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Arena stage in town

Thirty-eight theatre enthusiasts from across the city have come together for a three-day theatre workshop with a difference. Conducted by Arena Stage, one of the largest regional theatres in the United States, and the United States Department of State, the workshop is part of Arena Stage’s Voices of Now project, launched 10 years ago. Calcutta is the first among four cities on the trip titled “Voices of Now: India”, the others being Delhi, Patna and Hyderabad.

The workshop, from October 9 to 11, is being conducted at the American Center by Ashley Forman, director of education, programming, and founder of Voices of Now, Anita Maynard-Losh, director, community engagement, Raymond Caldwell, partnership coordinator, and Mitch Mattson, community engagement ensemble coordinator. The workshop will culminate in a performance by the participants at the ICCR on Thursday evening.

“The American Center is extremely pleased to have the team from Arena Stage here in Calcutta.... The workshop is an amazing opportunity for these participants, or artistes as the Arena Stage team calls them, to learn and address community issues. The theme for the workshop is International Day of the Girl Child and girl empowerment,” said Rachel Sunden, deputy director, American Center.

Arena Stage:

Founded in 1950, Arena Stage is a not-for-profit regional theatre based in Washington DC. “It is one of the largest theatres in the country.... It was credited with starting the regional theatre movement in 1950,” said Forman.

Arena Stage was the first regional theatre to have a play go to Broadway, the first regional theatre to win a Tony Award and the first racially integrated theatre in Washington.

“It was one of the first theatres in the country that was desegregated. One of the reasons it was started was that people of various colours and backgrounds could perform together and were in the audience together,” said Forman.

Voices of Now:

The VON programme was created to provide young people a platform to perform and devise theatre from their own writings. “I started this programme to give voice to groups that didn’t typically have their voice on stage…. The original artistes that I worked with were from a really poor school system without any arts at all…. So, the programme was to help create theatre about things that were important to the young group and also to create theatre that posed questions to the viewers about the world that they share. It is all geared towards social change and social inquiry,” said Forman.

VON, a year-long, nationally recognised drama programme, now has 12 ensembles with participants between the ages of 11 and 26.

The workshop:

The three-day workshop addresses aspects of skill-building, physical discipline, creating collaborative stage pictures, writing, group impulse and collaborative arts.

It also aims to give voice to the communities in India. “We are really working at developing theatre artistes, not just actors but actors, movers, writers, poets, activists…. They need to do all that because the writing is their own, it is all their work crafted by a professional playwright and director and choreographed and directed with the help of a professional director,” said Forman.

Creating the play that would be finally put up was on the agenda for the second day of the workshop. “We are building the play as we go,” said Forman.

The participants:

The workshop is being attended by members of professional theatre groups like Red Curtain, NGOs like Sanlaap and Kolkata Sanved, education institutes like Calcutta International School, Shri Shikshayatan School and College, Birla High School, St. John’s Diocesan School, St. Xavier’s College, Ilead, Calcutta University, Jadavpur University and performing arts group Sapphire Creations.

“We have never worked with a group this size (38). It is a really varied group but when you are in there you really can’t feel it. They created an ensemble in the first 20 minutes. I was surprised that they didn’t know each other,” said Forman.

The issues:

The Arena Stage group have been writing down and recording everything that participants at the workshop have been saying and doing to see what things they were interested in or if there were any common themes they were concerned about.

“There were certain things that came out immediately. There was a lot of repetition about violence against women,” said Forman.

Any similarities with the issues thrown up by workshops in the United States? “Gender and class are the big ones. We have issues about race that haven’t come up here. And I think media is another issue that will creep in,” said Forman. “The concern about equality is huge in this room and huge in my rehearsal hall at home,” she added.

A VON play:

“All the actors are on stage all the time. No one leaves the stage. There are no props, no costumes.... No one is the lead, everyone tells the story together. It will be written by, if not all, then, most of the participants. There will be a segment where they will be speaking directly to the audience, asking them questions. It is going to be very fluid. The physical nature of it makes it very different. It is a lot like choreography,” said Forman.

VON’s expectations from the Calcutta experience:

“This is the very first time that VON has stepped outside America…. All of the artistes at home are waiting with bated breath to see pictures and video clips. They are so excited that people in a completely different part of the world are doing the same work. It is cool to be exposed to a totally different culture and art forms and how they bring their own language and movement into their work. It is not going to look the same,” said Forman.

Chandreyee Chatterjee

(Voices of Now: India will be staged at ICCR on Thursday, October 11, at 6.30pm )