Monday, February 04, 2013

I Interview Playwrights Part 549: Anupama Chandrasekhar

Anupama Chandrasekhar

Hometown: Chennai, India

Current Town: Chennai, India

Q:  Tell me about Disconnect.

A:  It’s about a bunch of young call center workers who work nights, sleep days, put on different personas and accents in order to collect debts of credit card holders in recessionary America. It’s about identity in a new India, globalization and our interconnected lives and economies. It’s about Indians in India who have stars and stripes in their eyes.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  A new play called “Bay-Sea-Ocean”. Set in the southern-most tip of the country, where a bay, a sea and an ocean meet, it deals with the abandonment of the elderly. The question I’m trying to ask is this: What happens when a culture that has historically elevated the status of parents to higher than that of god is fast-tracked into a consumerist economy and the old family system crumbles? Whose responsibility is the care of the elderly then?

Q:  What is the theater scene in India like?

A:  Our early theater was primarily dance, music and mythological drama that successfully segued into the cinema in the last century. When cinema picked up, theater started to lose its luster. By the ‘90s, theater – especially urban theater - was struggling to be relevant.

Now, in Chennai, English language theater is mostly amateur. We don’t have state funding for it. Like small, fringe groups across the world, we have to scout for sponsors (who more often than not prefer comedies to issue-based plays). We rehearse on someone’s terrace weeknights or weekends depending on how lenient the actors’ employers are. We hire a theater for two days - if we have the money -- or for a day. The first day is tech, dress, preview and opening. Sometimes, the press covers the shows. In two days, the show is over. If we are lucky and have made some money, we can travel to another city with the show.

We Chennai-ites are envious of Mumbai and its theatrical spaces. A subsidized theater like Prithvi Theater in Mumbai ensures that small groups can put up their plays at regular intervals at a small cost. But if you ask a citizen of Mumbai, they’d look towards Marathi language theater (particularly of Pune) for their role model. Marathi theater is possibly the most vibrant and alive of all Indian regional theaters. They’ve a culture of grooming new writers and directors from the college level and there’s a large and supportive audience for it.

But things are definitely changing across the nation. There is a growing number of youngsters who are trying to make theater their full-time profession and who are trying to bring immediacy and relevance back to theater.

Q:  What has it been like having your plays done in London and America?

A:  I love it that my plays have life beyond the two shows that’s possible in Chennai. Entire runs, revivals, remounts – these are stuff that I’d never even dreamed of. Also, I come from a country where there’s no formal training available to playwrights. So, working professionally with cutting-edge theater practitioners has been a cherished, valuable masterclass in theater-making.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  I grew up with my grandparents in Chennai (because I could not get admitted into a school in Mumbai where my father was working). Now, my great-grandparents lived with my grandparents. Whenever the various aunts, great aunts and cousins would visit us, it was a raucous little house filled with family stories. I was fascinated by these women and their gossip. At night, the living room would be cleared to accommodate many mats and mattresses and pillows and all the women would sleep there. I’d pretend to be asleep while avidly listening to them. These nights were amateur psychology sessions: why did Person A say that? Why did Person B do that? I’d learnt to keep my mouth shut about it and for years no one knew I was happily eavesdropping.

My mother discovered it by accident when I knew something about someone I oughtn’t to. She was naturally appalled that my grands were allowing this sort of behavior in a young person. But the damage was done. I was hooked to other people’s stories.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  At least in the Indian context, I wish there is funding for serious theater that deals with regional or national concerns and more awards and opportunities for playwrights.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Indian playwright Mahesh Dattani – for first introducing me to theater and making me pay attention to the rhythms of Indian English.

British playwright Carl Miller and Royal Court Theater’s Elyse Dodgson and dramaturge Ruth Little for opening my mind to new forms and influences.

Indhu Rubasingham, now Artistic Director of Tricycle, who directed my plays “Free Outgoing” and “Disconnect” for the Royal Court – for making me look inward and tap the voice that was small, but all mine.

Playwright Caryl Churchil is forever experimenting with form and content. She is a writer who is eternally young and exciting.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Plays with social relevance, physical theater, children’s theater, plays that surprise me, plays that make me think for days together, plays that take me by the scruff of my neck and shake me up.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Read, watch, write, rewrite. There is no other way. And keep at it.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Disconnect at Victory Gardens directed by Ann Filmer from Jan 25th to Feb 24th

Disconnect at San Jose Rep directed by Rick Lombardo from March 21st to April 14th

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