Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Very Belatedly ... the GENERAL ASSEMBLY report

It's atrocious to post reports so long after the events that inspired it occurred but ... it was either this way or NO way. So, all things considered, I'm glad to be getting down to this, finally.

A little background about GENERAL ASSEMBLY. I began writing the play late last year (around November, I think, or October latest), at the invitation of Neera Jain, commissioning editor at Ratna Sagar, in Chandigarh. She wrote to ask if I had any existing plays that would be suitable for High School students (in India, i.e.) and when I said I didn't, she wondered out loud (by e-mail) if I'd be interested in writing one for a selection she was putting together. Her selection criterion was simple: she wanted a "classic play".

Well! That set me a challenge, didn't it? Because of course we both knew that no can (or should) SET OUT to write a classic-anything. The only reasonable approach is to write something that is true to one's beliefs and experience -- if it turns out to appeal to the tastes of a large number of people over a long period of time, and if the reason for that appeal is not mere vulgarity then ... MAYBE ... the thing might turn into a popular classic over time. But without the element of time and the opinions of large numbers of people, whatever else it is, it's not a classic.

So anyway. I LIKE challenges, so I said to Neera that I'd think about it. I had two ideas and began working on both (in the sense of, I began both) then settled on GA. Initially the complete title was "... of the GALACTIC UNION" but I preferred the shorter title ultimately. I completed the first draft in January this year, sent it off to Neera and after she returned it with comments, I added in the construction of the bomb -- resulting in the current version. Then I sent it off again and for a while it seemed like Neera would be able to use it in her anthology but ... that's not how it turned out.

Instead, what happened was two things: one, I gave it to Scholastic for an anthology of contemporary plays for young people that THEY were putting together -- general editor Sayoni Basu, collection editor Anushka Ravishankar -- and it was accepted for publication. Two, I brought it along with me to Boston, in March. I had been very kindly invited by Claire Conceison (Assistant Prof., Dept of Drama and Dance), at Tufts, to present an illustrated lecture about ... umm ... my journey as an author/illustrator.* At the time I met Claire, I offered her GA to read, saying that I would be very thrilled if I could hear a reading of the play, perhaps by some of her students.

And that's what happened.

Cut to: a meeting between me and Brendan Shea, the young final year student who offered, in his FINAL WEEK at college -- it has to be an indication of his confidence and sense of preparedness for his exams, that he even had time to spare on such a project! -- to direct a rehearsed reading of the play, at TUFTS, scheduled for just after the exams. Brendan had read HARVEST, so he'd already had a little exposure to my work and I think we both enjoyed the meeting at Starbucks, at the Arlington Centre. It was a surprisingly cold but very sunny morning, and I was practically an icicle by the time I walked into Starbucks that morning, but the pleasure of the meeting was enough (well JUST ABOUT) to keep me warm for the walk back to my niece's apartment, about 10 minutes north. (memories of major brrrrrrrrrrr ...)

Cut again to about one month later. May 14th was the day chosen for the reading. I got to the auditorium about an hour before it was due to begin, which gave me a little time to talk to the cast of fourteen -- here I have to pause to say that this would be the very first time I would hear the play being read with one voice per part. It's got a large number of characters -- in line with Neera's initial commission, which asked for a play that would cater to a large number of students -- and though my two nieces and I had read it out loud in Madras in January/February, I hadn't seriously expected to round up the full complement of a dozen voices at any time on my own.

The reading was held at Tufts U's Balch Arena Auditorium, which, as its name suggests, is the kind of auditorium in which the audience sits in tiers around a central pit. In this case, Brendan chose to seat the audience on one side of the pit, while the 12 main readers stood in a semi-circle facing them, with music stands on which they placed the scripts from which they read. In keeping with the play's requirements, there were four animal-shaped cut-outs (in white construction paper) arranged in front of the semi-circle -- well, three, actually, because FLIT, the dragonfly was posed enigmatically at the back, along the edge of the upper balcony, facing the audience. The remaining two readers sat to one side, one of them reading stage directions/announcer's voice and the other awaiting his turn as RAUF.

Here's the list: (sent to me by Brendan)
ANNOUNCEMENT/STAGE DIRECTIONS - Katie Clark
RAUF - Will Shaw
MITTOO - Brian Smith
AKU-AKU - Armen Nercessian
NANOOK - Brendan Shea
MUSTAFA - Laur Fisher
ASTRID - Caitlin Johnson
ALPHA - Erica Finkel
VIJAY - Luke Yu
YOKO - Molly O'Neill
TONY - Dave Adler
ANDY - Timothy Wagner
WORKS-AT-CASINOS - David Jenkins
MARIA - Stacy Davidowitz

If you've read this far, there's a chance that you're starting to wonder about the play ... So here's a quick overview: it's set in some future time (okay! okay! No groans from the audience please! Maybe it's a little more obvious now why this play wasn't included in a collection of "classic" plays ...), and all the action takes place in the common room of the delegation from Earth, at the General Assembly of the Galactic Union, taking place on some (unknown) other planet. The eleven human members of the delegation are locked in argument, as time counts down till the moment when they will make their presentation. Part of the point of the play is the squabbling -- the fact that the delegates are unable to present a united front or to agree about their agenda. There are a few animals who have been included as part of the delegation and eventually it is one of the animals that is chosen to address the assembly. The play ends with that speech.

When my nieces and I read the play out loud amongst ourselves, it helped me get a sense of the general flow of conversation and ideas; I also read it out loud to my friend Sunita at her home in Delhi, because she was kind enough to indulge me in my whims and out loud to my mother (in Madras, during the same period that my nieces and I read it -- we couldn't read it FOR my mother, because she would have found it difficult to follow three separate voices reading together) on account of her waning eyesight. But hearing a reading with one voice per part is really the ONLY way to be reasonably sure that the conversation overlaps in an intelligible manner, that there isn't too much bunching of activity and that characters have enough time to develop their points of view for the brief (half hour) duration of the piece.

So ... what can I say? It was wonderful to have an opportunity to hear the whole thing, in separate voices. It seemed to me that each of the actors put in just the right kind of energy into their performance -- special mention must go out to MITTOO and WORKS-AT-CASINOS here, for their virtuoso farting (mouthed, of course!) -- and it certainly allowed me to hope that if the play is ever performed, it'll gallop along with enough chuckles to keep it afloat till it gets to the end.

I especially enjoyed the pre-reading discussion with the cast and if I have any regrets it is that we DIDN'T opt for a post-reading talk-back. That was my choice -- but I realized almost at once that if only we'd had it, I would've had an opportunity to thank the cast and Tufts U for the reading. I thought that the cookies-and-sodas after the reading would give me ample opportunities to chat -- but that's not the same as being able to say a formal (and sincere) thank you. All I can do to make up for that lapse is, if/when the play is ever published as a stand-alone item, I will mention this reading. I can't be sure it'll ever happen, of course, but I have a notion that it would be really quite amusing to publish the play with illustrations (by me) of the different characters, suggested props and ideas for improvising costumes/set with a minimum of expense and fuss. The human characters are meant, of course, to represent the many different races and nationalities of our planet, but highly exaggerated, so there's much scope for zany dressing up.

For the moment, of course, the first published appearance of the play will be in Scholastic's collection, due out sometime next month (I think). I haven't heard from Sayoni recently, but I'll post links once I have more information.

*I was planning to blog about it, but didn't get around to that either. There's a reason for all these missed opportunities ... but at least as regards the workshop, I thought perhaps it would be a little teeny bit smarmy for me to report about myself here. That's not really the purpose of this blog.

2 comments:

Brendan Shea said...

Manjula!

Thanks for the kind review of our reading, it was a pleasure for all of us to "unveil" this modern classic! Totally worth shirking my final exam responsibilities...oops, just kidding. Keep me up to date on the status of GA's publication, looking forward to seeing it on the shelves! Hope all is well wherever this comment finds you (I presume outer space or somewhere equally intrepid), thanks for the opportunity to direct this event!

Marginalien said...

Hi again -- and no, I'm particularly earth-bound these days -- I've been in Vermont, with friends on their organic farm, feeling enriched and very privileged to be able to live so close to the fundamentals ... we even saw a black bear raiding someone's bird-feeder!! It's a very special place to be.

I'm sorry it took me SO long to post this report -- but I'm relieved that I finally got around to posting it, *phew*. It's been weighing on my conscience for a while now ...

Gladness all around.