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.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Access the entire session on our YouTube channel: