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TDL@UsPaar Day 6: What does the playwright own?

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.

Dear Diary,

When we write a play, we are essentially building a new world – given circumstances, characters, the rules of that world and more. As playwrights, we’re also transposing the visuals in our heads onto paper, giving it expression through words.

Gurleen is a director, light designer and playwright. When she wrote Modern Art, she tried to avoid her directorial tendencies from creeping into her playwriting, yet when one reads her script, it has specific stage directions and notes about stage design. She is not wedded to her stage directions and is comfortable with a director changing them and interpreting it as they see fit. But while writing the play, she wondered about how much space to leave for interpretation and how much to write it down.

“What is the property of the playwright? The dialogues or the stage directions?” asked Rajeev Naik. There are playwrights who give barely or no stage directions such as a Harold Pinter, while there are others whose description of stage design and directions can run into pages such as in Tennessee Williams’ plays. Vijay Tendulkar, too, wrote meticulous stage directions in his plays and it is said that whenever anyone invited him to productions of his plays, he would say, ‘No need. I have already seen it in my head when I wrote it.’

“So, when a playwright insists on their words and not their design, what does that mean?” asks Rajeev. Are there inherently some things that belong to the writer, and some that don’t? Deepa Ganesh responded that if she (Gurleen) wasn’t putting out those details, she could be writing a short story. “It is her business as a playwright to write the play as she sees it” ­– a thought that Shanta echoed too when Gurleen had asked her about writing in stage directions.

There is a difference between a visual and a vision, and for Rajeev, he would like a director to have his vision, and not necessarily his visual. I agree with him. When I write my plays, I find it difficult to fully imagine the world of my play, and my stage directions tend to be short. I find greater joy in watching another person, a director, reimagine it. And regarding my words, well yes, I do not like them being changed or ad libbed, unless explicitly asked for it. And why shouldn’t I? I’m in the business of words and language.

Speaking of language, each play has its natural language. Referring to Nikhita’s Of Mothers And Their Daughters, Rajeev said that while all the three characters – the daughter, mother and grandmother – spoke in English, it didn’t feel like the natural tongue for the mother and the grandmother’s characters. Had he heard them in Marathi or Hindi, he’d still find it believable. “At times, language becomes immaterial,” says Rajeev, “But sometimes, it is very important. Har bhasha ka khud ka mann aur shareer hota hai. The use of language is a conscious decision, after all. Language is a performative act.”

When one is still in the process of writing, It is necessary for writers to travel down the road of each different possibility before deciding whether something works or not, and changing their path. As writers, we want to create work that rings true universally. But it is when we are specific, that we are universal. “When you try to be universal, you are nowhere,” says Rajeev.

Of Mothers And Their Daughters is a play filled with monologues and very little dialogue between characters. Rajeev questions the choice of monologues. “Monologues should happen when there is no chance of dialogues. They should not be because the author is lazy. It should be inevitable,” he believes. “Who are they addressed to? Why did people start writing monologues? It is an expression of turmoil, an outburst, a search.”

The economy of words. Like Shanta shared earlier, there is a thrill in getting the right number of words in a sentence, the right structure, the right rhythm. Writing is like playing an instrument. You have to practice it, rehearse it. And when those moments come, where words flow and the instrument begins to sing! Those are truly worthy of a chef’s kiss.

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