Last Monday, with the generous help of friends Nilroy, DD, Zigzackly and Kaybe we had an informal reading of my play, THE ARTIST'S MODEL. There were just the five of us, and the venue was Nilroy and DD's home in Nizamuddin even though -- and this is where the generosity is particularly marked -- they were in the throes of shifting residence. The reason they/I chose to have the reading anyway is that Kaybe (New York) and Zigzackly (Bombay) are both itinerants, and I was keen to involve them while they were both at hand.
It went well, I think. The play is about three artists stuck in an improbable situation -- it explores what they might do and say, with side-swipes at today's art milieu. I wrote the play about ten years ago, and have never heard it read except once, a couple of days after I finished the first draft of the script, with one another friend and me alternating voices. The play has changed a little bit since then, but not significantly. It's been read to an audience, in NYC by Salaam Theatre, but I wasn't present, so I don't know what it was like.
Meanwhile, since Penguin India is going to publish a collection of my plays (five: LIGHTS OUT, THE MATING GAME SHOW, THE SEXTET (actually six short skits), A.M. and HARVEST) -- I am not including HIDDEN FIRES, published last year by Seagull, because to earn revenues from it would be to go against the spirit in which I wrote it (five monologues about the 2002 riots in Gujarat). I have been very keen to listen to pre-publication readings of the two -- MGS and AM -- that had not, till recently, been performed in any sense. Of course, MGS had several readings in its previous 5-hour versions, but its current stripped down slim-line edition was something I heard for the first time in 2004 in Nilroy's friendly abode and also in NYC in September. It is vastly preferable to publish a play only after it's been performed on stage -- but since that's not likely to happen, I've had to settle for readings, and am very grateful for the help I've had in this regard.
Take Monday's reading for example -- as a result of hearing the play read in three voices (Nilroy, Zigzackly and Kaybe, initially, with DD chipping in towards the end because K had to leave) with me reading the directions, I had, for the first time, a firm sense of what the play is saying -- WHETHER it's saying something at all, and also whether it's WORTH saying. Like I explained just before we began, since I've got used to the idea that the plays will be published anyway, despite not being performed, having a reading was a luxury that I was glad to afford but was not crucial to the publishing history of the piece. The purpose of the reading was in that sense truly about quality control -- if I could get a feeling for the directions in which I can tweak it, to improve it, I would. If I felt it would be best to leave well enough alone, I'd do that too.
So the post-reading discussion was really the best part, for me anyway. It's hard to repeat the discussion in detail without describing the play -- which would be rather tedious, I think -- so I'll cut to the chase: the main comment was that the situation presented in the play could be enhanced if I introduced the sense of time passing, instead of presenting it in real time, i.e., the events of the play corresponding to the time elapsed while performing the play. I realized, from this response, that I had perhaps written the play in a more flippant mood than its final form could support. I hadn't really wanted to commit myself to a realistic exploration of what the three characters in the situation might do -- but the reading helped me consider the idea that it would be worth making that effort (that is, of introducing realism to the structure of the situation).
I like this idea! I plan to re-work the play now, with this new element in place. What really helped was to hear from my friends that the play works as a concept -- that gives me the confidence to move forward with it, to take it further along the path that it is already upon. Until actually hearing the dialogue, I couldn't know whether or not it has enough internal consistency to be interesting. While printing out the script just before the reading, reading it again myself as I went along, I really couldn't decide whether it was a load of mildly risible garbage or whether it had "bite". Hearing it in three voices has made all the difference -- I believe I can discern a certain amount of "bite", but can see a fair amount of flab too. Which is great. One can't begin to remove flab until one can see it clearly (this can't, of course, be said about body flab, alas ...).
And in other news ... Monday was also the day I went over to Penguin with a rough version of the cover for the forth-coming collection of the DOUBLE TALK strips -- a reprint in book form of the Bombay avatar of Suki. I hope this will be fun -- I always preferred the Bombay strips, even though my drawing style, especially in the early days, was really quite atrocious, particularly the lettering in speech bubbles!! No doubt I'll have to re-do some of it. Still, it always brings on a shuddering nostalgia in me, looking at those early art-works -- I thought I had all the original drawings but apparently a large number have fallen by the wayside. It's hardly surprising: I was 25 years younger, I've moved home at least a dozen times since then, my life as a paying guest in Bombay was precarious to the max -- I often had less than the minimum balance in my bank account, and the minimum those days was FIFTY RUPEES (i.e. ONE DOLLAR at today's exchange rate)! -- and I often produced the strip with minutes to spare before press-time, in colour, with no time for photocopies or back-ups of any kind. Ay me. A desperate era.
And yet more: I am finally working on the drawings for an odd little book -- three children's stories about three weird little girls -- which got written rather to my surprise in the middle of 2003 and to my even greater surprise got liked by Sayoni, at Puffin. The drawings, incidentally, are being done free. Penguin/Puffin can't pay for them (i.e., if they did, I'd be insulted by the sum they'd offer and therefore wouldn't do the drawings) so ... rather than send the book out without drawings, I'm doing them for free. This means the book will be lavishly illustrated -- only in b/w -- but I'm planning to have fun doing them. I am SO tired of being unable to be an illustrator just because no-one's willing to pay ... It's been the bane of my life and now, considering I'm surely not going to live another fifty years, I'm beginning to feel I'd better just do whatever I can while I can still do it rather than wait for that never-never moment when I actually get a good price for what I do.
In the meantime, I must note in passing that a buyer in Bombay has bought a complete set of all my prints as a result of the show in Madras -- multiples of some -- meaning 60 pieces in all! This is rather nice. It makes up for the faint sadness I always feel whenever I look back on my working life -- so much failure! So many smoking ruins in the background!
Ah well. Gotta keep moving onward, onward ...
Oh -- and an essay by M.J.Akbar in the Asian Age, Sunday 9th January is really worth reading, re the tsunami's aftermath and the world's approach to compassion: pls click on
Asian Age then look for By-line M.J. Akbar and the name of the piece is "Conscience-Management". There's no link specific to the piece, so you have to go to the main page and click your way in.