In conversation with Shankar Venkateswaran, the director of The Water Station
But always, behind the flux,
keeping confusion in check, that constant cycle,
that slow plod upward, that weight against my chest,
measuring my muscles, my soul, inevitably followed
by a wild mad dash to the bottom, the moment
of joy, of mad release. I was often overwhelmed
by the complexity of it all, and only rarely
had a recollection of something
I had meant to do, a time when I had said
When I reach the top, then…but I could not find
anywhere, in my mind, what I had intended.
- Judy Barisonzi, Sisyphus
The play, The Water Station ends with its beginning - a little girl with a satchel walks slowly towards the water faucet, again. It's “that constant cycle” metaphor for life that plays out in a loop of events to a melancholic tune and the monotonous dripping of a water tap. The play challenges our notions of theatre, its role and connect with the human predicament of finding meaning in the repeated, futile and arduous task of rolling a rock up a hill like Sisyphus. Yet, in the banality is profundity. In the play 18 travellers pass by a water source in slow tempo. Each of them tells a story, perhaps of a particular stage of human life.
A girl with a satchel drinks water at the tap; she watches two middle aged men kiss as they fight for the water; then enters a woman with a parasol; a couple carrying a pram filled with junk embroiled in urgent lovemaking are interrupted by an old woman who dies after quenching her thirst; a family of travellers experience a deeply stirring moment which elicits a silent scream; a man and woman bathe at the tap, attempting to fill the void in their beings with an embrace, end up in the woman experiencing a violation which is stifled by the man; a man with a huge load brushes his teeth at the tap to the rhythm of arabesque music that stops abruptly. All this transpires in the midst of a heap of rubbish and discards -- decaying human existence.
The Water Station is a silent play written by the Japanese playwright, Shogo Ohta (1939-1978). The play was recently performed at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav in New Delhi. Director Shankar Venkateswaran, speaks of the process and production of The Water Station.
Manjari Kaul: Why did you choose to work on this text? Was there a cultural context to the Japanese script that was 'lost in translation' or needed adaptation?
Shanker Venkateswaran: There is nothing singularly Japanese about this Japanese text. I saw a production of this play and was struck by how this would be an ideal text to work on in India where we have so many languages. To do theatre with a multi-regional cast would be very powerful. In my production a person from Assam has been able to work with a person from Tamil Nadu in a collaboration that is seamless.
MK: Do you think the play fits into the Indian context because of its absence of words and thus of the impossibility of anything being lost in translation?
SV: No, it is not so because we are excluding words. Words are spoken in the play but they are within, not uttered in the form of sound.
MK: So how does this play out?
SV: In the play, two meters of space is covered in ten minutes by an actor. She is not voicing out anything. What the actor is left with is the power of imagination with which she engages an audience.
MK: The actors move in slow motion you mean?
SV: This is not slowmotion. It is slowness.
MK: How are they different?
SV: In films, for example, we witness a mechanical slowing down of the action. This is the lived process of an actor. A glass of water could be drunk in 5 seconds. But if it is drunk in 5 minutes then it is something deeper than just the act of drinking water and something that is unparaphrasable. The slowness and the silence work together.
MK: Two hours of silent drama that is not a pantomime. That's an unusual experience!
SV: Not so. According to Shogo Ohta, we live 90 per cent of our lives in silence. Theatre that emphasizes the spoken word does not recognize the role of silence in our lives. This play explores those unspoken of silent moments in life.
MK: Dialogues are one of the main cues used by actors in theatre. How did you manage without them?
SV: Time and space plays a huge role in the play. In theatre, actors don't rely on dialogues alone. They rely on the their breath, audience responses, space, their co-actors.
MK: How did you direct this play of silent slowness which, I imagine, could have an extremely elastic shape.
SV: We worked on the idea of the presence of the actor, how this presence can deliver something substantial. I worked on the broad structure. The actors in this play surprise me every time they come on stage. They are allowed to do that.
MK: What about the plot and characterization, how does that happen in this silent drama?
SV: Silence is the understanding of “being here”. Rather than ascribing personality, individuality, nationality, culture to think of one self as a specimen of a species. Beneath all this is one's identity as a homo sapien. We are all born alone and at the end of the day there is a loneliness that surrounds you even if you have your lover, family or friends around you. We are born in -silence, die in silence. There are intermittent ruptures in music, joy and words and language, ephemeral attempts to link oneself with the outside world but eventually we are all lonely. Silence has the potential of indicating this inexpressible loneliness.
MK: Your play is breaking several conventions of theatre in terms of its contemporary viewing practices. How have your audience responses been so far?
SV: A total of 3-4 people have walked out in 5 shows. Somebody who is getting into the theatre with preconceived notions of theatre as entertainment, dialogue, music will find none of them. It will be shocking for them.
MK: Why shocking?
SV: The play is like being put in a darkened room with minimal light. Your eyes dilate gradually, as you get used to the darkness you start to see more. When you are in a very silent atmosphere your ears open, then you hear more. The heart takes a bit time to open up and receive. There are people who feel repulsed and those who are willing to engage.
Those who can’t bear this fracture won’t be able to take it.
But those who have withstood this fracture have derived a profound experience from it.
By Manjari Kaul, a writer living in Delhi.
Per-form: to carry out with adherence to a prescribed style. Herein lies the bewildering aspect of performance art: that whilst it appears to subvert the Aristotelian pyramid of theatre, devoid of narrative or apparent technique, it also subscribes to it.Read More
By Manjari Kaul