Actors in India 5: At the theater festival in Chennai

Theatre MXT's Indian odyssey continues, with a visit to the city once known as Madras.
August 25th, 2011 |
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Theater MXT — comprising actor-director Edward Morgan, actor-playwright John Kishline, actress Deborah Clifton and stage manager Sam Kishline (son of Kishline and Clifton), with guest artist Kriti Pant — are on a six-city tour of India. They’re sharing their adventure with TCD and with you.

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Actress Debra Clifton and son/stage manager Sam Kishline, in Chennai with bronze mascot.

Wednesday, Aug. 17:  We land in Chennai. It feels dry. But then, a shower would feel dry after the rain and humidity of Mumbai. Chennai is home to 10 million on the southeast coast of India, on the Bay of Bengal. It used to be called Madras, but they changed the name back to the Tamil/Nadu original some years ago. The British arrived in the the 1600′s and and set up the British East India Company in what was a little fishing village. The company traded in spices, fabrics, rubber and other riches, with great success.

Chennai differs from Mumbai. Easier, looser. This is the home of The Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Festival, the reason we were invited to India.

The Hindu is a leading national national newspaper, well written and a cultural force. It’s India’s Guardian. Senior associate editor Mukund Padmanabhan started the festival and invited us to stage my play, Success.  We raised the idea of changing the character of a young staffer  to an Indian national; Mukund came right back with the idea of making the character a young Indian woman. We immediately embraced the idea. Thus, Kriti Pant, of Delhi, is touring with us now.

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Basic transportation.

Her second most valuable talent lies in tutoring us in the finer points of Indian street commerce. For example, she makes sure we pay the right fares to the tuk-tuk drivers in their three-wheeled motorized rickshaws — transport for the stout-hearted in Indian traffic, with inches of clearance at full speed, breathtaking stops, and horn-honking that could signal the End Times. I could never drive here. I would either kill many people for cutting me off every 40 yards or my heart would explode in complete apoplexy. Nothing on American streets compares. You’d have to find a very ruthless run-’em-over video game to come even close.

Friday-Saturday, Aug. 19-20:  The U.S. Consulate sets up workshops for us with artists and students. We’ve thrived in these encounters. Cultural and language barriers have been no problem. Finding the real acting moment doesn’t require verbs and adjectives; you believe someone or you don’t.

Saturday night, we perform in a 1,200-seat hall to a good-sized house. The play goes well and the audience is the best we’ve had; they got nuances that prior audiences missed. The Consul General and her staff are pleased, Mukund is pleased and we end the evening in Sam’s hotel room with a few mild correctives. We muse about turning a Bollywood plot on its ear, with a comic American gothic intrusion into one of the stock Bollywood forms. We’ll sing and dance in this one. Well, the Bollywooders will.

 

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Hindu temple in Chennai.

Sunday, Aug. 21:  A day off. We hire a driver and visit an amazing Hindu temple, rebuilt after being demolished 300 years ago. We also visit a Portuguese cathedral dedicated to St. Thomas, who visited an ancient Persian Nestorian Christian colony here and is buried here.

We dip a toe in the Bay of Bengal and see the old British fort built to defend Madras and the British merchants. We finish off our stay in Chennai at a MetroPlus Theater Festival offering, The Blue Mug, on the stage we strode the night before. The Company Theatre in Mumbai developed the play. Its actors have since become Bollywood stars; they perform with professional skill. The piece starts slowly but the last half has moments of beauty and power. It is in Hindi and English, but you don’t need the words to get it. On a theatre stage, 80-90% of the information is non-verbal.

Monday, Aug. 22:  We rise, settle accounts and careen through traffic again to board a plane to the largest city in India. The British called it Calcutta, now it’s Kolkata. More than 20 million humans, a whole lot of cows and countless other creatures inhabit the place, once the Queen City of the great British Empire. A river (the Ganges) bisects downtown. In that respect, it’s just like home.

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One Response to “Actors in India 5: At the theater festival in Chennai”

  1. Mary O'Hara Stacy says:

    Thank you for these wonderful travel commentaries…India is so vast it’s great to have points of reference for the regions. Glad you’re representing Wisconsin’s theater so well.

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