Since 1997, she has been conducting workshops for children and teachers, with themes ranging from the literary and visual to the performing arts. Shaili has directed plays for children - IPTA’s Barsoraam Dhadaake Se, GILLO’s Suar Chala Space Ko, Kyun-Kyun Ladki, Mr. Jeejeebhoy and the birds and She-he-shey.
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.
ST: When did you know you wanted to bring theatre to children?
I first started out wanting to write stories for children. As time went by, I realised that my background in the theatre gave me a stronger base to do plays for children, instead of writing books. Just after my first play as director, I was selected for an International Directors Seminar hosted by ASSITEJ in Germany. I think that experience sowed the seed of starting a theatre repertory focussing on Theatre for Young Audiences.
How does theatre engage children? How different is the impact from that of other performing arts, storytelling, books, etc.
Theatre as a medium connects with and engages children in different ways. Broadly as participant and as audience (though even as audience they are participating). In both engagements children enjoy a range of things like the story, the visuals, the sounds and music, the live interaction between actors as well as the audience. Their aesthetic sensibilities get energised, assaulted, influenced and so on. Each art form is different from the other and at the same time has overlapping areas with one or more forms. I am often asked to compare theatre with other forms of expression. I find this exercise futile. There is no such thing as better. Theatre is one of the life experiences that children can be given. It is up to the artists as to what we want to share with our audience.
You have based some of your plays on children's books like Granny's Sari and Mister Jeejeebhoy and the Birds. How do you choose books to be translated into performances?
Over the past ten years I have been avidly reading and collecting books for children. I think the Gillo library now has about 1500 books for children (mostly by Indian publishers). As and when a story has kept me engaged and seemed like it would make for interesting theatre making, I have taken it up as a stage production.
In Granny's Sari, which was presented as musical storytelling, the book was adapted considerably, although the essence and theme of the story was retained. What is the process like?
Granny’s Sari was adapted by Sharvari Deshpande and John Soans who have both been working with Gillo since 2009-2010. Sharvari is a singer and John is a musician and with that background adapting the story into verse came naturally to them. The process for each adaptation depends on the nature of the story and the creative choices we make. Being a simple story, we tried to bring focus to the core ideas in the book and then add elements that would help us give more body to the performance. Also, the musical choices depended on the emotion of a particular part of the story. Mostly the process was organic and things were built with inputs from other singers during rehearsals.
Your plays have been staged at venues like Rangashankara as well as smaller alternate spaces. What are the pros and cons?
We have been producing plays in two broad formats. One for formal theatres like Rangashankara and the other for alternate spaces. So we don’t fall into the trap of trying to change the play or compromise on elements when we perform in an alternate space. The idea is to reach out to more and different kinds of audiences. Also, as our target is children and youth, it helps to go to neighbourhoods and schools as a lot of children don’t have access to performances in theatres.
How important is it to expose children to different languages, Indian languages, and what difference does the language make to the overall experience?
Fortunately or unfortunately, we are moving towards an education completely in English. We may write in our mother tongues, but discussions, lit fests, interviews (like this one), discourses – these are often in English. I firmly believe that being well versed in your mother tongue and other Indian languages is essential to our identity. I am not talking about the identity that gives rise to regional and divisive politics. More connected to an individual’s personality and identity. A lot of our early relation with language is in the mother tongue. Unfortunately in urban areas many parents have stopped speaking to their infants and toddlers in their mother tongue. So our next generations will always be shortchanged between English and their mother tongue. Coming to your question, it is very important to expose children to different languages. But the nature of this exposure should go beyond the functional. Poetry, fantasy, nonsense poetry, drama, folk songs, jokes, daily conversations, sharing memories, there are so many things we can share with our children in other languages. More than the knowledge of a language, it is the relationship with it that needs nurturing.
Puppetry, shadow work, musical storytelling, use of props - what is the role of these forms?
These are all different ways of telling a story or inspiring children to make their own stories. These forms and elements inspire imagination in different ways and should be chosen and used in ways that challenge the audience to go beyond what is in front of them. As much as these are about adding physical elements to a performance, ultimately they are only representations of a larger picture, the one we make in our minds.
Tell us a bit about the workshops that you do for children.
My workshops have been related to poetry, puppetry, story telling, shadowplay, movement and many other things. Recently we have developed workshops connected to our plays. In these, we share processes that have been used in the theatre making of a particular story.
How does the funding for Gillo work?
We started Gillo’s Theatre wing in Dec 2009 and the initial investment was made by me. Over the past three years we have been supported by friends who are also now a part of the core team at Gillo. In the past year we have received funds from individual donors as contributions to our Seed Fund. This fund has been used for R&D of new plays as well training actors.
Other than the above, we raise funds through school shows and sponsored shows. Ticketed performances barely break even and are more to build audience and get our work out there. We have also been raising some money for the actors through workshop assignments.
As we are not yet a registered public trust, we are not eligible for any govt funding or grants. Even funding agencies don’t give grants unless we have a NGO registration. We have technical problems with and reservations about registering as an NGO. Hopefully things will change over the next few years.
As of now we are trying to raise funds from two main sources – contributions to our Seed Fund and sponsored shows for schools, corporates, institutes, housing colonies, etc.
Any plans in the long term (or short!) to write? How about movies? There are so few films being made for children.
Yes, I do hope to write books in the future or whenever something strikes me! Gillo also has plans of producing films for children. I am not keen to direct any film as of now, but I would love to collaborate with people who have concepts that excite me. There are quite a few films being made for children, but the budgets are too low and the quality is compromised. Also the distribution is so bad that most films don’t even see the light of day and just sit in cans and on balance sheets of government departments related to education, culture, children and youth.
What are you working on currently? Any new productions coming up?
Currently we are staging our plays at various festivals in Bhopal, Delhi, Kolkata, Kanpur, Lucknow, etc. We produced four new plays in 2013 - Mister Jeejeebhoy and the Birds, Taoos Chaman Ki Myna, Mind Your Head and She-He-Shey.
She-He-Shey is my most recent play as writer-director. It is based on Tagore's crazy book called Shey (Se) about an imaginary character he creates to help tell stories to his 9-year-old granddaughter. This was one of the most challenging plays I have attempted. And adapting Tagore is a daunting task! Along with excerpts from the book, we have also taken inspiration from Tagore's paintings and used the compositions in our choreography. It was a very self indulgent process, something one has not done before. I am hoping to bring the play to Bangalore in 2014.
Till Feb 2014 we are travelling with these plays. March onwards we shall be working on new productions including a Marathi play about how the Mahabharat was written. We also want to produce a musical for teenagers and are looking for a script. Then we have an Indian ballet style production based on a short story about a little girl and her horse. There are various ideas in the basket. Let’s see which ones hatch in 2014!
[Picture courtesy Shaili Sathyu]