In June 2018, a group of teenage children from Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Kasaragod, Kerala were asked to do a gender role reversal as part of a theatre workshop. The moderator of the workshop, V Balakrishnan of Chennai-based TheatreNisha, asked a girl to enact a drunken man and two boys to act as his wife and daughter. The boy acting as the wife had to beg her husband for money for monthly expenses while the boy acting as the daughter had to beg for her monthly school fees.
“The roles were enacted with aplomb. We managed to break gender stereotypes. But the bigger takeaway from this workshop was that it led to a lot of critical thinking and intense discussions and dialects among the group. The whole idea was to sensitise males from underprivileged backgrounds what the opposite sex thought about them when they were completely sloshed and not in their senses. The resultant critical thinking was only possible via a role reversal. At the heart of it, this whole role play was not about one social issue, alcoholism. It was more personal – for example, how did the boy feel when he was abused and then beaten up by the girl,” says Balakrishnan, 45, artistic director of TheatreNisha.
Balakrishnan knows what he is talking. Since 2001, he has regularly done theatre workshops for kids with learning disabilities. In addition, he has also worked with tribal children from Anaikatti, near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. The group’s work with the Anaikatti tribal children in March 2018 was under a larger inquiry project at the Indiana University as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching 2017.
Balakrishnan’s most recent initiative was with Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas. JNVs are a system of alternate schools for gifted students in India. They are specifically tasked with finding talented children from rural areas of India and providing them with an education equivalent to the best residential school system, without regard to their families’ socio-economic condition.
On his part, Balakrishnan, over the years, has provided theatre training to over 1,000 kids from underprivileged and marginal backgrounds and also to those with learning difficulties.
What’s also pertinent is that in such a live and extempore setting, the transmission is also a two-way process. S Seetha learnt just that when she recently attended a theatre-based workshop conducted by Bangalore-based Dream a Dream, a registered charitable trust, with underprivileged children.
The kids were split into smaller groups and each group had an older mentor. Seetha, a communications professional, was assigned as the mentor for one such group.
“In one of the workshops, we were asked to draw and enact our ‘River of Life’ till date within each group setting. I took the lead and when I finished, the first reaction from one of the boys was, ‘Oh you people also have a lot of challenges and issues in life. It’s not just us.’ From there on, the boy and I developed a deeper understanding and empathy towards each other which lasted till the end of the workshop,” she recollects.
Balakrishnan, in turn, cites the example of his work with Alpha to Omega, a learning centre that focuses on special kids. He has been conducting theatre-based workshops at this centre since 2001 and this academic year, he has 40 kids from the centre under his wing.
“Kids with learning disabilities love the liberating experience that theatre provides. Theatre is all about action and these kids end up learning English faster on stage than in a classroom setting. Speech and non-verbal exercises allow the students to explore communication in different ways. It teaches the children to be more confident to say yes when they want to and to feel unabashed about saying no when they want to,” says Balakrishnan.
Bringing out their creative best
TheatreNisha also works with Teach for India (a non-profit organisation whose work focuses on ending the educational inequality in the Indian system) in using theatre as an effective intervention in Chennai corporation schools. The first such workshop was conducted recently at the Chennai Corporation Higher Secondary School in Koyembedu. Around 40 kids from classes 6 and 7 participated in this workshop. “Firstly, it had a calming effect on the kids. Many of them come from conflict zones and neighbourhoods where bullying is rampant,” he says.
Such workshops also bring out the creative best in kids. In one such workshop conducted by TheatreNisha, 25 girls from the Corporation Girls Higher Secondary School, Perambur had to create a short act without talking and without mime but just by looking at each other’s behavioural response. One group was given the topic – cricket. In a few seconds, a girl walked up to the centre, pulled and held her long plaits tightly by the side. The other students got the cue that she was the wicketkeeper and one by one, everyone went in and took their place in the cricket field.
The net result was that the group’s quick decision-making came to fore. “When a stimulus is given to a group to devise a performance, how they decide to play around with it, what they create as a story, who leads the team, who directs, who acts as what, the format the story takes, etc. are all pointers to decision-making,” says Balakrishnan. He adds that at the core acting isn’t about learning lines and delivering, it is about action and reaction, stimulus and response – the core of interpersonal relationships.
But, of course, there are riders too. “Theatre needs to be done within the boundaries of accountability and responsibility without hurting anyone. It’s not a free for all,” cautions Balakrishnan.
While one may think theatre, especially English theatre, to be ‘elitist’, Balakrishnan simply brushes it off. “Yes, we have worked with such ‘elitist’ schoolchildren as well as those from underprivileged backgrounds. The air about feeling privileged lasts just the first 10 minutes, then it dissipates. Similarly, underprivileged kids exhibit reserved behaviour for the same duration. At the end of the day, human nature is the same,” he concludes.
(The article is part of One World-Dream Dream Media Fellowships on Life Skills - 2018)