As we encounter a world that is perpetually in a state of constant disruption, the question arises that if we were to embrace this feeling of being in a constant flux, where is the moment of creativity, where is the generative capacity. At a recent Unrehearsed Futures (Season 3) conversation, Delhi-based playwright and director, Neel Chaudhuri, shared his thoughts on another site of chaos: the space of learning in classrooms. It is where the constantly evolving questions of a student’s body in perpetual transition brings all that was certain, back into a space of pedagogical contestation.
Over the last three years, Neel has been working primarily in teaching or training spaces, and less in the space of practice. He has been working with Aagaaz Theatre Trust, National School of Drama, Ashoka University in New Delhi, and Drama School Mumbai. Neel is also the former artistic director of Tadpole Repertory in Delhi, which, during the pandemic, took a pause and considered that a chapter of their journey as a theatre company had ended.
Recently, when they were back into the studio space to clear out props and costumes from previous productions, to return to an empty space almost, they ended up thinking about what it is they must keep. In the process they came across two simple wooden structures – essentially table legs that they’ve had for about 20 years. “And there was just a common understanding that we would keep these two things,” shares Neel.
He later wondered why it is that they understood to keep the wooden legs, without any debate. They are simple wooden table legs on which one can place a plank of wood and it becomes a table, like the kind that carpenters use. “A few things occurred to me,” Neel explains, “as reasons for why they have survived and been kept. It is that they are mobile. They take up very little space, they’re versatile. And they hold things up.”
Neel reflected on these as reasons to keep going with something and admits that it makes a lot of sense to him: the ideas of versatility, mobility, something that acts as a structure to hold something else up. “These are ideas that I have often returned to, I think, in moments of doubt in the last two years, working with students and working with actors,” he confesses.
Pulling in things from a ‘bastardised pedagogy’
When teaching, Neel often makes it a point to tell his students that he never formally trained in the theatre, and that his practice is an amalgamation – what he calls as an “extremely bastardised pedagogy”, where he finds hints and directions from different pedagogical systems. Neel says, “In some senses, the journey of Tadpole and my journey as a practitioner, is a sort of pulling in, and putting everything on those table legs, and using what we needed at any given point.”
The interesting thing about the teaching environments that Neel has found himself in, he says, is that they seem to have a coincidence of two movements at the same time. “The first is the movement of learning and teaching. And the second is the movement of production and performance. It’s difficult to separate them or even look at them separately,” he expands.
The contrast between these two movements is what intrigues Neel because for him, training and practice has always been a very open-ended process and one that never ends with something definitive, like a performance. Whereas working towards a fixed production or a series of shows or a particular teaching goal sometimes has contradicted that movement of Neel’s. It is this tension between the two different things that has defined his experience in the last two to three years.
Velocity of expectation
During the pandemic, Neel rediscovered slowness, it’s value, duration and what it actually means in a creative process. However, he faced a “velocity of expectation” when he went into teaching spaces such as the Drama School Mumbai’s residency in Wai, Maharashtra earlier this year. “I don’t think it can be entirely blamed on the pandemic, where people feel like they’ve lost time, and they want to come up and catch up as quickly as possible,” shares Neel, “But it’s also something which is true of the current kind of generation of students and theatre-makers: this velocity of expectation, of the anticipation of arrival, of finding something or finding themselves somewhere.”
“It has contradicted my instinct,” he continues, “which is again, fed in by my experience of the pandemic, to give in to duration. And give in to the one thing, the one process that I think defines theatre practice for me, which is repetition, to keep repeating and to keep doing until you have to stop and say, ‘Okay, this is where I am’ without identifying that as a particular sort of fixed point or destination, because you have to immediately move on. This is true of both performance work, but also in teaching spaces.”
Here, Neel pauses to delve into the difference between repetition and interruption. In the last two years, Neel has often found students coming into the space with an expectation of interruption, that they will present themselves to the moment and apply themselves to the exercise but expect to be interrupted – interruption in the form of something feeding into the exercise, correcting it or analysing it. “I see that expectation continuously in the students’ body, in the actor’s body,” observes Neel. “And when it doesn’t arrive, there is a confession of surprise, of wonder. There have been multiple times where actors have come and said, ‘Why didn’t you stop me?’ Or ‘why didn’t you correct me? I knew I had got that wrong’. It feeds back into the velocity of expectation. How much are you expecting from this current moment.”
It is something Neel has been grappling with over the last years because a lot of students and actors that he has worked with in the last few years, end up being bemused by the slowness, bemused by the lack of interference or the lack of interruption. In this chaos, he asks, how does one prepare to be unprepared?
The word chaos generally evokes the sense of a collapse of order or logic, but is it possible that the current chaotic moment that we occupy, is actually the presence of too much logic and too much order that works too quickly and too efficiently and too consistently, and is less reliant on ambiguity, improvisation and doubt, wonders Neel. “I think that’s the quality of the chaotic moment that I face in classrooms where I feel there’s too much structure, too much schedule.”
One of the things Neel is wary of, both in his creative practice and while working in the classroom, is the role of the teacher in a student-teacher relationship. In his experience, it is very easy to move into the vocabulary of tools to be used, discussions and vigorous notetaking, and arriving at a sense that one is prepared. “I find this happening a lot – that the more vivid and accomplished a student’s vocabulary becomes, the more difficult it seems, for them, and for me, to present ourselves to a moment of being unprepared in an exercise, or a moment of discovery through doing,” he says.
The hardest thing for Neel, as a teacher, is to focus on the “doing” of things, rather than “planning” the moments of discovery. There appears to be a crack between language and actual physical practice, where the actual doing of things is getting lost. “That’s, for me, the site of what we’re looking for: where is the discovery happening? It is not in the analysis or planning. You don’t plan for a discovery; you create a frame within which a discovery can happen. And then you recognise or realise the discovery has happened,” shares Neel.
In France, theatre and film directors are referred to as réalisateur. The word suggests a process “of ‘realising’ something which seems less definitive and less product or goal-oriented than ‘produce’ or ‘direct’, which are both such pointed words,” says Neel. “They carry that velocity that I was talking about earlier. The word ‘realise’ seems to be something that unfolds in space, in time. The moment of occurring isn’t about what is planned before or what is read afterwards. And that’s always the most engrossing moment as a theatre teacher, and as a practitioner, when you recognise that something is happening in front of you that you were unprepared for, which is why it is new, and which is why it is it has been found.”
Neel also feels that it is not incumbent on pedagogues to provide a quickness of arriving somewhere. There is no arrival at the end of a training process, he says. “I mean there is continuation. And it’s in that continuation that you have to find whatever you find.”
As he moves through his practice as a teacher, Neel confesses that he wants to realise pedagogy as a necessarily incomplete toolkit in the most generous way possible and move forward, continue, and apply it to practice and performance. Apply it to the “doing”. How does one take provocations in the learning space or discoveries in the learning space, and keep them continuing to generate multiple arrivals, multiple findings, multiple realisations, Neel wonders out loud.
“I think that this is a problem with education, generally. The testing models and rubrics that we apply to all education: the idea that you pass tests, or that you study and acquire degrees, or you acquire labels. I think those are misleading because they are only signposts to a longer experience,” he says.
Question, experiment, proposition, choice, repetition
As the conversation comes to a close, Neel believes to slow down one has to be able to see themselves in a process and process implies duration. That takes place over time, as opposed to end-gaming and finding full stops or certificates.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Access the entire session on our YouTube channel: