Storyteller and theatre person Craig Jenkins talks about how an episode from the Mahabharata empowered teenagers in London.

Craig Jenkins, a professional storyteller and theatre person devised a theatre project Abhimanyu: the Child Soldier, delivered by a group of teenagers from South London. Funded by the Southwark Theatre Education Partnership festival, the project aims to introduce the Mahabharata to new audiences. In this e-mail interview, Jenkins talks about using epics to comment on the modern world, and the pleasure of working with children from varied backgrounds.

Did you tweak the original story?

Traditionally Abhimanyu is represented as one of the greatest warriors in the Kurukshetra war. During my research into the epic, I felt that someone so young must have felt some fear, sorrow, confusion or even guilt at having to fight against members of his own family. I wanted to explore this within Abhimanyu’s youth and the vulnerability that may lie within.

So I decided to dedicate the entire first Act to exploring Abhimanyu’s childhood, with newly imagined scenes of childhood play, familial relationships and questions regarding his motivation and expectations from the war. I wanted audiences, especially those who did not knwo the story, to engage emotionally with Abhimanyu and journey with him through the difficult and painful decisions he is forced to make. The second Act explored Abhimanyu’s role on the battlefield and the effect of his death on his family and others. Throughout the performance, Abhimanyu’s mother, Subhadra is the storyteller who narrates the story of her son.

Does Abhimanyu fit the child soldier tag? Isn’t the kidnapping and abuse of children a large part of the life of child soldiers?

Indeed, but not always. Through our research and organisations such as Amnesty International, UNICEF and WarChild, we discovered that socio-economic pressures — poverty, displacement and inadequate education — also force children to join military groups. They are not kidnapped and/or abused into joining, but their social circumstances leave little or no other alternative.

Abhimanyu’s social circumstances as the son of Arjuna bring an expectation — even before he is born — that he will fight in the war. Also, at a human level Abhimanyu is a 16-year-old fighting in a war of men. Our intention was always to explore the psychological and emotional effects of a child fighting in a war to raise awareness of the global issue.

How did the diverse backgrounds of your teenage actors affect the production?

It was an incredible experience but not always easy. Given the serious nature of the project, workshops opened up an abundance of deep emotional responses — many of which came from their own personal lives and histories. Often we would stop the rehearsal to just ‘talk’ or ‘share stories’ of how we were feeling. It helped for us to share with each other and to find unity in each other people stories. It also helped us to look at the ways in which we could use Abhimanyu’s story as a catharsis for us to perform our own experiences.The group was made up of teenagers from a mixture of cultural backgrounds and heritages: African, Caribbean, Portugese, Albanian, Polish and English. I encouraged them to use their diverse backgrounds to bring new life to the ancient story.

The group created comedic characters such as the Nigerian joker flirting with the female members of the cast (and the audience!) and a pair of highly energetic Jamaican dancehall dancers who gatecrash Abhimanyu’s wedding. These contemporary and cultural references helped attract and engage audiences who wouldn’t usually choose to watch a piece of theatre based on a traditional story from another culture

Could the children relate to the story or did it seem too far-fetched to them?

I trained under Dr. Vayu Naidu, who taught me that one of the fundamental parts of telling any story is the ‘navarasa’, the emotional essence of the telling and the connection this makes between the teller and the listener. While the children may not have been familiar with the cultural context of the Mahabharata, they could relate to the human emotions of love, loss, courage, fear and peace in the story. By focusing on these it allowed the group to relate to the story of Abhimanyu on a much deeper personal and human level. They felt connected to his character and wanted to explore more complex details.

What aspects excited the children more: the drama or the theme of child soldiers?

Both. The group was excited about working with a traditional Indian story. They had never done this before. In the U.K., it is very easy to typecast young (predominantly black) performers from inner city London and expect them to perform a particular type of theatre in a particular type of way. I wanted to guide the group through a process that allowed them to challenge stereotypes and understand that they can perform outside of the boxes that society makes for them. The group had previously touched on the issue of child soldiers in school and they were keen to learn more.

Do you need the audience to be a part of the play or is it sufficient if they feel and understand its message?

Audience participation is integral to our performance and we inform audiences before the play starts that they are actively involved throughout. The group and I felt that the audience should journey through Abhimanyu’s life with him. to really feel that they are part of his story and to understand the message clearer. During this play, members of the audience are called into a game of ‘hide and seek’ and ‘piggy in the middle’ with a young Abhimanyu; they are chief guests at his wedding to Uttara and are interrogated, alongside him, by soldiers before the war.

What are your future plans?

All the performers are back in school but we are in regular contact and discussing our next project. We hope to perform Abhimanyu (2013), the second phase of the project, again in the summer.

At the moment, I am working on some individual storytelling work including a solo tour of a South Indian ghost story I created while in India last year — Broken Red Bangles and a return to a piece I created years ago entitled Guilt, the untold story of Surpanakha from the Ramayana.

I would love to bring Abhimanyu to India for a different cultural perspective and to continue using Abhimanyu’s harrowing and incredible story to raise awareness of the global issues of child soldiers.

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Anand VenkateswaranJune 19, 2012