There truly is a first time for everything – this, for example, is the first time I’ve written a blog. So please excuse its timid beginnings which will no doubt shift rapidly into my tidal wave - rather than stream - of consciousness. I’ll get the hang of it, I promise. Earlier in January it also marked the first time I met with a performance space in Splott, at the Eastmoors Community Centre. Previously unknown to me and in rather personally unchartered territory within Cardiff –I climb the stairs for the first time with trepidation.
I am in the company of director Ellora Adam for my visit, co-founder of Wing and a Prayer, a community theatre workshop company created with Dave Evans. As a Masters student at Cardiff University, Ellora has become involved with a project developed by the Centre for the History of Religion in Asia, a department devoted to the study of Indian traditions and how to make them culturally accessible. Professor Will Johnson has recently written a new translation of Bhagavad-ajjukam (‘The Master-Madam’), an Ancient Sanskrit farce attributed to Bodháyana which to this date we believe to be previously unperformed in the English language...well, as they say, first time for everything...
As a set designer, I am fascinated by site-specific performance and seek to develop the importance of the space you select. One look at Eastmoors’ upstairs and I’m pretty darn excited. The space is massive, charming with its pew-like benches rising up to surround a clear playing area. The stage echoes back to village halls and secondary school assemblies, and lovely old pillars and beams intersect the high ceiling space. What’s even better is the stuff. Odd bits of furniture, old paints trays, garish orange plastic chairs, an electric piano, a painting of a cheesed-off Donald Duck, speak volumes of the hall’s general use in the community centre. For the purposes of set design, it’s like a painting splattered with a fresh layer of white emulsion – all ready to be used, but with its original host lurking just beneath the surface.
Rehearsals have begun in earnest, and the process is one of exciting discovery. I feel very lucky for the opportunity to design the actors’ playing space alongside the development of the performance; having researched the aesthetic of the Indian culture I now watch and respond to the performers’ take on it. The core cast so far – Boyd Clack, Jarms Thomas, Sule Rimi and Kirsten Jones – are all energetic and devoted to experimentation. They are completely succeeding in bringing the comedy to life for me, and encouraging my own ideas to take shape. Although I feel that ancient texts from the Eastern culture have less of a performance reputation than those of Ancient Greece, Bhagavad-ajjukam’s story line and themes seem just as interesting and pose the same challenges to a theatre company as a play by Sophocles or Aeschylus – how has the text survived through hundreds of years to find itself still relevant to a contemporary audience, and how do we communicate this in our retelling? Our own take on the text is that it is a vehicle for exploring identity – in the storyline, the identity of a holy Brahmin yoga master is switched with that of a courtesan by an over-enthusiastic messenger of Yama. We are performing in a district of Cardiff. As in many cities or towns, a variety of people representing a variety of cultures live, work and play under the Cardiff banner. I myself am a Shropshire lass; my current housemate is a Spanish architect. Though we now both been settled in Cardiff for a few years, we never forget our roots. So how does this define us from our next-door neighbours? How do my practices and traditions differ from that of my friends, themselves settlers to Cardiff from Liverpool, Devon, Bangor and Glasgow? Similarly, how do the Indian community identify with their cultural roots in Cardiff? Already, our choice of location feels completely right for this take on the text – we are within the heart of the place and people we wish to explore, and separated from the cultural ‘high-brow’ stigma often associated with theatres and arts centres.
Though it’s still early days, Boyd and Jarms are getting well-embedded into their characters – there’s already a brilliant comedic partnership developing here. I notice the slapstick, energetic elements of the developing action and note down some props and items that might enhance the entertainment. What about some kind of battle to represent the Hindu festival of Holi? How can I add to what is already here to bring an India pleasure garden to the middle of Splott? I’ll let you know how we get on...
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