Who are you? That’s the essential question. Think about it. It’s not as simple as it seems. After all, it’s kept Sujay Saple and an eclectic mix of artists, dancers and actors busy since January. They don’t have neatly packaged answers, yet. But they do have an exploration that’s worth diving into.

‘Unselfed’, produced by Saple’s performance company Shapeshift and Mumbai-based Company Theatre explores the ideas of parallel selves. “What if you met another you — a living, breathing other you?” asks Saple. “Would you have a conversation with her, or run in the opposite direction? Or, what if you found, lying in a corner of your house, your own body — without the breath of life? What would an encounter like that do to your ‘sense of self’?”

On the phone from Puducherry, where the production is premiering, he talks of how this work is a “collaboration between contemporary dancers and theatre performers.” When it was conceived, the pool of talent was as undefined and casual as the central theme. “I made an announcement that I was starting on a devised work, a work with no writers, no scripts. Work created by the performers. Made on the floor,” he says, discussing how it created a buzz. “It became an open house. We drew dancers, actors, acrobats, photographers. For the first three months, we worked on improvisation and investigation. No definite cast, no definite piece. Just an idea.” Saple says he had colleagues and friends who joined in simply because they found it exciting to be involved in the process of putting such a free-flowing performance. “They found it exciting — they were tired of the usual ‘learn your lines and perform’ pattern. This was a physical work. It was something different.”

Pushing the boundary

He doesn’t shrink from labelling it as ‘experimental’ despite being acutely aware that this genre of theatre tends to draw niche audiences. “Of course it won’t have the kind of an audience a comedy will… But that makes me insist all the more. This is work that needs to be pushed. There is not enough experimental work happening in India. Even in the experimental circuit there is not much experimentation happening. One needs the push the envelope.”

The production began with the team working on the concept of self. “We began by challenging the supposed singularity of sense of self… The idea of being disconnected. Of encountering other selves.” Saple adds hurriedly, “This is not a schizophrenic space. Neither is it a unique experience. It’s an experience that could happen to anyone.”

Once they found a central theme, they began to develop it with physical movement. “The driving force was the form. We were trying to develop a hybrid form. Trying to articulate ourselves with physicality. Through movement. To explore the body’s relationship with space, props, sound or even text.” Their goal, Saple says, is to “develop a form. Break away from the linear. Abandon plot structure.”

The final cast includes two dancers and three theatre actors. “It all came together towards the last months,” says Saple talking of how the whole process was as rigorous as it was democratic. “It was about searching, investigating, about opening Pandora’s Box. Then, slowly figuring out what worked. And what didn’t.

This isn’t designed to be a story. It’s an experience. “It’s not logical as much as it is rhythm. This is an emotional journey. One that keeps changing with every show.”

Unselfed, presented by Basement 21 in association with the Alliance Française of Madras, will be staged on October 3 at 7 p.m. at the Alliance Française of Madras. There will be a post-performance conversation between the director, K.Pravin and Padmini Chettur focusing on ‘process’, which is a primary concern of all Basement 21 projects.

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