By Raymond O. Caldwell, Partnership Manager
Our adventures in India - a country I’ve always seen through a lens of magic, wonder, and allure - were smattered with a series of serendipitous events that in the retelling seem unbelievable and all too magical.
On the day of departure, we piled our luggage on the curb, in front of the Mead Center for American Theatre stage door, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the special ordered four-person cab that would whisk us to Dulles International Airport. Imagine our surprise when a small Lincoln Town car pulled up! The cab driver, excited by the prospects of four passengers traveling all the way to Dulles from Southwest D.C., eagerly began throwing our nine pieces of luggage into his trunk. By the seventh bag, it was clear that we and our luggage were NOT going to fit, and panic began to set in. It was too late to call the cab company, and waiting for another cab to arrive would cause us to miss our flight! But then, seemingly out of nowhere, a van-cab pulled up. The driver had just been passing by, saw the luggage, and realized the predicament we were in. Much to the chagrin of our first driver, we accepted the van-cab’s offer to take us, and ecstatically loaded our luggage and jumped in.
The cab driver asked where we were off to, and we excitedly exclaimed “India!” The look on his face was at once a mixture of joy and sadness. “That’s my home,” he said, “but it’s been a long time since I’ve been back.”
“Where in India are you from,” I asked.
“Kolkata” he exclaimed with pride and longing.
“That’s where we’re going,” we all shouted with joy. The car ride was filled with stories of India, advice on places to see and tips on things we had to be sure to do.
We arrived in London for a layover, and had the opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Much Ado about Nothing set in India. It was BRILLIANT and got us all the more excited for our arrival in India. The following day we continued on toward Kolkata by way of Dubai. The journey to India can make any traveler realize how large the world truly is!
On our final leg of the journey, our flight to Kolkata, I sat next to an older gentleman Samar who very much reminded me of my father in his conversation and debate style. He was on his way to Kolkata after living in Canada for eleven years. When I asked what I should do while in India, he explained that he had been away for so long that like me, he too would feel like a stranger in the country he was born in. ‘What a profound and all together heartbreaking realization to share with a stranger on a plane’ I thought. The inquisitive artist in me instantly wanted to know more, I wanted to hear the whole story. We had long spirited conversations throughout the flight about our lives, theatre, art, the world, politics, culture, religion and age. Time seemed to slip by so rapidly.
Upon boarding this particular flight, I had identified three or four movies that I had missed in theatres that I wanted to be sure and watch during the flight, but now none of them seemed to matter. I instead found myself swept into conversations and exchanges of cultural ideas and theories with this amazingly brilliant older Indian gentleman who just hours ago was a stranger to me but who now seemed so familiar.
As our discussion on the intersections of American politics and race began to escalate, a flight attendant came by asking us to prepare for landing. “Have six hours gone by already?” he asked. We both chuckled and agreed to continue this discussion when next we met, perhaps in another life. As we began restoring our seat-backs and tray tables to their upright positions, Samar leaned over to me, shook my hand and said “I’m excited that you’re going to India, my friend. I don’t remember much, but you must remember that India is a land of beautiful contradictions.” I smiled a bit bewildered by this comment. I didn’t understand exactly what this meant and dismissed it thinking perhaps he was tired or that something was lost in translation. As the wheels of the plane touched the
ground, a surge of energy rushed through me. I was ready for the adventure that would soon follow – or was I?
As we stepped off the plane, I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore! There was no terminal connecting the plane door to the airport. Instead, we clambered down a set of rickety steps onto the hot tarmac. The humidity instantly enveloped and clung to me the way smoke at a campfire clings to an audience. We walked into the airport and took our place in line to go through border control and customs. The smell of the waiting area was aged and stale, and the fans above moved the hot air from one side of the room to the other. The tiles beneath my feet were patterned in white and brown and weathered by many a weary traveler; the walls and signage seemed from a different time. As I surveyed this holding area, my heart raced. I was in India!
Our team collected our bags and moved towards the exit doors. As we stepped outside, we were met by swarms of people awaiting their passengers. My eyes darted around the sea of colors and faces that looked so different than my own. I saw a gentleman holding a sign with our names. The U.S. Consulate and our hotel had arranged a pick-up that I won’t soon forget. Along with our belongings, we were swept into impeccable cars, and the drivers, decked out in white uniforms, welcomed us to India with chilled bottles of water and warm refreshing towels.
As we made our way to the hotel, the realization that I was in India set in more as our car darted through the likes of traffic and poverty I had only seen on television and in movies. The 4th wall, the distance, in that medium, however, offers an opportunity to turn away. But here, in whichever direction I turned, whichever window I looked out of, I was met with the third world. I sat in the comfort of this beautifully modern air-conditioned car as women used bundles of sticks and reeds to sweep off sidewalks that were their homes, children ran near the road with bear feet, people slept not three-feet from piles of garbage, and people tapped on our car windows begging. As my eyes darted around taking in the complexities of it all, guilt began to settle into my heart over a lifetime of wasted meals. Guilt over the number of excessive and inconsequential THINGS that lay packed in my bags. As this guilt began to swim around my head and heart, I looked up and saw billboards. Hundreds of billboards. Billboards that looked like the billboards in Time Square. Who were these billboards targeting? How could one live on the street, and be forced to wake up and see billboards advertising and encouraging the purchase of unnecessary THINGS! “Be rich, be successful, have it all,” read one billboard advertising property. And then it clicked. It all made sense. I could hear Samar’s voice, “Remember that India is a land of beautiful contradictions.”
We arranged for a walking tour of Kolkata the day after our arrival. A combination of history, personal narrative and eye-opening experiences instantly informed my first impressions of the city. My Western ideas of personal space were instantly dismantled upon stepping onto the streets. People in every direction smashing against one another, moving like ants in a colony. The smell of diesel mixed with food, waste, incense, dirt, flowers and sweat combined to make a smell I had never experienced. It wasn’t a bad smell; it wasn’t a sweet smell. It was a deeply complex smell that is altogether indescribable. Cars moved in every direction, rarely obeying traditional traffic laws and making a cacophony of honking, a symphony of sound that at first seemed annoying, but soon held the rhythm of my heart.
Before the tour began, our tour guide Ifty, explained that we would encounter a number of people begging and that it would be best that we not offer money as it might create a scene. We moved through the city seeing sights, meeting people, eating delicious foods and witnessing first-hand a city that before this moment I couldn’t possibly imagine. As we walked down a major street, a young boy tugged on my arm begging for money. I looked at him, shook my head and said, “Sorry, no.” The memory of his small, rough, hand stayed with for the rest of they day. I swallowed the knot that had suddenly appeared in my throat and wiped away the tears that had collected in the windows of my eyes. I had prepared myself to deny begging adults, but begging children seemed to be a kick in the gut.
We had tea with Stella, a Chinese woman whose family has owned a shop since the Chinese began immigrating to Kolkata. We toured the places of worship of five different religions, all within blocks of one another. There was something incredibly enlightening about a culture whose varied religions not only coexisted with one another but deeply respected one another. Taking in the markets, food, people and sites got me all the more excited for our work the following day!
We were eager to begin working and devising. I felt pangs of nervousness as our first participants walked through the door. Would the program work the way it worked in the U.S.? As we introduced ourselves while making colorful nametags, I slowly began to realize that these young people were a lot like the young people we worked with in the U.S. Each had a mystery about them, and that mystery was their story. They reacted to introductory activities they way young artists in the U.S. reacted. They were constantly surprised that they too were artists; just the same way young people in the US are often surprised by their own artistry. As we moved through the first few warm-ups, those pangs of nervousness began to fade away and were replaced by joy and excitement.
We had the opportunity to work with a cross section of young people from all over Kolkata: high school students from elite prep schools, college students working on their bachelors or master’s degree in literature, company members from varied smaller theatre companies, young people from the lower castes, and young women who had been trafficked.
On the first day, the group seemed to treat each other coldly. During tea breaks (yes we had breaks simply to drink tea and eat cookies/cake… it was the best; we want to institute it at Arena Stage) and lunch, you could see India’s caste system at work; there were clear divisions between the participants. During group discussions, everyone seemed to be waiting to talk, no one seemed to listening. Everything felt like a competition; a competition to have the right or best answer. I found myself prefacing all of my instruction with, “There are no wrong answers,” in hopes of getting all the participants to share. It was clear after day one that this group, unbeknownst to them, were exploring ideas of power, and thus the title of their play was realized: “Power Play.”
By day two and three of our work, the ensemble seemed to be jelling. As we moved through our lesson plans, we saw the former segregated groups dissolving. I began to realize that the power of the program was not only in the final art being presented, but the process. These young people were doing more than simply devising a play together; they were rediscovering their city through one another’s experiences. During a particularly poignant group discussion, one young lady shared a story, and another young lady across the circle said, “I’ve always heard those stories second hand, but I’ve never met anyone who actually experienced them.” An experience became more than just a story because a face was put to the experience, and thus it all became so much more real.
One can’t have a discussion about power without also exploring the role of women, especially in India. As we began to explore gender power dynamics in conversation, one young man’s ideas began to agitate the group (particularly the young ladies). As the heat of the conversation became palpable, this young man exclaimed, “It’s society’s fault, if you want change, just be the first person to change it. Nobody tells me what to do… well they tell me what to do, but I don’t listen.” And without pause, the young lady across the circle exclaimed, “That’s because you are a man, my dear.” Many of the ensemble members applauded her, and we all knew immediately that those lines would be in our play! This exchange launched us into deep and enlightening conversations about the state of women in India. It was interesting to hear that these conversations were, as one young lady put it, “drawing room conversations that are impossible for young women, anyone, to have in India.” To see the passion with which these young people engaged the topic let us know that we were moving in the right direction. Watching them listen to one another and in the end find common ground was simply brilliant.
We went back to our hotel with two days’ worth of writing, dictations of conversations, video of pieces created and began the arduous task of devising a piece. Their rehearsals had produced an incredible amount of material, and we had to sort through it all. We ordered dinner in Ashley’s room and stayed up till 3 a.m. devising.
The following day, the participants read their script with absolute joy. It was well worth the little sleep to see how excited they were by their work and their play. We spent the morning editing the script as a group. We began assigning lines and blocking the opening movement piece. By that same afternoon we were onstage, blocking the play and performing run-throughs 30 minutes prior to the audience’s arrival.
The ensemble’s performance was nothing short of brilliant. In less than six-hours, these participants got their scripts, memorized their lines and remembered all of the intricate blocking/choreography. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more magical, the talk-back began. It was amazing to see the audience, who had ventured out in torrential rains, be so moved by the work of these young artists. It was equally as amazing to see how transformed these young artists were. They had said something important, done something important and created a piece that was not only important to them -- it was important to their community.
I found myself incredibly moved by the end of our presentation and talk-back. The artistry, generosity of spirit, affection and love each of these young participants shared with us was simply infectious. As teaching artists we learn so much from each ensemble we work with. I learned from this particular ensemble that a group of strangers can quickly become a community if you ask them to work together and create art that matters, to create art that changes the world. As we boarded the plane to our next destination, the world felt a bit smaller because I knew and had the privilege of bearing witness to 37 young artists in Kolkata India who were incredibly brave, who brought voice to difficult issues within their community and in doing so had changed the world.