Catching them young

September 25, 2017 09:17 pm | Updated 09:17 pm IST

Flying under the radar in India are a series of Indo-Welsh collaborations in the arts that were announced earlier this year. A whopping £450,000 project fund (or the India Wales Fund) financed by Wales Arts International, Arts Council of Wales and the British Council, was made available to applying Welsh artistes looking to engage in artistic partnerships with Indian groups. The scheme aims at building relationships between the two countries (Wales is considered a country for all purposes, only not a sovereign one), promote Welsh culture, and mark the 70th anniversary of Indian independence. This is one of the initiatives under the more expansive UK India Year of Culture which has showcased cultural events, exhibitions and activities throughout 2017.

Out of the 11 projects financed by the India Wales Fund, three are theatre-related endeavours. Welsh theatre company Living Pictures will tour India with their production Diary of a Madman , in partnership with the Mumbai-based QTP Entertainment. Apart from performances, a range of technical skills workshops will be organised, which could lead to the development of a new show based on William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens , featuring both Indian and Welsh performers. Also, Junoon Theatre and a slew of female playwrights are collaborating with their Welsh counterparts on a new contemporary work, Sisters .

Work in progress

In another venture, a Kolkata tour of Out of the Blue , a production created especially for babies aged 6-18 months (and their grown-ups) took place earlier this month. The work is co-produced by Theatr Iolo, Wales’ leading Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) company, and director Sarah Argent. Theatr Iolo’s artistic director Kevin Lewis and Argent have tied up with the Kolkata-based ThinkArts and conducted workshops with Indian practitioners looking to create new work aimed at Early Years audiences. They were able to hone in on three works-in-progress that were presented to trial audiences in Kolkata last week. The theatremakers involved were Delhi’s Sanyukta Saha, Mumbai’s Sananda Mukhopadhyay and Kolkata’s Pavel Paul, who will develop their fledgling works into fully realised pieces that will premiere in Cardiff in March 2018.

ThinkArts director Ruchira Das had collaborated with Indian and Scottish Early Years artists to create Island, an installation at Edinburgh’s City Arts Centre in October 2016, as part of the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, where she was also able to catch Theatr Iolo’s work for the first time. “I hadn’t quite seen anything like that in India, and wondered if something on these lines could be developed here,” she said. Out of the Blue was travelling across the world, including a stopover at the Sydney Opera House, and after the grant came through, an Indian sojourn was put into place.

With Theatr Iolo, Lewis has more than three decades of experience in TYA. They traditionally worked in schools around the Cardiff area, for children above eight years of age. “Younger kids would sometimes be brought in. We found them to be overwhelmed by the large halls and the older children,” he said. Around 2001, they had the idea of going into nurseries and creating specific works there. “Things just got younger and younger after that,” he said. As part of ASSITEJ, the international association for TYA, Theatr Iolo were exposed to theatre groups and initiatives from the continent, including Small Size, an European networking project with the precise focus on the diffusion of performing arts for children from zero to six years, or the ‘current non-audience’ that absolutely no one catered to. According to Lewis, theatre for babies is akin to them listening to music, or looking through a picture book. “They’ve had a concentrated experience. They’ve been in a social situation where they’ve engaged with a stranger. They’ve responded, they’ve sat still, they’ve paid attention. And, they’ve enjoyed themselves,” he said. It is almost like the very genesis of theatre, he feels. In the opening lines of The Empty Space , Peter Brook wrote, “A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” For Lewis, working for babies allows him to discover the profundities that lie encased in real simplicity.

Small-scale theatrics

Argent and Lewis have developed a knowledge base over time, which had to be created virtually from scratch, because theatre for babies is still a very inchoate field. “Without being prescriptive, there are a number of principles that we have learnt. But equally they could be proved wrong,” he said. What they have attempted to develop in the artistes they have interacted with in India includes the skill of really listening, and paying attention to what the babies are doing, and responding to that. Paul has decided to work with a traditional cooking pot, while Saha has created a piece out of tarpaulin. Mukhopadhyay is working with textiles. “Ultimately, we need the artistes to make their own work without any reference. What we told them is that they’ll learn the most by actually spending time with babies,” he said. Four babies were in attendance during the trial showing last week.

For the theatremakers to create working productions that can be exhibited in Cardiff before a run in India, Argent and Lewis will continue to provide an active mentorship, although much of that will be via online modes of communication. “Having watched the presentations, Kevin and I will feed to them ideas about what really worked, and what moments they perhaps need to think about rhythm and pace and energy. Babies are such sponges in terms of emotion so every detail is important,” said Argent. In the ensuing months, the works-in-progress will be showcased in playschools and nurseries, and a YouTube channel will keep the overseas mentors abreast with developments, before the collaborators all come together in the flesh next year. Argent and Lewis both agree that babies are essentially the same everywhere, so the works from India are likely to strike a chord anywhere they are exhibited.

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