mind adventures

an experimental theatre company set up in sri lanka in 1999.

mind adventures performs on the 19th of august at the chennai metroplus theatre festival

here is an article published in The Hindu newspaper.

we have been devising anew for this festival, as we are performing indoors in an auditorium that is about the size of the BMICH! so we have had to modify both playing style and content.  although the main story remains largely the same, we have made significant changes to the production.

tracy (the director) was interviewed by divya kumar from The Hindu, and below are a few extracts from that interview.

1.    How heavily does this devised piece of theatre depend on the short story ‘The Boy Who Spoke in Numbers’ by Mike Masilamani? And how much was improvised during rehearsals?
Mike Masilamani wrote ‘The Boy Who Spoke in Numbers’ in 2006. The most amazing thing was that many of the events in his story actually came to pass in 2009. The war ended; hundreds of thousands were put into IDP camps.  At the time of performance, a large group of IDPs were let out of the camps, which is also in the story. So in terms of plot, we have not deviated at all from the events in the short story. 

 I took a decision early on to use the format of a play-within-a-play. My concern was that people with highly biased agendas would not be able to identify or appreciate the sincerity of the piece and just condemn it instead. So I suggested to the cast that we become The Travelling Circus. In Mike’s story, they are referred to as The Travelling Circus of Refugees – a group of assorted itinerants, banded together by necessity, exploiting their oddities (The Landmine Ladies, the Jaipur Foot-juggler, The Constantly Complaining Cow) and telling stories in order to survive. Together, they tell the story of The Boy.

The characters of these ‘circus’ performers are based on stories of survivors taken from various published reports, such as the Human Rights Watch Report of 2009. Inspired by these, we created characters during rehearsals that would form the base of the play. It is through them that we hear accounts of real events, as they ‘break out of character’ to argue with each other as to how the ‘play’ should develop. Their experiences are also found in the lyrics of the songs we wrote.

On top of that are the characters they play in the story they are telling, which are human, animal, inanimate and in some instances, manifestations of different emotions. While Mike describes them and gives some of them lines, on the whole we created their physicality, their voices and the tone of their  language. This took a lot of experimenting with forms of physical theatre, clowning and use of voice. 

The set, the sound and the props have all developed through the devising process, where we experimented with various forms and worked only with found objects – whatever came to hand. The show was also very much shaped by the venue we were at  – we rehearsed there for 2 months, so a lot of the movement and choreography was site specific. We are devising anew at the moment to create something more fitting to the Mutha Memorial hall.

A lot has happened in the last two years, and we are taking this opportunity to update these references, while still using Mike’s plot as the main framework of the play.

2.    What were some of the challenges of tackling very real political issues – of war, violence and human displacement – through the prism of fantasy and fairytale?
The challenges are several, and I don’t think we have overcome them yet. ‘The Travelling Circus’ is a work in progress and we will continue to adapt, refine and add to the content. The reactions to the first run of this show in 2009 were extreme. While one critic praised it as deeply humanist, and the best piece of theatre in any language in a decade or more, another called it shameless, sententious frippery. I expected nothing less. With a topic like this there is no middle ground – it is such an emotional issue. 

The greatest challenge was – and is – to try and separate the emotions from the issue, and represent it in a manner that would ask the audience to think about resolution. The war was ‘over’ but much remained, and still remains, to be done in terms of reparations. There is so much racism, violence and loss to overcome.
One thing we were quite certain about was that we didn’t want to do anything too sentimental – it was too soon. Theatre thrives on metaphor, and this is precisely why the show became allegorical in essence. The play is set in The Island of Short Memories, where our point of view is reflected through the experiences of an innocent young boy who has lost everything. He doesn’t have any extreme prejudices either way and is completely bewildered at what is going on around him. So he asks questions. These are questions that we all ask; one of them is ‘Does war make an orphan of hope?” We wanted to make a hopeful play.

Another question is ‘Does anyone ever win a war?’ This is what we wanted to highlight, along with the consequent issues that arise, such as the current situation with the IDPs. The boy is a naif, with no political savvy, he knows only what he sees. The war is seen through his eyes, and the challenge was to make sure we did not impose our personal views upon his. I made a conscious decision not to depict extreme violence because it did not fit the tone of the story, or the impression we wanted to leave the audience with.

The biggest danger that presented itself  was with regard to the acting. There are talking animals, singing checkpoints, a cricket match and a boy who can only speak through numbers in the play. The ‘Circus’ is quite physical and absurdist, with rapid changes in tone and pace. An actor cavorting about the stage in a lizard mask could lose sight of the main aim of the play and give in to the ridiculousness of his situation. Yet he is speaking of very real and tragic incidents. Alsothere is a wistful irony in Mike’s writing that needed to be reflected in tone of the playing. An insensitive portrayal would easily trivialise the subject matter. So emotional sincerity and a constant awareness that this was all really happening, spurred us on to find the gravitas with which to play out this fantasy, which is so symbolic of  the sheer insanity our country has gone through.

3.    Tell us a little about the decision to use music in such an unusual way in ‘The Travelling Circus’ – playing with the lyrics, using mash-ups or remixes, and more.
The Music in the play is utilised the way it is, for two specific reasons. One is that the use of music to break up narrative flow is one of the standard devices of Brecht’s Epic theatre, yet another reminder for the audience that they are watching a play. The whole structure of this play is closely moulded on his theory of Alienation which, as you know, requires the audience to be objective and to think about the why and the how, rather than becoming emotionally involved with the characters. While seeming to be folk songs and absurd little ditties, the lyrics of the songs in Mother Courage for instance, are nevertheless quite subversive, and we took inspiration from this for the lyrics of our own songs. 

The other reason is that music has always been used as a tool for social commentary and satire, and I wanted to use this to reinforce the impression of a play-within-a-play. The parodies and mash-ups are there to provide accesible global cultural references that the majority of the audience will be able to identify with, such as lyrics from Les Miserables, Cabaret and Michael Jackson to name a few. We used them to try and help us to vocalise the feeling of helplessness that many of us felt at the chaos, the lack of information, the anxiety we were experiencing at that time. And we were not the ones in the thick of the conflict. The platitudes in the lyrics were the only way to give voice to some things that are still too painful to articulate, yet we have to try and start somewhere. And even as I write, the lyrics are changing – that is the nature of devising in general and of this show in particular.

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