4 Corners - Payal Wadhwa recounts her staging a play in Greece

In Theatrical Greekdom

Payal Wadhwa is an Experience Designer in real life. But swears by theatre. She writes sometimes. Directs, if she really has to. And dances, because it’s so much easier. She’s just wrapped up an MA in Performance Design and Practice from the Central Saint Martins in London and is headed back to write for Writer’s Block this year. She thinks it’ll be fun.

The following is an attempt at describing one of her two performance projects in Greece last summer.

Practice. Devise. Reiterate. Reconsider. Reinstate. Create. Bring it outside the blackbox and the proscenium, the amphitheatre and the auditorium and you find yourself rethinking the process, reimagining the devision, reinstating rules and formulating and evoking dimensions in language, form and space that signify a larger arena for theatre to come into being. After a fabulous stint at working with theatre companies in Mumbai and Delhi, I took up my MA in Performance Practice in awe of stalwarts like Mark Fisher, Rob Howell and Roni Toren with enough dosage of Schechner, Artuad and Brecht that had often worked as soul food on days spent wondering what I really wanted to do. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the work I did for my real job that paid to buy the books and the trips to Prithvi theatre every evening, but I’d been itching to bring together my understanding of scenographic practice and theoretical concerns about evolving performance endeavors and parameters as I looked outside the envelope that theatre in Mumbai facilitated.

As a part of the curriculum at the Central Saint Martins, I qualified for a residency program within the EU. The challenge really was, to pick what I wanted to do. I chose to be one of the six of the thirty classmates to take up an independent residency, sans tutorial guidance, that required us to formulate our own repertoire, find our own theatres and collaborators and create as much work as we could over a period of three months. We chose Greece while the rest headed for balmy Italy for a director-led project, while we arrived on choppy seas on the little island of Hydra holding onto our director’s hats, lest we lose them even before we started.

It couldn’t have been better. A 17th Century traders’ mansion to serve as our thinking jar (with place to house 50 residents while the six of us tried hard to stretch our arms to fill ALL that space), the sea, lots of coffee, the semblance of sunshine and a smattering of languages. Thus was conceived a fairly ambitious plan. With Tom Dutton(England), Aimi Gdula (Scotland), Fiona Carey (Ireland), Adele Han Li (USA) and Ku Sheung (Taiwan), I jumped headfirst into three months of madness and called ourselves, OrMaybeNot. Hara Ioannou, a former graduate from the same course, now a producer and director in Athens jumped in to help us veer around logistical barricades that included language and a completely alien script (some of which isn’t too difficult to get your head around if you stayed alert through maths and physics classes in school. An A is an alpha, a B is a beta and so on..), mobs and the economic crisis, the riot police and transport strikes that became almost signatory of all our important show dates and the food that the country offers (if only you have a Hara to tell you what not to eat). OrMaybeNot zeroed in on two possible spaces to create work. We were sure within two days of incessant brainstorming that we wanted to create a site specific piece of work at at least one location and perhaps translate inferences from this piece and it’s narrative structure into a bound script for a play to be performed at the other. There’s much you learn about theatre when you have six directors (who also happened to be the performers and designers for the first piece) – theatre happens. Irrespective. There are always roadblocks and the way around them is to consistently work out newer ways to challenge oneself through devising, reworking, slapping things on, stripping things bare. There is no process that can find it’s way into a rulebook. Noone’s ever right. Noone usually ever knows what’s going on. But in that chaos of constant tension between the elements that make theatre happen, is born the significance of working towards communicating the core idea, the one reason that holds us all together. And yes, then – theatre happens.

As it always does.

I remember reading something Ionesco once said “ One can dare anything in the theatre and it is the place where one dares the least”. We set ourselves the task to push ourselves into a space we’d never gone before and something rather spectacular emerged from an incomprehensive process that I still try and find my head around. The first space chosen for the site specific performance was TAF – The art Foundation in Athens, a derelict structure (much like the chawls of Mumbai – community housing on four sides with a central open courtyard) that was taken over by a private investor. He refurbished two arms of the housing area and turned it into large gallery spaces. The other two, he left, as is. With a few reinforcements to make sure the weaning structure didn’t collapse. The two crumbling arms of the structure act as smaller spaces for individual artists to showcase work while the swanky half houses larger exhibitions. The courtyard, much like the Prithvi Café is packed with people all day and turns into one of craziest bars in town as the evening falls. Taking a call on when we wanted to perform was pretty easy. Little did we know as we started, that we talked ourselves into a 20 day long durational performance that was set in the two old arms of the structure. We had six rooms in the main block (three at the top and three at the bottom) that became our performance space and suddenly everything I’d learnt about making work for the stage dissolved into nothingness like the three mandatory sugarcubes in Greek coffee. Ten days of writing out six characters, their interrelationships, simultaneously building a set that consisted of six detailed rooms complete with furniture and props sourced in broken Greek from Bangladeshi traders at flea markets, Lightbox as a production was ready to face a Greek audience. The concept remained simple. Each one of us played one of the six characters who we’d painstakingly crafted out of our bags of whims and fantasy. Each one of these characters had something to do with one another and the larger story. One character lived in two time periods – so two performers enacted the same character (which was revealed using visual hints and choreography). Each one of us understood the larger story and were rather aware over our staggered rehearsals that we needed this performance to last 20 whole days and we needed the audience to get a substantial chunk of the idea and the narrative everyday. There was no beginning, middle and an end. Like at Prithvi, the TAF café had it’s regulars. For those that saw us perform, we worked to serve them a performance that helped them understand the larger story and the worlds the characters inhabited. And for those that hung onto their Bombay Sapphire’s and tonics and hung around to watch us, irk us, interact with us, steal our set and get sick on it everyday, we created a piece that evolved and substantially gave us enough to play with and tell a longer story over our twenty days. We treated the ‘space frame’ at TAF as an installation that came to life as the performers walked into each one of their rooms at a designated hour everyday. And when we retired, we left enough clues for what had happened that day, how the story may have evolved and what one may expect on the day after. The audience could walk in and out of each one of these rooms while we were performing and when we were out drinking our Rakomelo (exotic Greek after-dinner liqueur). It challenged us every minute whilst we were in costume (I played a retired museum curator who was slipping into Alzheimer’s) to be aware of every action that could change the way the next few days evolved while it pushed the audience to think and draw connections than sit back in a seat in the dark waiting for entertainment to be served. It brought theatre, to theatre. I changed the way I thought as a performer who’s been grilled into a routine over rehearsals. Theatre became an ongoing process and not having the audience applaud when you pulled fake wrinkles off your face every evening became a stronger source of encouragement to keep them thinking that what they had witnessed, understood and interacted proactively with was not just an expression tending towards entertainment. It made them think, become observers of the world they walked into (despite the many that wanted nothing but their gin and tonics to rest on the balcony while we actors scurried about trying hard to stay in character)

Lightbox was devised everyday and every minute. While we put together the score for this piece, we took a rather essential call that I forget to mention earlier. None of us spoke. It was the one thing we ALL agreed upon as the basis of this piece of work. I’ve always been an eager Artaud reader. But to put his theoretical concerns to practice, this particular time, was perhaps almost essential, if not just appropriate. At the risk of writing rubbish that doesn’t match up to what he says, I’d rather quote from his collection of essays, Theatre and it’s Double:

“It has not been definitively proved that the language of words is the best possible language. And it seems that on the stage, which is above all a space to fill and a place where something happens, the language of words may have to give way before a language of signs whose objective aspect is the one that has the most immediate impact upon us.”

The performance piece at TAF allowed us to draw in the narrative as we drew to a close and write a “real” script to be performed in English, Greek and French (with a sprinkle of Chinese) at BIOS, a popular performance space in Athens, a month later. This play, that I co-wrote was titled A few ways to remember and ran eight shows in the month of June.