Is it worth studying theatre abroad if you want to do theatre in India?
– Mitali Singh, Theatre Lab (Youth) & Little Jasmine Theatre Project, Bangalore
I knew I wanted to make theatre professionally when I was about eighteen, and set about trying to be part of as many rehearsal rooms as would have me – shadowing directors, archiving old theatre documentation, taking rehearsal notes on blocking, interviewing theatre makers, and more.
I was always the youngest person in rooms largely run by older men.
The first big shift was when I was one of seven individuals selected for and trained under Indian Ensemble’s Directors’ Training Programme 2017 – ’18. It was the most rigorous and holistic grounding I’ve ever received. I learned about making work in my own context, about the audiences I was making work for, about my theatre ancestors, about the importance of having one’s own tribe of contemporary creators – and most importantly, about questioning why certain stories deserve to be manifested, and why I was the right person to bring them to the stage. It rooted me in the Indian context of theatre making, with all its richness and its challenges.
Immediately after my year with Indian Ensemble, I went on to receive a Trust scholarship from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and graduated with an MA in Theatre Directing (Classical and Contemporary Text) in September 2019. The Glasgow-based Masters included a month-long residency at Shakespeare’s Globe, London. The batch comprised of twenty three actors and four directors.
This second consecutive year spent training in direction was about exposure – to techniques, to craft, to infrastructure, to performances, to mentors from various specialties, and most importantly to classmates from around the world who had diverse approaches to theatre practice.
I went in wanting to test whether I’d someday want to run a theatre repertory – since our batch of twenty seven had to work as an ensemble all year, across various projects – and came out with lifelong allies, soundboards, and colleagues.
I lived with the actors I worked with. I realised how hierarchical rehearsal rooms in India can be – with the director atop the pyramid – and how there were more fair, more joyous approaches to collaboration. As one of four female directors from diverse races being taught by white male professors, I learned about solidarities. RCS taught me about the importance of highlighting performance ethics and mindfulness and intellectual property rights in the theatre, in ways I’d never seen emphasized back at home. I attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019. I watched candid experimental work that left me elated and electrified, and wondering when I’d ever see such work made at home, living in a state that still needs its theatre scripts to be vetted and passed through censor boards. I worked with British Sign Language performers, and learned about the efforts Scotland makes towards making theatre accessible for its deaf community. It’s astonishingly obvious once you see the possibilities, but I had to make the journey to see them.
I also learned how gratifying it is for a creator to live in a country that holds its artists up to such high standards, knowing what a difference they have the potential to make.
I’ve always wanted to make work in India, and tell stories in my own context. I witnessed the battles of representation that the theatre community in the UK is currently fighting, and was reminded of all the battles I wanted to fight back at home. It often takes several journeys away from home to hold a mirror up to the lacunae, the blind spots, and all the things that one holds important –
For my graduating showcase in Glasgow, I directed an adaptation of Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug juxtaposed with Karthika Naïr’s fierce poetry from Until The Lions: Echoes From The Mahabharata with an international cast and crew!
I know why I went to study theatre abroad, and why I returned. I wanted to arm myself in every possible way to best tell the stories I wanted to, and was fortunate enough to receive opportunities to do so in several contexts. There are many ways of going about this, and this was mine. I learned how to fail in safe spaces, how ‘jugaad’ isn’t an adequate response to making serious work, how it takes a village to raise a young theatre maker – and I learned how to learn.
I’m home now, and I don’t just feel like a young theatre maker working in an Indian metropolis, but a part of a much larger theatre community that will always remind me where I come from – and where I can go.
– Tanvi Shah