Act 1: 2017 – 2018, Organising the Conference.
‘So where does your story begin?’
Looking back on my time on the Board of the International Playback Theatre Network (IPTN), I served one term of four years after joining in Montreal at the IPTN conference in 2015 and stepped down in India at the next IPTN conference in 2019. Prior to joining the Board, I was IPTN UK Regional Representative for ten years. During my time on the Board, I looked after membership, edited the IPTN Journal (which is a separate role) and was co-organiser of the IPTN International Conference in Bengaluru (also known as Bangalore) with Board colleague Christian Faber (from Germany), Rajesh P.I. and Sunil Vijendra of the Actors Collective, a local Playback group that were hosting the conference. This led to two prior visits to India in 2017 and 2018 to meet and work with our Indian colleagues, Rajesh and Sunil supported by other members of the Actors Collective and Fr. Biju from the University. The Actors Collective won the bid in 2017 to host the conference which happens once in every four years. The event was hosted by Christ (Deemed to be)* University in Bengaluru without charge for the use of the venue. Christian and I stayed at the university during our planning visits. *(‘Deemed to be ‘means equivalent to.)
At the start of our first visit in December 2017, I couldn’t think of a better way to get know each other so I offered a dance and movement workshop for everyone in the Actors Collective who could join us. We began by passing around a garland of scented jasmine from the flower seller at the nearby temple and then entered the dance and movement. You can get a feel for the experience of our first visit from the video below.
Attendance at the conference was to be capped at 350 delegates from all over the world. The two years of planning were quite something as apart from the participation; the task of organizing 16 Home groups (a Home group is a participant’s base with a different theme that meets each morning of the conference led by an experienced Playbacker) and around 64 different and varied workshops on each of the three days of the Conference was huge. In addition to the two visits, planning continued over regular Skype meetings and by ongoing emails – it was an intense and all-consuming process. It’s noteworthy that the interactions among our team were largely conflict-free. Obviously, there were differences of opinion at times but these were managed in the good-natured way that characterised our work together.
One of the difficulties that emerged once we had opened registration was due to over-subscription for places and we had to introduce a quota-system so that the conference wasn’t overwhelmed by higher numbers of some nationalities who were keen to attend. This led to objections from certain quarters and in fact, we came under fire from would-be participants over their demands on a number of issues. At times it seemed that everybody wanted a piece of us, which we took as a sign that we were creating something worth attending. The role of gatekeeper is always a difficult one and likely to generate conflict with the expectation of us being all things to all people, sympathetic, empathetic and supportive to one and all. In practice, it’s not so simple, when everyone has an opinion along with conflicting and competing desires and demands; a field we had to negotiate while holding true to the vision.
We did have one particular person (the shadow-side of an otherwise outwardly benevolent Playbacker) who felt that we should benefit from their guidance and continued to offer annoying, unsolicited and unwanted advice and demands throughout. They had appointed themselves as external supervisor to the organising team and conducted what might be described as regular ‘time and motion’ studies to check on our progress and confirm that this and that aspect were up to speed. What had started as an offer of support slowly became, overtly controlling and subtly undermining. I’ll come back to that later on.
Another issue was the economic differences noted between Playbackers on the Indian subcontinent perceiving the fee to be high in comparison to local income levels. While some could afford the fee, we were able to develop a graduated scholarship system managed by an international scholarship committee that enabled many local Playbackers and others to be supported to attend. Also Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas agreed to offer a one-day free event for Playbackers from the Indian subcontinent for those who weren’t able to attend the main event, and for some who did. We had a task to organise an international conference and despite feeling like we were being pulled in all directions at times, that’s what we did.
Just about at the time when I’d decided to write up the account of my experiences of organising the conference after more than a year had passed, Rajesh mentioned that he’d been invited to write a report for the IPTN Journal which has now become a multi-authored report from a number of us involved. Further, a copy of the research that I’d participated in at Montreal re-arrived in my inbox as part of an intended online discussion. The published paper, The “lived” experience of Playback Theatre practitioners in post-war Sri Lanka: naivety, altruism, reciprocal caring, and psychological growth by Lynne McCormack & Evelyn Henry relates to The Theatre of Friendship post-war project IN Sri Lanka initiated by Australian Playbacker Cymbeline Buhler and the Sri Lankan Jesuit Priest Fr. Benny. My participation in this project was peripheral to the main focus on reconciliation and post-war trauma as during my four visits I worked with a group of young people that I had trained who lived on tea plantations and who told me they were largely unaffected by the civil war.
I mention this because the timely arrival of the research paper led me to return to reflecting on my work teaching Playback Theatre in other cultures, and the impact of negative perceptions on the conference and to reflect on my wider work in India. In the case of the conference, neo-colonialism manifesting as oppressive economic differences as well as a lack of access to training resources due to Western hegemony etc. In practice, it means rich westerners perceived as coming in to run the show and disenfranchising the locals in the process. Although in practice, this issue didn’t emerge in our collaborative work between Christian, myself and the Indian team but was at times, applied to us by others.
At this point, I need to pause and divert to consider the implications of what might be described as neo-colonialism. For example, there was some pressure at one point for the conference to be free to Playbackers based on the Indian subcontinent which wasn’t economically viable and couldn’t be offered. While acknowledging these tensions, the intention was that the conference would be a global one and offer an exposure to international Playback for those that could attend. It’s always the case that delegates who can attend a conference return to their groups at home with new skills and knowledge gained at the event. One reason for choosing India was the ease of obtaining a visa which had been a problem with the Montreal conference when many delegates from developing economies were unable to attend. Another reason of course, was that the conference had not been hosted in south Asia before and India sat in the middle of the region, and of course, made the winning offer.
In a situation like this, understanding and responding to the effects of economic differences as well as psychologically and emotionally (in terms of shame and feelings of inadequacy as well as anger and resentment) and what can be described as neo-colonialism remains a challenge for us all. The issue of neo-colonialism remains a complex one, whether or not any of this is an adequate response to the issue can be debated, but it’s how we managed the situation and was our response, one that we were at peace with.
One important point that McCormack and Henry make in their paper is that good intentions are not enough (relating to trauma and easily transferable to other contexts when working in other cultures) and we found ourselves negotiating across myriad cross-cultural realities. Perhaps one naiveté was expecting an element of goodwill towards the conference, when in some respects we had opened a can of worms. We had a choice which was to either stay focused on the best conference outcome within our means or be diverted to any number of dead-ends if we followed every criticism. Our approach would have generated some feelings of rejection for some no doubt, and judging by some of the comments I was shown on Facebook continued to rankle before, alongside and after the conference. I’d long ago chosen not to do Facebook and could see why from the screenshots I was shown – Facebook provides an easy way to magnify a grievance.
In our core team of four: two Indians and two Europeans (delegated by the IPTN Board, one intended female Board member had resigned just before we started) we were all men; something we had no control over due to the long-term non-availability of women on the Indian side (not due to domestic issues, by the way). Women from the Actors Collective were involved in the the organisation as and when they could be. It will become clear later on why I’m explaining the gender spilt in the team. Altogether we had a wealth of experience. Rajesh was the lead person to negotiate with the university and Sunil looked after finances. Christian’s organisational skills were second to none and he was a whizz with excel spreadsheets. For my part, I’d organised four UK National Playback Gatherings and have a long-standing relationship with India. I’ve been travelling to India for fifty years, initially on the overland hippy trail, then coming to India to buy gemstones when I was in the jewellery business to stay with my friend’s Jain family (10-12 visits) and since, probably some 15 or more visits in all, immersing myself in Indian culture on various levels None of the other IPTN Board members were involved in the conference organising and received regular updates, but otherwise thankfully left us to it.
Being in India means drinking chai and when we had time to ourselves, Christian and I would repair to the Malabar Cafe for a brew. (Leave the campus by the back gate and turn left, you can’t miss it)
On reflection, what is interesting now is the belated awareness of the effect of the unconscious psychological process that was set in motion by our need to defend our decisions and to hold at bay, the negative criticism that was coming at us. I can’t speak for the others, but this had a major effect on me that didn’t fully surface until later.
Getting back to the theme of the conference: ‘Celebrating Diversity. Encouraging Diversity’, chosen by the Indian team, part of the attraction was that it could include and welcome a diversity of views and opinions, something that we wished to encourage in a constructive and hopefully transformative way. Other Playback gatherings have been marked by elements of conflict that were left unresolved, particularly the European gathering in Amsterdam in 2014 and the International conference that followed in Montreal in 2015, through no particular fault of the organisers. On both occasions, the conflict related, at least in part, to the enduring situation between Israel and the Palestinians. We wanted to learn from these experiences, rather than risk repeating them and going round in yet another familiar circle. We considered how this might be addressed by offering an opportunity to bring representatives of both sides together at the conference and not just Arabs and Israelis, but other historically-conflicted parties as well.
A little research led us to Armand Volkas of the Living Arts Playback Theatre Ensemble based in Oakland, California and their long-standing work in conflict transformation. See https://www.healingthewoundsofhistory.org/ I contacted Armand and we had a number of Skype calls to work towards him and his group attending the conference. The plan we developed was for a pre-conference workshop for those who identified as being in historical conflict with another group separately from the main event. This was to be followed by the option to sign up for a three-day Home group on the theme. In Armand’s case the intention was to culminate in a performance although the performance didn’t happen in the end as the space was given over to another group. I don’t know who finally participated in Armand’s group.
Returning to the pre-conference visits in 2017 and 2018, once the business of planning the conference was concluded and Christian had returned home to his job, being retired, I was able to stay on longer. In 2017, I only stayed for 10 days and was unwell for a period. Actually, Christian and I were both unwell with digestive issues and we were both invited to the University’s Sports Day, fortunately Christian was well enough to attend and won the 100 metre dash to the toilet.
After Christian had gone home, I did manage a side trip to the attractive small town of Mysuru (previously known as Mysore). The flower market is shown below. I didn’t visit Mysore Palace or other sites as I prefer to just hang out.
After my trip to Mysuru, I returned to Christ University briefly before leaving for home for Christmas
In the following year 2018, I stayed for a month and was able offer some training to local Playback groups including a creative workshop at the university with the drama students.
And later that day I had a lot of fun teaching an afternoon of Improv skills to a group of teachers.
As much as I love teaching Playback, sometimes just loosening up with being playfully creative and teaching some Improv skills without any responsibility for anything more than crazy enjoyment offers a respite from needing to get it right.
Later, another enjoyable day was spent with First Drop Theatre led by Radhika Jain and Bejoy Balagopal. You can read about the work of First Drop Theatre here: http://firstdroptheatre.com/
In contrast, another day was spent with the JeeVika organisation (a quote follows from their website https://jeevikafree.wixsite.com/karnataka : “JeeViKa-Jeeta Vimukti Karnataka, as the name suggests, is a major Movement that has begun to liberate the state of Karnataka from human rights violation system of bonded labour. Led by a great humanitarian, Dr. Kiran Kamal Prasad, the Founder and Overall Coordinator, the organization since 1987 has been consistently fighting for the implementation of the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act 1976 and the only organization in the country to raise awareness among bonded labourers and introduce their leadership qualities for the welfare of the community.”
This highly-committed group visits outlying villages to work with communities affected by the restraints of bonded labour that can run through generations. My work with them consisted of a review of their playback skills and replaying some of their enactments that had been problematic and considering alternative responses. It was a privilege for me to have an insight into the work of this organisation and meet some of their workers.
It was time to move on and I travelled by overnight bus across India to to the hill town of Ooty in Tamil Nadu (356 kms.) before offering three days of training in Playback Theatre in the nearby hill town of Coonoor for Jatin Vakharia and his theatre group. The training took place at the Gymkhana Club in Coonoor where I stayed, an old-fashioned club in the tradition of the British Raj complete with mounted hunting trophies and a dress code for dinner.
Jatin was a member of the Actors Collective and regularly travelled to Bangalore to participate in their Playback and in addition had a local group in his home town who performed scripted plays in the tradition of amateur dramatics. Training in Playback Theatre was a departure for this group and we were joined by some young female students from a local college who belonged to one of the local Niligri hill tribes. The differences in age and cultures in the training group made for a rich mix and our sociometry exercises revealed some surprising and unique disclosures as well as in the stories that were shared. This was particularly striking coming from the young tribal women who are from a reserved and secluded culture. I appreciated that they felt confident enough to share some details from their lives and found warmth in our group. We all had our cultural / social conditioning to manage and if it was challenged, it was done through the medium of honesty and the stories told in our group.
To come back to the shadow of neocolonialism, the way that I teach Playback in different cultures is to teach the Frame: the structure, ritual, skills and roles. Then to allow the particpants to fill the Frame with their responses and stories on their own terms.
For example, when I conducted Playback performances in Sri Lanka in English, we had translators, sometimes two for Tamil and Sinhala, and a narrator echoing the story to the audience if the teller was softly-spoken. As soon as I’d said ‘Let’s watch’, the enactment took place in Tamil. I had to learn to follow the story by observing the action and expression etc.
With the mixed group in Coonoor, the existing members of the theatre group who might be described as from the comfortable professional classes contrasted with the young women from traditional tribal backgrounds and me, a Western Playbacker from the UK. The workshop was conducted in English without the need for translation – education in English is common with 121 regional languages in India and English has an important role as a ‘link’ language.
All the same, we had a cultural triangle to negotiate. The key element of our emotional bonding was the dance and movement session that we started the three days with. Jatin had experienced my dance and movement session on my first visit in 2017 and had requested it at this training. I use mostly western music with strong rhythms which are stirring or a soft tempo that relaxes giving rise to more flowing and fluid movements. To relate the group back to the Indian context, A.R. Rahman’s well-known ‘Bombay’ theme was used to evoke a deep connection with the heart.
Otherwise, most of the music was new to the participants so brought them into a new place of activity and interest. My dance work is based on Biodanza (that began in Chile) so when I was training in the form, the exposure to unfamiliar music was part of my experience too. In my adaption of Biodanza, the dance and movement exercises relate to specific emotions suggested by the music so they can embody a different emotional interpretation from usual (in this particular cultural context). The cross-cultural ‘strangeness’ of the music at times supporting the imagination of a deeper improvisation. It’s also fun and disinhibiting to dance freely in a group and a great way to warm-up and get into the dramatic realm through movement.
While I don’t entirely dismiss the potential intrusion of neocolonialism as I might represent it, the responses of the participants in this workshop indicated that it wasn’t an issue. At the end of the three days training, the group performed for some local friends with Jatin conducting, which was well received by the audience and as a success by the participants. It would have been good to have invited the College Principal to have seen their students performing, but they were in another town and it wouldn’t have been possible.
The feedback was that the workshop was enjoyable, liberating from some old patterns and uplifting, somewhat outside of the usual comfort zone while learning new skills in a non-threatening way and a place to share personal stories that otherwise might have remained untold. It was an insightful cultural exchange for all of us and one that resonates with me still to this day. In the paradox of Playback Theatre workshops, it provided an opportunity for us all to meet and to get to know each other deeply a little.
It was time to move on by overnight train across to the other side of Tamil Nadu to the coastal city of Chennai (540 kms.).
First I took the miniature Niligri Mountain Railway from Coonoor to Coimbatore to catch the overnight sleeper arriving in Chennai at about 5 am. I took an auto-rickshaw to my pre-booked hotel which had looked appealing in the photos in an old-fashioned way on the internet but when I arrived had no functioning electrical sockets, no hot water (essential for me) and rickety slatted windows with no glass permitting all and sundry insects free ingress. I slept there until 8 am and then moved to the hotel next door. My purpose in visiting Chennai was to meet up with Cyril Alexander of the Sterling School of Playback Theatre and we spent an enjoyable day together. I’d hoped to offer a workshop but the group had closed for the Christmas holidays.
After a few days in Chennai, it was time to move on to Tiruvannamalai (184 kms) where I was booked to stay at the Singing Heart Ashram in a couple of days time. I took an Uber instead of the bus with a somewhat reckless driver, who at one point, was overtaking a car that was overtaking a truck, so for a moment there were three vehicles in a line … somewhat unorthodox driving!
Anyway I arrived safely in Tiruvannmalai and paid the driver (he’d blown his tip) but the hotel I had booked unknowingly was on the wrong side of town to the Ramana Ashram area where all the hippy action is. The Ramana Ashram was home to modern sage and Advaita Vedanta master Ramana Maharshi from 1922 until his death in 1950 and draws many spiritual seekers.
There were hardly any places to eat near my hotel and I had to negotiate a pack of aggressive street dogs who didn’t appreciate my incursion into their territory, having smelled a foreigner. I did find a temple area by asking a auto-rickshaw driver to show me around, but didn’t find the Ramana Ashram area until later, which is surprising as it wasn’t that far…
I grew up in a strictly atheist family so have a healthy aversion to organised religion and politics (much the same thing in my view). But since first visiting India in 1971, I have been drawn to Eastern spirituality in a non-committal way. Therefore I didn’t feel compelled to spend any time at the Ramana Ashram or circumbulate the nearby sacred Mount Arunachala barefoot. Never a joiner, always an observer, I imbibe the transcendent and the transpersonal through the atmosphere as a spiritual tourist; something I’ve been doing for 50 years. Spiritual butterfly might be a better term – seeking a home beyond home that’s not on the map or in theatrical terms perhaps, a spiritual plot twist.
The Singing Heart Ashram was founded by English-born (now living in Denmark) Spiritual Teacher and Astrologer Jacqueline Maria Longstaff. Rajesh had suggested that I visit over Christmas and New Year. It was very welcoming and didn’t impose at all. I was there for an unobtrusive spiritual experience and that was gracefully provided without being defined as such and I did find Jacqueline’s talks uplifting. Singing Heart is a peaceful, laid back place to stay with the expectation of attendance at morning chanting and meditation and the occasional satsang, but otherwise time to relax, hang out, spend time reading or go for local walks with the mainly Danish, other western and some Indian visitors. There are also retreats which are more structured. I enjoyed staying there for ten days and offered a dance and movement session to the group. You can get a feel for the morning Gayatri chant at Singing Heart here: https://vimeo.com/48928264
The Gayatri chant is dedicated to the Mother of the Vedas and the Goddess of the five elements.
More about Jacqueline’s teaching can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1emmtG6ESs
Otherwise, shopping and lunch trips into town featured to the Ramana Ashram area on Chengam Road about 7 kms away from the Ashram (200 rupees by the in-house auto-rickshaw or 10 rupees by the occasional bus by the gate.)
Lunch at the German Bakery in town is recommended. It’s near the Agni Lingam. The German Bakery serve a cosmopolitan menu and do a particularly fine cheesecake. I’m sharing my love of cheesecake and an appreciation of the ambience and good service. If you need a travel agent, visit the Sh@nti Internet Cafe just around the corner at 115-A Chengam Road, they are extremely helpful. The actual Shanti Cafe situated upstairs is another good place to eat.
After a spiritually nourishing and restful stay at Singing Heart, I left on New Year’s Day on the boneshaker bus to Bangalore (220 kms) to stay with Rajesh and his mother before flying home. Rajesh’s mother (auntie) made me a fine potato curry for breakfast to set me on my way to the airport to fly back to the UK to get dumped at Heathrow airport at 6am in the morning, feeling the cold already. There was much more work to do, and in my role as IPTN Journal editor, I had taken on a project to co-edit a book of research articles on Playback Theatre with Dr. Baiju Gopal, Associate Professor at the university that would be published for the conference. Total distance travelled around India 1340 kms.