In 2016, seven women in Bengaluru came together for a daunting, yet therapeutic project. Positively Shameless, a play on child sexual abuse performed by survivors, came into being then. At the core of this play were seven women, who wove personal narrative and social commentary into a performance.
And now, four years later, the fourth iteration of Positively Shameless is set to go to the United States. The team will perform in Rotterdam at the International Community Arts Festival (ICAF), and then in New York University (NYU) under its Artists-in-Residence initiative. While they will be performing in Rotterdam on March 27 and 28, the NYU performance is scheduled on all days from April 9 to 12.
Shabari Rao, who co-directed the play along with Maitri Gopalakrishna, tells TNM about their journey so far.
The most significant aspect has been the therapeutic journey that performing Positively Shameless has facilitated. “A key aspect is the relationship with the body. During abuse, it is the site of violence. But when you perform, it becomes a means of expression. And in doing so, we reclaim the body… we take ownership of it again, we feel confident and good,” Shabari says.
The play itself has gone through changes, too. To begin with, the core group of seven women has now reduced to five - Sharanya Iyer, Shilpa Waghmare, Sathyam AP – including Shabari and Maitri. “In 2017, a year into performing the play, the five women actors wanted to discontinue. They felt that their therapeutic journey with this iteration of the play was over, and did not think it made sense for them to continue telling their stories in the same way after a point. So, we discontinued the play,” Shabari says.
“But every time we think we are done with the play, it springs back to life,” she laughs.
In 2018, the group was invited to the US by the North American Association of Drama Therapists for their annual conference. At that time, some of the group came together again. A reshuffle was done to make Positively Shameless a four-person play, and to change the roles. “Although the stories were initially autobiographical, in this version, they played each other’s stories. The result was a great sense of shared empathy, a sense of connection with the other stories as well,” Shabari says.
The lines between roles of director and performer were also erased as Maitri too took part in the performance while Shabari directed it. Now, when they go to the US, Shabari will be performing along with the three others and Maitri will be directing the play.
“This sort of remixing of roles worked very well for us because it was done in a collaborative manner. We had to figure out how to make it work for the actors – some performances were uncomfortable for some actors, some volunteered to play some parts. So it’s been a dynamic reworking of the play,” Shabari says.
It was on their 2018 stint at the US that an NYU faculty invited them to perform at the university this year.
The women have also worked to make the play more relevant to the times. For instance, Shabari describes a scene where one performer asks what they (the audience) are thinking. Another actor responds saying, they are thinking that the perpetrators be taken out and shot. Another says that there should be a fast and fair trial, and they should be hanged. And the fourth person asks if the perpetrators are the only ones responsible.
These references to the Disha gangrape and murder in Hyderabad, and Nirbhaya gangrape in Delhi are subtle, yet hard to miss. Ultimately, the play also looks at the complicity of the society in child sexual abuse, looking at it from a social standpoint.
While the women are excited to go to the US, there is some uncertainty given the coronavirus outbreak. So far, however, cancellations have not been made by the organisers.
If you are in Bengaluru, Positively Shameless will also be performed on March 14 and 15 at the Shoonya Centre for Performing Arts in the city at 6 pm and 4 pm respectively. Tickets can be bought on Instamojo or BookMyShow.