In early 2010 the British Council awarded a Connections through Culture Development grant to Parthian Books, an independent publishers based in Wales, UK, and theatre producer Rebecca Gould to begin adapting the novel Mrs D’Silva’s Detective Instincts and the Shaitan of Calcutta into a stage play, in partnership with Tin Can performance company.
In May, the creative team – author Glen Peters, playwright Lewis Davies, Rebecca Gould, and actor Shereen Martineau – travelled to Kolkata for a four-day workshop with Tin Can.
The workshop, led by Tin Can director Soumyak Kanti de Biswas, was a fusion of very different artistic and working styles, and demonstrated both the special challenges and great creative rewards of cross-cultural collaboration.
For the British team, used to a model of creating plays where the script is written first and it is the actors’ job to bring the words to life, it was an eye-opener to work with a company who create plays as an ensemble, with the writer just one voice among many.
“I found this a really exciting way of working,” says the playwright, Lewis Davies. “It meant I could write very sparingly, allowing enough space for the visual and physical storytelling to happen around the lines.”
Tin Can do not discuss the characters’ motivations or thoughts; instead, they are led by their bodies and by the atmosphere of the scene. They draw on a wide range of influences including European physical theatre traditions and traditional Bengali theatre.
“What was striking was to see how Tin Can worked as a genuine ensemble,” comments Rebecca Gould. “For me they encapsulated how collaborative theatre should work – each member of the group was entirely open and willing to push well beyond their comfort, physically and emotionally. Collectively they were able to read and interpret the pictures created by fellow members with amazing speed and then to add to them, making them more sharper, more detailed and more expressive.”
All members of the group were keen to learn new styles of working and to break out of their habitual way of doing things.
UK-based actor Shereen Martineau explains: “In Britain, often we feel our way toward a full, extended performance but it seemed the company began with full commitment, with a certainty and filled in the gaps thereafter. This seemed to me incredibly courageous and served the work in a different and magnetic way. I took from this what I could and I think they too took from our approach. We have much to learn from each other.”
It was initially difficult for the Kolkata actors to work from a script, especially when they had to hold it in their hands; they felt this interfered with their ability to improvise. However, as author Glen Peters comments: “Rebecca’s emphasis on the need to follow a script, although at first difficult for the actors, transformed the mime, dance, music and drama into a powerful amalgam of words and action which I hope will be knockout theatre.”
There was also much debate about the content of the play and what kind of story it should tell. The book itself is a hybrid – a whodunnit, a love story, and a political thriller – and, like its author, has its beginnings in a hybrid community founded on the mixing of different cultures. It is set at a pivotal moment in Kolkata’s history: the Maoists are gaining prominence; the Raj has ended but the British still hold key jobs in industry.
For Tin Can, this was a chance to explore the history of their own city, seen from the perspective of Glen, a member of the minority Anglo-Indian community who grew up there but emigrated to the UK in the 1960s. And for the UK team, the opportunity to see the locations in the book for themselves made it possible to really bring it to life.The team also put on an event at Seagull Arts and Media Centre, attended by approximately 50 members of the public, who had the chance to see work in progress and join in with the team’s discussions.
As for the future, Lewis is now writing the play, ten scenes of which will form the basis for the final production. The question ‘Who killed Agnes Lal?’ is the central question of the drama, with the other elements of love interest, political intrigue, and women’s experiences woven into the story. The team hope to hold another workshop at a later stage, to collectively develop the play into a final form which can be produced in both India and the UK.
And this final shape will depend completely on the fusion of the India and UK creative teams, and the work of the whole group as an ensemble. As Rebecca says: “I started the workshop rather naively saying that Lewis would write the play that he wanted to write, but that it would be informed by the process over the next few days. In fact, the play Lewis plans to write is entirely inspired and has been created by the process he went through with the actors.”
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