I have always been curious about the ways in which rehearsal rooms are created – by the individuals who make up the room, and the dynamics and interactions that exist in every group that we, in the theatre community, have learnt to negotiate. Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, I had the privilege of talking to three phenomenal women theatre-makers who inhabit different intersectionalities in the rehearsal room. They shared the ideal conditions in which they’d like to work, in each of their dream rehearsal rooms.
For queer Dalit theatre-maker, Jyotsna Siddharth, the first thing she’d have in her rehearsal room is an acknowledgement of differences.
Jyotsna, who is based in New Delhi, says, “Just the understanding that we come from different identities, and that to be part of the space doesn’t mean that we come to it in the same way. I think we are present in the same space, but our journeys… The way we become part of the space, the way we occupy the space, is different.. What is required is at least an acknowledgement.”
Ideally, Jyotsna would prefer fluid hierarchies in her rehearsal room. There would be space for joy, without the need for marginalised actors to carry the emotional labour of educating the room. She briefly recalls her experience of being in a rehearsal room where there was a casual casteist conversation, the kind of microagressions that people in marginalised bodies are accustomed to. Compounded by the fact that she discovered that she was the only non upper caste member of the troupe only during curtain call, Jyotsna puts at the centre of her dream rehearsal room the question of acknowledgement of diversity.
For Ayesha Susan Thomas, a queer theatre-maker based in Bengaluru, her dream rehearsal room would be bright, well lit, easy to get to, with an abundance of fruit and coffee. She imagines the rehearsal room as a space that exists within the community, as everyday and accessible as the local kirana dukaan where you get shampoo sachets and tutti frutti buns.
Ayesha shares that working in a collective has been an interesting way to reimagine rehearsal room hierarchies. She is interested in collaborative work that is meaningful to people. While there are inevitably lots of different opinions and standpoints in a collective, there is a sense of shared values or an agreed upon standpoint that acts as an academic, philosophical, political and ethical compass in the making of the work
“I think by the nature of it, in a collective, there is not a lot of homogeneity. Even though there are certain ideas you agree on, or values where you overlap, there will also be lots of places where you don’t.. It is useful to be rubbing up against differences,” she says, “and all the while sharing a vision.”
What does it mean to hold space in a rehearsal room, where everyone comes to it under different pressures?
Nisha Abdulla, a playwright and theatre-maker who is Muslim and based in Bengaluru, talks about recognising needs and skills of different kinds.
Her dream rehearsal room is about space and about the people. Her rehearsal space is more about people than the space. She shares that she has begun to place an emphasis on slowness, and focussing on the needs of every individual in a group. This often causes discomfort in the room, but these tensions can be a starting point to more meaningful changes in the way the work is made. The space itself should be just a rehearsal room, she says – not a school or any other things, where she can have small conveniences like being able to leave her properties in the space.
On the subject of hierarchies, Nisha says that she now sees her role as a director in the rehearsal room as one of holding space. “I understand that there is a hierarchy that I can’t escape. But I can do what I can… one way to look at that is to think of it as holding space, as opposed to ‘I’m leading the room as director’. For example, one of the things I started doing after #MeToo is to have on call a counsellor or a therapist who is trauma informed, whom the team can speak to in confidence whenever there is a concern about anything to do with abuse of power, even an abuse of power that includes me. Anything that seems like that they can’t come and talk to me.”
A Distant Dream?
Across all three conversations, there were some strong resonances. The first is needing an acknowledgement of differences in the room, in some meaningful way. Whether that is about the differences in the nature of relationships among collaborators, as Ayesha brought up; or as Nisha said, whether that is in recognizing that a 7AM rehearsal, as opposed to a 6AM one, allows for performers to bring in their full selves, recognising that not all collaborators in the room come from institutional training, or privilege; or in Jyotsna’s case of wanting to build a show with predominantly actors from marginalised castes – there is a need to begin the work of explicitly acknowledging differences in the room. It is important to bring in actors from different marginalised standpoints but not necessarily in the very identity they embody in their real lives.
The second is about the continuous nature of this reflective space holding work – that in collaborations and equal partnerships, as well as in conventional director/producer/actor hierarchies, we must be able to keep the room for dialogue and conversation open. That in the rehearsal room, as theatre makers, we are constantly improvising and allowing ourselves to be moved and inspired by other, freer rehearsal rooms.
These rehearsal rooms seem like distant dreams. Even as I spoke to the three artists, we shared laughs and sighs about how hard it is to meet these dream rehearsal rooms, and how the work is in pushing the bar just a little bit further. Everything that we shared in terms of building the dream rehearsal room is an opportunity to change the small things, and hope that the next generation of intersectional feminist theatre makers can work on making spaces even more inclusive and accessible.
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About the theatre-makers:
Jyotsna is currently raising funds for CLAY, her new production. You can support her work by making a contribution at this link: https://milaap.org/fundraisers/support-jyotsna-siddharth and follow her on instagram at @jyotsnasmailbox
Ayesha has a digital theatre production, The Amazing Flabby Breasted Virgin and other Sordid Tales. You can follow her work @susanayesha and track shows, by following their instagram page @kathasiyah and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kathasiyah
Nisha Abdulla is the founder of Qabila. She is currently working on wepushthesky, a digital piece that will open in April. You can follow herwork on www.linktr.ee/nishaabdulla