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Of Shared Universes Week 2: Playing With Tensions

Note: Documenting Tamaasha Studio Foundation’s residential playwriting workshop in February made us realise it was fun to talk about writing, share stories of playwriting trials and triumphs, and tips and tricks that were discussed in the room. We wanted to do more of it! So when Bangalore-based performer, playwright, director and dramaturg Nisha Abdulla announced her writing workshop ‘Of Shared Universes’ for 16 participants, we jumped at the opportunity to be in another writing room.

And so here we are, inviting you to observe and participate in this three-week-journey, as actor-writer Ashmita Arjun - who will be in the room with a front row seat - shares her reflections and observations on pursuing writing as a practice.

Tension is a writer's best friend. Examining tensions – the tension between characters, between what they want to say and what they actually say, between the heart and head, words and page, and examining why they exist, or what or who is fundamentally or structurally responsible for these gaps and misalignments – creates for interesting drama and inquiry.

Communication, or being in dialogue as Socrates put it, is a precarious game especially because it is always situated within personal, relational and politically charged dynamics. One’s self perceptions, roles, privileges and oppressions are carried into every interaction - insignificant exchanges or monumental arguments and declarations. Sometimes, in the middle of social interactions, I zone out and notice how we carry these identity markers into our language, how we respond consciously or unconsciously vis-à-vis these realities and how they affect the way we experience connection and disconnection.

We began this week with a rather tricky exercise, one that required us to drop into a moment of conflict and write about it from the perspective of the person we didn’t agree with. We worked with a moment from our past that was real and personal – something that was intimately familiar but this time we explored it from the unfamiliar perspective of the “other”. I begrudgingly spat out some words from a fight with an old friend, scratched the page vehemently, unable to find myself in agreement with the words while trying to justify the actions of someone that hurt me.

Once we moved into fictionalising from this place of reality by plotting the events that occur before and after the interaction, I was forced to really think about the circumstances my ‘characters’ inhabited. Seemingly innocuous details like which mode of transport they took to arrive and their relationship with their parents made me look at the character with a conscious compassion. I realised I had been victimising myself instead of looking at them as two characters within their context - both horribly wrong in understanding each other but who were honest to their emotional responses and contexts. Sitting between memory and fiction, and unravelling the story from the middle is like slicing open a fresh fruit. The exercise helped me break out of the pattern of stringing together arbitrary events that are predictable and following a linearity. Instead in its stead, it left a central seed of emotional truth and the events built around it were to strengthen the weight of that conflict or moment. We further explored this in our reading of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

Nisha asked us to write out three lines of a character and mask their true intentions in acceptable ways. “There is a certain amount of hiding going on,” said Nisha. “By masking, you are allowing yourself to sink into the moment and play with the created tension. You can play with what the character wants to reveal, versus not reveal, and when they want to reveal things to each other. This masking can be conscious or unconscious for the character but as a writer, you are playing god – you must know.”

This hit me like a truck: that how ill-equipped we are within the frameworks we use on a daily basis to understand each other, let alone communicate because so much of the other is unknown, or unknowable even.

This feeling was exacerbated by the next exercise. We explored a psychological tool, the Karpman’s Triangle, where three characters play out the roles of a victim, aggressor and rescuer within a context. Some volunteers from the group played out a few scenes which led to many giggles and many more realisations - such as the sense of motivation and intent it brings, the ways to twist and play into each of the character’s insecurities and watching the shifts in power. While many of us were improvising, writing and quickly hitting the ‘backspace’ key, Nisha cautioned: “Don't try to be an ideator, writer and editor at the same time.” She reminded us that just like the roles our characters are playing, we are also wearing several hats and it helps to create a conscious separation between them.

While I pondered about our inability as a species to communicate honestly and authentically, the group broke into dissecting our readings, sharing music on Spotify, exchanging podcast and book recommendations and dissecting popular TV shows like The Last of Us and Normal People. And this led to a rather obvious but profound realisation, that we may not communicate perfectly, but it is all we are trying to do: creating shared experiences, shared vocabularies and trying to find a sense of connection with ourselves, and others through everything – from literature to consuming the same content on social media. We are all trying to fill the tensions between ourselves and the world with people, words and images.

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