FirstAct: Drama Queen's For Tomorrow explores narratives of desire, distance, surveillance in post-pandemic world
From our FirstAct performance series: For Tomorrow is a devised performance created by documentary theatre maker Anuja Ghosalkar on Zoom in collaboration with two filmmakers and two actors working across four cities, two continents traversing time zones, geographies and technologies, create brief vignettes of the future.
Editor's note: With FirstAct, Firstpost is collaborating with theatre and improv artists from all over India, who'll perform short pieces or readings over a Zoom video-conferencing call.
After FirstAct's debut show with Improv Comedy Bangalore, we're all set to present our next — For Tomorrow. It will be broadcast on our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages at 8.30 pm IST on 29 May 2020.
An edited excerpt of a conversation with the creators of For Tomorrow — Drama Queen founder and documentary theatre maker Anuja Ghosalkar and her collaborators (Gavati, Rijul Ray, Ayesha Susan Thomas and Aliasger Dhariwala) — follows:
Process of working on an original devised piece for Zoom —
GAVATI: Devising a piece for Zoom allowed us to explore spaces both on and off camera as a site for performance. We experimented with pre-existing digital material, wrote new texts and responded to each other’s explorations in the spirit of play. While we tried to navigate the constraints that this new platform put on us in terms of time and media it was actually quite liberating in the end to just improvise with what we had.
AYESHA SUSAN: It was incredibly fun, relaxing and honestly rejuvenating. For the last two months, I have used Zoom to teach Edutech classes online. I never envisioned using it for artistic practice, and certainly not as some sort of replacement for live rehearsal and devising. It has been such a gift to be part of something like this, an experiment in collaborative creation from the myriad spaces of our own, individual homes. For the first time in months, I've felt like I was ‘in-studio’ once again, and centred in the present, instead of the past.
ANUJA: It was challenging. It is early days in the aesthetic language and use of Zoom to make and disseminate performance. Also having no existing script and devising work from scratch — is tough normally as well. We experimented with the format of Zoom and all its features to see how we could make it visually and aurally appealing. We tried to stay honest to the world of Zoom and what that might mean if it was the only way to communicate from now on. My entire practice thrives on transitional spaces and sites – this project accentuated that even more.
It feels like we are at the start of something new, fresh – a bit like the Lumiere brothers or Alice Guy-Blaché, making films for the first time. And there is a great possibility of failure, but it is also freeing because no one fully knows the rules of engagement yet.
Difference with one's artistic practice/ method —
GAVATI: I usually work with self-portraiture and performance in film, video and photography but most of my work is produced in a studio setting and involves elaborate pre and post-production work. Since I now work mostly with 16mm film, the non-materiality on Zoom felt strange and distant at first. As we began developing our piece, I realised that our responses to each other’s texts and ideas were very physical and immediate and our bodies became the material we worked with. It feels surreal to be so connected to digital bodies in 4:3 boxes.
RIJUL: For me, one major setback was that I don't own a laptop. So I joined Anuja and the rest of the team equipped with my cell phone, a device that I use for socialising and short work-related projects (sending voice-recording samples, making notes, sending files etc). Working on this project via a mobile phone, though a novel experience, was quite unpleasant. As a theatre and film actor, I’ve grown accustomed to switching off my cell phone before entering a working space. However, in this case, my phone shaped my working environment. I’m used to a certain degree of human contact and presence that is simply unattainable through a cellular device.
ANUJA: In theatre, I work with human bodies and their physicalities – unmediated by a screen or a digital medium. Here, the awareness of a camera and the bits and bytes translating our ideas to each other enabled massive learnings. We are also five different people across four cities and two continents. So, time and space stretched literally and metaphorically while making this show.
Working with people from a different artistic discipline — the challenges and the learnings —
GAVATI: Since our group was a mix of theatre practitioners and filmmakers, I realised each of us hold some aspects from our discipline dear. But on a platform like Zoom, that has a structure of its own that we must adapt to, what part of our practices should be retained and what can be re-imagined? This in-betweenness of Zoom sparked long and exciting conversations amongst us. It is the energy of this in-betweenness that I enjoyed the most.
ALIASGER: It was a phenomenal experience working with people from different artistic disciplines as each of us bought a unique approach to the medium of Zoom. It really opened up the many perspectives we could toy with as we got an insight into how each of our practices motivated our engagement with Zoom.
RIJUL: Of course, there are differences in method and temperament, but frankly, it’s no more challenging than working with an actor or director who comes from an unfamiliar background in film or theatre. Maybe one is more curious when working with a geologist or a chef. But the rules more or less stay the same — working on a collaborative project requires respect, compromise and courage.
AYESHA SUSAN: Trying to find where Zoom sits in between the allied but different disciplines of theatre and film has been a definite challenge. It has been illuminating to work with professionals with so much more experience in the digital space.
One definite learning has been working to navigate collaboration with all of us in such different spaces — intimate, home spaces, with their individual challenges, joys and realities. The personal and the professional have never felt more intertwined.
ANUJA: I have worked in film and theatre before and am comfortable with both mediums. As the director of the piece, the challenge was not allowing myself to favour one style or method of working over the other. Not privileging the performers over the filmmakers and vice versa. The balance is a delicate one, but I think we have achieved it, to a large extent.
Discovering oneself as a performer/ filmmaker —
GAVATI: I usually either direct/write or perform in my work. Never both and certainly never all of it, all together and all at the same time! I realised I really do love “jamming” as we called it in our rehearsals with other artists/performers. Some things achieved in spontaneity are immensely valuable and I have learnt to always hit the record button.
AYESHA SUSAN: That the vulnerability of performance does not have to be an unsafe space when it is managed with awareness and compassion and verve.
ANUJA: As a performance maker working with Zoom I learnt that pauses or silences online seem to last an eternity. The online space is noisy, especially Facebook, to bring in and hold silence is one of the hardest things. It is something we, as performance makers, need to think about for the future.
What it means to be (a)live —
ALIASGER: To acknowledge and be mindful of the medium that we are utilising, from its advantages to its shortcomings. To find a balance between being performed and being recorded for the process of dissemination. Also to keep rough edges and a sense of theatricality behind the veil of the virtual.
RIJUL: To be alive is to be aware of the nature of one’s existence, to co-exist.
ANUJA: To breathe fearlessly.
Skills as a performer/filmmaker used in this process —
ALIASGER: A large part of my involvement in the piece geared itself towards the visualisation and creating environments to place our performance within, to also utilise available and found objects and to use lights and reflections to further enhance the imagery.
RIJUL: I was given the opportunity to build characters, write content, act in front of a camera curate music and do quite a bit of voice-over work.
ANUJA: I am an actor and was a film lecturer. I used all my learnings as a performer to work with rhythm, tone, energy, characters with my four actors. My understanding of the visual language of film to create images and also to work with transitions (as if they were edits) was valuable.
Meet the artists —
ANUJA GHOSALKAR is the founder of Drama Queen, a documentary theatre company, evolving a unique form of theatre in India since 2015. Her practice focusses on personal histories and archival absences to extend the idea of theatre to create audacious work. Undocumented narratives, gender in performance, technology, sites and iterations around form and process are critical to her performance work.
AYESHA SUSAN THOMAS is an Applied Theatre Practitioner and IBDP Theatre Teacher currently based in Bangalore. Originally from Mumbai, she used to teach at the Dhirubhai Ambani International School and has an MA in Theatre and Global Development from the University of Leeds. Her works usually play with the intersections of gender, education and sexuality.
RIJUL RAY is an actor, voice-over artist and drummer currently based in Mumbai. He has been closely associated with Jagriti Theatre (Bangalore), Perch (Chennai) and most recently, Adishakti Theatre.
ALIASGER DHARIWALA is a filmmaker and photographer based in Mumbai. A large part of his practice involves alternative formats of photography and situating it within the larger digital and virtual trends of contemporary media.
GAVATI is a film and video artist whose work responds to tropes and standards present in commercial media practices, such as those of the photo studio, television broadcasting, and political propaganda. It involves self-portraiture and performance as tools to analyse the devices essential to the construction of these images and bring them into a dialogue of critique. Gavati currently lives in California where she is pursuing her graduate studies at the California Institute of the Arts.
Watch Drama Queen's For Tomorrow here.
This account is part of Firstpost’s Oral History Project of the COVID-19 Crisis in India. The Oral History Project aims to be an ongoing compendium of individual experiences of the pandemic, with a focus on one significant day in our respondents’ lives during this time.
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