Phalguni Vittal Rao
TDL@UsPaar Day 4: Yeh kya likh diya maine?
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, dissections 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.
“I’m so excited!”
Debi must have said, whispered, proclaimed, said, whispered, proclaimed at least a dozen times before Quasar hit the floor to workshop the two plays we’d been intensely discussing over the last three days. Debi’s Locked in Mumbai and Chanakya’s The Age of Offence.
Quick flashback: The day before this, Quasar had worked separately with the actors – Chakori, Dheer, Rishabh, and I. Disclaimer: I wasn’t at Us Paar as an actor but there were a lot of characters in Chanakya’s play, so Quasar politely asked me if I would fill in as a fourth presence. And I, of course, politely said yes, all while The actor in me screamed with joy and, dare I say it, validation.
The first thing Quasar told us was that the point of workshopping was to bring the texts alive for the playwrights. The exercise was for them to listen to the lines being spoken by others, to see what they’d written on the page would or could look on stage. More specifically, “This isn’t about you as actors.”
Now, I think saying this was necessary because actors can be, well, self-absorbed. We have a deep desire to be seen and we can get very self-indulgent. I mean, when Quasar asked me to jump in, my first thought was: I must act well. Us actors tend to perform in our life too, off the stage. That can be very annoying for others. Sometimes, I want to whack other actors on their heads and say, “Chup ho jaao thodi der ke liye.”
As the actors and Quasar took centre stage (literally and figuratively) and we began playing with two scenes from Chanakya’s plays, the writer in Chanakya hung his head in shame after he heard the first two lines. “Yeh kya likh diya hai maine?” He knew that the response he had written did not depict how the characters would respond. “I almost wanted to come, interject and say, ‘Say this line instead,’” he says.
Writers are heavily self-critical, as Shanta pointed out earlier. The second time I read anything I write, I hate it. I marvel at the “rubbish” I pass off for writing. And then I go back to what Phoebe Waller Bridge said: “You may not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page.”
Despite his urge to run away, Chanakya admitted later that the mix of discussions of ideas and the scene-work was very helpful. “When you see actors speaking or embodying the lines, you see that it boils down to the craft of writing. Now, the question is how can you merge the two?” he mused.
When it came to working on Debi’s play, which is about a lesbian and trans couple living with a cis-het woman during the lockdown in Mumbai, Quasar admitted he struggled as a director because of his “hetero impulses”.
Queer stories can be heavily charged but they are also sweet, human stories that everyone can relate to. It's one of the things that Heartstopper, a coming-of-age story of a gay, teenage boy on Netflix, does right. There is a trans character in the show, but it doesn’t focus on her history as a trans girl but instead sees her as a young teenager who feels lonely in a new school and finds it difficult to make friends. Now that’s something anyone can relate to.
Sameera Iyengar - the only other queer person in the room - pointed out that gender roles are often clearly marked in heterosexual relationships, while in queer relationships, it keeps shifting. “Don’t get stuck in sexuality. Think of how any marginalised community behaves. When they stand up, what kind of liberation and freedom do they bring?”
At the close of Day 4, I am grateful that I was in a room where a conversation about queer writing and hetero impulses took place. Equally, I am sad that there aren't more. If the universe is listening, I wish for more such rooms, more such conversations and more 'me's... So I can be in every one of them!