India’s radical Punch Drunk, a youth theatre and a bit more about football

This morning I went to The Alternative Living Theatre run by Probir Guha.
It’s base is out in the poor suburbs of the city and is a bit of a hike: taxi, bus, rickshaw, walk. The Alternative Living Theatre is based in a building nestled amongst some shacks.
They are currently doing a week of workshops for the city’s young practitioners, a week long youth theatre.

I arrived, was greeted and then told that everyone was very excited about the session that I was running. So was I. It was the first I had heard of it.

The Alternative Living Theatre is Probir’s 25 year old answer to the staleness and faux western nature that he found in a lot of theatre in India. His complaints about the status quo would not have been out of place in most progressive, ‘up stream’ conversations in the UK.
What he has created is radical in both content and style. He makes theatre installations, shows where the audience close their eyes and performers run around them with fire sticks, tours through cities, in abandoned hotels and beyond. Using theatre and a great deal of imagination he recreated some of worst parts (and traditionally unmentioned) of India’s history and stood in Lahore beseeching the crowd “A good muslim boy is burning himself, applaud” whilst an actor poured boiling wax all over his body. The Islamic crowd applauded, playing their role too.

He is part Punch Drunk, part Augusto Boal. He’s clearly a lunatic, clearly brilliant. And he’s been doing it for 25 years.

His success, and the reason he is not more recognised, is in never taking sides- he has been critical of all sides of a political or religious or ethnic line in his time.
He passionately believes that theatre is for the people, that his theatre must be flexible enough, cheap enough and astounding enough for the poorest.

We shared images of past shows, bewildered and delighted at the extraordinary synchronicity between them- although in fairness I have never even endeavoured to be as radical as Probir, and a UK audience wouldn’t stand for half of the stuff he gets away with (one of the videos I saw had a number of audience fainting).

His core team is made up of young, clever, passionate practitioners. And his youth theatre were delights.

He tells me the small and modest building they work from is in need of repair. Three homeless families have moved in and return they cook for the company and clean the place. The rehearsal room (a corrugated iron covered concrete floor) was proudly immaculate.

We talked about Journey Theatre. He said it was the most natural thing in the world, that all communities have their journeys complete with rituals. As he spoke a bell sounded as if on cue. A crowd gathered, shouting as they came from shacks nearby. They came together, picked up the straw idol of a Goddess, shouted some words, a man stepped forward and threw it into the lake. Three men jumped in after it. Turning around they splashed water at the crowd. Who yelled and sang. Some marks were put on foreheads. And people went back from where they came from, with some grabbing a bucket and moving, I assumed, to the next event.
Choreography, script, costume, make up. Theatre.
Probir looked at me and said- You see?
It was a spooky moment because the exact same logic, all be it with a decidedly more British bent, is the basis of Slung Low’s next show at the Liverpool Everyman. The world is a strange place some days.

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The theme for today’s workshop was story telling. This is what I had inherited. Story telling when everyone else speaks Bengali is a big ask but we overcame and did some work. It’s amazing the shared language of theatre makers, even from such different backgrounds. Here are the kids below. Probir is on the far left looking like a cross between Matthew Kelly and Barrie Rutter. The man in the middle with the Coke t-shirt was brilliant. He was in Tim Supple’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shamefully I have forgotten his name.

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On my way back from the office I decided to walk. First time in 8 days I don’t take the driver and predictably I get lost. I came across a field of dirt in the middle of some houses and shacks. There was a football match going on. I stopped to watch. Things are then blurry but needless to say we won 2-1 and national footballing pride is restored, at least in the sub continent. Ground rules were that I wasn’t allowed to wear shoes because no one else appeared to own them and, after an unfortunate incident in which I still maintain I was the wronged party, that it was best, given my being a foot taller than even the older men, that I played in goal. There are not many people who dive to the top corner in a Hawes and Curtis dress shirt but then it’s lucky I was there for that purpose.

Predictably (tall white man rolling in mud) a large group appeared to watch- what felt like the entire shack community by the end. I am pleased to report that at least 100 people in Kolkata can now properly pronounce and emphasise “Come on England” and “Turn and Face. Turn and Face boys”. The latter being necessary when a rather elaborate goal celebration saw the opposition literally walk the ball over the line as our team was still doing the airplane down the other end lead by their some what over dressed, bare footed, comparatively pale goalie.

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It’s strange to be close to the end of my stay, with everything that’s next needing attention. I am currently on the balcony reading James Phillips’ adaptation of Wind in the Willows that I am doing later in the year at Latitude. Rickshaws are driving past, it’s sticky as hell and the women are back at the hole across the road to wash their clothes and pots. It’s the first time that a cultural clash (in my head) has really presented itself. I think it’s the split focus. It’s also partly because I’ve been keeping a pretty full on schedule the last 8 days on top of a stupid amount of travelling and I am just absolutely beat. Nearly there though.

I’ve been told that a Sri Lankan based UN Human Trafficking expert is staying with us tonight. And a folk orchestra tomorrow. So still plenty for me to keep my focus on here.

Turn and Face!

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