Imagine watching nearly 100 people dancing mid-air, 40-metres above the ground, where the stage is set. Now, complement that image with a 24-metre-tall puppet manoeuvred by six people, few technicians and a crane, walking amidst viewers, to tell the story of man who conquered the sun. Remember the performers are amateurs from the city, which makes it all the more relatable and surreal.
The show titled Aruna and the Raging Sun , presented by UK-based Graeae Theatre Company and Spanish La Fura dels Baus, will be led by differently-abled performers. The play, which has a differently-abled hero as the saviour of humanity, is scripted by Venkataraman Balakrishnan, artistic director of Chennai-based Theatre Nisha, and directed by Amit Sharma, associate artistic director of Graeae Theatre Company.
Aruna, the hero, will be symbolised by the puppet. It is a typical Indian narrative that tells the story of how good triumphs over evil. With a simple, yet intense plot line, coupled with awe-inspiring aerial acts, this promises to be a spectacle.
“We are expecting a big audience. All the action will be happening above them; there will be dance sequences and fireworks,” Patrick Collier, the lead producer of the company promises.
La Fura dels Baus calls itself an eccentric theatre company that re-conceptualises the theatrical space and the public. “Sometimes, when they go to a city, they ask locals if they want to be a part of the show. It is not about creating a polished Shakespeare production, but using regular people to make it feel real,” he says.
Graeae Theatre was founded in 1980 by Nabil Shaban, a differently-abled actor and writer, and Richard Tomlinson, a long-time worker in the field of education for the differently-abled. It began as an organisation with eight actors. “Our politics is great. But, it’s also for the quality of our productions that people come to watch our work, paying expensive tickets,” says Collier.
The idea is to also reverse attitudes people have towards disabilities; to see them not as obstacles but as a source of creativity. Graeae employs creative ways to incorporate sign language into the work so that the differently-abled have the exact same experience like everyone else. “Regular plays have sign language interpreters. Most often, people find it exhausting as they have to watch the play as if they are viewing a tennis match; they have to constantly divide their attention between captions, translations or subtitles and the main action. We avoid this situation. In one of our plays, we made a character hearing-impaired. She used sign language live on stage, as another translated her actions for another in the cast. This way it reached all kinds of audience.”
It is also about aestheticising sign language. “It is like dance; it is beautiful to watch, when used in a physical way. We call this aesthetics of creative access. In the London 2012 Paralympic Games, we produced a show for the opening ceremony where we projected sign language symbols on the walls of the Queen’s palace. We had an audience of over 5,000; some of them were climbing over the fences.”
At the performance in Chennai, the most exciting part promises to be the crane act, where performers will be lifted up in the air. “It will be a moment of joy and terror, where we tell our team to look at what is possible.”
The production is a part of the final phase of British Council’s UK-India Year of Culture programme. “The highlight is working with lay men, who have never been engaged in the art scene before. As part of it, we had to conduct some workshops 18 months ago across the country. We chose Chennai because the enthusiasm is great here.” The company is also partnering with local organisations such as Vidya Sagar, Prakriti Foundation, ArtSpire, Stray Factory, Beep, and the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India.
It is only in the last few years that London-based theatre groups have begun to open their doors to people of diverse race, physical attributes and sexuality, observes Collier. “We realised if we kept making art by middle-aged white men, it is going to be dull and boring. If the artistes creating the work are diverse, so will be the audience they attract. The UK Government supports us quite well if this is the case. There has been a huge change in the outlook in the last five years. We are definitely at a threshold moment; riding a wave in the disability arts scenario.”
(Aruna and the Raging Sun will be staged at Lady Willingdon College Campus, Kamarajar Salai, on February 24 at 6.30 pm. It is open and free for all. For details, visit graeae.org. )