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Anupama Chandrasekhar’s second play is all set to premiere at the Royal Court Theatre
Will you tell us something about yourself (place of birth, school and anything in between) .
Born and brought up mostly in Chennai. I’ve three masters degrees (in Strategic Studies – from Madras University, English Literature – From Stella Maris College, Chennai and Journalism –from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) which I accumulated primarily because I was unhappy working in a 9 to 5 job (as editor in a private firm and later a journalist in a big national daily). Until theatre, I was pretty much dissatisfied with myself and studying seemed like a productive way to not work!
How did you end up pursuing such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
“I had never considered the theatre as a career; it found me,” says Anupama Chandrasekhar whose play ‘Acid’ had its Chennai premiere recently. The young playwright is quite thrilled with the response to her work.
Anupama was a full time journalist before she switched to freelancing. ‘Closer Apart’, her first play, about a father and daughter, evolved at the Madras Players-British Council playwriting workshop conducted by Mahesh Dattani in 1999.
She obtained a Charles Wallace Trust and British Council fellowship to attend the Royal Court Theatre’s international residency for young playwrights in Britain.
Can you talk a bit about your current work?
Anupama’s second full length play ‘Free Outgoing’ is all set to premiere at the RCT in November. “It is the first Indian play to see full production by the RCT,” she says.
“Most writers feel they haven’t arrived if they haven’t been picked for the Royal Court. I have been tremendously lucky that the new Artistic Director feels internationalism is the way to bring freshness into theatre in Britain.”
‘Free Outgoing’ is about a family under siege when their daughter is captured with a boy on MMS. “It is set in Chennai, a world I know. It is a whole lot of things – gender, comedy, family drama and also an experimental play.”
‘Free Outgoing’ was developed when Anupama and three other Indian playwrights were sponsored by Tamasha Theatre, London to attend RCT’s India Week.
How would you describe uniqueness of each of your Plays?
Each play is a response to an incident, a happening, a trend in society that angered me or upset or worried me. I suppose, thematically, all my plays are very different from each other, but one would also perhaps find strands of feminism in all. In addition, I like to work with form. I believe that the only way I can stay fresh as a playwright is if I try something new with dramatic structure and form in every play.
What was the turning point that made you switch from journalism to Playwrighting?
When I was a journalist, I didn’t think of playwriting as a career – it was not part of my agenda at all. I just kind of accidentally got into playwriting. I studied journalism at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). There was one particular program that I was absolutely fascinated with and that was long-form journalism. The art of literary journalism is similar to the art of creative storytelling, except it is completely dealing with facts. [Literary journalism taught by Professor Walt Harrington] was one of the most inspiring classes that I’ve been in. I’ve often found that in researching my stories for my plays, I am using techniques that I have learned in that class. How do you ask questions? How do you get the details? That sort of thing.
Television news here and in India are not that dissimilar in that a fact is often exaggerated in order to get television ratings. So you find a space that has been left vacant by this new journalism, the television journalist. I find that some questions aren’t being asked, and I think the role of playwright now is to ask those questions. We [playwrights] are not hampered by facts, but at the same time we can get to the truth of the matter by looking at the gray areas, by looking at how people behave in certain circumstances. I think our job and the jobs of journalists are very much similar. and somehow now I am finding that a lot more playwrights are occupying the same space that journalists once had.
At my first playwriting workshop, conducted by the fabulous Mahesh Dattani, I discovered for the first time that I loved to tell a story simply through what is said and what is unsaid. Previously I had begun many short stories but I’d run out of steam very quickly. But not so, when writing a play. I discovered I had the stamina for it. Writing plays made me happy. I continue to write plays because it makes me happy.
A major turning point for Anupama was a workshop she attended in Mumbai in 2004.
“Conducted by Karl Miller who teaches playwriting in England, it was simply amazing. It opened doors in my mind I never knew existed,” says the 34-year-old writer.
What makes the theatre so exciting and vibrant in Britain, says the playwright, is that talent is spotted young, even while at school, and intensely groomed.
“There are also directors who specialise in classics, in new writing… in the various genres.”
Does she have a passion for women’s issues since ‘Acid’ dealt with gender and identity?
“Its not my sole interest.”
Her short plays ‘Whiteout’, ‘Anytime Anywhere’, ‘Kabaddi-Kabaddi’ and ‘Across Creation’ deal with various themes – suicides by cotton farmers, caste, comedy…‘Wings of Vedanthangal’, her short story won a Commonwealth Broadcasting Association competition prize in 2006.
“Those who talk a lot end up writing fiction, those who are stingy with words write plays,” feels Anupama. “In my style of theatre, talking is action. There is an in-built dialogue meter in my head. The action in my plays also comes from the sub-text, what the characters are not saying.”
She believes that the only way to learn her craft is “to read – like mad. I admire playwrights Caryl Churchill and Robert Holman. And I love Hemingway’s writing, both for his style and his focus on action.”
Has she got it all quite easily?
“It’s not too much too soon,” she reacts. “I have been lucky but I have worked very hard for it and its not cosmetic writing. Much of the layers come through rewriting. I did 11 drafts for ‘Free Outgoing’.”
“My dream is to have a play of mine staged at the Edinburgh Festival. It seems quite far from where I’m sitting but it is a nice dream,” says the writer.
Anupama has a MS in Journalism from the University of Illinois. “Thought it would be useful to me in my career as journalist,” she says.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers? Especially Playwrights.
Read, read, read. Plays, non-fiction, fiction, screenplays. Anything and everything. Study your craft, study your peers, study the masters. Understand how a play can be different in different spaces. And write, write, write.