We asked Playwright-in-Residence Suvendrini Lena to reflect on her process.
Playwrights are people who hear voices. I’m always having conversations in my head with friends, frenemys, enemys, my child, my lover, and total strangers. So I imagined this interview with myself:
Why do you go to the theatre?
I go to the theatre to connect and feel in a way that is often difficult for me in the real world. Under the cover of darkness its safer (most times) to open up my heart and swim in the sea of emotion and experience that really joins us all together. I like to spend a lot of time on my own. I like to go to the theatre on my own because when the lights go out one is alone and immersed. When theatre is truly brilliant I am tempted to dive so deep that I risk being carried out to sea. I take the risk.
Why do you write for the theatre?
Because I am haunted by voices, not one but many, of people who have become entwined with me. To write them is to set them free. To set me free. And theatre, at least on the surface, and perhaps in its essence, does not need, as poetry or prose or a painting might – a frame of reference, a perspective – characters, worlds, ideas can battle, undress and deflower one another. The frame moves, is adjusted or broken.
What gives you the right to write about other people?
You mean people who are different from me, in particular more marginalized than me? How can I write the voice of a man who has been tortured, or a working class Tamil woman or an immortal Palestininan poet?
Is it emancipatory or oppressive to write the voice of another? Is there a difference if the sub-altern writes the voice of the colonizer, or the colonizer writes the subaltern’s voice. The black the white or the white the black?
Of course there is a difference.
I think the challenge is to work really hard to see and feel my own constructs and history and how it informs any voice I hear or write. But to step into another’s experience and write it –we can never actually do that – we always write what is within. We have to admit that writing a character will always be constructing an ‘other’. There is always a potential for violence and silencing in this. Seen from a different perspective, creating an ‘other’ is a radical attempt to understand, to exercise empathy, without which we cannot support diversity within community.
Wouldn’t it just be better to stick to what you really know. Yourself for example?
I’d have to write about myself alone right now. Memory is notoriously mutable. The past, the future – its all improvisation. And writing about family isn’t any better. I have caused the greatest pain through acts of misunderstanding those closest to me, whom I ‘know’ the best and with whom I share the most ‘experience’ – my mother for example.
The test is: Do the characters we make open us to the voices of others. Or, when all is said and done or, have we just made ourselves more comfortable with the music we already like to hear, or the stories we already know. I think ultrasound reveals this struggle rather well.
Will theatre ever change the world?
Yes. The theatre of the oppressed for example, is rooted in the notion that the theatre, and the rehearsal space where we interrogate and re-envision the larger political theatre we all inhabit. Depending on what we rehearse, what we imagine, how we stretch and exercises our voices, and the voices present in the room, we change the world of the play and the world in which we play for better or worse.