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TDL@UsPaar Day 2: What makes for a truthful play?

Note: In February 2023, Tamaasha Studio Foundation announced a Residential Workshop for Playwrights. Four playwrights – Debi K, Nikhita Singh, Gurleen Judge and Chanakya Vyas – were selected to share drafts of full length plays they are looking to work on.

Over the course of 9 days at Us Paar, the Arts Residency space run by Tamaasha, the 4 playwrights will receive mentorship and guidance from Shanta Gokhale (writer, critic, historian, translator and columnist), Aditya Nigam (professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi), Sameera Iyengar (creative producer and theatre person), Deepa Ganesh (writer, translator, journalist), Rajeev Naik (scholar, critic, playwright, poet), and Vaibhav Abnave (independent researcher and filmmaker).

The four scripts will also be briefly workshopped by Quasar Thakore Padamsee (theatre director, co-founder of QTP India) and Neel Chaudhuri (playwright and director) with actors Dheer Hira, Chakori Dwivedi and Rishabh Kanti. The program has been designed by poet, playwright and director Sapan Saran and co-founder of Tamaasha Theatre Sunil Shanbag.

The Drama Library was asked if we would like to document this process and share daily updates of the discussions, disections and decisions. And of course we jumped at it.

So here we are, at Us Paar, inviting you to observe and participate in this journey through actor and writer Phalguni Vittal Rao’s daily diary entries.

Dear Diary,

One of the things I’ve been mulling over is what Neel Chaudhuri told Chakori a long time ago, about there being a difference between a blurry picture and a clear picture of the fog. How do we take a clear picture of the fog?

In what can be considered a masterclass in how to take such a picture, Shanta Gokhale, like a deft surgeon, extracted all the organs of Chanakya and Debi’s plays, laid them out neatly on the table and went on to examine what was working well and what needed looking after. It was evident that Shanta loves writing. She loves everything about it: getting the structure, the composition, and the rhythm of the sentence right.

Before she launched into her feedback, she spent time the previous day getting to know the writers and their relationship to the theatre. That’s the thing about her. She wants to get to know you. She listens intently; not to respond, but to absorb what you are saying. When she looks at you, it feels like she is truly able to see who you are. That can be a deeply satisfying yet frightening space to be in.

Presenting your writing for feedback is occupying a vulnerable space. You are putting a part of yourself out and hoping you did right by it, hoping you didn’t mess it up. After all, playwrights are human beings; they bring themselves into the writing. It is not possible to write an authentic, truthful play about anything unless the writer is deeply invested in what they are writing.

“We are not expecting a playwright to offer solutions but provide an argument. Not towards a solution but towards making those questions and issues valid and substantial,” Shanta said. But before we get there, we need to have a clear idea of who one’s characters are. “If you don’t have a clear idea of the characters, then what are their opinions? What are their takes on the issues you’ve raised for their consideration?” she asks. “If you have a solid background where your characters are firmly anchored, then that itself will give the dialogue and thinking a certain substance.”

Most writing comes out of an impulse. And first drafts are the result of that impulse. Life would be so much easier if first drafts were final drafts. I read somewhere that the first draft is perfect as it is. Its only purpose is to be. Shanta went into the process of writing a play and said that a writer needs some distance between the first and second drafts. “When you come back to it, you will yourself see where the problems lie. From draft to draft, you will solve some of the problems.”

Writing is giving birth to something which didn’t exist before. It comes from within, but it is essential to let it become an object outside oneself and that involves letting go of control. “There is a lot of craft that goes into playwriting,” says Shanta, “The playwright’s control often skews things. Let it become an object outside yourself. Allow your theatrical instincts to take shape.” This is something playwrights often struggle with. For Chanakya, who comes from an engineering background, the thrill of solving a problem logically is difficult to let go of. He struggles with letting his imagination take “leaps of faith”. Part of the process of writing is letting one’s characters have a life of their own, to give humanity to even the characters one dislikes, to create layers and pockets of discovery for the audience.

After much grappling and examining of the plays, it felt like a long day indeed. “It’s like, ‘Oh god, do I have to go back and work on the script after all this?” asks Nikhita. Chanakya echoes her and says that it was overwhelming. “I wasn’t expecting that I would have to talk. I thought there would be more listening,” he laughs. “Sometimes, writers are like actors: We want to remove entire sections. ‘Yeh do lines cut kar deta hoon yahan pe aur yahan pe.’.”

How do we move through that urge? How do we step back, take a breath, and sit with what we have and navigate that messiness and doubt with conviction? I still don't know the answers to these but it reminds me of what screenwriter and actor Michaela Coel said in her Emmy speech in 2021 when she won the award for Outstanding Writing for a Limited or Anthology series or Movie for I May Destroy You: “Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that is uncomfortable. I dare you. In a world that entices us to browse through the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to, in turn, feel the need to be constantly visible, for visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success, do not be afraid to disappear, from it, from us, for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence.”

Photographs by Phalguni Vittal Rao

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