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More Spit, More Fire

Teaching Theater and Empowerment in Rural India
Bob Skloot (back row, center-right), professor emeritus in the Theatre and Drama Department at UW-Madison, and the cast of The Magic Bottu.
Bob Skloot (back row, center-right), professor emeritus in the Theatre and Drama Department at UW-Madison, and the cast of The Magic Bottu.

January 5, 2010 • "Trusting Self and Universe"

As the adage has it, journeys begin with decisions. In my case, the decision is to combine the Jewish mandate for tikkun olam ("repairing the world," in Hebrew) with an awareness that we must spend part of our lives committed to others. Certainly, there is no lack of good causes, and the world awaits us. What a list of places and opportunities there is!

I'm off to rural India as a volunteer for the nonprofit American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster civil society, sustainable development, and human rights guided by Judaism's imperative to pursue justice. How, with my skills and background, I am to contribute to this mission has yet to be made clear. So, as a way to organize my thoughts, I am keeping a travel journal.

It comes as a surprise when my first journal entry finds me thinking about loneliness. As the date of my departure nears, the expressions of warmth and generosity, of sympathy and love, make clear how full my life is of friends and family who live with and bestow their gifts: one sister-in-law wrote a song for me; one friend loaned her special silk sleeping sheet; several others boosted my morale, saying, "just think how lucky the people there will be to meet you."

My friend Lynne, an experienced India traveler, counseled, "don't protect yourself from what you'll encounter." My daughter Jules's advice was simple and direct: "Sometimes you just have to trust the universe, Dad." 

January 7, 2010 • "India on Twenty Rupees a Day"

On the airplane this morning, I tried to conjure images of the "real" India from what I know of the country. I quickly realized India as a destination holds only minor fascination for me. Despite its extraordinary and complicated history—its linguistic collisions and religious disputations, the rapidly changing economy and shifting demography—in my "senior" status I'm less interested in temples, palaces, or ruins than in the people I'll encounter. Perhaps because my wife, JoAnn, and I—and our kids, too—have lived for long periods of time in a number of countries, we've more than a generation of stories and a file cabinet full of travel photos.

The India of this journey will be somewhat off the beaten track. Located near the southeastern coast of India, Vijayawada is a city with a population of over one million people, a place known for its ancient Buddhist tradition and reputation for very spicy food. Unlike the booming tech town of Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) or the economic engine that is Mumbai, Vijayawada is a busy city in a mostly rural region of India. It's also caught in the middle of an identity crisis as the northern third of Andhra Pradesh in which Vijayawada is found seeks political autonomy as the new state of Telangana.

While most Americans think of India as a nation on the rise, reports indicate that many of the country's 1.1 billion inhabitants survive on as little as twenty rupees a day (that's forty-four cents, to you and me), and over two-thirds live in rural areas. Since AWJS matches their volunteers with the neediest populations, these are the people with whom I will work. 

January 10, 2010 • "Bobbling Along"

The issue I'm possessed by today is the one that we laughed at in orientation, but I now understand why it was mentioned: the bobble. Neither a nod nor shake of the head, the Indian bobble is a complicated and opaque gesture of embedded meaning. It's also driving me nuts. This isn't rocket science—anyone placed into another culture has to work hard to understand everyday interactions—but my recent arrival and anxiety about getting things right compounds the stress. The bobble isn't helping.

Fortunately, I've got excellent colleagues to work with: Sivaji and Vani, the co-directors of the Sanghamitra Service Society (SSS), are dedicated and creative administrators. They, along with Joseph Raju, the chief of staff, provide me with superlative English language translation and help me to navigate Indian culture and tradition.

I'm officially "installed" now, and zeroing in on what exactly it is I'll be doing, a three-part assignment that incorporates: a) aiding undereducated village leaders in ways to articulate their grievances and demands for redress, b) improving children's communications skills to help them participate in a "children's parliament," and c) directing what I'm calling "a Purim play in disguise"—in two languages, no less—which is scheduled for production on March 7.

Why a traditional Jewish play in a Buddhist city? Purim is the only Jewish holiday that has a historical-theatrical tradition. For centuries the story of Queen Esther's saving of the Jewish people from the villainous prime minister Haman in ancient Persia has been made into small plays—Purimspiele—that celebrate, in true melodramatic fashion, the triumph of good over evil (an unusual occurrence in Jewish history). The performance date is scheduled a week or so after the Purim holiday. But, this being India, March 7 is close enough, and, coincidentally, the day before International Women's Day.

A plan is forming. Our good Queen Esther will have a more Indian name, of course (our daughter Jules dressed up for the Purim holiday one year as Queen Semester), and I think we'll have a bit of choral speaking and perhaps some singing. The idea of a few minutes ago was "We Shall Overcome" in Telugu, the language of Andhra Pradesh. By my calculations we have only 20% of the time we need to do this production, not to even think about doing it well.

Tomorrow we make our first site visit to the SSS work areas in the neighboring villages of Jupudi and Kailasapuram to see firsthand the types of programs they do. This is where the curry hits the casserole. I am guiding my thoughts with the line from Psalm 118, which we sing in the morning Hallel service: "even ma'asou habonim, hai-tah le rosh pinah / the stone that the builders have rejected will become the cornerstone." It's a moving image of justice and a metaphor I hope will guide my work here in India. 

January 23, 2010 • "I'm Gonna Build a Sidewalk to Heaven"

The title of today's entry occurred to me while contemplating the postmodern condition of the sidewalks in Vijayawada: that is to say, that they are there and not there at the same time. Thus, it's hard to know if the sidewalk is the street as well; though, it's certainly not the waste trench over which it does and doesn't protect someone who may or may not be a pedestrian or a resident of that piece of pavement, or who might be a coconut vendor or beggar who is positioning himself for various monetary exchanges. It's a cliché to say that Indian society is a more public one than America's, and the seeming chaos and dirt is less of a concern than the positive vitality which seeps over and around the complicated, sometime-sidewalks of any city. (I'll think more about this.) Nonetheless, it's a good idea to watch where you walk.

This, of course, doesn't mean that driving is any better. After a crazy forty-five minutes of dodge 'em-driving, we arrive at Jupudi, a village of about 3,000 people twenty miles from Vijayawada almost entirely washed away in the floods of October, 2009. Small payments from the government barely provide the most basic needs to the villagers who now live in cinderblock structures with corrugated roofs. Most of the men are day laborers who travel long distances in search of temporary work.

One positive development the SSS brought to Jupudi is the formation of a community purchasing co-op to bring down the cost of food; another is funds for after-school student tutoring and recreation (including a snack) in a two-room cinder block structure with a small playing field.

It's becoming clear the AJWS directors have taken a gamble by inviting a theater artist to aid them in several of their education and empowerment goals. While it might be familiar to many in the U.S. and England, what is called "Theater in Education," that is, using theater for the teaching and learning of content as well as developing an aesthetic understanding in children, is simply not done here—and certainly not for or among the underclasses. What is called reticence in adults and shyness in children is in large part another way to describe the characteristic of people who have had their voices "stolen." Teaching public speaking techniques—to express political goals, to articulate demands for economic and social justice—is one way to recover these stolen voices and help people articulate their own basic rights and needs.

By late afternoon, the energy level at Jupudi village is at its maximum, and the students, aged five to fifteen, try to settle down to greet their visitor from the U.S. In both village centers, the students sing songs and dance for me (I sing a song, too); they copy pictures and jump rope. How they can be shaped into a troupe for performance in a few weeks when their focus and discipline is so wanting is a major challenge … to say nothing of the language and cultural barriers. I leave with a hundred small hands thrust through the van window trying to shake mine and the thought that the next few weeks will be filled with trying to solve some very basic language and communication problems if we are to get this show done-and done well. A mordant thought: the Sanghamitra Service Society specializes in disaster relief. 

January 25, 2010 • "What Does that Mean?"

Today I visited Vijayawada's version of Wal-Mart, the chain of Spencer's everything stores. Yes, there are Lays Potato Chips and Nutella, as well as microwaves and pajamas; there's even a coffee bar offering crustless white bread sandwiches and weird little "pizzas" (these pizzas need quotation marks because their coloring and toppings make them unlike any pie I have ever seen).

I'm known by friends to keep an ear out for words and phrases in one language that are the same as in another, a system of truly meaningless overlaps. I don't get far with this because you have to know a lot of languages to have a chance for a comparative linguistic payoff. The vertigo moment was strolling the strip in Viña del Mar, Chile, and spotting a women's cosmetic shop named Mi Piel. My skin,, you're thinking … so? Well, it also means "from the mouth of God" in Hebrew.

If anyone knows more of these meaningless coincidences of language, I solicit them from you here.

Thus, the wee Purim play I wrote elicited a colleague's response that puram is an Indian word for village, which is—in a communal sense of the word—exactly what my new play is about.

The play as I've conceived it is called The Magic Bindhi, and it combines elements of a Purimspiele with ideas borrowed from Gotthold Lessing's 18th century masterpiece, Nathan the Wise, and D. T. Ward's 1960s racial satire, Day of Absence. Lessing's play proposes that empowerment comes not from a "real" magical item (in this case a special ring), but rather from belief in yourself and conviction in your actions. Ward's satire ridicules privileged white Southerners by showing their ignorance and incompetence when all black people are mysteriously removed from a small town for a day. (Yes, Professor Bob's office hours have been transferred to Vijayawada.) It's true these references are obscure. But, in combination with the Purimspiele framework, I think I can craft a message that should be understandable to a people who have been on the short end of a harsh, entrenched political and economic system.

A bindhi, if you don't know, is the decorative dot on the brows of Indian women and the mark on the foreheads of some men. When the good queen places the bindhi on the foreheads of the people, they will believe they have the power to reject the demands of the prime minister and, in turn, demand their own change for the better. The Magic Bindhi is, in the end, a fairly simple parable about how strength can grow when purpose is shared and voices are raised in unison throughout the land. 

January 28, 2010 • "We'll Get There Somehow"

So with gas pedal, brake, and horn we again set out for Jupudi to audition the children who will have roles in The Magic Bottu, formerly The Magic Bindhi. (It turns out bindhi is a north-Indian term; bottu is the word used in South India.) The twenty-minute play has seven or eight roles for girls and three or four for boys and deals with Queen Mamata from centuries ago frustrating the evil prime minister Rao Gopala Rao and saving her people, the dalits of the villages in this little region of Persia, oops, I mean, India. Dalit means, "those who have been broken and ground down deliberately by those above them in the social hierarchy." The dalits, also called "untouchables," "outcastes," and most recently "slumdogs," comprise nearly one quarter of India's society, with population estimates of about 250 million people.

As I type the script and stage directions, my colleague Vani is translating this little play into Telugu. We do some group exercises and some individual work, and conclude with the first try at the English choral finale of "We Shall Overcome" that I can't understand at all. But it's an initial step for the project we've committed ourselves to. The children are wonderful, and make up in enthusiasm and sweetness what they seem to lack in an understanding of what we are doing for much of the time we are together. Just a little over a month to go! 

February 9, 2010 • "Off-Broadway (x 10)"

The last two days were spent at a cinder block Children's Community Center getting to know the dozen and a half kids, aged nine to seventeen, who will form the cast of The Magic Bottu, or, A Purim Play for Vijayawada. Over the past weeks, the project has been redefined in scope to achieve the greatest possible success with the fewest impediments. But, jumping to the end of this story, I can't tell whether the theatrical glass is half-full or all-full, meaning that things are looking a lot better than the wobbly state of affairs just a week ago.

The kids are terrific, sweet and funny and excited about what we're doing. We did a lot of warm-ups and physical exercises, leading finally to the creation of a character by each of the children, as well as getting a grip on what storytelling is all about. Some day, I'll spin out for you my tale of the fat boy who saved his family and their house from floating away in the rain by sitting on it. It seemed the right kind of story to tell considering the area we're in has suffered terribly from floods, cyclones, and tsunamis.

So, building on the Purim story, we've got Queen Mamata (Queen Esther) and a mild-mannered Chandrasena (King Ahasuerus) and the cruel Rao Gopala Rao (prime minister Haman). Rao is out to make harsh and deadly work of the dalit people in their villages—which happen to be named Jupudi and Kailasapuram. It's important to note that all the characters have positive Indian cultural or historical connotations—mamata means "affection"—except for Rao: he's named after a bad guy in a popular Telugu movie. After a review of the script by the children, it's suggested that Rao be sentenced to death rather than simply exiled to the desert by the Queen because exile is "too easy of a punishment." Done. At which time, if you've never heard a South-India children's chorus singing "We Shall Overcome" in Telugu, you've really missed out. on something. Next time you're waiting for your deli number to be called, or feel the world in general has let you down, try raising your voice to this:

     Vidiyam sadhistham, vidiyam sadhistham, vidiyam sadhistham oka roju, 
     Madhilo viswasam, sampurna viswasam, vidiyam sadhistham oka roju.

You know the tune; additional verses will be sent on request.

P.S. At the end of the day, what I really want is a beer. But because there's no alcohol in the place where I'm living, and because there's no pub culture here as far as I can see-or none that I'd like to join-I have to sip a Pepsi instead of a brewski. Score: Pete Seeger 1, Bucky Badger 0. 

February 17, 2010 • "Things Are Getting Serious"

About twenty years ago at UW-Madison, I directed a play in which the protagonist was a deaf boy. I decided that it would be more interesting to cast a deaf boy in the part, rather than a hearing boy who pretended to be deaf for the purposes of the play. I thought of that choice a few days ago when we had the rehearsal of our little play with what seemed like eighteen "deaf" children. Or, more accurately, the director was the deaf one.

The difficulties of communicating are everywhere evident, though my Indian colleagues assisting me in mounting this play are splendid, helping me clarify language concerns in bringing the script into an entertaining and convincing form. They tell me right away that some gesture I'm suggesting for the kids isdefinitely not what should be done, and they are quick to decide the right one. If in the process of translating the script into Telugu, a number of new lines and the absence of others confused me, I've learned to blame my own "deafness" for not catching on sooner.

The show budget is almost entirely allotted to the transportation and feeding of the kids, though there is a small sum to buy a couple of crowns for the royal couple and some bangles for the villagers. All the rest is found stuff. We are rehearsing on the outside veranda/platform of a two-room cement community building, in front of a remarkably dirty and pitted upstage wall; the performance space between two pillars is about fifteen feet across. The children will need to project their voices out into the flat, dusty field on which the audience will be sitting.

We still hope that the play can be done in English and Telugu, but that may be a plan soon jettisoned; in fact, the young girl playing Queen Mamata is most comfortable with Urdu, so she will learn the part in Telugu with help from her friends. Every time I'm with them, I'm astonished by the supportive friendship among the children.

The children are quick, but they have almost no general sense of how theater works: how to project voices, understand a character, or see what they are doing as larger than themselves. When they aren't speaking they just drop out of character and hang back because they think no one is watching them. I anticipate only about six or eight more hours of rehearsal in the next two weeks, so we're really strapped for time, plus the clog and wobble of communication makes everything take longer than it should. I'll be reporting back from the front as often as I can.

Another part of the job is to work with the children's parliament that is part of the after-school activities. Six or seven children are elected to the parliament as "minister of health," or "minister of finance," etc., and talk together about the issues they face as a group. My task is to raise the level of discussion, to make the parliament's meeting something more than a half-dozen boys and girls talking quietly to each other while their peers listen in. Which is to say, we have a behavioral and cultural problem that may be improved with applying some basic techniques of public speaking (e.g., look directly at the person or people you are speaking to), a subject that I thought ridiculous as a student and avoided, but one which now has looped around to bite me in the butt.

I'm hoping to get the children to see their "elected forum" as one for debate. We've scheduled a two-day workshop next week for the local adult volunteers to use the same techniques to publicly present their economic/social problems with clarity and confidence as the third component of this overall job.

I now am understanding more clearly the "theme" of my work, which is to provide tools and experiences for the villagers to increase their confidence and sense of self-worth, and decrease their deeply ingrained reticence or shyness when it comes to having their voices understood, not to say acknowledged. So yes, I think I grasp the problem better than I did when I arrived, but I'm not much more confident that we can really get this to happen. The motivating phrase in my mind is "more spit," which I'll explain in a future journal entry. 

March 7, 2010 • "Six Hours to Curtain(s)" 

We hold our last rehearsal in the small schoolroom in Jupudi village, with the joyful children trying on their costumes. Everyone is without shoes, and I recall something Walter Kerr (he was a theater critic for the New York Times in the 1970s) once wrote: "You can't play tragedy barefoot." So, I guess our little comedy is walking the right theatrical path.

The girls—decked out in gobs of what we would call tchotschkes, costume jewelry consisting of earrings, necklaces, and bangles—wear borrowed saris. They are absolutely lovely. Brave Queen Mamata's crown lights up. The boys have on "fancy," simple kurtas (long shirts with embroidery), with the king and wicked prime minister wearing especially colorful jackets. The good Chandrasena wears a crown, though it barely fits: one of the school tutors replaced the original king because of illness in the child's family. It's been this way since we started, suddenly a new child shows up and we plug him or her into the cast. Today we are joined by the sister of another girl; she is now playing the old aunt, Venkamma. I don't know why she was selected and inserted, but here she is.

We now have two different dances in the performance, too: a "stick dance" where the ten dancers knock wooden sticks together as they move, and a five-person dance to a song from a popular music video sung in Lombardi, which is one of the tribal languages that some of the children speak. Until today, I believed that only the latter dance would be done—albeit twice. The children already know the dances by heart, so I inserted them for effect as dances done centuries ago for the wedding of the our royal couple, Queen Mamata and Chandrasena.

The afternoon rehearsal of the play, in both Telugu and English, goes surprisingly well, so I ask my friend and fellow AJWS volunteer from Chennai, Carly Efros, who took the train here to attend, to make note of how much of the English she can understand in tonight's performance. My estimate is between 15-20%, even though I've written the dialog so that groups of children continually repeat the same sentences. Theater people know what it means to be "ready" to perform, and the kids are as good as they'll be. More rehearsals won't really improve anything. I'm nervous. The show is supposed to start at 5:00 pm, though no one expects it to be on time. We must, however, end by about 6:30 pm when the sun goes down and the mosquitos get ferocious. Wish me luck. We are about to launch our play into the wonderful unknown. 

March 8, 2010 • "The Magic Bottu Triumphs"

Since you probably won't hear about our success in Variety or even The Hindu, I guess I'll have to report what happened this March 7th on a very tiny stage in the dusty village of Kailasapuram in front of about two hundred people, five goats, and a couple of water buffalo (all of whom were better behaved than many audiences for which I've staged plays).

Around 3:00 pm we began to set up some ancient speakers the size of refrigerators and old microphones that were the replacements for the original megaphones. The power only died once. A good thing, I was told. The kids from the village were all over us, and after an hour or so older people began to assemble, curious as to what all the commotion was about. Then a few local elected officials arrived. The goats stared at the stage in anticipation.

At 5:30 in the evening with the sun going down and the heat a bit less oppressive, The Magic Bottu made its premiere in both English and Telugu, augmented by dancing and concluding with a passionately shouted/sung "We Shall Overcome." The villain was hissed and booed (in the Purim play tradition, of course) and the good queen saved her people once again. The moral—It's not enough to hope for justice, you have to work for it, too—was resoundingly approved with laughter and applause. Perhaps more surprisingly, the future of the script is already assured as the kids promised to take it "on tour" to the impoverished villages on the coast next weekend.

The word for yesterday was challenge, and the children would run up to you with their thumb up, touch your thumb, and demand you shout together "Challenge!" I don't know what the gesture means, but I took it as a restatement of our work together and the job the kids knew we had to do. It ended as performances like this often do: with happiness, a tear or two, and a reaffirmation (on the director's part) that if you trust kids and treat them with care and respect, there's little they won't do to rise to the challenge.

The response of some people to the necessary work being done all over the world by institutions and individuals is to say it is futile because of the impossibility of making any difference, what some people liken to "spitting in the ocean." The opposite view is found in a memory about my father, who was able to drink the hottest of liquids without any problem. Presented with restaurant coffee or soup he felt was not hot enough to scorch the tablecloth, he'd insist that the server (a modern term he wouldn't recognize) take it back to the kitchen for "more fire."

We need to approach the problems of the world with more fire. Impoverishment comes in different forms. Sometimes it's not having a roof over you or enough to eat. Sometimes it's not feeling safe or loved. Sometimes it's not having in your life the ways to increase yourself. The arts help by bringing understanding, deepening empathy, building self-confidence, and touching the joyful in the world.

What a challenge this assignment was, and how fortunate I was to be able to take it on! I've got some photos that I'll try to share to better illustrate what happened, though that's likely to be more of what the surrealist Marcel Duchamp said of realism: "It shows you one half of the outside of a cow." The rest of our day will be left to your imagination, the place where we humans do a lot of our best and most necessary work.

So ends this great job. It'll be a few more days until I pack and head home with a lot learned, with much to remember, and with deep satisfaction that we were able to pull off a production of The Magic Bottu. I hope you've enjoyed this little story from far, far away. And although it's an inelegant title for a travel journal, "More Spit, More Fire" feels right to me.

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