The Goethe Institut and The Hindu collaborate to produce “Electronic City,” which will premiere at the MetroPlus Theatre Fest. SHONALI MUTHALALY goes behind the scenes

A German Director, a Chennai cast, a bold experiment. “Electronic City”, a work in progress that is supported by the Goethe Institut and The Hindu will be showcased at the MetroPlus Theatre Fest on August 3. Designed as an Indo-German cultural exchange and called Project InDeACT, the play is directed by Johannes von Matuschka, who has been working in Chennai for the past few weeks to create a piece of modern theatre that spans the world.

“I wanted some exchange,” says Gabriele M Landwehr, Director, Goethe Institut, who is the moving spirit behind the project. Explaining why the institute decided to produce a play rather than invite a German one, she says: “When we bring actors from Germany, they perform, stay for a couple of days and then leave. And they would always tell me, ‘We just started to meet interesting people.’ That’s how it always was. The Indians stay. The Germans leave.”This time it’s different. Gabriele chanced upon Johannes at the Berlin Theatre Festival last year. “I had decided it was time to move into a modern production, and had to find someone who was willing to take the risk. Someone with a sense of adventure and daring who would be willing to come here and produce the play,” she says.

Building bridges

A graduate from the prestigious Max-Reinhardt Seminar, Vienna University, Johannes is the only candidate in thirty years with two degrees, Acting and Directing. It helped that he believed in work that builds bridges, creating “an intercultural language of theatre.” In many ways, he was the perfect match.

Johannes and his cast, which includes German stage designer Marie Holzer, are just back from four days at Adishakti in Pondicherry, the well-known laboratory for theatre arts research, created by Veenapani Chawla. Rehearsals began just four weeks ago and Johannes’ style of directing involves the cast really owning the play, instead of just re-creating it. Therefore “Electronic City” is still a work in progress, with the script constantly being reworked by the team. (They are currently on their fifth draft.)

However, Adishakti provided a chance to pause. Says Johannes, “We took a closer look at what we’re doing. Did workshops on building trust, on musicality and other things.” Not rehearsals. “It was a moment to hold still and look even more closely at what the work was about. We got out of the rush of the city.”

Johannes and the cast rehearse daily at the Goethe Institut’s auditorium. That is if you can call it rehearsing. It looks more like they’re re-constructing their dialogue, both verbal and more-importantly non-verbal, as they bound about the stage tirelessly working on a single segment over and over again, discussing changes and making adjustments with every step.

The cast of seven actors was chosen from a workshop Johannes conducted a few months ago. About one hundred people auditioned and the final team that will go on stage comprises Sapna Sera Abraham, Anuradha Ananth, Aparna Gopinath, Iswar Srikumar, Babu alias Ganapathy, Hariharan, Somasundaram and Anandsami. A German actor Leopold Hornung features in the multimedia presentation that is part of the play.

Since music adds layers to a play, they’ve added a ghatam. “It’s very basic, but has a huge range of musicality. It transforms the rhythm of the play. I simply fell in love with its heartbeat.”

Between it all, they stretch and twirl like ballet dancers (there’s obviously been a lot of physical training and limbering up), wander about meditating on their lines and argue with cheerful intensity. The whole process is evidently very democratic. And Johannes, in his baseball cap, is riveted by his cast, reacting enthusiastically to their every cue, laughing delightedly at every joke and bounding up on stage repeatedly. “I know the author very well, and he said ‘take the play. Go with it. Put that house on any land you want to cultivate’,” he says.

The script has an experimental edge as it confronts today’s world of workers, deadened by technology and controlled by clocks. Gabriele explains why it provides a perfect meeting point for the two countries. “The digital age has made everything faster. Faster planes, faster computers, faster communication, and as a result faster decision making time.”

Johannes talks of how his biggest challenge was to find the right actors. “I needed to dig for defined characters, playful characters, witty characters. Characters that are not as depressing as the play sounds,” he says. They were found astonishingly quickly. While the project has introduced the Indian cast to German stage techniques, it has also had a profound impact on the Germans.

Johannes says, “I take a lot from the actors. Movements, action, even text…. They come in after a long day of work. We have just 2 or 3 hours to work. Yet we were ready for a full run-through in just 3 weeks. They are involved and dedicated. And that is very precious.”