Thursday, August 3, 2017

Frankly Speaking - An Evening of Immersive Theatre

Script: Kirthi Jayakumar   Direction: Samyuktha PC

Performed by: Keerthi Pandian, Kirthi Jayakumar and Aparnaa Nagesh

It was a performance that left its audience with goosebumps, a performance in which the stunned lookers-on played a pivotal part, as, in a dim-lit room, to the background of staccato gunshots, three young women played out a macabre repertoire of genocide in various war-ravaged countries in the world. As they spoke, intoned, sang and wailed, the horror of violence and the anguish of death were keenly felt in every heart. At intervals, however, the quotes of Anne Frank acted like a balm, much akin to an oasis in the midst of tremendous turmoil.

Kirthi Jayakumar is much like Anne Frank herself, as she strives to come to terms with a world where "men have lost their reason". Maybe, this is why she put so much of herself into 'Frankly Speaking', a touching piece of writing which was directed by Samyuktha PC, and staged on June 12th (Anne Frank's birthday), at the Goethe Institut. It was staged once again at the Lady Andal Auditorium. Both performances wrung the hearts of the audience, as they immersed themselves in the lives of the protagonists from different countries. 

It was an honour to speak to Kirthi about the actual process of writing that went behind this amazing performance.

1.      What role does Anne Frank play in your life? You have been party to many lives, histories and biographies across the world. Why did you choose this young girl and base your moving narrative on her?
Anne Frank has been an enduring presence since the time I turned thirteen. I read her diary first in grade nine, when I had just turned thirteen. At the time, it seemed amazing and that's about all. But each year, since, something made me return to the diary every year. With time, I began connecting the diary with things that I saw happening around me. Each year, the diary sounded and felt different, and meant new things. I suppose in the process, Anne has lodged herself into my subconscious.

2.      Tell us about the actual writing process that gave rise to this powerful piece of poetry. When did the idea of dramatizing it strike you?
I was on a Skype call with Drew Kahn, the founder of the Anne Frank Project in Buffalo University, under the SUNY system at NYU. In his project, as a teacher of theatre, he gets his students to internalise Anne and her story and produce pieces that are responses to her. After the call, I sat from 11:30 PM to 2:00 AM and wrote out the whole play without a second glance at what I had written. The next morning, I wake up to this piece and I'm astounded because I couldn't believe that this was what had come out of the exercise. I showed it to Aparna Nagesh, who is a dear friend and a fellow Sagittarius - so as is wont to happen to anyone born under that sign, she jumped in with both feet. We went to Samyuktha and she was amazing - the rest, is as you see!

3.      How did you prepare for your roles? (All three of you) Was it a stringent pre-course to the actual performance?
Samyuktha PC is much more than a director. She is incredibly humane. She welcomed and celebrated the fact that the play, the lines and the emotions meant personal things to each of us. She gave us amazing impetus to explore the lines, to internalise genocide and its occurrence, to do research and to be there for each other. Each day, we spent time on the facts of each genocide, and I would share stories of real women from each of the conflicts. That helped us internalise. On the day of the play for both shows, I ate half of what I normally eat so that the Hunger my characters felt real. I wore clothes one size looser with folds so I would feel the heaviness. Through the journey, I wrote letters to Anne, telling her whatever came up each day.

4.      Before the start of the performance, when people were walking into a dim-lit room, you were there, yet not there, veiled in silence. You did not speak, or respond or even acknowledge the crowd. Was this part of the pre-course?
Absolutely. The idea was to maintain character and to send to the audience a powerful message. There are three women who have ears only for the war sounds, and yet, around them, people are chatting, talking, giggling and going about their daily lives. Just the way we handle life, even as atrocities continue, the world over.

5.      How closely did you work with the director? Did you all accede to her suggestions or was this a fluid integration of thoughts and ideas?
Samyuktha is easily the most amazing human being I know. The depth of passion for her craft, her warmth and her empathy still sends me chills. Nearly everything you saw us do was her brainchild. Where we had ideas, Sam had us articulate, and then, she heard us out completely. We would discuss the feasibility and logic of it all. I don't think any idea went unheard or unincorporated. Sam is exceptionally democratic and inclusive, and that came through.

6.      What is the significance of the names of all the fictional characters, who, yet, had their moorings in reality?
All the women are named according to their cultures, but their initials are AF, like Anne Frank's initials were. Every first name means peace in some form, or mindfulness / mindful thought.

7.      The refrain that appeared at the end of every narrative added to the poignancy of the lives of the women. Was this a conscious effort, or did it flow onto the narrative on its own?
I think it was a subconscious line, because every survivor I have spoken to, talked about how the ones punished were punished for an identity, or an ethnicity, and that was truly not a sin, at all. And since genocide is so calculated, a part of the process is to render it invisible. So before you know it, it's over. Thus the refrain, "But it ends, ends before it begins... for the punished ones have no sins, except for being Tutsi or Yazidi or Rohingya, or Muslim or Black or Tamil or Arab or Mayan Ixil.

8.      Do tell us about the songs in the performance. How did you pick them up?
The songs were a very interesting inclusion. We originally wanted to establish ethnicity through the headscarves and headdresses. But in one rehearsal, I brought to the team a song by the Mayan Ixil community. Soon, I remembered a song I had recorded by a Syrian refugee in Vienna last year, with her permission to listen and learn and sing it. That was part of the ensemble too. Then Kothbiro came up - it was a DholuoRwanda song from the film The Constant Gardener. During one of the rehearsals when I was doing the lines, I sang it subconsciously. Finally, seeing three poems with a song, we decided to even it out with a song for one other poem, when I found a beautiful Palestinian lullaby, Ya sitti, which we learned.

9.      The voice of Anne Frank in a dim room made her come alive throughout the evening. What is your hope for a world, war-ravaged and violence-ridden?
I hope every day for a return to peace. And I'm sure that it's not difficult because, like Anne says, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart."

10.  Women hold up one-half of the world, and yet, they suffer most in a patriarchal world. Will there come a time when this imbalance will be rectified?  Do you see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and a world in which people are still good at heart?
I wish the horrific crimes against women would end. I suppose it is a function of patriarchy that operates on a greater scale during war. It's something I try to feel hopeful about when it comes to dreaming of a changed future, but I also feel upset at how rampant it is, and thereby how stifling its occurrence is to the process of peace.

11.  How different will it be to perform on a larger stage as compared to a small, dim-lit room? Will you make any changes to the narrative or the performance in any way?
Having done it twice, I can honestly tell you that each experience is chillingly different... in the last round, I found myself choking up on each poem. It's like opening up a wound all over again and feeling it bleed! But you also see so many people around you imbibing the truth, and that helps stitch up that wound.

And as she paused, I wondered at the heart of this young girl whose actions live up to Anne's joyful words, "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."

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