Kanishk Devgan, Class of 2020 It’s Thursday night at Ashoka University: half the campus is partying
Vandita Bajaj, Class of 2020
Caryl Churchill’s original play, Top Girls, premiered in 1982 at the Royal Court Theatre, London. It was influenced by conversations on feminism and the multiple roles a woman has to play “successfully”. Decades later, we still grapple with the same questions. Tanvi Mehta(’18), Kaagni Harekal(’18), Shubhangi Karia (’18) and Veeha Verma(’19) came across Top Girls in their Forms of Literature class taught by Professor Jonathan Gil Harris; a year later, they are (nearly) all set to present to the Ashokan community a unique take on the play.
I got the chance to meet the directors (according to them and the team, they are mere “facilitators”) and the cast during their weekend rehearsals. There was pizza, laughter, sassy comments, additions and deletions to the script and, obviously, loads of drama! Everyone was in character, a certain individual who plays a popular (read: overrated) author even insisted on calling his publicist before we started the interview, which made for a rather interesting chat.
The interview has been edited for the sake of clarity and, more importantly, in order to avoid spoilers.
Here’s what the bubbly directors AKA facilitators had to say:
Why did you choose Top Girls and how much have you departed from the original play?
Tanvi: We have significantly departed from the Churchill’s version! We have taken it entirely out of context, using only the premise of Act I to make our entire story. We had some idea of where we wanted to go with it, but it took a long time and a lot of fighting to figure out exactly what we wanted to do.
Kaagni: It helped that, somewhere, we all knew that we did not want to do a direct rendition. We wanted it to be extremely relevant to where we are right now. While Churchill’s version was a landmark in its time, we can confidently say that ours is as provocative and impossible to divorce from the politics of our times.
Shubhangi: I think the incentive to re-imagine it also had to do with thinking through and appreciating the way Churchill plays with temporality to bring seemingly strange characters together to make a statement.
Veeha: It took a double meaning; it wasn’t just the genius of the play itself but also that it hit home in more ways than one.
What was the response you got from the student body when you sent out a call for auditions and joining the production team?
Veeha: We didn’t have a massive response, but we managed to get just the right people. If we had to pick from scratch, we would make all the same choices.
Kaagni: I was very surprised with the response we received. Personally, I don’t have any experience in theatre, and I walked into the audition slightly late (to curb this problem of late arrivals, every member who arrives late has to do ten core exercises for every minute past start time). I saw a bunch of random people going at it and killing it! A lot of our actors haven’t acted before, but when they came into that room there was a certain honesty and commitment that could be identified. We had looked at the play for so long that we ran out of ideas. Then, you have these new people coming in and bringing to life statements that we believed we had over-thought.
Tanvi: In the long run, it was valuable that most of our actors weren’t seasoned actors. We did a month of improv so they could truly get under the skin of their character, and they really delivered.
Kaagni: Shout out to our production team, too! Since we have had a team in place, they have been coming and watching rehearsals, talking to us and the actors, taking notes. Really, Team Top Girls isn’t just the four of us and the actors but all of us!
You said in one of the initial emails you sent out that you were hoping to use the voices of the actors to shape the characters they play; essentially, the actors were shaping the play rather than the other way round. How did this “collective process” pan out?
Tanvi: We are asking a lot of questions! It is really different from traditional theatre where a script is written and given to the cast to perform. The play has come together with the efforts of the entire cast. We wanted it to be a democratic collective of voices.
Shubhangi: We didn’t plan how the characters shaped; it was the actors who decided this right from the first audition we had. We noted down random things that they said that fit in with the personality of the character they were playing. It is the actors who have figured it out for themselves.
Do you think the actors made the play rather than the play moulding the actors?
Veeha: We wanted people to be able to think and talk in a way they would stand out rather than ape each other. Even if they are on stage for a minute we want everyone to be aware of their presence. It just took off from the first audition, everyone brought to life these personas; people came into play as someone but ended up doing another role because it was really personality driven.
Tanvi: In a sense, the play and the characters are very unintentional. I have a lot of faith in that unintentional magic. We want the audience to pick up things we may not have thought of, the characters to have their own dynamic rather than being confined by a script; our job is to get all these people together and let the magic happen!
Kaagni: We are just facilitating a way to have conversations that people have at dinner tables all the time. They let lose, say things that they don’t mean or say things that they actually mean but in ways that people will ignore.
What are the challenges you faced and how did you manage to overcome them?
Veeha: There have been multiple crisis situations, like not having a venue a week before the play. We have disagreed on things like the colours of costumes. But it’s worked out in the end.
Kaagni: Obviously, democracy takes time, right. We had certain ideas about the way we wanted certain things to play out. This was both, our biggest challenge and strength. We went into practice and, sometimes, we asked our actors to rethink the way they were going about things, and there would be intense arguments but it just meant that they were so passionate about the way they thought their character should shape up.
Shubhangi: Nothing was to be premeditated. It was meant to be a conversation, anything else would have been an injustice to Churchill and our vision.
Kaagni: We did so much improv, the cast hated us by the end of it. For us it was “Press Play, Be Cool”, and we expected them to deliver.
Shubhangi: And they did! Every time! Sometimes better than the other time; sometimes not so. But it was never bad.
Tanvi: Reaching that balance between director and facilitator was tough. We had first-timers who had never thought about inhabiting another person in the way we were expecting them to. While we wanted the actors to be independent, we also had to hold them accountable to a standard that even we hadn’t figured out. So, letting the reigns go and still holding ship together was challenging.
What made you choose the particular female characters you have chosen?
Tanvi: There were so many arguments — how many fictional characters, national or international characters, temporal, mythological — but the focus was to bring diversity. The whole point was to create a conversation on the table that approached an idea from various different angles, to have twelve different responses to one word.
Kaagni: Diversity of thought is crazy important. If you take away the names and outfits of any of the characters, you hear them everyday! We have characters who have very different notions of the way the world works, and we wanted these set of people to talk to each other and say what they wanted to say out loud.
Veeha: It would have been really easy to choose people like Indira Gandhi or Mary Kom, but we don’t want to give the audience people whom they love and admire. The characters we have chosen are controversial because they have played incredibly crucial roles in our lives in defining what we as Indians understand the female identity to be.
You have chosen some controversial male characters, what prompted you to do so?
Tanvi: We were on the fence about whether we wanted it to be an entirely female cast. We realised that none of us were happy with the idea of not having any men in the conversation. We wanted to break away from the idea that feminism is only for women — it’s for the feminine that isn’t confined to gender.
Shubhangi: The male characters are or were invested in “writing women” via different mediums, and so it becomes interesting to include them in the conversation.
Veeha: It’s interesting to explore what these people have to say when they are placed in such a context, whether they feel comfortable or not.
Hollywood has 1 female director for every 22 male directors, in the Indian film industries both Bollywood and regional the proportion is even lower. How important is it that we have more women in these positions?
Kaagni: I feel really strongly about this, and it was very evident in the process behind this play. There is a certain way in which we need to learn to use our bodies and voices that not just make people respect us but also be more collaborative. The fact is, all of us are in this together. There is something fundamentally different in the process when women occupy these positions.
Veeha: I think there is this bizarre notion of the female vision being the weaker vision — that it can only provide you with fairytales and rom-coms. As soon as people realise how untrue that is…take Kathryn Biglow’s The Hurt Locker as an example.
Tanvi: You can tell immediately when a woman has written or directed something. Take Jessica Jones, for example: you can literally hear the woman speaking. I don’t know how I feel about men writing women. But what I strongly feel is that female voices are really important, not only because of the experiences that they have but, as Kaagni said, the process is different.
Shubhangi: I am kind of on the fence with what I feel about men writing women and women writing men. But having been part of this play with the three of them, I have realised that it is hard to get people to listen to you. In this group we have a great dynamic. And it has been really helpful to learn how to be different kinds of leaders.
Shubhangi: The fact that there are four of us, we have four different ways of approaching it. So, it’s a lot about finding what works better and why, rather than what is absolutely right.
Tanvi: And learning to be sensitive and listen to each other! Because it’s not just about knowing your lines and expressions but to work with each other to create something together rather than just giving directions and following them.
Kaagni: We still aren’t on the same page about what we want from this, which is great. The opportunity for ambiguity, for letting this slide rather than micromanaging everything comes from people who are willing to listen. And more often than not, these tend to be women.
What do you think about the discourse on feminism and gender at Ashoka?
Shubhangi: (Who had many answers to this question) In the past couple of months, what has been really disheartening is that we have starting looking as Ashoka as a safe space for our conversations about Feminism. We all proliferate this façade of safety. When you stand up and say, “we need to talk about this; it is still a problem”, you face tremendous backlash.
Tanvi: To claim a safe space where I can say anything because it’s a liberal institution not realising that “I have the right to say what I want” comes with the responsibility to be accountable to what you say — making anonymous accusations is problematic because you are holding someone else accountable, which they should be, while evading the same accountability yourself.
Kaagni: I may disagree with Tanvi in that regard. There are feminisms. The rhetoric that we are exposed to is very American, very pop-culture and Internet. People in India don’t talk that way; the language just ends up alienating more people. We need to question the idea of the safe space. Is education supposed to be safe? Do we just want to create an echo chamber? Safe doesn’t mean you are able to talk and exchange emails; it means that you are open to hearing other people out and modifying or compromising your own beliefs — the leeway to learn and change. We constantly want to be held up to this one ideal intellectual identity, so we are afraid to make mistakes and learn from them.
Veeha: When you come to Ashoka, there are certain ideals you are expected to pick up on; we do it almost instantaneously, but then it just flatlines. The inherent sexism in the interactions is ignored because we feel like our college stands for being “liberal” and certain things are permissible. It is such a blessing that we have such a liberal space, but that shouldn’t stagnate the conversation because we start to feel that we have already reached somewhere.
How do you see your production of Top Girls making an intervention here?
Tanvi: I don’t want to be presumptuous and say that Top Girls is going to change the conversation. But, indeed, the idea behind it is to present a form of conversation that we would like to have.
Kaagni: The idea is to present something that you may disagree with, but that you open up yourself and listen.
Shubhangi: Our play is perhaps too cynical a criticism, but it isn’t a representation. We are a pessimistic bunch of skeptics, but that is why there are funny conversations.
Veeha: I hope it is a rupture in the conversations we have at Ashoka. We are not trying to please you; we are saying feminism is structured in a different way for everyone, and it isn’t this one sensationalized version of it that we see around us most of the time.
Don’t miss out on your chance to hear some iconic voices talk about the times we live in. Be there at the MPH, 9 PM on 26th April (Thursday) to be part of an unforgettable conversation with Team Top Girls.
The author is an Arts & Culture staff writer at The Edict.