Sunday, August 02, 2009

Imagination - Our passport to the real world

I acted in my first play when I was 9 (4th standard) - I was playing a Malayali traveling in a train as part of a skit on National Integration. One of these days, I will scan the picture from the play and post it here for all of you to have a hearty laugh on how silly boys with lipstick look and how terrible primary school teachers are in putting makeup. And fortunately for me, I have been doing at least one play every year ever since - through school, college, and ignoring a brief hiatus while I was in France, throughout my professional life as well (Incidentally, 2008 was the first year I didn't do a play since I landed in Bangalore). .
Last week - I, as part of Version One Dot Oh (VODO), finished my first set of shows for the play, Six Degrees of Separation. On 24th and 25th, the play was staged thrice at Alliance Francaise. And between 28th and 30th at Ranga Shankara (RS). And as with all plays, every show was unique. There were good days (like the last shows in RS and Alliance) and bad days. There were those who liked it, and those who felt it could have been better (like this review of the play) and those who couldn't relate to it at all.
And it wasn't an easy play to stage or watch - The play was entrenched in the context of a specific time (1989-90) and place (New York), replete with obscure cultural references that are lost on even the well-read audience. The narrative is not straight forward. All of us in the cast have local accents, and efforts to neutralize them made the accents come across as inconsistent. The scenes are verbose, and demand top notch performances to sustain interest (That the lead actors delivered). And most importantly, the protagonist (and a few key characters) is homosexual.
And it is especially the impact of the last point that we (or specifically, I) underestimated. During my monologue in the play (I have a minor role, 7-10 minutes of stage time in a 90 minute play), I share how the protagonist asked me if he could fuck me. I am a heterosexual but I succumb and let him violate my self. It is a beautifully written scene and - when it works - forces the audience to reexamine the impact the protagonist has on people's lives.
In every show, there were always a dozen who couldn't stop laughing at the scene (and all other scenes with references to homosexuality). The play is not about homosexuality. None of the gay characters are overtly effeminate or are played as a stereotype. They are played as who they are - Perfectly normal people. And you could 'get' the play even if you completely ignore the aspect of homosexuality. But for some (10 out of an audience of 200) since the lead character was gay, the whole play was a queer show and every line had a homosexual undertone.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not a great actor. So, it could have been something about the way I did the scene that prompted people to laugh (if you were there, saw me and have some feedback - I would love to hear from you). And though it was frustrating when I was on stage, I understand why those few laughed. How many of them have met a homosexual, known him as a friend or an acquaintance? A homosexual - like a Sardar, a Blonde - is a stereotype, a joke, a caricature. Case in point, the last gay movie that many could remember was Dostana.
After the first shows, we realized that it was a working assumption that we have to deal with. We made minor changes to expressions (especially mine) and dialogue delivery (we were clear that the script is how it was written by John Guarre, and we will not change it). Finally, during one of the shows at RS - the tittering took over the entire performance. I finished my role, defeated because all the laughter got under my skin and I gave a below par performance.
The next day, I asked the cast to be the audience and laugh through my entire monologue. Giggles, smirks and loud laughter. I failed the first time, I tried again and took my entire monologue, more honest than I had ever done it before. And when the scene ended, I slumped on stage and I wept, cried like a baby, loudly, my entire body shaking with every sob. (Confession - I have cried, loudly with tears streaming, thrice in the last 10 years. All three times after my scene in a play)
I have done the scene a dozen times before. I have thought about my character, Rick, in detail and concocted psychological motives for his actions. I created a father for him, a mother and built dreams of his childhood. If you asked me his back story, I could tell you the entire works to the last detail. But there was always, him the character and me the actor. And when the audience laughed earlier, I, Rathish, felt it was their problem, their insecurity in dealing with homosexuality.
But this time, acting in front of an empty gallery except from my fellow cast members, something clicked as I kept on with the monologue. I imagined that they weren't laughing at homosexuality, but at this small town boy with big dreams, who let himself be taken for a ride and lost all that he had. They laughed at Rick because he was a fool (Who wouldn't laugh at a man who let himself be fucked, because someone asked). And as I went on, I felt I was confessing to an ostracizing crowd. There is no way I could take that humiliation. And in that moment, I could have been him, violated and fatal.
That's probably why I love theater - I could never be an evangelist who is burnt to death, I could never be a homosexual rape victim, I don't think I would ever go as far as let myself be fucked by a man. But these are moments of true vulnerability - moments where you face death, loss and shame, emotions that our sanitized life keeps well under wraps. They say, one grows with experience. It would be presumptuous to compare being raped in real life, and acting as if you were. But there are moments, far and few and occasionally at the most unexpected of times, when a role takes you farther than you ever thought you could go, and opens a door to your own self.

Acting, they say, is cathartic. That is an understatement.

* The title of the post is from a line in the play, "I believe the imagination is the passport that we create to help take us into the real world. I believe the imagination is merely another phrase for what is most uniquely us. Jung says, 'The greatest sin is to be unconscious.'". The play was made into a movie, with most of the lines from the original play.

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