My creative journey as a theatre artist: freedom more illusory than real

To master any skill, you must first choose a task; then do it over and over again until the activity becomes second nature; and finally, push through the times when you fail, exhibiting even greater focus as you repeat the action until you’ve done it right.” – Jeff Goins (The Art of Work)

Hi. I’m a law student feeling aloof from my degree as I come close to completing it. Part of the reason can be the pandemic and other half I have myself to blame. In this blog, I am trying to draw a comparison between the labour laws and theatre as a creative space. My 4th semester examinations start next week, it seems fit to barf all the knowledge I gained through my papers particularly labour law onto this blog.

In 2017, while walking through the corridors of my college I came across a group of girls screaming at the top of their voice in the front lawns. I was in awe of them as dramatics always intrigued me. I liked to express myself theatrically and often invited drama in my own life for validation. My friends encouraged me to give the auditions and after a rigorous three day long audition process, I got in. I did it right! I had no prior knowledge of the workings of a theatre society and was more than excited to see myself as part of a group.

It is important to understand the value of social change and power here. The idea of theatre is to impact others. To force the audience to rethink about the norms of the society and aid the building of an awakened society.

What is power? The capacity to effectively direct the behaviour of others.

What is social power? The power to make policy, to make rules and to ensure that these are obeyed.

Law is a technique for the regulation of social power. Why is there a need to regulate it you might ask? Because the inequality of power is inherent in all societies. A capitalist, communist or in this case a theatre society.

Now in an employment set up, economic purposes cannot be achieved without a hierarchical order within the economic unit. You have your management and you have your organised labour. This set up can be used for any organisation. Like the biggest of all managers is the “State”. I’m not necessarily against it. To manage is to control and control can be dual in sense. Both sides can submit to an agreement. In case of labour laws, lawyers call it “Contract of Employment”

Likewise, in our theatre society we signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU). There was an understanding that our seniors knew better and they have been running the society so we ought to follow the rules. I remember during our first few meetings one of the rules was no holidays at all. Even if a loved one dies, you’re expected to show up for practice. It did seem a little extreme but no one was bothered because of the excitement of the world of theatre that awaited us.

Is it true that as an individual I have no bargaining power because of my submission to these rules made by my seniors (management)? It does raise some issues. This is a creative space. It needs to breathe. There has to be space for everyone. Towards the end of that year I realised that I was not happy. I was stuck. I was scared. The working of the society instilled fear in me. One might argue that I could have bended the rules. I didn’t think it was possible at least at the time. None of my seniors are my friends because they never offered me that space for communication. They made arbitrary decisions. We didn’t think we could protest. It was hilarious even. To think that we performed Street Theatre talking about the rights of the marginalized groups in our society.

I cannot think of all the decisions that were made against us. That year is blurry for me. Even the good parts. My mind has somehow managed to bury it all somewhere. I know there are good moments, just like you know your fav blue t shirt is somewhere inside that dirty pile of clothes. You’re just too tired to look for it. The pile of clothes is tall and scary.

When I finally opened up to our seniors about our struggles in the space, it was discussed how they went through a harsher treatment when they first joined. To compare two evils is evil. I believe that it takes courage. Courage is very important in a creative space. Courage to look within and find things about yourself you never knew about. Courage to speak up. Courage to challenge norms. To be an artist, you need to gather up the courage to look within. Only then you can do justice to the creation.

Another important thing is shared experiences and solidarity. Often, we were discouraged to mingle with other theatre societies. We couldn’t cheer for our friends in other colleges. We couldn’t share pictures on social media. I was actually scared to post stories. How am I supposed to interact in a space like that? My only motivation were my 9 other batchmates. 10 of us were looking out for each other. I wouldn’t have survived if it weren’t for them. I was recently reminiscing about our time together and all the things that I personally felt can be felt by each of them. Just knowing that I wasn’t alone makes it all bearable.

Labour laws are meant to restrict the power of the management and work towards coordination. “Withholding of labour” also known as “strikes” for the past century is actually the heart of labour relations. As an individual you have no power. But as a group you have “collective bargaining”. It acts like a sanction; improving the terms of your contract. Labour is not a commodity. Labour of art, love, skill etc. It matters how you speak to me. How you treat me. My batchmates who continued working in the society did bring change. They were kind. They were courageous. They collectively worked towards change.I left the society after saying my piece. I decided to not engage with the space it became overwhelming. I couldn’t even talk about the things that affected me. Now I can. Now I’m confident that my feelings were valid. I am confident that if you choose kindness, you win.

Another element of creativity is Imagination. And not just the power of our mind to create new ideas and concepts. Also the power to feel the pain of others. To imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy. My seniors often gave instructions like that during characterisation. To feel like a completely different person with different wants and desires. To know that although I am playing a “character”, it is very much real. If the writing of the script can move me to tears.. the character is alive. How did my seniors forget this very core idea beyond the stage directions? I don’t know them. Maybe they had kindness in them. I just wasn’t at the recieving end of it.

It is only because of my experiences that I can know right from wrong. Or at least try. In my last year of Graduation, I was part of the filmmaking society and it was a much healthier space. It was beautiful. You need discipline, consistency and order. I agree to that. But what is the point if I stop feeling like I matter? I honestly thought I was easily replacable before. My value was diminished and that taught me no matter how much effort you make, you won’t succeed if you don’t believe in yourself. You need a space that lets you believe. We all need that.

This post is incomplete without the mention of Shilpi Marwaha ma’am. She was our director for the annual play that year. Every year, our college appoints a director from outside and presents a play in the month of February-March. In the midst of all chaos, the true meaning of theatre as a form was taught to us by an amazing teacher. She is fierce and courageous in every sense of the words. Thank you to all the good teachers who never forget how to be kind.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s