An article written for the Jadavpur University Society of American Studies in September 2018:
When one retires, one reminisces, to the extent of boring listeners to death. But that’s what I am now, an ROM – Retired Old Man – with read-only memory. I must acknowledge the editor of this volume for indulging me on this trip of recollections in tranquility. Fortunately, readers of my memories are not obliged to sit tight in their chairs politely, and can skip this article with no qualms whatsoever.
In my capacity as director of JUDE (Jadavpur University Department of English) productions annually, I happen to have directed four American plays over a span of nearly twenty years. Although I did not do this according to any plan or agenda, in hindsight I find that this quartet encapsulates the four-decade mid-section of the twentieth century during which American theatre contributed the most in its history to world theatre. Each of them illustrates a key area of American theatre, leaving only one that I could not touch due to lack of resources: the musical. They were also largely unknown to Kolkata audiences, even though each is considered a classic in the US, taught in many universities. The last commonality among them was the fact that we performed all in the non-conventional flexible-seating space of the Lincoln Room in the American Center, not an auditorium with a proscenium stage. (Of course, we always performed them in JU first, but I felt the American Center shows came closer to perfection, in each case.)
Allow me to time-travel through these plays chronologically as they held the attention of spectators in their homeland, while simultaneously describing our styles of presentation, which sometimes followed the originals faithfully and at other times departed quite radically. I wish to demonstrate how one venue can be made to evoke the essence of very disparate theatrical works if approached with imagination and a spirit of experimentation.
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938) is possibly the most-performed American play ever. The saying goes that on any given evening it is staged somewhere in the US – often in schools, which should not be taken to indicate that it does not qualify as high-thinking fare for adults. On the contrary, its beauty lies in the simplicity and lyricism with which Wilder conveys his philosophy of the universal and eternal within ordinary lives, which led to a Pulitzer Prize for this drama. Our Town opened at the McCarter Theater in Princeton – significant for JUDE, because its location on the Princeton University campus means that it was a favoured venue for educational theatre, which JUDE also practises. The American educational system is, as many of us do not know, home to the largest formal educational-theatre network in the world.
Wilder was one of the pioneers of minimalism and anti-illusionism in American theatre. Our Town did not use sets, not even all props that the script implied, and frequently relied on flashback and flash-forward, and the character of a Stage Manager addressing us directly, which Wilder borrowed from Beijing Opera but relates to traditional Indian theatre too. His observation, “When the theatre pretends to give the real thing in canvas and wood and metal it loses some of the realer thing which is its true business”, reminds me of Tagore’s statements in the essay “Rangamancha”, such as “I do not indulge the childishness of raising and lowering scenery every now and then in those dramatic performances where I have any hand, because it ridicules realistic truth as well as obstructs idealistic truth.” In championing economically-viable “poor theatre”, Wilder even connects to Badal Sircar.
To retain this fluid, cinematic form, I opted for the Lincoln Room in 1997, my first directorial project there. The proximity of viewers to actors admirably suited the spirituality of the play, to heighten which I did something that theatre traditionalists would never do. Two of the walls in the Lincoln Room are removable partitions. I dispensed with the wall that normally serves as the backdrop for any event, thereby creating a see-through vista that gave the audience a physical correlative of the universe outside, almost drawing us up and away, particularly effective in the supernatural scenes toward the end.
Like Our Town, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1966) was written for the proscenium, and won the Pulitzer for its author. (It would have been Albee’s second Pulitzer, except for the fact that the Pulitzer board had overruled the jury’s selection of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1963, citing objectionable content and language.) But there the resemblance ends. In place of Wilder’s stark expressionism, Albee applied absurdism in a realistic interior setting; in place of Wilder’s humanistic hope, Albee gave us sinister pessimism. I was happy to direct it rather than Virginia Woolf because it languishes in the shadow of its more famous precursor, and I consider it part of my educative duty to introduce lesser-known classics to my audiences. As recently as 2011, the most respected theatre critic in London, Michael Billington, called it Albee’s best after seeing a revival, because “it has a greater tonal range, and touches on something profound: the secret terror that lurks beneath the bland routines of bourgeois life.”
When I chose the play for JUDE in 2012, to premiere in 2013, I was also disturbed by two topical concerns in India: violence against women, and our paramount virtue of hospitality, which we seemed to no longer extend to all humans, sadly depending on various factors related to their background. Delicate Balance can be interpreted as speaking out on both issues. Because we dedicated the production to all victims of violence against women, journalists contacted me asking whether we were reacting to the Nirbhaya tragedy. Occasionally something happens during the process of preparation that affects public perception of the play, though we may not have intended it.
I found it puzzling that the original Broadway show had occurred in the massive 1400-seat Martin Beck Theatre. Obviously the director and cast were excellent, but such a capacious hall for such a claustrophobic drama? In order to maintain the intensity of Albee’s one-room domestic hothouse – as opposed to the expansive vision of Our Town – I placed the living room in the centre of Lincoln Room, with the audience surrounding it. We had regular lived-in furniture, and characters entered and exited through the audience, in aisles created by arranging the viewers’ chairs to leave pathways between segments. The effect among spectators was one of being in the family’s midst, eavesdropping on them, uncomfortably, and sometimes not even aware of them appearing behind silently before walking into the acting zone in the middle.
However, I had already used the same theatre-in-the-round design earlier, in 2001, for Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. But in that case, my logic was to come as close as possible to the original ambience of Shange’s trailblazing feminist “choreopoem”, which started its life in women’s bars accommodating only about twenty people in Berkeley in 1974. She continued performing it in other small informal venues like university departments, poetry centres and cafes before reaching another bar in New York, and finally arriving at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1976.
To me, for colored girls epitomized many new artistic-cultural movements in the US: decentralization (originating far away from Broadway), postmodern non-linear non-narrative text, non-proscenium experimentation, all-women performance, African-American theatre. More importantly, though, Indian women face the same problems of sexual abuse in childhood, harassment on the streets, and domestic violence. It also just so happened that 2001 was the Year of Women’s Empowerment, which we did not know initially. In addition, I wanted to make an academic point at that time as JUDE’s syllabus battles raged. What I wrote in my director’s note bemuses me now that the war is won: “Our reactionary English syllabi refuse to grant adequate space to recent, or non-British, literature … whoever I mentioned it [the play] to here in the last few months had never heard of it. Many visibly choked on Ntozake’s non-Anglo-Saxon name.”
This powerful, emotional text of poetry could not possibly be distanced onto a stage located at a remove from the audience. Therefore I placed it in the centre of Lincoln Room, in the round but on a platform because I instructed all the performers to sit on the edges in a “magic circle” – a device periodically resorted to in contemporary theatre, such as in Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth – back to us, facing the action inside the circle and reacting, so that all of them and their responses could be visible right through the production. Whenever it was time for one of them to “enter” a scene, she would simply stand up and she was “on”; for the reverse, she just had to sit down in the nearest empty place on the circle. Many strangers told me later how moving the experience had been for them.
The last of my quartet was Maria Irene Fornés’s Fefu and Her Friends (1977), another famous all-women play by a feminist of Cuban-American extract. It illustrated the off-off-Broadway movement and site-specific theatre perfectly. The Pulitzer does not figure in Fornés’s roll of honour because she never wrote for the mainstream, but she has won nine Obie (off-Broadway) Awards, more than anyone else except Sam Shepard, including one for lifetime achievement. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance calls her “the most important American woman dramatist of the twentieth century”. She herself directed Fefu as one of the first site-specific performances in New York, in the nicely-named Relativity Media Lab, actually a house, inside different rooms where the spectators were led to see the different scenes. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to interview her when she visited Calcutta on an underpublicized low-profile USIS trip in 1992.
To replicate the site-specific environment of Fefu so as to give Kolkatans a variant perspective on theatre, I directed it in a willing sport’s home and lawn on Lala Lajpat Rai Sarani on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2015. As Fornés had desired, we ushered the necessarily small group of invitees into separate rooms of the house according to where the action took place. The photograph of this performance printed here shows Julia in her hallucination scene inside her bedroom, shot from the angle that an onlooker would have seen her.
The next month we moved into the welcoming, now-familiar arms of Lincoln Room for my last shows there. This time we surprised everyone, including ourselves, by placing spectators in the centre and four separate locales arrayed on three sides of them. Fefu’s living room where her friends gather in Part 1 formed a usual realistic set in front of the audience, capturing the intimacy of their close friendship. But for the surreal Part 2, which shifts to four other spaces (we used three) in Fefu’s house, I suggested the open garden beyond by removing the back wall as I had done for Our Town, utilized the existing pantry in Lincoln Room to audience left for the kitchen episode, and opened the wall to audience right for the bedroom episode. Spectators only had to turn left to watch the kitchen exchange framed by the raised pantry shutter; and they had to turn right to view Julia’s hallucination on the bed through a gap in the wall, almost voyeuristically.
The most crucial phase in American theatre history fell into place for me neatly on these four outings, though I have grave doubts if anyone other than loyal JUSAS leader Professor Indrani Haldar and my own family members attended all four productions from 1997 to 2015 to experience their own crash course! Before concluding, I should document for the record the alternative spaces in Jadavpur University that we appropriated to test these productions. I set Our Town in the Buddhadeva Bose Sabhagriha of the Department of Comparative Literature, before it turned into the conference hall with its present name. Delicate Balance and colored girls made exactly the impact I wanted in the tiny confines of the Audiovisual Room in the Department of English, with a capacity of only fifty chairs arranged along all four walls. The temporary trauma suffered by a shy male student who inadvertently bore the brunt of verbal assault from one of the coloured girls, who had explicit orders from me to vent it at the nearest available man leaving just six inches between them, has gone into departmental lore. And with Fefu we formally inaugurated the Ranajay Karlekar Memorial Hall of the Department of English on 25 November 2014, demarcating four distinct locales inside.
 Thornton Wilder, “A Preface for ‘Our Town’”, New York Times, 13 February 1938.
 Rabindranath Tagore, “The Stage”, trans. Surendranath Tagore, Modern Review 14 (December 1913): 543-45.
 Michael Billington, “ ‘A Delicate Balance’ – review”, The Guardian, 13 May 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/may/13/a-delicate-balance-review
 See photographs below, with audience all around. The downed shutter at the back is the one we opened for a scene in our later production of Fefu.
 See photograph below: the basic in-the-round setting of for colored girls.
 Dennis Kennedy, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre & Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 1:480.
 Ananda Lal, “Creative Radicalism”, The Statesman, 9 May 1992.