Act 2: 2019. The Conference and an unexpected (non-spiritual) plot twist…

“If hate eats chilli, love gets heartburn.”  Nick Booth

“If you wake up in the morning, you’ve got options.” Jessica Butcher

In early December 2019, I arrived back in India to meet with the rest of the IPTN Board to attend some pre-planned workshops led by Board members and a Board meeting before the conference. The book of research articles now called Playback Theatre Around the World: Diversity of Application had been completed and featured eleven accounts of Playback Theatre in action.  It was due to be launched at the conference opening ceremony.

Then something happened that I wasn’t expecting, I checked my emails that first morning in India to see yet another email from the shadow-person mentioned earlier who had been stalking the organising team since the beginning (from now on to be known as the stalker).  I reacted to it with a sharp email and then immediately realising that it wasn’t within my remit to respond in that manner, I quickly wrote to apologise.  When I received the acknowledgement of my apology by return, something in me snapped.  I realised that I was trapped in a role, I had no right of reply, at least not how I had framed it. A shop assistant is required to be polite even with the rudest customer and the same rule applied to me.  Not only was I trapped in a role, I was trapped in an abusive relationship with this manipulative perpetrator – we all were, and had been for the duration.   We had endured this behaviour without reacting to it for two years. What had begun under the guise of support became a subtle power play following a classic abusive pattern of gas-lighting – working to undermine our confidence.  It’s as if we were in a professional organisers’ trance* and as I mentioned earlier, we had been trying to balance all the demands and had forgotten that we had the autonomy to respond to this person and ask them to stop.  Although we complained about their behaviour among ourselves, we didn’t do anything about it and had allowed it to run. On later reflection on my mental collapse, I had confronted my own shadow;  that of being seemingly invincible and my fear of being defenceless.  While I’m grateful for the insight and hate to shoot the messenger, the behaviour of the stalker remains wholly inappropriate, deeply unacceptable and disturbing, and quite remarkable in the context of Playback Theatre that it should have happened at all.

I hadn’t been that vulnerable for a very long time and thought that I was super-resilient as I had survived and recovered from the loss of my jewellery business in the 1990s recession that had left me virtually destitute and the breakdown of a marriage at the same time. I went on to volunteer in a local hospice and worked with dying people in a number of roles including as an auxiliary nurse on the ward – often laying out the bodies of the dead with the nurses.   I had learned to witness and negotiate patients dying on a regular basis and did that for five years before starting to train as a counsellor / psychotherapist in complete contrast to being a jeweller. I went on to work in the substance misuse field for twenty years before retiring.  I was an experienced group facilitator with addicts in early recovery – and could hold that space effectively. Yet here I was in tears and fluctuating between the states of vulnerability and coping. I knew I still had to function.  Christian, Rajesh and Sunil were shocked at this sudden change and were very supportive as was one Board member which I appreciated. I was burned out having taken myself for granted and while I don’t know how much the conference stalker knew or expected about the effect of their behaviour, that last email was the final straw.

This was combined with what had been an on-going frustration with the lack of an appropriate work ethic from some of the other Board members.  This led me to the realisation that I needed to resign to look after myself, something that I had already been thinking about and that’s what I eventually did. Before formally stepping down, I attended the pre-planned workshops led by some of the other Board members and led my own pre-planned dance and movement workshop for both the Board and the members of the Actors Collective together which was designed to deepen our emotional connection and an experience of being supported. So I had ended with the Actors Collective as I had started – in the dance, and I had ended my time on the IPTN Board.

I was fluctuating between being hopelessly vulnerable and managing to cope when I decided that I wouldn’t remain for the conference and would leave – it just didn’t feel safe to stay and I didn’t have a public face to share.  Many of my Playback friends wanted me to stay but I just couldn’t do it. I was eventually persuaded to stay for the opening ceremony and leave after that on the overnight bus to Kochi.

Did I mention one plot twist? Well, there were two, one for me and another for the team. The opening ceremony was about two hours long and part of  it was managed by the university, including the book launch.

The keynote speech was given by Armand Volkas with members of his team illustrating key points with fluid sculpts and the ceremony overall was confidently conducted by Honey Raza from the Actors Collective. Other roles were looked after by Board members Nastya and Andrea, in his role as IPTN President, Jori had a speech and performed a song he’d written specially. Jonathan and Jo were on stage and we also had a little mixed choir singing the Leonard Cohen song ‘Come Healing’which I had suggested. 

This was followed by a refreshment break and I was running around delivering copies of the book to the authors who were present and feeling a little better in the knowledge that I was leaving later on.  The final event of the evening was the opening performance by the Actors Collective. At the end of the performance as Rajesh was conducting and was inviting final moments, one person shared that Playback Theatre was their family and now they wanted to leave following the opening ceremony in which women had been marginalised.  In the spirit of contagion, a ripple of murmuring in agreement went around the back of the room.  The comment was included in the closing giant collage and as I had a bus to catch, I left shortly after the end of the performance.

In the morning while still on the bus, I opened my phone to an email saying that one of my oldest friends had died in Toronto after a short illness and also some screenshots from Facebook.  If losing one of my best friends wasn’t bad enough, the screenshots were shocking.  The complainant at the performance had decided to post their complaint on Facebook that women had been marginalised in the opening ceremony.  As is the way of Facebook, a long list of Playbackers, most of whom hadn’t been there, piled on in agreement creating a lynch mob and souring the conference for the team and the many volunteers (both from the Actor’s Collective and from the university) who were working hard to make the conference a success. As the journalist Amol Rajan once remarked “Social media is where nuance goes to die.”

The complainant had plenty of opportunity to check with the members of the organising team after the performance before running to Facebook, but chose to nurse the greivance for their own benefit. Had they chosen to enquire, they would have learned that the part of the ceremony that annoyed them so much was managed by the university and was outside of the organisers’ (our) control. 

This is an example of neo-colonialism. India is a patriarchal society. Christ University is a Catholic unversity which is run by a male hierarchy as is the Catholic Church.  Whipping up a hate mob on Facebook will not make a difference to anything. Going to another country and expecting it to fit your model is neo-colonialism of the worst kind, both arrogant and ignorant; the complainant’s act just created bad feeling and other than that – nothing.  Well, not quite nothing, it put the complainant centre-stage with everyone who piled on in support, a number of whom I knew as Playbackers.  It just seems such a questionable intention not to check with the organisers before posting. The need to be centre-stage transcends every other need and as Abraham Maslow put it: “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer to treat everything as if it’s a nail” especially when social justice becomes a a problem that needs to be fixed on the spot. Is the threshold of tolerance so low that someone just can’t bear it a moment longer? So in rides the rescuer with instant-gratification – shooting first and not even asking questions later.

A Western approach to social justice that crushes the context and those who inhabit it isn’t going to be helpful.  An alternative from a Western perspective could have been (apart from checking with the organisers before posting of course) to work with the host context, the volunteers and non-Western participants to allow their stories to emerge organically along with the stories of the other participants. Thereby, creating a fertile cross-cultural, cross-listening environment. I’m sure that happened to a degree and would have subtly challenged this male-dominated culture simply by demonstrating the number of female Home group and workshop leaders participating in contrast to the status quo – without getting into anyone’s face.  But what also happened at least in part, was an attempted coup by one person and their external supporters of imposing a Western ‘liberal’ mindset on the context, that succeeded enough to undermine the balance and exposed some of the volunteers to a racist backlash.

The author Louis de Bernières ( of Captain Correlli’s Mandolin fame) in a recent comment about cancel culture, brings us up to date: “The whole world is construed not as an empirical shared reality but as a text whose reality is dependent upon the standpoint of the ‘reader”.  

In a situation like this, someone sees what they want to see and they get what they want. It became a self-serving betrayal of the conference, while positioning themselves as the victim of the piece. Elsewhere, Armand Volkas was referred to by the complainant as an ‘elderly white man’.  This comment is both ageist and racist as Armand was simply the person that delivered the keynote speech – age and ethnicity not being relevant.

What troubled me and questioned my belief in Playback Theatre so much was the lynch mob, especially the ones who weren’t there, who so readily jumped on the bandwagon without any evidence other than a selective photograph and a caption designed to provoke. That’s what made the betrayal by the complainant so hideous – all for the sake of Facebook ‘Likes’. It was a deeply selfish act that disregarded the effect on the Indian volunteers in particular and left them vulnerable.  If you come from a background of wealth and privilege, then disregarding the ‘servants’ is par for the course.  As for the absent Facebook commentators who relished getting involved remotely, “The hardest audience to please is the one that hasn’t paid” as comedian Ken Dodd said, so the best they could do was add to the bad feeling and in the service of what exactly?

By the time some of this was becoming apparent to the conference participants I was 550 kms away in Kochi.  I wasn’t fully aware of the complexity of the complainant’s intervention as I have described above until much later.  I was still recovering from my mental collapse and needed to rest and did manage a look around Kochi. Apart from the old Jewish area known as ‘Jew Town’ with its 16th century synagogue, a few craft shops and arty places to eat; it was too far from my hotel to revisit. I wasn’t drawn to stay in Kochi – too much of a mega-city and I needed to breathe.

As I was booked to stay at Singing Heart later in the month and had been able to bring forward my stay, I headed to Puducherry which was in the general direction and a smaller town.  I took another overnight bus travelling across India from coast to coast, west to east – a distance of  563 kms to Puducherry (formerly the French colony of Pondichery).  I was still spaced out and didn’t really appreciate the town and didn’t visit the promenade beach or nearby Auroville, I just stayed in the area around my hotel. 

Kolam on a street near my hotel
An unusual black and while Kolam giving the appearance of floating

After a few days, I took another bus for the short journey (106 kms.) to Tiruvannmalai to stay in the town for a couple of days before going to Singing Heart. I stayed at the Arunachala Ramana Home at 70, Ramana Nagar, very clean and cheap. At the top of Ramana Nagar, turn left onto Chengham Road for a funky pop-up restaurant open in the evenings. Getting back to Singing Heart was a relief as I felt protected and could truly rest there and soon fell ill (not from food, but from the accumulated stress). 

With the community chanting for my health at the morning gathering, it felt like I was shaking something off and I re-emerged feeling a lot lighter three days later, having exorcised at least some of the demons.

The butterflies at Singing Heart
My simple room at Singing Heart
Creating a Kolam at Singing Heart to bless Christmas and the New Year

I have deep gratitude for the community at Singing Heart and much enjoyed their company  (some of whom I knew from the year before) both socially and spiritually and I gave another dance and movement workshop plus the occasional trips into town to the German Bakery for lunch. I celebrated the turning of the New Year with them again and left early the following morning for Bangalore on the boneshaker bus to stay with Rajesh and his mother. Once back in Bangalore, Rajesh and I met up with Sunil for a farewell dinner.

With Rajesh and Sunil for my farewell dinner at a Chinese restaurant

In the morning, I enjoyed another of auntie’s fine potato curries for breakfast before leaving for the railway station.  I was booked to take a train to Mumbai (987 kms) to visit an old jeweller friend before flying home. The train journey was 24 hours and a laid-back, gentle journey trundling along at an average speed of about 50 kms an hour. I read my book, napped, listened to music on my iPod, wrote some wistful love poems to a wayward muse and had food and chai as it appeared at timely intervals.  After a short visit with my friend in another town, 120 kms from Mumbai, I flew home and was back in the UK, once again dumped at Heathrow airport at 6 am in the morning and again feeling the cold…. Distance travelled around India 2,466 kms.

Not that long after I’d returned home, the Corona virus manifested and began to bring normality to a close. By March, I had shut down my Playback group, the country went into lock down and I was isolating at home in a state of suspended animation. The faraway chant of Singing Heart and the lunches at the German Bakery a comfort to remember.

A typical meal at the German Bakery

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