PC: Aruna Manjunath
Originally written in English by Swati Simha as ‘Flypaper Trap’ as part of Writer’s Bloc 2016 and translated into Kannada by Varaavara, this is Karen D’Mello’s second theatre production under Katha Siyah , a theatre company she formed with Sunayana last year. Their first production was Neel Chaudhuri’s ‘Taramandal’ which premiered at Ranga Shankara in June’2015 .
Karen D’mello is a theatre maker and facilitator from Bangalore. She is the artistic director of KathaSiyah as well as a team member of Indian Ensemble Theatre. Her training includes an intensive Directors Program as well as a Playwrights Program under the mentorship of Abhishek Majumdar, an eminent playwright and director himself . Karen also facilitates theatre workshops for children and young adults in schools and colleges.
Here’s an email interview of Karen D’mello on the choices behind making this play, right from the theme to the translation, her process of theatre making and about Katha Siyah.
- Could you share a little about how Katha Siyah was formed and what do you envision of it in the coming years ?
We needed a name to produce our plays as part of the Indian Ensemble Directors Program and that is how the idea of a theatre ‘company’ came about.
When Sunayana Premchander joined the production team of ‘ Taramandal’ in June last year just before it premiered, we found ourselves sharing a lot of ideas on what we would like to do in the theatre and the things that excited us. It is not that we want the same things but we think we could support each other to create the kind of work each of us envision. A lot of time was spent in coming up with a name. The K & S is really a fluke 😉 Without much thought we registered ‘KathaSiyah’ as a trust. We were not very sure of what exactly we wanted to do with a theatre group! But now things are kind of becoming clearer for us. We are attracted to do work that is written by young playwrights, mostly women, stories of women, or told from the perspective of women. We feel connected to these stories and there is clearly a dearth of them on stage
2. What excited you about this play ?
To be honest, with having directed just one play, I wasn’t sure what one really looks for while directing play. But what excited me was two things
- This was ‘new work’ written by a young woman playwright
- This was a story that revolved around a woman protagonist and at that time I was constantly thinking about how we didn’t have many such plays.
It started with that and slowly I started finding many things that I related with the play. During one of the play readings at my place, a lot of women participants saw parts of their lives in it . For me, the play’s engagement with woman’s sexuality was the entry point. The question that stayed with me – why are women bodies, menstruation, sexuality, seen as perennial problems for religious traditions. What are we afraid of when a woman chooses to explore her sexuality ? Why do we feel the need to control them?
3. You chose to translate the play in Kannada whereas Kannada is not the language you have studied or trained in . Could you elaborate a little on this creative choice ?
Swati and I had been in discussion regarding this play since October 2015 while she hads finished writing the 1st draft for Writer’s Bloc 2016 organised by British Council and Rage with the Royal Court Theatre, London. Unfortunately, directing it for Writer’s bloc festival which happened in April this year was not an option but we were in touch, and our conversation around this play continued.
Swati was curious about how the play would present itself when staged in the language context in which the characters are situated, i.e. Kannada.
So Kannada in a way seemed an obvious choice. Yes, I haven’t trained in Kannada in any formal way and I still can’t speak it fluently. But along with Konkani, English, Marathi, Hindi and Tulu. It is a language I’ve been exposed to from Childhood – 2 months in a year. I didn’t see any reason why not.
We also had a tough time finding a translator to do this. But the journey of translation itself has been exciting with Sidhartha and Lekha. Swati and the two of them spent a lot of time understanding why a translation is need. And how this play will present itself in Kannada. They both are acting in the play, so we are in that way translating it all the time on the floor as well along with the other actors.
4. I am very keen to know the methodologies you have employed in your rehearsals . Like which ones and why ?
Most of my learning comes from the Indian Ensemble directors program. So I started by reading the blog we created during the program. I revisited the tools and used those as a guide for direction. I re-read the tools shared in ‘The Director’s Craft’ by Katie Mitchell and ‘The Viewpoints Book’ by Anne Bogart. A typical rehearsals are a mix of text work and floor work I spend time drawing each scene. Looking at how each scene moves, how the characters within it move. Once I arrive at a drawing that I feel has some potential, I try to work on coming up with clear instructions in the form of tasks to help actors arrive at this or something ‘better’.
5. Funding is a major bottleneck and most of us in theatre use different ways to find resources and money to make plays through grants , sponsorship etc . How did you go about realizing that for this play ?
It is a huge bottleneck even for us.We did try different options – Writing a fundraising mailer that talks about our past work and future plans. Writing to Foundations and CSR initiatives of organizations. But most of the funding for this play has come through individual contributions from friends and family – Friends from the theatre, childhood friends, friends parents , my ex-manager during my corporate stint and ofcourse family
6. There are new theatre groups being formed in Bangalore almost every month now and of course that also means that there is a lot more theatre happening in different spaces and contexts. What do you feel about this ?
It is exciting and I think in a way we are also associated with the new work that is being created. A lot of us are part of different groups but still collaborate on different projects.
Swati Simha is a playwright and actor. She graduated with a degree in theatre from FLAME School of Performing Arts and holds a Master’s degree in Intercultural Communication Studies from Shanghai Theatre Academy. She has written two children’s plays and is currently commissioned by Royal Exchange, Manchester to write he next play ‘Ouroboros’. She is pursuing her MPhil/PhD in Political Philosophy at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Below is the email interview with Swati Simha, the playwright, where she talks about the idea behind writing this play and it’s evolution since Writers Bloc.
- Could you share the initial ideas that went into writing this play ? Would you say that some aspects of the play are autobiographical ?
The play was developed as part of the Writers’ Bloc residency so the initial questions of taboo played a central role in the conception of the play. It was my first full length play so it was very difficult for me to think of cultural and geographical spaces that were not from my memory. So, yes. You could say experiential, but not in the sense of the events that take place but the location and the culture of my central characters were from familiar spaces.
2. You developed this play at the Writers Bloc and there was also a production of your play directed by Ashish Sen. This is the second production but in Kannada . Do you think the play is a vision of the writer or the director and what do you feel about it being performed in kannada? What difference do you see in the translated version ?
Although the writing process was stretched out through a year and a half as part of Writers’ Bloc, I did not develop this play with the director. I handed the text down and had brief discussion before and after the first show. Ashish worked on the play for a month or so and mostly with actors. There was little time to develop the script as such.
Translating the play with Lekha and Siddharth was like writing a new play altogether. It was thoroughly enjoyable and helped me look into every detail and was made to justify my choices and understand why something works and why something doesn’t.
Karen has been invested in the play for a while now and we have had a journey with the play together as a team. Several important scenes were re-written/ removed/ re-worked, even certain characters have transformed drastically, both due to the language and different accents/dialects of Kannada that have been used and the primary research that Karen and I engaged in. At an earlier time I might have been uncomfortable saying this but now I feel like it is Karen’s play as much as it is mine. I think we have been able to communicate with each other well enough that the process of play making can no longer be considered under mutual exclusive categories of director driven or writer driven.
3. How did Writers Bloc help you in shaping your thoughts, ideas into a play?
I think when it is your first play, deadlines are very useful. Playwriting is a self initiated process where you have to constantly drive yourself and that can be hard. Lot of times you conceive of an idea and you leave it at that. But being part of the residency, a community of writers discussing each others plays trying to meet deadlines is useful until you learn to motivate yourself to go on writing and re-writing. Writers’ Bloc also gave me a solid understanding of structure. Some writers found this restrictive but for me this was essential learning. I can already see in my next play that I am able to experiment with structure although I stuck to the rules in Flypaper Trap. Additionally, Richard was my mentor and he being a director was able to draw from my central questions and clear my writer’s block by making the actors improvize situations that would hold my questions.
4. One always hear that a play changes the moment it goes on floor . Do you think playwriting should happen with actors and directors as opposed to writing it alone?
I think of writing as a lonely process. I would not engage with a director until I am able to satisfactorily articulate my key ideas and questions. I find going into the process of collaboration without having made any strong choices can be problematic. Of course the play will change once it goes on the floor, doesn’t mean the process of writing should begin simultaneously. In fact any contingency requires grounding if not a ground, as in the play should tend towards something for it to be conducive to transformation on the floor otherwise you have nothing and encounters the least common denominator syndrome where actors are trying to find a common ground.
(Interviewed by Chanakya Vyas, Associate Artistic Director at Indian Ensemble)