Two rehearsals later … from cold words on a page, the play has begun to twitch with its own private life. But let me pull back a bit for the sake of chronology.
The first rehearsal took place on Friday evening. On account of the short notice and the fact that many of the actors on Salaam's/Paul Knox's list of possibles were unavailable for the reading – the whole complement of eight actors and two 'attendants' (I'll explain) were not present for the reading. Even so, a lot of work got done: sitting around a table, scripts in hand, the cast members plus Paul reading two roles and me reading the stage directions, the play was read out loud for the first time since that memorable session three months ago at the Roy-Dutta residence in New Delhi. Instead of chocolate cake, we had pretzels and fruit juices with mini-crullers on the side (I'll explain).
A quick overview of the play: six contestants, three women, three men, prepare to face the final round of a TV game-show designed to help themselves win a mate and a dowry - if they're lucky. If they're unlucky, they face forfeits including torture and death, live in front of an audience of millions. The subtext of the play is the practice known euphemistically in the Indian press as "Dowry Death" in which young brides who have brought insufficient dowries are murdered by their husbands and in-laws, frequently by being burned alive, so that the man can marry again and gain a fresh dowry.
Okay, so at the rehearsal, the two cast members missing were for "Zareer" (a.k.a. Zed) the game show host, and one of the male contestants, "Rocky". Paul did a heroic job of reading both parts, but it really is strenuous because Zed has a lot of speaking to do since he has the job of explaining the game show to the audience. The two attendants were needed for helping with some of the staging (moving chairs around etc) as well as for reading out stage directions and the BUZZ and DINGS (sound FX) of the game show. But I think at the end of the reading the young cast members had a sense of what was expected of them. Paul asked each person to describe what they felt about the characters they were portraying and for me that was an interesting process because it gave me an immediate insight into the extent to which the characterization did or did not work.
I had linked to a couple of online web-sites to get updates about the numbers and statistics relating to dowry murders and was able to offer a little background about the situation. From the time I wrote the first version of this play (in 1991) the numbers of dowry-related crimes/incidents have been rising steadily, so the play has only ever become more rather than less relevant. At the same time, I think it's fair to say that we've all become more blase about it: the stories that appear in the press are rarely front-page news in India now and though there are occasional alarm-calls about the rising numbers of crimes, they've become part of the murmur of violence that ripples constantly just under the surface of modern life in India.
The cast members are all young Americans of Indian origin*, all born and brought up in the US. They had heard of dowry murders but were not especially aware of how prevalent the crime is. I felt conscious of being the source of a possibly unbelievable tale of violence and cruelty – but then, that's always been my purpose in writing about dowry murders: to get people to think about them. At this first rehearsal, listening to the play being read in voices and accents far removed from the source-events, I wondered whether the form of the play is a little too abstract – it's really very difficult to believe, within the context of a pleasant drawing room in Manhattan, that on the other side of the planet, there are a number of families in which some members are conspiring at this very moment to fry their brides.
It could be argued, of course, that at any given time, there are would-be murderers all over the planet, plotting and scheming to cut off someone else's air-supply … but there is a quality of domesticity about reports of dowry-murders that makes them a bit different, I think. The stories are not merely remarkable for being very similar in their details (as if each family had been reading the same newspapers to get tips about how to plan their own murders), but they're also peculiarly cosy: families apparently sit together to plot the crime and in some cases they take steps to defend their actions, by preventing the girls' families from seeking justice. There's a very real sense in which the quality of wrongness is altered when so many people indulge in it – we're forced to look for meanings and justifications beyond ordinary morality – and yet, in the meantime, young women are being burnt alive and/or tortured till they take their own lives.
I'm going to skip over the intervening day-and-a-half separating the two rehearsals, to this afternoon, when the group met again, this time with the complete cast, minus only one of the attendants(*there is now one member of the cast who is not of Indian origin -- he's playing the role of Zed and is Hawaiian). Paul had stayed up all night choreographing movements and positions so that the cast would be able to present the reading as smoothly as possible given that they'd have their scripts with them and would only perform the minimum of movements. We met in the rehearsal space of the Public Theatre, on Lafayette Street near Astor Place.
Paul began the rehearsal with a couple of games to promote mental alertness and responsiveness within the group – it was quite fun to see the effect they had, like wake-up calls straight to the psyche – and then the rehearsal began. The mood at this session was quite different to the previous one: each character was now more clearly grounded in his/her personality and the interactions between them were less mechanical. It was really good to see how the input of the new 'Zed' and the third male contestant (I'll post the names of the actors separately) altered and enlarged the flow of energy entering the play. In addition, the actors were able to sit and/or stand in locations similar to what they'll assume tomorrow, during the final reading and that did a lot to smooth the transitions in the dialogue.
I'd like to describe more here, but am going to hold back on purpose so that I'll have a fuller account to offer after the final reading. I'll confine myself to saying that I'm feeling a good deal more confident about the play today(confidence in my conception of it)! Let's see how events turn out tomorrow …
And now just a word about 'mini-crullers': a cruller is something my sister Surya introduced me to, MANY years ago. It's a close relative of the doughnut, can be found at doughnut-vending outlets and looks like a sort of frillier, lighter version of the familiar plump, quoit-shaped item. Crullers don't seem to come in a range of flavours and toppings nor are they always available. Hence, when I notice 'em, I buy 'em. The other day, while in the local grocery store, I noticed an irresistible packet of not merely crullers, but TEENY ones, lightly sugar-glazed. They were so cute! And so easy to eat! And best of all, they were a good deal cheaper than anything else in the store. So I bought 'em and shared 'em with the cast and ... now I have none left in the house. Thank goodness.