Normal delights

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on March 31, 2017

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While Bins stays back in Elsewhere watching violent movies, I have a great stay in Normal, Illinois. That’s the name of the town which Illinois State University (ISU) calls home. From Sunday night, when I get there, to Saturday morning when I leave, I have a schedule that keeps me on my toes and I’m quartered at the local Marriott hotel. It’s so close to the university that I can walk there in eight minutes.

My host is the extremely dynamic and charismatic Kim Pereira, professor of theatre and director of the honours programme at Illinois State University. We’ve been in email contact over the past two years, setting up this trip, but meet for the first time on Monday morning. It’s like we’re old friends! Right away, we plunge into the first of his acting classes, where he introduces me to his students and invites me to talk to them about being a playwright. In the second class, I watch as his students perform scenes from Shakespeare. It’s very charming to see the familiar words catch fire as he pushes his students to use their voices and bodies to sculpt narratives.

Then in the evening I attend that day’s rehearsal of my play, Harvest. The show is scheduled for the middle of April. Unlike other versions I have seen, this one is performed as if the entire story is set in the US, with American characters in place of the originally Indian ones. It’s a breathtaking leap of trans-creation. The multiracial cast of young student actors take on the complicated story of the play under the intense and creative direction of David Weber, whom I meet that day. I walk back to the hotel feeling light-headed with interesting new experiences.

The next day I talk to students of another of Kim’s classes. In the evening he invites me over to his house for dinner where I meet his handsome musician son and the three of us have a feast of shrimp, salmon and quinoa made by Kim. After dinner, we do a reading from a short performance piece I wrote some years ago, called The Rehearsal. On Wednesday I talk with the students of two large, lively classes led by Ann Haugo, teaching the history of theatre. In the evening I attend another rehearsal. On Thursday I meet sweet, soft-spoken Lesley Orr and a small group of her screenwriting students. We have a great time talking about movies. And the next day, my goodness, we’re already at the end of the week.

My event that day is a colloquium at which I talk about my journey as a writer and artist, followed by a performance by Kim and me of the short piece we rehearsed at his house. I wrote the piece as a monologue but for this occasion, Kim reads the stage directions and the secondary voices, while I take the primary role of a globe-trotting Bharatnatyam dancer with identity issues. The students and faculty ask great questions. In the evening there’s one final dinner at an Italian restaurant. At 4.30 am the next morning Kim collects me from the hotel in the teeth of a sudden thunderstorm. There’s a brief halt in Atlanta and a long one in Boston. I get home at 8.30 pm. “How was Normal?” asks Bins. “Abnormally outstanding,” I say.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on March 31, 2017
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