Playing It Write: Why the future of a vibrant theatre scene lies with young playwrights

Kolkata-based organisation ThinkArts facilitates theatre and art experiences for children and young adults

Playing It Write: Why the future of a vibrant theatre scene lies with young playwrights

Sampurna Chattarji

Young playwrights have never had it better. Or so it would appear from the spate of opportunities that mark this millennium.

Thespo–A Youth Theatre Movement has been around since 1999, creating a hospitable and nurturing space for under25s who are interested in any, or all, aspects of theatre. Writers’ Bloc, a guided residency/workshop, was started in 2002 by RAGE Productions (Rajit Kapur, Shernaz Patel, Rahul da Cunha) in collaboration with The Royal Court London and The British Council, to support playwrights from page to stage. Toto Funds the Arts (TFA), a non-profit set up in memory of Angirus ‘Toto’ Vellani, has been inviting submissions of short plays by writers between the ages of 18 and 29 since the inception of their annual creative writing awards in 2006.

Against this scenario, the only way to account for my excitement at learning about the recent publication and launch of two books of plays in Hindi and English—Upasana Chaubey’s Baingan Nahin Aaye!, Deepti Vashistha’s Phans Gaya Pecha, Nayantara Nayar’s The Sometimes River and Amulya B.’s Remember, Remember—would be to flashback to 2017.

That was the year I discovered the work being done with, and for, young people by a Kolkata-based organisation called ThinkArts. The show I saw was titled Kaath (the Bangla word for ‘wood’), an Indian version of a German production called Woodbeat. Minimal words, no ostensible script, but all the tactility, aurality and amenability of wood as medium, prop, co-actor, musical instrument, maker of sound, movement, and art. I still remember the giggles of the little ones (ages 3+), how raptly they watched, with no signs of wanting anything louder, faster, flashier. As someone who had often wondered why children’s theatre felt either over-simplified or overly-dependent on the bells-and-whistles of technical wizardry, this was an eye-opener.

When I asked Ruchira Das why she felt impelled to put her life’s savings into the founding of ThinkArts in 2013, she said it simply came from her belief that “theatre and art experiences must be an indispensable part of a child’s life because they spark the imagination and provide the skills, curiosity and creativity for children to experience their worlds in a fuller manner.”

Some of these imaginative experiences have unfolded through their collaborative projects for older children. In 2017, I was privy to a workshop conducted by Christine Devaney, Artistic Director, Curious Seed, Scotland, and international dance artist, Hendrik Lebon. 16 teenagers, three Indian dancers and a visual artist came together to tell their own stories—about depression, weight issues, unrealistic parental expectations, mood swings, stress, peer pressure—through dance and choreography. Here too, I noticed, as I had at Kaath, how physical Or why the future of a vibrant theatre scene lies with young playwrights Playing It Write ‘We have reached a point where new writing does not have a nurturing environment, and old plays are dated. I strongly believe that training playwrights to write ThinkArts interactions and offerings tended to be; and to what extent they allowed participants to do precisely that—participate rather than passively consume. So that immersion in the performance space became an essential element in feeling rather than merely seeing theatre. The thud of wood echoing off walls in ways that mimicked the thud of a human heart; adults suddenly shaken by the proximity of teenage revelations, vehemence masking vulnerability. It wouldn’t have had the same effect if we hadn’t been sharing and breathing the same air, with all barriers whisked away.

Which is why the arrival of the pandemic felt like more than a blow, a blowout. What could substitute that lost physicality? The simple answer was “nothing”. And yet, those crippling sealed into zoom-room years is when two interesting initiatives emerged—the ThinkArts Grants (2020) and Play/Write (2021).

Das tells me that the Grant (now entering its 3rd edition) was envisioned not only as an impetus for locked-down for artists to use their chosen medium— puppetry, film, animation, theatre, stop motion—to create pieces for young audiences that could be viewed online, but also to keep the arts engagement alive by making those pieces accessible to teachers and parents, via YouTube.

Play/Write, on the other hand, had a singular focus—to create new plays in English and Hindi for young audiences through an online residency programme. Conceived by ThinkArts and supported by Parag, an Initiative of Tata Trusts, the programme selected two applicants writing in English and two writing in Hindi, each of whom received a modest grant, along with intensive online guidance from Jennifer Medway, an Australian dramaturg and Literary Associate with the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC); and Shaili Sathyu, Bombay-based theatre practitioner and Artistic Director of Gillo Repertory Theatre, an organisation that specialises in Theatre for Young Audiences.

Sathyu, who also played a role in designing the residency, points out that while “theatre for children in India has been growing in fits and spurts over the past sixty years […] in the last thirty to forty years we have not seen much growth in playwriting for children. Picture books, chapter books, novels and even poetry for children have seen their share of new writing. But when it comes to dramatic text, we are lagging behind by decades.”

It was to acknowledge this lacuna and then find the means to address it that led to the Play/Write Project. On the 9th of December 2022, the work done online during the pandemic finally saw the light of day in a formal launch in Bhopal. Brought out by Eklavya, the publishing partner for Play/Write, the event featured readings from the plays. While Chaubey’s play is aimed at six- to twelveyear-olds, Vashistha’s is for twelve- to sixteen-year-olds. Calling the mentored residency a “lifelong learning experience”, both seem to have appreciated not just the mentoring by Sathyu, but also the gift of time that enabled them to focus and think through their ideas until they were able to write them down.

In her Foreword to the plays by Nayar and Amulya B., Medway says, ‘As the mentor for the playwrights writing in English, I had the good fortune of spending time with these fiercely intelligent writers to talk about what theatre for young audiences is, what it can be and what stories young people need to hear now. […] A question we asked early on in the process was: “what makes a show for young audiences?”. Is it simply the age of the protagonist, or that young characters are present? Is it the sophistication of the themes? The only thing we could say for sure, was that at no point should we underestimate young audiences. The sophistication of the ideas in good work for young people should never be diminished because of the age of the audience, we concluded, and these two works sit as prime examples of this.’

While the thrill of publication is indeed a very special one, I look forward to the moment when these four plays, written by young people for young people, are performed—returning us, once again, to the embodied experience that makes theatre such an exciting place to be.

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