment, but multiple elements that came into play. She mentioned she draws from Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben and French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s notions of absence in presence as a way to re-imagine the perceptive realities of the body.
In her reflection, job found, “Other than my being present, as in, you see me in the space now, this particular body in a particular time, there is also the presence of things that are invisible. It is about making the invisible, visible in other ways. And we can do it through our practice. I needed to remind myself of that. That how presence translates to the presence of what is absent, what is in one’s imagination, and in that sense might be absent in a material sense, but the performance of it makes it present.”
job also talks how we are always encountering these moments where we question our relevance in location to the crises unfolding. The insect, the praying mantis, is one of the bigger aspirations behind her latest work, which is about sharing the power of the invisible and the strength of being vulnerable.
“For me, the praying mantis is all about desire and compassion. And I’m thinking about those qualities when I’m working through the praying mantis. So, it is about the desire for change, this desire for transformation to be better, to be different, to reimagine. And at the same time, for that to happen, we need to allow things to happen. Only compassion can do that. It is about making space for everything, so that things can unfold in a particular way. That’s compassion,” job elaborates. She adds that if she reminds herself of these fundamental principles through her practice, then she feels truly engaged with how the world is in the present moment.
“It feels very real. And relevant.”
Articulating dance and presence
job has been dancing for decades and her work has taken her all around the world. Pursuing further the idea of dance, the body and presence, she says that the idea of presence in dance is often concerned with the form of the body, its lines and musculatures. “It is about how high we can jump, how perfectly we can balance, showing off the body, showing off the form of the body. It’s a lot about how you hold your head and the neck. All this is external. And so important for dance. But it is something that I have really pushed against,” reveals job.
job clarifies that it does not mean she resists working on the body, her musculature or exercise. She views the body as a conduit to meet and work through all philosophies. It is the way she navigates the world and thus requires ongoing care and maintenance.
With dance, the body’s presence is measured in terms of line and form, which job terms as a trap. “While that is important but when we as an audience observe connection in performance, it is seldom Because he lifted her so high, or she jumped with such lightness, or could do the splits so wonderfully. It’s never that. It’s something else we perceive as an audience. There is this other kind of vibration that happens between bodies which is a lot more difficult to tap into. It puts you on edge,” describes job.
A dancer’s body is expected to be a certain age, have a certain elasticity and skin texture, says job, which traps the body. It is these constrictions that she is committed to pushing against and discover a new kind of “presence-ing”.
Presence is about witnessing as well, and job says that witnessing is not just about people being witness to what unfolds, but rather the energies in that space, the dust mites witnessing the performer, those from a long forgotten past witnessing that energy unfolding. This witnessing is vast.
“When one has that kind of sensibility then you’re not playing forward, you’re not only playing for the audience that’s there in front of you or around you. All of a sudden, everything becomes a lot more generous. And then you begin to touch,” she says.
When we think of touch, it is spoken and understood in terms of the physical sensation of touching another body. job counters this and asks, why does touch need to be with one’s hand?
During her career, job spent many years in Japan where she learnt Butoh, a contemporary dance form, and incorporated its principles in her practice.
“One of the principles of Butoh,” she describes, “is to imagine eyes all over the body. So, you know, there’s not just these two eyes that can see. But I’ve also developed this other sensibility of the body where, if one were to imagine, for example, that the face was inverted onto the abdomen. So, my breasts would be my eyes, my navel would be my nose, my mouth would be the pelvic area and vice versa. There’s a whole other way I’d be looking at someone, touching someone. There’s this whole other way that I’d be leaning on them etc. And I find that really exciting.”
With COVID, conversations around touch became more heightened. Theatre practitioners spent hours trying to find ways to touch people across the screen. How do we make contact when the ability to do so is taken away?
In conversations within her dance circles, job found there were never discussions about how one could use the back of their head to touch someone across the room or perceive contact as a way of moving away from something.
One of the conversations happening within pedagogical spaces in theatre is about how to capture elements of what makes theatre “theatre” and transfer it to a digital medium. How do we get physical bodies to embody across distance and yet make it seem like they are present in the same space and intimate? To this, job highlights the importance of iteration within performance: imagining it till you believe it and manifest it. She shares anecdote of her friend, who became a paraplegic after an accident, and continues to have a radical intimate life even 20 years since. “How do you remain intimate? It is through memory, she said,” recalls job.
“When the doctor came and performed the needle test on her, she could not feel neurologically. However, she convinced herself to feel within her intimate relationships. She could convince herself through consciously remembering experiences she had in the past. By really, really reiterating that imagination all the time, pulling that into herself, she could then begin to feel, even at places where the doctor said she couldn’t feel. She is able to feel because of her imagination, because of drawing at her consciousness in such a deliberate way.”
There is great value in drawing from memory and consciousness, feels job, even in this digital moment. Perhaps it is about us remembering what it is about performance that needs to be conveyed differently. “It doesn’t say this is the only way now. It is calling on different things, gathering them together. And in that gathering, something else is created. That for me is what radical intimacy is about,” job believes.
In terms of dance, job says it is crucial to look at how people with disabilities perform intimacy: how do they touch? They touch differently, perhaps with difficulty. It is a whole other of moving. “And there’s something exciting for us as performers. I think that we can learn from these other bodies, as opposed to just holding the grand form and the upright body so boldly in front of us, as if it’s God. I think there many gods,” she asserts.
As the conversation comes to a close, job reiterates that need to reimagine ways of seeing the body and touch and return again and again against the fault lines in order to try and experience different ways of how to dance across it.
In the fourteenth session of Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2), South African poet, performer and author Lebo Mashile shared her experience of the pandemic during the past year, things that changed around her, and spaces where there is possibility to make new changes.
Mashile also shared how the pandemic has economically affected black creative communities in South Africa, forcing seasoned professionals to live gig-to-gig again. She also said she has had to work on reduced rates because the nature of the work is online. But she also found that working online has led to discovering new communities. “There’s a kind of an underground quality to the creative interactions that are happening, particularly the ones that are artists driven, particularly the ones that are being driven by creatives themselves. There is this sense of us being able to find the people who are genuinely interested in what we do, truly building tribes and communities around our own unique offerings. And I see particular communities doing that quite successfully,” Mashile opined.
During the conversation, she also discussed social justice politics and art, institutional collapse with the arts sector, talking back to hegemonies and ruminating on the question of, “Who are my people?”
STAY TUNED! We will be publishing a long-form article about the talk and the ideas/themes that emerged during the session on our blog in the coming weeks.
Among the many things the past year has made us reflect upon, owing to COVID-19 induced social isolation, one of them is questioning and answering for ourselves: Who is our community? Who are the people we want and need around us? If we take this a step further, what are the many levels of community in which theatre companies participate?
In the recent conversation Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2), global theatre-makers Eric Ting and Kirtana Kumar delved deep into how the pandemic has changed their communities in terms of who they engage with and who they engage for.
Year of transformation
The last one year has been transformative for everyone around the world. For Bengaluru-based theatre maker Kirtana Kumar, the pandemic resulted in an enormous change in her life.
“I moved completely out of an urban circumstance to living on my farm, to farming and trying to find new engagements with theatre through the land,” she elaborates. One of the prime reasons for her move to her farm, Infinite Souls, was the migrant crisis that ensued in India where labourers found themselves walking back to their hometowns across the country when the first lockdown was announced abruptly.
“It was also a practical reason to move back because the people, the farmers who worked on our land, also wanted to return to their home. So, there has been an enormous change in the way I think about community, art making and theatre-making,” she reflects.
Similarly, for Ting, the artistic director of California Shakespeare Theatre (Cal Shakes) in Orinda, California, the past year has changed the lens through which he views the world. For the last 10 years, Cal Shakes has been committed to pursuing an anti-racist journey as an organization. Since he took over as the artistic director in 2016, Cal Shakes has invested their resources and energy into seeing the world through the art that they made.
“And I think what’s happened over the last year, in a very profound way, has been a shift towards seeing the art through the world and how we think about our relationship to it. Not as art at the centre of things but, as our community at the centre of things and art as simply one of several tools that we have available to us,” Ting elucidates.
Embracing a new ethics of otherness
Kumar recounts that the pandemic released a lot of stuff residing beneath the surface. Outside all the tragedy, it has been for her a precious time to rethink and find new ways of engagement. She did not make a concerted effort to change her community but waited to see if change would come organically. Her work at the Little Jasmine Theatre Project has always been at the intersection of caste, gender and sexuality to begin with.
However, when Kumar went to Germany during the lockdown, she began a series of communication with a lady working on the Infinite Souls Farm, Nagamma. “Nagamma comes from the Kuruba community, a shepherd community. Nagamma is about 10 years younger than me. She uses a smartphone. So, she has access to the visual medium, and we started a series of communications over WhatsApp and Instagram on our smartphones,” narrates Kumar.
The Bengaluru-based theatre-maker is now developing the communication she shared with Nagamma into a multi-platform performance called Nagamma’s Letters, which also includes a documentary performance with the two women. “Just Nagamma and me trying to figure out things,” shares Kumar, “Two women who communicate outside politically correct boundaries, trying to find open spaces within an intersectional framework, where there lies tenderness.”
What has helped Kumar in re-shaping her work during this time is rejecting a cannibalistic ethics of otherness that globalism has brought about. “But if now, we can assume and understand that in sharing, we’re always transferring, we can begin the journey of empathy and compassion with a new ethics of otherness. I find this really profound,” Kumar describes.
At Cal Shakes, Ting and his colleagues seek to redefine classical theatre, including Shakespearean texts, through the lens of equity, diversity and inclusion. The aim is to expand and reframe the concept and ownership of “classical theatre”. “In this country, Shakespeare was often used as a tool for erasing language and culture from indigenous peoples. That was one of the things that was taught in these boarding schools across this country,” he says.
Ting states that if you do work around Shakespeare, you’re often centering Shakespeare. In relation to vulnerable communities, the conversation then needs to veer towards what is being de-centered and how should one de-center in such a way that you’re not actually disappearing?
“At Cal Shakes, we frequently use the image of a circle held by human beings,” Ting describes, “Think of the regular acting exercise where you tell everybody to circle up. There’s always that moment when everybody looks around awkwardly at how poorly the circle is made. There is this idea that the shape of the circle is being held by a collective of human beings.” In the centre, there’s nothing there. But the sense of a centre is energetically held by each person, and each one is trying to shape that circle, actively. Ting describes it as a process, where there’s no line that one is meeting. No one has drawn that circle out for one to stand up. Each one is trying to find that space.
“And that process, that that kind of energy, that space is the space that we’re interested in being. The only way to be in that space is to find a way to release yourself into the whole. Because inevitably, what makes circles so hard to make is because people have a point of view about what the circle is and where they shouldn’t be standing,” Ting says in relation to how does one go about de-centering a cultural monument like Shakespeare within indigenous communities.
He also addresses his concerns about the relationship between language and legacy. There comes a point, he says, where language becomes stale because it becomes about labelling things, and turning them into catchphrases such as ‘Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’. The more people sign onto it, the more superficial their relationship to it and the more diluted it becomes. “So, language becomes a method for, for shifting power, shifting the centre of power. That’s often why we see the shift in language come from what is I think, historically, peripheral communities,” Ting says and adds that Shakespeare made up language in a way that forced people to listen.
The gifts of the pandemic
The pandemic has made everybody rethink their ideas about something or the other. The idea of solid identity, a solid “you” has been shaken. “They’re no absolute universally proven idea on how to go forward in this. It is a gift of the pandemic that the idea that the Global South should constantly consume messaging that arrives to us from the Global North or the West, has been demolished. They don’t hold good anymore, the old rubrics about modernity or development” states Kumar.
For Cal Shakes, during the pandemic, Ting and his colleagues had a spate of virtual programming but soon found that in terms of outreach they weren’t able to achieve the kind of global connection that other artists have been able to through online platforms. “And that’s, I think, because so many of our theaters are tied to their specific local communities. And secondly, there is just a glut of entertainment options out there today,” Ting opines.
As a Chinese American practitioner, he also talks about white adjacency and makes it a point to describe Cal Shakes as a legacy white institution. “I’ve often found myself in spaces where I feel the need to name that because a lot of my work is about advocating for other communities that have historically had less privilege than I’ve experienced in my life,” says Ting, “This idea of naming white adjacency in a way that isn’t about apologizing yourself to invisibility, is a challenge.”
He also emphasises that it is important to show up for these communities in a humble, present way. The impulse is often to give way to the communities whose struggle is now taking centre stage. In that process, stepping aside often turns into stepping away completely, explains Ting, which leads a disappearance of the whole sense of community. “And to me that’s tied to a fundamental transactional relationship that we have in this country. If we can find our way back to deep relationship, a space where we’re not connecting with people because of the project that we’re doing, but we are in connection with people despite the projects that we are doing.”
Kumar believes the pandemic is an opportune moment to rethink modern pedagogies for theatre and take stock of what is offered to students. “In India, we’re living in a time of fear of a huge right-wing uprising. It behooves us to consider our past and tradition and to also act in an alive manner. For me, theatre is also about being alive. Aesthetics is very high concern but it’s also being alive to the moment and to being critical of the moment and seeing what’s going on. As a creative practitioner, I need to be alive to my immediate circumstance, and to the communities around me,” the Bengaluru-based practitioner asserts.
Taking that thread forward, Ting believes that theatres are not meant to be museums or a space for escape from life. “What we mean by that is our practice is not the preservation of past practices – it’s something more immediate. We go to the theatre to let the world in,” he says.
“The theatre I make 10 years from now may be very different from the theatre I’m making now, because 10 years from now will be a very different time. And to the extent that, we are able to make choices, to create frames for the work and the discourse that allows the conversation of this moment, to be alive in the art. To me, that’s the most important thing.”
As the conversation winds down to a close, both Ting and Kumar believe that moving forward, it important to de-center the pedagogue as the authority of learning and the rigidity that comes along with it. They agree that the role of a pedagogue is to shine the light on something and give learners the tools with which they can possibly explore it.
In the twelfth session of Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2), members of SITI Company, New York, Ellen Lauren (co-artistic director) and J.Ed Araiza (principal actor) shared what the past year has been like for them, the opportunities and possibilities it opened up in theatre and pedagogy and what they reckon they need to do as they move forward.
For Lauren, the medium of Zoom has been revelatory where she found people making an effort to connect with another human being on the other side of the screen. “We’re now into the phase where we’re making a great deal of work. And the tools are all there. The (Zoom) frame is another piece of material. The frame is another way of seeing and exploding the way we can work together. It is a time of great experimentation,” she emphasised.
As the head of graduate acting program at the University of California, Los Angeles, Araiza found that while Zoom made learning accessible, it also made visible the deeper divides between different sections of society in his classes. He uses his training in the Suzuki method and Mary Overlie’s Viewpoints as a way to empower younger artists to tell their own stories. “My job is not to tell artists the stories they should tell, but to try to give them the tools to tell their stories. And that is my primary interest nowadays,” he said during the conversation.
STAY TUNED! We will be publishing a long-form article about the talk and the ideas/themes that emerged during the session on our blog in the coming weeks.