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The elephant in the room

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on May 06, 2021

Take a look: Swati Das, in a still from Snapshots of a Fervid Sunrise, directed by Mahesh Dattani   -  RAHUL VALMIKI

Theatre artists on why they decided to go solo

* Six artistes stress how challenging it is to do a one-person play

* The severity of ill-treatment varies but is enough to affect the individual’s dignity and, therefore, the creative space

* Ellias did not allow such experiences to deter her from excelling at what she loved to do

* “You are the one you need to most trust in a solo performance. It’s you, and it's the audience”

***

I have the privilege of knowing some exceptionally gifted women in the urban theatre arena. And many of them have done successful solo performances. Why solo? Especially when one of the expectations of drama is that it becomes a playing field where actors and the audience imagine the play world. I did get in touch with some of them over email to understand their choice of subjects and their reasons for going solo.

Brave face: Suchitra Krishnamoorthi, in the autobiographical play Drama Queen, takes a candid look at the life of a public figure who is also a single mother

 

Suchitra Krishnamoorthi, MD Pallavi, Yuki Ellias, Kirtana Kumar, Mallika Prasad, Swati Das — they all have a following among theatre enthusiasts in Indian cities. Each one has a successful solo play active in their repertoire, on hold only because all of life has been on hold this past year.

All six of them stress how challenging it is to do a one-person play. And, yet, they choose to work with the artist they trust the most — themselves. Not only onstage but offstage as well. Four of them started their own theatre company after freelancing awhile. The reasons are diverse: A combination of aesthetic choice, logistics, and sadly — in most instances — also a result of a cruel environment while working in a group where the person in charge, usually the director, takes that power vested in them to rough-hand their co-artists. The severity of ill-treatment varies but is enough to affect the individual’s dignity and, therefore, the creative space. If the dignity of one artist is compromised in any way, no matter how slight, it does fall heavy on the creative process. How does one create within an atmosphere of tension and cruelty? This is the elephant in the room that we’ve only started to talk about in recent times.

The irony in my mind may be subjective, but Yuki Ellias’s award-winning piece is titled The Elephant in the Room. Based on a story she wanted to tell, it’s been finely scripted by Sneh Sapru. The play is about Ganesh and his severed elephant’s head. Ellias describes her play as one dealing with “... power and violence, patriarchy, environmental issues, religious ideology and new perspectives (on old tales).” A simple question about unsavoury situations with male directors/producers brought out an eloquent but disturbing account of what she has observed and experienced at rehearsals.

“I have seen these directors shout, scream, throw things, exploit the heart and minds of many giving theatre souls, I’ve seen them shred the dignity of so many people, play horrible mind games to amuse themselves... and I decided to never work in these conditions again.” It takes courage to talk about unpleasant experiences. Ellias did not allow such experiences to deter her from excelling at what she loved to do. Her solo act earned for her the best actor award at a national level competition, META (Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award).

With Suchitra Krishnamoorthi, the struggle has been with producers. Her solo piece is based on her autobiography Drama Queen, a candid look at the life of a public figure who is also a single mother. “Every woman in the audience sees a little bit of herself,” says Krishnamoorthi, about the response to her play. Her unsavoury experience with producers compelled her to start her own production house. The company plans to tour internationally with her solo performance once the environment is more conducive globally. The motivation to start her own company was from one of her producers. “The final straw was when he started calling and telling me how stressed he was and wanted me to come over with a bottle of wine and rest his head on my chest!”

Kirtana Kumar has done five solo plays, some of them directed by herself and some by her husband, Konarak Reddy. They have toured many European countries receiving critical acclaim. Her experience with solo, “You are the one you need to most trust in a solo performance. It’s you, and it's the audience. And you hold time in the palm of your hand. With an ensemble, the challenge is to get each member into that frame of mind. If even one person is out for personal gain, the fabric tears.” All her work is political, from anti-fascist plays such as Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s A Woman Alone to the “bored ennui of a housewife” in One Night in Paris.

MD Pallavi has a huge following for her amazing songs in Kannada, ranging from the contemporary to modern interpretations of traditional texts. Yet, one of her most successful pieces is a solo called C sharp C Blunt. Directed by Sophia Stepf, it has done over 80 performances in India and Europe. Some years ago, the play swept the awards at META, including the unanimous vote for Pallavi as best actor. Pallavi responds to the experience: “The biggest challenge in creating a solo piece is to find an opposing voice within the script and on stage. The other big difference between an ensemble piece and a solo piece is the absence of a moment to breathe, of a shoulder to rest on, or energy to bounce off. It is a lonesome task, both deeply gratifying and immensely taxing.”

I have had the great privilege of directing Swati Das in a solo piece, Snapshots of a Fervid Sunrise. Written by me a few years ago, it is a drama about two teenage revolutionaries who fought for our freedom from colonial rule. In Das’s words, “A solo piece is the closest I have come to what I think focussed meditation feels like. The amount of concentration required is immense. While you are aware of an audience looking at you, at the same time you need to isolate yourself completely and enter a world whose story you need to tell with the utmost honesty. You are given a pool of light within which you need to create a whole world using just your imagination. Generally, solo pieces are performed with minimal sets and props. It is mainly these bare props, the light, the soundscape, and your own imagination that are your companions and co-actors during the performance.”

It is my firm belief that all creativity stems from necessity, often hardship. Whatever the reason for going solo, theatre is now richer with these powerful, political plays performed with high artistic integrity.

But Kumar’s words leave me thinking a little deeper about the price we pay to be open as artists. “As a woman to say ‘I have never experienced misogyny’ is to undermine the experiences of many who have and to be blind to one’s privilege.” Perhaps this is not the time to say “not me”. The true victim is society. Artists always find a way.

Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

(A portion of the content was removed at the author's request)

Published on April 30, 2021

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