Gillo: Creating Theatre for Young Audiences

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Issue No: 55October 15, 2012


• Writing on Dance Workshop: Attakalari India Biennale 2013

• A Season of Physical Theatre

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• Rangashankara's Theatre and Arts Appreciation Course, 2012

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Gillo: Creating Theatre for Young Audiences

Sameera Iyengar speaks to Shaili Sathyu - founder and Artistic Director of Gillo - on her company's journey so far in creating theatre for young audiences.

Gillo is one of the few theatre companies focusing exclusively on creating theatre for young audiences. What brought you to this choice? Tell us a little bit about your journey.

For many years I was associated with theatre activities, playing different parts from a backstage hand to production designer. But all this was mostly in the group theatre format and focussed on theatre for adults. At the same time I was also training myself to write for children, or at least that is what I thought! I dreamed of starting an organisation that would exclusively work on creating content for children. I wanted to do EVERYTHING connected with children - publish books, make films, produce plays, organise treks, conduct art-based workshops, etc. (with an etc. list that seems impossible). And I named this venture GILLO, after a gilehri (squirrel). The idea being that just as the Indian Palm Squirrel is found in all parts of India, we would also one day 'be' in all parts of India. Of course it was a naive and ambitious thought. But it motivated me to start my journey.

That journey took me to many book fairs, libraries, writers, teachers and then I found myself signed up at a teacher training institute where I then trained in Early Education. I was hoping to acquire some basic tools on how to read children so I could write for them. But that journey took another course, something that was not on any of my infamous lists! As time went by, I worked at different schools as a teacher, then a teacher trainer and a workshop facilitator. After all this experience, I decided that the best thing to do is to start with something I have a base in. And that is how I started Gillo with the theatre wing, now called the Gillo Theatre Repertory. It was a process of combining my work as a teacher and a theatre practitioner, to start a new journey.

You have often mentioned that one of the greatest challenges is that actors in India tend to think of theatre for children as a lesser activity somehow. How do you meet this challenge?

Since the time Gillo started, we have worked with so-called un-trained actors. I was advised to collaborate with trained actors, but I knew that they would not be interested in performing for children. Also, when I watched an adult perform for children or as a child character, often it would be like a caricature, a bit la-la-la. That really annoyed me and of course many children in the audience as well. There was no particular precedent to follow and I preferred to start fresh with raw actors, so that least un-learning would be needed.

The first major decision was to work with a set of artistes all through the year and not audition for specific productions. So far each year we have had about 15 artistes, a mix of two-thirds from the previous year and one-third new. Over the past two and a half years we have set up an artiste development programme. The process has been organic and at times ad hoc. But the important thing is that we work on ourselves every week of the year. The ground work has included playing and workshopping with children and adult actors; reading books for children, watching plays as a team and then discussing them; organising workshops for our actors by varied practitioners from the performing arts (theatre, dance, music, etc.); storytelling; interactions with teachers; etc. This year we have planned four intensive workshops by Arts professionals. We also have a photography exhibition lined up for December. And are planning a writing workshop for next year. We want to engage with various aspects of the performing arts, as well as explore visual, literary and other arts along the way. All this is to evolve as individual artistes as well as a company.

Your first play under the Gillo banner was Suar Chala Space Ko, which was earnest and energetic but raw. Your next play was Kyun-Kyun Ladki, where it was clear the company had already made an aesthetic leap. Can you tell us how you made the transition?

Yes, our first play Suar Chala... was very raw, but it was meant to be. As it was written by children and performed by a new set of actors, I played to their strengths (and weaknesses) and made that a part of the style. Actually Kyun-Kyun Ladki was supposed to be our first play, but I soon realised that it would be disastrous to start with that kind of concept. We had to first build a foundation, bring people together, get logistics into place, work on our sensibilities and understand why we were doing theatre for young audiences. In our first year we worked very hard and toured with our play, completing a silver jubilee in just a year. But more importantly, it brought us together as a theatre company.

The aesthetic of Kyun-Kyun Ladki is a collaboration between me, with my background in education and understanding of children, Hamsa Moily, with her dance background and eagerness to share the joy of movement, Mithila Lad, with her passion for music, and Abir Patwardhan, with his sensibilities as a sculptor. We just pooled in our energies and expressions in a free flowing, spontaneous manner. And that gave us the form of our play. It was more sub-conscious than conscious in terms of the creative processes.

Kyun-Kyun Ladki

The transition from Suar Chala... to Kyun-Kyun Ladki – I think the shared experiences of all team members through the various explorations we have been doing through the years have been most crucial. Seeking our own path and being on a continuous journey have been important in shaping our work. It’s not about what the audience wants or will like, its what we want to say and what we want to share through our art. I think the team understands this, each artiste in their own way, and developing that sensibility has contributed to the transition. For us the young audience is a starting point in our journey of creating a piece of performance, not the end point. So ultimately each piece of theatre should hold for adults as well, even though designed with children in mind.

You are now focusing on creating a series of short pieces. What is behind this decision?

During our tours in 2010 and 2011 we received many inquiries from schools, teachers, parents and bookstores for performances to be done at their venues. Not everyone is able to bring their child or their students to the theatre. So we decided to create short performances that could be taken to schools and community spaces. And we continue to do long performances at more formal theatre spaces. You could say we started with the idea of taking performance to the audience, but in the process we are also exploring different forms and experimenting differently as compared to performances in theatres.

Your first short piece, Hanuman Ki Ramayan, is being received very well. How did you go about creating this piece ... Please tell us your journey from choice of text to choice of form and so on.

Our short performances project is intended to bring together different forms of performance and use these as tools to tell our stories. But the choice of forms also depends on which artistes we collaborate with, their background and what they want to do. We want to have a guest director / collaborator for each of these pieces, and are in conversation with many theatre and performing artistes.

The journey of Hanuman Ki Ramayan started not with the text, but with a workshop on Nautanki. Dr. Devendra Sharma happened to be in India this year (he teaches at Fresno, USA) and I heard that he had done a workshop production with students at the FTII [Film and Television Institute of India]. So I asked him if he would like to conduct a workshop for artistes of Gillo and he said yes. It was an intense 2-day workshop, which included lectures, demos and training. All artistes responded very enthusiastically and I could see that the engagement had sparked something in them. So I suggested to Dr. Sharma to write and direct a short play in Nautanki, based on a story published by Tulika Books. Out of 3 stories he selected Hanuman Ki Ramayan by Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik and that is how the text was decided. Dr. Sharma had never written or directed a Nautanki with children or young people as the main audience. So he was quite excited about the collaboration. But when he went back home to Delhi, his father Pt. Ram Dayal Sharma (a well-known exponent of Nautanki) was so touched by the story that he decided to write the Nautanki script himself. I think that has been a boon for us because he brings so much experience to the whole production.

Hanuman Ki Ramayan

You were clear from the beginning that you wanted to create a Nautanki inspired piece for urban audiences. How did you make this happen? Can you reflect on the interventions you had to make in the creative process?

Yes, a young urban audience is the primary target, with adults as the secondary target. One of the choices we made was to create this as a stand-alone community space performance that could be done anywhere. Somewhat in keeping with how traditional Nautanki performances are staged.

But most important of all were two decisions that I made – one was the selection of the story and the other was to create an atmosphere for the entire process of creation.

The original story was chosen after careful analysis and it took me a while to feel confident about it. I was aware that as the Artistic Director I should not interfere too much in the writing or direction process – two areas that I have been handling at Gillo since it started. So letting go was also an important intervention!

I did attend rehearsals and gave feedback as and when I felt was necessary. If I felt they were doing something that would not work for a young audience – I would express my perspective. The entire rehearsal process was about 12 days and over the last 3 days I called some children to come as ‘rehearsal audience’. This completely changed the body language of the performers and the director. Now the rehearsal performance had the context of a live audience. I think this really helped a lot.

Then we gave all performers similar generic costumes - dhoti and baagalbandi (type of kurta). So Hanuman does not have a monkey face or a tail. Narad does not have a mukut or jewels. And so on.

We also used male and female performers irrespective of the character. So we have Sharvari Deshpande playing Valmiki and Narad has been played by male (Harshad Tambe and Ghanshyam Tiwari) and female (Vinati Makijany) artistes. Gender of the performer is not a concern while casting for a role. The performance is of utmost importance, especially the singing talent.

In terms of the story and duration, we have strictly stuck to 35 min and that is enough to tell the particular story. Many people have suggested that we extend the performance to one hour. But we feel it will dilute the core of the story. Also, in Nautanki the aspect of improvisation is very important and integral. But I asked the performers and the director to refrain from too much ad-lib and improvisation. This was deliberately so because I wanted to keep the crispness of the written text and also ensure that the performers focused on the new form they have just learnt. I didn’t want them to get distracted or carried away. Each form has its own grammar of improvisation and I feel we as a company don’t have enough understanding to improvise in Nautanki. It would only land up being a caricature and I did not want that to happen. Sometimes things are better just as they are. Adding things need not necessarily improve a performance.

What has this experience meant for the development of your company as theatre people?

The experience has been most enriching for each and every person in the company, even those who are not in the production. The form has given us the space and opportunity to explore our own self as artistes and extend beyond our supposed realm. Artistes have definitely raised their performing skills through the process and feel they are doing something they had not thought themselves capable of. Do remember that most of them have no singing background and those who do, have a different schooling in music. Nautanki requires a different singing quality and each one has had to extend themselves in aspects like pitch, diction, acting with singing, etc. The operatic nature of the form has been challenging and inspiring at the same time. It has instilled belief in the artistes that they can explore and go beyond. And they are now more eager to learn new things.

What's next on the agenda?

Next we are working on a 2-hour Nautanki for young audiences that would open in Summer 2013. We are also working on other short performances, with explorations in Kathak, Object Theatre, maybe Kalari, Clowning, Acrobatics and more. It all depends on whether we are able to get a grant for the research and development. Then there is a movement piece that we are working on with Hamsa Moily (choreographer for Kyun-Kyun Ladki). That would be primarily non-verbal with some English text. It’s a lyrical piece set in Sikkim, about a girl and her face-off with a king.

Contact details for Gillo
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Ph: +91-9167000458


Shaili Sathyu is founder and Artistic Director of Gillo, and primarily works in education and the arts. Trained as a pre-school teacher, she works as an education consultant with schools, focusing on curriculum development and innovative teaching-learning processes. She is currently also working with Akshara High School, Mumbai. Since 1997 she has been conducting workshops for children and teachers, with themes ranging from the literary and visual to the performing arts. Over the past decade she has designed sets and costumes for about fifteen plays in Hindi and English, having worked with groups like IPTA, Ekjute, Theatre Unit, Bangalore Little Theatre and Sanket. She is also the honorary Vice President of IPTA Mumbai and a member of Akshara Foundation of Arts and Learning. In 2011 she was selected as a finalist by the British Council for the Young Creative Entrepreneur - Performing Arts Award, along with four other practitioners from across India.

Sameera Iyengar is co-founder of Junoon, an organisation that wishes to make the performing arts more accessible on a regular basis across India by creating multiple platforms where audiences and performing arts can come together. She is also a core-team member of the India Theatre Forum, and has been with the organisation since its inception.

Fly on the Wall

After being around for two years, e-Rang has attracted several peripatetic flies on the theatre walls across the country. They keep buzzing around and sending us little nuggets of information, hearsay and theatre gossip.
Here is a tidbit from Calcutta - a response to an editiorial in The Telegraph by Calcutta-based actress, production person and workshop conductor, Dana Roy.

Maths instead of Shakespeare to help students prepare for their careers?

Having just come from a conference that has been exploring the importance and relevance of Shakespeare around the world (Worlds Together Conference, London 2012) this seems absurd. The key question is do we want well rounded human beings as a product of schools or do we want unemotional logical computers. If a child’s future profession has anything to do with communicating in English and communicating to human beings, then Shakespeare is important. And here is why: yes, as_ The Telegraph_ editorial states, the rigour of studying a classical text would enrich a student’s life, but it is actually much simpler than that. We use Shakespeare’s words everyday… “all’s well that ends well”, “what’s done cannot be undone”, “all that glitters is not gold”. We speak it so much and so often we do not even know about it. Young rapper Kate Tempest put it best: his words are in our mouths and we wrap our own words around his, we find expression of our individuality through his. What about his characters and themes? The ambitious man, the jealous husband, the angry son, the independent woman, the dutiful daughter – these are all people we know. A depth of human emotions, and characters which when explored by a student can only deepen them as human beings.

The trouble is we teach him as dry as dust, put him on a pedestal and then we mourn the fact that teaching him is hard and the students bemoan him as boring. Well, then we must find a better way of teaching. Shakespeare wrote for the people. If he did not catch the public imagination immediately he did not earn his daily bread. So how do we bring that to our students? How do we find that again? The Royal Shakespeare Company and many others around the world are doing it, why can’t we? A 6 year old boy after doing a workshop with the Royal Shakepeare Company said “My father said that Shakespeare is boring. But I’m going to tell him about Hamlet, it’s got murders and ghosts and castles and stuff and that’s not boring at all”

The funny part is that it is not as hard as we think. The Worlds Together Conference only cemented that further in my mind. There are teachers and practitioners around the world, making Shakespeare live, using his work for everything from therapeutic conflict resolution to connecting people across cultures and continents. Teachers have found ways to overcome the time constraint of 30 minute classes and actually cover more of the text than regular-English-sit-down-and-read-Shakespeare classes. And the grades prove how well it works. In fact it has been found that not only do the English grades improve but that science and maths grades improve as well. Why? Well because like it or not, science and math need the same creativity and insight you discover while studying great literature. Great minds like Shirley Brice Heath, explained at the conference in very simple terms how the major flaw in our thinking is that arts and literature is at odds with science and maths. When they are not. Any good art form requires organisation, precision and planning. Any good mathematician or scientist will tell you their work would be nothing without creativity and imagination. One feeds the other and vice versa. Take away or downplay one from the curriculum and you will be breeding a generation of less skilled, less well rounded, less able and less insightful worker bees.

(Written in response to The Telegraph editorial piece on 2 October 2012 - 'Kill Will')

Dana Roy is an actress, production person and workshop conductor who works extensively with schools and youth in Calcutta.

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