Much like the R.E.M. song, it’s indeed the end of the world as we know it, declares Mbongeni Mtshali, one of the co-curators of Unrehearsed Futures at the start of the conversation. “It feels like we’re constantly stuck. I certainly wouldn’t confidently assert that I feel fine about anything right now. I think I’m at best ambivalent about our collective prospects as a society even as I remain hopeful,” he says.
However, Jehan Manekshaw, another co-curator of Unrehearsed Futures and founder of Drama School Mumbai, remains hopeful. That doesn’t imply that things are fine. Life goes on, or at least that’s what we’re taught, he says. Despite going through personal turmoil, we’re told to ‘find a way through it’ or ‘find ways to get on with other aspects of life’. For Jehan, it’s also what he’s been told: that we all do come out on the other side of whatever’s going on.
What interests him instead is understanding what one can do with the overwhelming feeling that we all have around the state of change. As a child of the 1980s, Jehan grew up in an India where the post-colonial project was in full swing. He says, “The people running India were trying to create their version of India, which was still based on parliamentary democracy. Now, you see globally, all these systems collapsing. All these systems suddenly being corrupted or changed by, by power, and by different vested interests.” But with this kind of disruption, there is also a level of technological optimism in the world, about the democratization of media, and about the fact that suddenly everyone is more informed. There also exists an Elon Musk who, has problematic opinions, says we need a planetary backup plan because the Earth is going to crap. Ironically enough, he also makes electric cars to stop this planet from going to crap, while trying to build a colony on Mars.
Musk is well-known fan of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. In fact, when his spacecraft company SpaceX successfully sent its Falcon Heavy rocket payload into orbit around the sun in 2018, the cargo included a digital copy of the author’s classic work: the Foundation trilogy.
It is the story of a galactic empire on the verge of collapse. The premise is that, in the waning days of a future Galactic Empire, the mathematician Hari Seldon spends his life developing a theory of psychohistory, a new and effective mathematics of sociology. Using statistical laws of mass action, it can predict the future of large populations. Seldon foresees the imminent fall of the Empire, which encompasses the entire Milky Way, and a Dark Age lasting 30,000 years before a second empire arises. Although the momentum of the Empire’s fall is too great to stop, Seldon devises a plan by which “the onrushing mass of events must be deflected just a little” to eventually limit this interregnum to just one thousand years.
When Seldon foresaw the fall of the Empire, he was branded a heretic and banished to a planet on the edge of the galaxy where he continued to research and found a way to reduce the dark ages from lasting 30,000 years to 1000 years through psychohistory. Jehan posits that theatre could be the crux of ‘psychohistory’ in our world where we seemed to be headed for the ‘dark ages’.
When he started the Drama School Mumbai in 2013, Jehan was most interested in creating an ecosystem for theatre in India where one could practice theatre as product. However, 10 years down the lane, he recognizes the transformational quality of theatre at the level of the individual, ensemble, and communities. So, the reason he ‘feels fine’ now is because, “I think of theatre as a knowledge system, as the thing that you experience, that does something to you, and to those around you who are having a shared experience of it; not as a consumer, but as a participant in theatre, the theatre practice or in the knowledge system itself. I think that’s actually our psychohistory.”
If we look at all that theatre offers one: the ability to become self-aware, be able to stay in resilience and conflict, build things, hold space for others – what if we could put all of this out as something everyone should have a fair share of? “Theatre as a knowledge system has the potential to be our psychohistory to the first Foundation, which is a new colony on Mars,” asserts Jehan.
The world might be going to hell in a handbasket in many ways and we might sit around feeling very disenfranchised and disempowered. There is nothing we can do about the huge tectonic shifts happening, says Jehan. We’re in a world where a democracy is considering voting a Donald Trump and a Narendra Modi back to power – our systems are broken and we can see the fall of our Galactic Empire happening in front of our eyes. Conversations are around the fact that capitalism has failed and that it cannot drive the future.
So, what is the solution?
It’s theatre, Jehan feels strongly. He likens doing theatre to doing yoga. “We all have consumed yoga in some form or the other and we know it intrinsically does something for our spirit, mind, and body. It’s a movement, a holistic practice for individual betterment. And I think that the theatrical knowledge system is a community level yoga because it is helpful to our social well-being. When you practice theatre, as a community, you are developing holistically.”
Jehan wishes theatre to be a ubiquitous part of everyone’s everyday experience because once a participant has done it, they can further recreate it and give it to somebody else. The question then arises of how we can make theatre a translatable game, tool and exercise and make it accessible to people. There are a gazillion versions of the game Zip-Zap-Boing, and each person has a variation because every instructor makes it their own. The idea is that the community participating in it can then subsequently do that.
Once you understand that the aim is to propagate theatre as a process and not product, you automatically shift gears and work on making it a movement and let it take a life of its own. For example, yoga is now known worldwide. “We’ve got to add this practitioner’s meme into our society and the knowledge system will then go on to affect people,” believes Jehan, “That then will give communities a space to recognize themselves, articulate their own voices and not be so moved by the huge tectonic shifts.
Theatre allows communities to sit with complexities. Jehan gives the example of Praja Natya Mandali in Andhra Pradesh, which created a newsletter for local issues. Over time, they found themselves creating theatre groups in each village enabled by women. Suddenly there were about 100 villages, and each one of them had a theatre community practiced theatre amongst other things that they did in life. “This newsletter worked. Finally, they managed to get alcohol out of these villages, get local MLAs and politicos to start bending to their will. The district collector began cooperating with them because he had no choice. The bureaucracy started working again,” Jehan explains. We’ve seen this work with Augusto Boal too. While these are microcosm examples, he believes these can be amplified into a movement and recreate these models in different places.
It is less about creating formal spaces for encounter and more about having people recognise how their lives have always been entangled in performance in some way or the other, and in that recognition, find ways for them to help other people to recognise them. Before we know it, we’ll be in a space, hopes Jehan, where there is a kind of romantic sense of what theatre is doing for us, but with an increasing recognition that almost normalizes, if you will.
So, theatre through the mode of, let’s call it proprioceptive thinking, demands of us our sense of connection to perhaps not a global capitalistic world, but a planetary, organic, rzhizomatic one where we connect in very generative ways with multiplicities, where we can be individuals but always entangled with and among others. If anything, now is the time to imagine our psychohistory as Selden did in the Foundation trilogy and use theatre as a tool to reduce our impending ‘dark age’.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
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