2016 Artists: Anuja Ghosalkar

Anuja Ghosalkar is a theatre actor, writer and director based in Bangalore. Drama Queen, her theatre company, is evolving a unique form of documentary theatre in India. Anuja has worked with theatre directors like Atul Kumar, Abhishek Majumadar, Kirtana Kumar and Arundhati Raja. She teaches theatre to young adults and children across Bangalore, through Jagriti and Ranga Shankara. When not doing theatre she works on Experimenta, a festival of moving image art in India. In the past, Anuja has worked as a programme officer at India Foundation for the Arts, in film research, curating, writing and teaching cinema. Recently she was an artist-in-residence at Art Lab Gnesta, Sweden where she wrote Lady Anandi.

Rejoinder:

Since my interview with Staging Our Histories in April 2016, Lady Anandi has transformed. It has had close to 20 shows across India at varied spaces. The significant additions to the performance are music, light design, technical alterations and two new scenes. The overwhelming feedback from the audience was “it needs to be longer”, “we want to know more”. Keeping this in mind the show is now fifty minutes.

Along with presenting Lady Anandi at alternate spaces, it has also shown at mainstream theatres to paying audiences. At first, I thought this might change the dynamic of the Q & A at the end of the show, but audiences have continued to engage with the piece actively. However, in a conventional theatre space, the very act of “reading” a scene holding a paper, causes discomfort to audiences. Why cannot this actor memorize her lines? Why isn’t the narrative linear? Why are the characters standing so close to each other?  The revelation that this piece challenges notions of a theatrical performance happened during a show at a well-respected theatre in Bangalore. The bricolage-like form of Lady Anandi with its jagged edges, breaks in narrative, unsettles people, especially theatre critics!

Surprisingly Lady Anandi’s world comes alive in a proscenium space—at a show in Calcutta, I decided to keep the red velvet curtain half open, a sort of peek into the world of late 19th century Marathi theatre. As a dramaturgical device, I thought the curtain framed the show. That same evening, the audience comprised young adults, between the ages of thirteen to eighteen, sat on stage, close to the action. The Lady Anandi, they experienced was markedly different from their parents, seated in the auditorium. Distance between audience and performer changes everything.

The spaces Lady Anandi has been performed at has altered with every show, but it still retains, its raw, DIY style. But the most significant change has come in my body as an actor. I now know this world better than I did in April. The characters, and their impulses are clearer to me and most importantly, I am able to own the unconventional structure of the performance. Through these twenty odd shows I have transformed from researcher, to writer, to director, and now, almost an actor!

I am overwhelmed by what I discovered and experienced in this process of making Lady Anandi. There have been moments of deep self-doubt, joy, fear and anger. But none more mystifying than the ephemerality of performance as act to archive.

 

 

 

 

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2016 Arists: Arpita Bajpeyi

Arpita is a Bangalore-based public historian. Aside from co-directing Staging Our Histories, she explores the intersection of performance and the past through her practice as a student of dance.

‘The Rani of Sirmur’ is a kathak piece Arpita began composing while in graduate school as a reaction to Gayatri Spivak’s essay of the same name. Still a work-in-progress, the performance considers personal and affective relationships to archives – particularly colonial ones – and the stories and selves which have been erased or cast into shadow by their walls, literal and figurative. ‘Rani’ also asks questions our ties to individual histories and collective pasts, as well as displacement and identity.

In 2015, Arpita had a chance to perform ‘The Rani of Sirmur’ for the second time as part of the keynote performance at the ‘New Directions in Active History’ Conference. This will be the third iteration of the piece, and the first time it is presented in India. She is grateful to the Antara Collective and Kala Sahita for their help and support in working through the piece.

2016 Artists: Abhishek Hazra

Image Caption: #cloudrumble56 | 2010 | Online performance with Twitter (part of Beam Me Up, curated by Reinhard Storz and Gitanjali Dang, supported by Pro Helvetia New Delhi) | Photograph: Lakshman Anand

Abhishek Hazra is an artist based in Bangalore, India. A diverse, yet closely interconnected set of interests around science, speculative fiction and the affective dimensions of language characterise Abhishek’s practice. He often uses text, spoken word performance, as well as video and prints. His recent series of lecture performances explore questions around precarity and provincial cosmopolitanism. Hazra’s work has been shown in MAXXI Museum, Rome, Bose Pacia, New York, Science Gallery, Dublin, GallerySKE, Bangalore, Kiran Nadar Museum, Delhi and various other contexts. Abhishek has also been the recipient of multiple awards including the 2011 Sanskriti Award for Visual Art. 

Tracing (Semi-Rendered) Floor Plans, a work-in-progress, reflects on affect and impossible archives. It also an extension of #cloudrumble56, an earlier work that explored archives and online performance within the context of the scientist Meghnad Saha’s time in the Indian parliament. 

You can find out more about Abhishek and his work at http://abhishekhazra.net/ and see him perform as part of Some Pages Are Missing on September 23rd at The Jamun, Bangalore.

2016 Artists: Ladies of the CNR

Three women sneak into an empty and abandoned locomotive repair shop, their former employ during World War II. They revisit the world of the machines that temporarily held them captive, and re-experience the challenges of life on the Homefront.

Ladies of the CNR is a vignette inspired by a powerful wartime photograph with the provocative caption: “Ladies of the CNR Shops, Stratford 1944.”

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Courtesy of Perth Archives

 

KELLY MCINTIOSH.jpg

The project is conceived by Kelly McIntosh, actor, director, and devisor of theatre. Kelly brings her experience of creating shows through research/interview techniques learned from director Paul Thompson of Farm Show fame. Their collaboration credits include The Outdoor Donnellys, Death of a Hired Man, and Hippie for the Blyth Festival. Kelly has worked in theatres across the country and acted in the inaugural production of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

 

STACY SMITH

 

Stacy Smith is an actor, arts educator and theatre-maker. She’s worked in theatres throughout the country and extensively in television and film.  She was nominated for a Genie award for her work in the film New Waterford Girl. She recently completed a run of The Ladies Foursome at Theatre Aquarius and Drayton Entertainment.

 

bAPTISTE NEIS

 

Baptiste Neis is a graduate of Concordia University’s Acting Program with a Drama For Human Development specialization. Baptiste most recently co-facilitated a community puppet capacity building project in Newfoundland with David Lane of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop.  A founding member of the Clever Crones, she presented a new work in development at Springworks 2016, The Baker’s Daughter.

 

 

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Jody Satchell, crew/performer: Jody is a Perth County Organic Farmer, and works as a carpenter at the Stratford Festival Scenic Shops.

 

 

hEATHER dAVIS

 

Heather Davies provides directorial assistance for the vignette. Heather’s directorial credits span across North America, the UK Germany and Spain. Filling a variety of directing roles Heather has worked with an impressive list of theatre companies that includes the Stratford Festival, The Grand Theatre and The Royal Shakespeare Company. Upcoming: Colours in the Storm at The Grand, London ON

 

Early dramaturgical/ research assistance by Elizabeth Davidson.

KELLY MCINTOSH, ILONA STEINACKER

‘Lady of the CNR’ Ilona Steinacker with Kelly McIntosh

Kelly McIntosh explains how ‘Ladies of the CNR’ relates to the theme of Unharvested Histories: 

Many people have sought me out to share their stories and to encourage me to continue. The shops are a big deal in Stratford. For one, they loom, empty, cavernous, dangerous, unresolved. Most locals I meet are connected one way or another through a family member. I see this story not just as a Stratford story, but a national story, and of women, and a perspective on our involvement with industry not unlike the Bomb Girls and Riveters. But for the lone photograph who would have remembered them? Our aim is to share and celebrate these women, who rose to the occasion, to a moment in history where necessity bent the gender lines. Many of their descendants tell me oh mum never talked about that, I didn’t even know there was a photograph, isn’t that something?

2016 Artists: Jesse Thistle

Jesse Thistle is Métis-Cree from Saskatchewan and a master’s student in history at the University of Waterloo.His work centres on trauma and memory within populations of Métis and Cree in Northern Saskatchewan, and the Algonquin of Timiskaming, Ontario. Specifically, he looks at how history can be applied to understand the effects of intergenerational trauma in contemporary Indigenous populations. His work is directed towards community healing and cultural reclamation as well as retrieval of oral history archives—termed as truth-telling as defined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—challenging orthodox settler histories in the narrative of Turtle Island. Jesse is also interested in how the arts—film, writing, dance, painting and illustration—can be used to as a mode of resistance, cultural revitalization, and land reclamation among Indigenous peoples.

Follow Jesse on Twitter: @michifMan

Find out more about Jesse & his work on his blog.

Join us for Unharvested Histories on Oct. 15th to view Jesse’s film, kiskisiwin – remembering, created in partnership with 2015 Staging Our Histories artist Martha Stiegman.

2016 Artists: Colleen Maguire

Colleen Maguire has been a costumed interpreter for six summers at the Huron County Historic Gaol. For the last four years she has portrayed Margaret Hill Dickson, the beloved Gaol Governess from 1876 to 1895. Colleen has extensively researched every aspect of Mrs. Dickson’s life, her family and her socially advanced work at the Gaol to provide an intimate and heart warming portrayal of this outstanding woman.

Colleen describes how her interactive theatre piece, Mrs. Dickson, presents Unharvested Histories: 

Some people toil away quietly their whole lives, They pass from this life of burdens and care and when those who knew them are also gone their contribution fades from memory. Those who pass their headstone see only a set of letters and some dates. But then someone stumbles across their name, there is an awakening and they live and breath again.

2016 Artists: Henry Greenspan

Henry (“Hank”) Greenspan is a psychologist, oral historian, and playwright/actor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His play, REMNANTS was originally produced for National Public Radio in the U.S. and has been presented as a one-person staged performance by Greenspan at more that three hundred venues worldwide. He has been the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University in Montreal. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

We asked Hank how REMNANTS represents Unharvested Histories: 

Rather than single “testimonies,” my work with Holocaust survivors is based on multiple interviews with the same survivors that extended over months, years, and–with a few people–even decades. Survivors (like everyone else) say different things, and in different ways, in sustained conversations that allow deepening reflection, exploration, and candor. For that reason, much of what REMNANTS presents has not been “harvested” before.

You can see more of Hank’s work at www.henrygreenspan.com

Behind the Scenes at Behind the Bars

 

Ahead of Unharvested Histories this fall, our latest ‘Off the Page’ feature spotlights Huron County! Behind the Bars’ night tours at the Huron Historic Gaol are a popular summer attraction for both residents & tourists in Goderich, Ontario looking to meet their friendly neighbourhood criminals, lunatics and vagrants. On Tuesday and Thursday nights in July and August, visitors to the gaol step into the past to interact with volunteers portraying the real men, women and children who lived and worked at the building when it was an operational jail (1841-1972).

Although she no longer spends her summer evenings in jail as a pregnant vagrant, Staging Our Histories co-director Sinead Cox contributed to Behind the Bars as a volunteer interpreter and coordinator while a student employee at the Huron County Museum. She caught up with current coordinator Madelaine Dunbar-Higgins, Museum Assistant, for behind-the-scenes insight on how staff and volunteers turn primary research into a one-of-a-kind interactive historical experience.

How long have you been working with Behind the Bars? Have you noticed any significant changes in the program over that time?
This is my third summer working on Behind the Bars. I spent my first year learning everything I could about the event, and have been able to improve my organization since then. We have many returning volunteers, and I believe my relationships with each of them has helped to make the program run more smoothly, as well as boosting their confidence to “perform” and ask questions.

Other changes include the increase in audience numbers each year, likely a result of word-of -mouth promotion – our most common response to the question “how did you hear about us?” Audiences seem to be becoming more engaged throughout their tour, asking questions and participating in dialogue as opposed to solely wandering through the building. I find that the level of excitement is increasing, and visitors are keen on telling their friends and families about the event, and to return in coming years as they anticipate changes in characters. Locals and tourists are becoming more aware of the event (and the fact that the Huron Historic Gaol is #1 on TripAdvisor’s “Things to Do in Goderich” list helps too).

This year, I am co-coordinating the event with Mackenzie Bonnet, who is also a University summer student. We are hoping that our collaboration and joint contributions will make 2016 the best Behind the Bars yet!

13417408_1122291751150154_8207625444624819901_nWhat kind of stories and characters are featured this summer?
We try to portray a variety of crimes at BTB. This year, these include theft, vagrancy or destitution, and insanity, we well as more serious crimes such as assault and murder. A new (and notable) character that we have this summer is the infamous James Donnelly. His is a story that many have heard of and that really resonates with people.

Can you explain how the character stories featured in Behind the Bars are researched and created? What kind of historical sources do staff use?
A great number of our character stories were assembled by past Museum Intern
Sinead Cox. Our main source of information comes from the Gaol registry, which lists inmates’ names, age, date of committal, offence, authority committing, length of stay, and then personal details like their hair and eye colours, whether or not they partook in “the drink,” and whether or not they can read or write. The registry also includes information on their behaviour or conduct while in Gaol.

Next, [using dates or details form the registry] we turn to local historical newspapers (Huron Expositor, Goderich Signal, etc.) hoping to find additional information on each crime. This helps to give a bit of background information on the nature of the crime and to add some real drama to each story. We also use census and land records, as well as birth, death, and marriage certificates which provide details on the inmates’ families, occupations, and residences. Old County Council minute books often provide information on peculiar prisoners whose stories were given extra attention, or inmates who required services beyond what the Gaol could provide (straitjackets, special remedies, transfers to other institutions).

Usually a month is spent editing previous stories and compiling new ones based on the ages and genders of our volunteers. Once given their story, volunteers create their own interpretation of their character and bring individual experience to the information provided. They are encouraged to come up with a “hook”, or a piece of information that will draw people in to chat with them, which helps bring a sense of creativity to the event.

How many volunteers and staff work on bringing  Behind the Bars to life?
In 2016, we have a total of 33 volunteers, several of which participate out-of-costume by helping to serve refreshments and answer questions about the general history of the gaol. 26 of our volunteers participate as inmates and staff sharing their true stories. Myself and my co-worker, Mackenzie Bonnet, are co-coordinating the event this summer, and there are generally 1-2 other [staff members] working on Behind the Bars.

How do you find actors for Behind the Bars and match them to the stories you’ve researched?
Our main source of volunteers is the growing number of actors that [have already] participated in Behind the Bars and who return each year. We advertise volunteer recruitment through public service announcements and social media, and I think many people become interested after attending the event themselves, or if they know someone who has volunteered in the past. Our youngest volunteers are 12 years old, and range to middle-aged adults and seniors. We match each one to a character who is of roughly the same age, meaning that the characters we have each year vary…We try to include the stories of inmates that worked well [with audiences] in the past, and also introduce new ones to add some variety to the evenings.

Group (men)

Staff ultimately don’t provide the volunteers with a formal script to be recited, but a compilation of the facts and context information gathered through research. What do the volunteers themselves bring to the interpretation?
Volunteers are given very basic information on their character, and must fill in the blanks while being as historically accurate as possible. We encourage them to stay in character as much as they can. Our volunteers are eager to add their own twist to their story, or to bring previous knowledge to what they have to say. We hold training nights to share with them the general history of the building, and offer some acting tips, as they piece together tidbits of information. We ask them to spend time in their assigned locations, and to get a feel for how inmates would have lived during their stay, and what emotions they may have felt. Volunteers may also choose to find additional research on their character based on their interests (such as searching family histories or even finding their gravestone).

What about the audience? Since the tour is interactive, rather than scripted, what do the visitors bring to those interactions?
As the nights progress, the volunteers become more comfortable in their roles and learn what visitors are most interested in hearing, adapting their stories accordingly.

What makes BTB successful is the visitors’ participation with each volunteer. To enhance their experience, visitors must ask questions, and participate in day-to-day activities like tasting bread and molasses, playing crokinole, or helping to read letters to inmates from their family members. Last year, a character who was planning to escape from Gaol had visitors help him come up with an escape route – these are the kinds of things that make BTB so intriguing.

Can you walk us through briefly what the typical visitor’s experience is at Behind the Bars?
Visitors enter the building through a long and narrow hallway that leads to what was once the Gaol’s visiting room and “intake office”. On their way through, there is a guestbook to be signed, where visitors can come up with a reason as to why they were committed to gaol. They pay a small fee and are given a card that lists all of the staff and inmates they will encounter. They are given general instructions for making their way through the building (3 floors, spiral staircase, Governor’s House), and we often suggest they start by meeting an inmate who is not already acting with another visitor. After this, it’s all up to them! On any given night, there will be up to 20 actors to interact with. Behind the Bars is self guided, and visitors wander through at their own pace. We often recommend at least 45 minutes for a full tour, but you could spend hours at the Gaol if you wish to hear everyone’s story. We also serve lemonade in the large courtyard beyond the Gaol kitchen on the main floor of the building, where museum volunteers are situated to answer any questions that couldn’t be answered upstairs.

How does the surrounding space—a 175-year-old building with a panopticon layout, and narrow spaces– itself impact the program? Are there specific challenges or advantages to live performance in the Huron Historic Gaol?
The fact that this building is a National Historic Site makes these evening tours appealing. Visitors comment on [the] eerie experience of the narrowing hallway, the same echo-filled space that prisoners walked through upon their committal. The Gaol is octagonal in shape and was based on Jeremy Bentham’s ideas on prison reform – totally different from any jail one might see today. The panopticon layout…helps visitors to share the same feelings and experiences that prisoners once had, and to envision day-to-day life in this facility that was built almost 175 years ago. The layout can also be a bit confusing, and visitors have to learn to find their way up the spiral staircase and around the set-up of each room – something that seems so second nature to myself and my coworkers.

So the setting of the gaol–where these characters actually lived, and in some cases died– lends important visual and spatial context to the stories. Do you think the program could be successfully transplanted to another space and still work?
I don’t think that the program would carry the same effect if it was moved to another space…The history of the building is essential in conveying each character. One of the most effective ways of conveying the Gaol’s history is allowing people to walk the same halls and wander through the same courtyards that inmates did until 1972 when the Gaol closed. People often ask whether or not we’ve witnessed any supernatural phenomena, which wouldn’t be the case outside of this space.

You also staff the gaol during the day. How does the visitor experience change from the daytime (when there are no costumed interpreters) to Behind the Bars nights?
Daytime visitors read about historical facts, objects, instruments (musical and surgical), and uses of the gaol (or hear about certain artifacts and spaces using our audio wands). The Gaol really comes to life during our evening tours, providing the same sorts of information that our daytime visitors experience and SO MUCH MORE. I feel that Behind the Bars is a program that’s essential to sharing the history of the building and the municipalities it represented. Visitors want to be engaged and active. This is what brings them back year after year. The program’s popularity stems from its potential beyond guided educational tours. The enthusiasm shared by staff, visitors, and volunteers inspires others to come see what the event entails!

What kind of feedback or questions do you commonly get from audiences?
Visitors (and volunteers) often provide feedback and commentaries that will help us to improve the event and brainstorm ideas for years to come.There have been suggestions for new characters to include in BTB, such as a judge or any infamous inmates. It is through feedback that we learn what works and what doesn’t. Visitors always enjoy our volunteers’ ability to remain in character despite attempts to make them [break]. I can honestly say that we receive little to no negative feedback, and our guests seem to always leave satisfied with their visiting experience.

What’s the best part of working at Behind the Bars? 
My favourite part of Behind the Bars is hearing the comments and reactions of audience members/visitors. Their enjoyment of the event helps to remind me that my hard work has paid off. I love explaining the event to people, and seeing returning faces each year. I also love hearing the thoughts of our volunteers as they share with me particular encounters that made them happy and excited or shocked and confused.

Do you have a favourite character?Group (women) (1)

My favourite character would have to be Gaol Matron Mrs. Margaret Dickson (sorry everyone, you’re all great!). She is played by a local community member who is extremely devoted to our event. She has gone above and beyond to find information on her character outside of what she has been provided with, and she helps to set the tone of the event by keeping true to her time period (between 1876 and 1895). She is incredibly knowledgeable and encourages visitor participation, especially for those who seem hesitant at first. Each inmate has a different story, so it’s hard to pick just one.

Behind the Bars highlights histories of poverty and crime that aren’t visible at a lot of other local historical sites. Why do you think these stories are important to tell, and why is Behind the Bars the right platform? How do you balance a family event that attracts tourists, campers and young families with some of the darker themes and tragic stories attached to the gaol?
Behind the Bars is different from the presentation of other local histories in that it often focuses on the negative aspects of life in Huron County. Behind the Bars highlights the fact that the gaol was used to house not only prisoners, but also acted as both a poor house and asylum. This is a commonly asked question from daytime visitors and Behind the Bars attendees. It’s important to tell these stories because they are easily forgotten and are part of the unwritten history of the area. Characters in Behind the Bars portray real people and personify the struggles of the past, which is far better understood than reading an excerpt on the wall. We are able to create a balance between historical interpretation and entertainment, keeping in good spirits although some stories may not necessarily be happy ones.

What’s the best reason new or returning visitors should visit Behind the Bars this summer?
Visitors should attend Behind the Bars for a unique community experience that is both entertaining and educational. I encourage past visitors to return since each year is different, and they have the opportunity to speak with inmates and staff they haven’t met before. Our event and our audiences are ever-changing, and there’s always a new piece of history to be discovered with each visit!

Everything you need to know to visit Behind the Bars this summer:
Behind the Bars takes place every Tuesday and Thursday night beginning on July 5th, and ending on August 25th. Special admission rates are $10 for adults, $5 for children, and $25 for families. Children ages 5 and under as well as Museum Members attend free of charge. We open the Gaol doors at 7:00 pm, and encourage visitors to arrive before 8:00 to allow them to experience the event in its entirety. They have until 9:00 pm to find out everything they can about those who lived and worked at the Gaol!

Reminder: If you have an unwritten history about Huron County you want to share on stage this fall, the submission deadline for Unharvested Histories is July 4!

Good news! Unharvested Histories DEADLINE EXTENDED past long weekend!

GOOD NEWS for dancers, poets, musicians, film makers, students and historians who want to share lesser known histories off the page & on the stage: Staging Our Histories has extended the submission deadline for Unharvested Histories in Goderich to better accommodate our submitting artists.

Artist submissions will now be accepted until midnight on July 4th, 2016. If you haven’t already started a written or recorded proposal that outlines how you would bring #UnharvestedHistories to life on the stage or screen, you have one extra week to create material and pinpoint your technical needs. See our submission guidelines for more detailed information on what our co-organizers will be looking for when selecting pieces, and what to include in your proposal. For the 2016 event in Goderich, we’re seeking a diversity of storytelling mediums & performance styles, as well as diverse histories that matter to individuals and communities across Huron County and surrounding communities.

Prospective performers can submit early or send questions about their proposal for more detailed feedback and guidance from our co-directors. We’d love to hear from you! Email us at staginghistories@gmail.com, tweet us @stagehist or message us via Facebook.

 

 

Playing With Ghosts: An Interview with Anuja Ghosalkar on Performing Archival Absences

Co-Director of Staging Our Histories, Arpita Bajpeyi, recently had a chance to meet with Anuja Ghosalkar, founder of the Bangalore-based theatre company DramaQueen.  Ghosalkar is also the actor-writer behind Lady Anandi, a one-woman play based on her research into her maternal great grandfather’s career as a Marathi actor and female-impersonator in late nineteenth century India. The following is an e-interview with Anuja on her work and experience crafting and performing Lady Anandi.

To begin with, you mentioned that you had an opportunity to start writing Lady Anandi as an artist-in-residence at an art lab in Stockholm . Before you began writing the piece, though, what was your experience in the archives like? What drew you there in the first place?

I have always been fascinated with archives—  during my work as a film researcher in 2005 with Rosie Thomas, University of Westminster on the early stunt film in India, I spent hours peering over newspapers from the 1930’s and 40’s at the Asiatic Library, Mumbai. I made several visits to the National Film Archives of India and there too, the smell of film and the documents I found, intrigued me. I suffered from archive fever.

Following this, I did an Oral History project on my grandfather, Ram Tipnis—the oldest living make-up artist in India at the time.  A Sarai fellowship enabled me to record his stories—a history from the periphery of cinema and its technology. The entire project is documented here: http://papaajoba.blogspot.in

During five my years at Indian Foundation for the Arts, as programme officer for the Arts Research and Documentation programme I closely interacted with archivists, academics and organized and attended conferences around documentation and the role of archives. Through this, my significant learning was, while there is some attempt at archiving in India, there is no artistic intervention within the archival spaces. To plug this gap, I, along with a colleague designed fellowships for artists to retrieve materials from archives and use it artistically. Our aim was to enable the archive, not just as a repository site but also as a site of retrieval.

Post IFA, I became an actor— a lifelong dream that I decided to pursue at 34! It was during my early days as an actor, that I had the idea to use material from my family archive. I wanted to tell a story that meant something to me, rather than work with a pre-written text. Thus, I decided to work on the story of my great-grandfather—a female impersonator in late 19th century Marathi theatre. But he was absent from the archive and my archival excavation was drawing dust.

That led me to the question— can the archive be site of omission as well?

One of the things I loved about Lady Anandi was how you used the medium of the play to call attention to the distance between yourself and the scenes featuring your great grandfather. You read from scripts and wove stage directions into the scenes themselves – though the latter is something you did in scenes featuring your character, Lady F, as well. Can you elaborate on your choices in using, and pushing, the boundaries of your medium? Was that something that developed as you wrote the piece, or as you performed it? 

At the end of my residency, I had to share my text in a formal presentation. I had written the text for three actors, however I didn’t have access to actors Sweden, so decided to read all the characters myself. Since I didn’t have time to learn lines, I decided to hold the script in my hand, in case I fumble. During the “presentation” it became apparent to me that there was merit in it. While writing the script I hadn’t decided that will be “read out” rather than performed. But the more I present Lady Anandi, the more I feel holding the pages of the text are vital to create distance. And since in my mind it is unfinished, and it is a presentation, holding the papers seem only natural. Early on, while pitching the performance, I would say it is a lec-dem and I feel that in that form holding your papers in front of an audience is acceptable.

In short, that decision was made while I performed it for an audience. I think a performance can be rehearsed several times but it’s only when one does it in front of an audience, does its impact become obvious. Otherwise it’s a bit like going scuba diving in a swimming pool, the ocean is missing.

Having been a part of many mainstream plays, I feel the idea of a completed piece which is perfect, where everyone knows their lines, and is clean, does not appeal to me. In my aesthetic world, I prefer rough edges, mistakes, it really shows up the spirit of exploration. I do not mean that rigour is compromised, I simply mean that some part of the puppeteers strings show.

You use projections of archival photographs of your great grandfather throughout the play, often projecting them onto your own body. Like him, you slip fluidly in and out of differently gendered bodies throughout the play. It’s no surprise you premiered Lady Anandi at the Gender Bender theatre festival presented by the Goethe-Institut with Max Mueller Bhavan and the Sandbox Collective! Can you speak a little on your use of these photographs, your body, and the place of gender in the play?

Gender is central to the performance. I always knew that my great grandfather had a theatre company and he played female characters. But it was while working with a German dramaturg on Virginia Woolf’s text A Room of One’s Own, I thought about creating a performance on him. In Woolf’s text she writes about Shakespeare’s imaginary sister, Judith—would she have been given the chance to be a playwright? Or would she be married off? That had me question my place me in theatre, the roles I was given, the lines I was made to say. The responses I received when I decided to be a full time theatre actor at 34! Deeply uncomfortable with my insights, I decided to create a performance that meant something to me—two actors, separated by 100 years, one who plays women characters convincingly, the other, me, struggling to stand like lady.

I looked at family albums, one aunt had three photos, the other a few more. It was becoming apparent to me that he was absent from theatre history. In the stories I had heard of him growing up, he seemed like a hero, who played both male and female characters with ease, received critical acclaim, drank five litres of milk a day, loved wrestling. Could these stories be made up to feed my young imagination? Was he an apparition? If not, why was he missing from the archives?

But I found twenty odd photos of him. The decision to use photos was something I made right at the start of the project. That was the only real material I had. The more I looked at the photos, the more connected I felt to him. I could see him and touch him. And as I an actor, touching that image, however ephemeral, makes it tangible for me.

I believe that the body is an archive of the past as well, of what we have experienced, suffered, endured and it holds stories of our ancestors. And as an actor, I wanted to capture those images on my body.

I am interested in looking at the photo archive and its relation to the body as an archive and I put myself at the centre of it. Me, with my imperfections and the photos in all their regality and finesse.

Who is ‘Lady F’? How did you use her to situate yourself within the play? Or was she a vehicle for you to say something else, maybe address a gap that needed some attention within the work or the context/dialogue you see the play functioning in?

Yes, you are absolutely right, she is a vehicle for me. In theatre we love narrators, someone who pieces it together—Lady F is that character, except that she cannot give us a complete picture. I have often been asked is Lady F different from Anuja? Why not just say Anuja? Lady F is certainly NOT Anuja, she is the person who sees the ghost of her great grandfather every time she goes up on stage, Anuja doesn’t see ghosts, she writes about characters who do. A lot of theatre veterans said to me in the early stages of this project, “why should I listen to your story?”, “why is the personal so important for us to watch on stage, pay money for it?”  Therefore I created Lady F (F for Fuck Off, if you will, or F for Female).  But I do not “play act” Lady F, she is natural, urban, can answer questions, talks about process. Anuja later tells her how the show went, scolds her if she got a delivery wrong and so on.

 

When I had the chance to see Lady Anandi, you prefaced your performance by saying that this was a work in progress. After the show, you welcomed questions, critiques and comments from the audience. What has it been like to perform the piece for audiences as a work in progress? What has come out of this process for you, so far? 

It has been a very rewarding experience sharing this unfinished work. It makes me vulnerable as a performer and creator but it also emboldens one’s choices. It ties back to my earlier point about scuba diving in a pool—the audience is one of the most vital elements of a performance for me. Several people have said to me after the show, “thank you for making us feel important, as if what we say really counts. Otherwise we are shown work after it is completed.” The audience, especially in Delhi at S-47 Panchsheel Park, was rigourous in their feedback. They engaged with the process, with the research. They were progressive enough to say “you don’t need a director”, “it is unfinished only because you say it is, we felt it is complete”. Showing it to the audience has given me courage!

I also like the performative element of the Q& A— I sit there, someone asks me something terribly important. There is a shot in Godard’s Breathless where he shows a press conference and the inanities of it. I love it. But on a serious note, one audience member came and said to me, we are as vulnerable as you are, sitting there, trying not to hurt you, but say something that will add value to the project.

To reiterate, I really enjoy the feedback process, it teaches me a lot. And in the absence of a director, who critiques the show, the audience’s response fulfills that.

You wrote, above, that your research led you to question whether the archive can be a site of omission. I think for a lot of us who delve into the (institutional) archives, particularly when we’re looking for histories that tend to be marginalized by text and assumptions about the kinds of narratives that should be preserved as history, we find more gaps and silences than stories. What are your thoughts on encountering these absences in the archives and, more generally, history? How can we use the body as an archive, as you put it to respond to these?

This is a complex question to respond to. In my case, given that I had very little information on my great grandfather, I had to turn to my own body. And I felt that there may be some continuity there, in the stories or memories we physically carry. I think as performers, we can turn to our bodies for some sort of a response, either by juxtaposing our bodies with material we find or simply occupying space, where archival material is absent. For a filmmaker, academic, her relationship to that missing archive might be different. So I cannot comment about it in general terms but I guess what I am trying to say is that in our search for that missing archive, our relationship to the scant materials or tools we use to mediate it, is of great significance. Also, in Lady Anandi, the quest to find the material is what audience members enjoy watching. This leads me to believe that, the endeavor to fill the gaps is as vital an act, as finding that material.

My thought on history— I am not sure I am qualified to answer it. But I’ll attempt it. It is that the more personal, un-institutional voices that write it, tell it, the better it might be. I am a bit skeptical of a grand historical narratives. I prefer the fragmented, disjointed versions of it.

Many thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule for this, Anuja! We look forward to following your work, and seeing Lady Anandi in Bangalore again in July.

 

Anuja Ghosalkar is a theatre actor, writer and director based in Bangalore. Drama Queen, her theatre company, is evolving a unique form of documentary theatre in India. Anuja has worked with theatre directors including Atul Kumar, Abhishek Majumadar, Kirtana Kumar and Arundhati Raja. She teaches theatre to young adults and children across Bangalore through Jagriti and Ranga Shankara. When not doing theatre, she works on Experimenta, a festival of moving image art in India. In the past, Anuja has worked as a programme officer at India Foundation for the Arts, in film research, curating, writing and teaching cinema. Recently, she was an artist-in-residence at Art Lab Gnesta, Sweden, where she wrote Lady Anandi.

You can follow Anuja on her Facebook page, Drama Queen, and on her website: www.drama-queen.in.