Courage & Cost

Home from one of my favourite nights of the year, Animiikig night at Native Earth’s Weesagachek Festival which is an evening of excerpts of new work. What really resonated with me tonight is the idea that the sharing of stories, and in particular, ones grown from our own bodies and beings, have cost. All shared stories cost the one doing the sharing, because there is much at risk. All the more so, if the storyteller is a person of colour. And even more acutely for a woman of colour. It has cost, and it takes courage.

When I think back to my favourite works of my own – well, the ones I really hold the most dear, they are also the ones that cost me the most. I cannot say that those particular works were done with the most self-care. And yet, in hindsight, the risk was worth it. I am not saying so to be boastful or romantic about it – just being honest.

In any case, I am writing about this, because Suvendrini Lena’s debut script The Enchanted Loom, makes me feel this way – in that it reveals an artist at their most raw, most vulnerable, most honest, most authentic. It’s a gorgeous, completely unique voice that sheds light on trauma in a way I have never seen or considered before. To me, that makes it very exciting art indeed.


The Protest, featuring the ensemble of THE ENCHANTED LOOM by Suvendrini Lena. Photo by Dahlia Katz


Opening Tonight: The Enchanted Loom

If any play or work could accurately reflect a Cahoots’ aesthetic over the last 30 years of staging diversity, it would be THE ENCHANTED LOOM. Suvendrini Lena’s debut play is a deeply theatrical and political work nestled inside the very personal story of a family in crisis. The first time that I encountered her script, I was struck by Suvendrini’s authentic and accessible way in which she portrays medical text inside a highly dramatic scene.  It was later that I learned that Suvendrini is also a practicing doctor. As such, she brings her own discipline of medicine to her incisive work as a writer, working across disciplines in the truest fashion. Not only does this require a sophisticated knowledge of the medical (neurology, in her case), but also a nuanced sense of drama and dialogue. Add to this, the playwright’s exploration of the diasporic Tamil community, in order to bring light to the tumultuous ending of Sri Lanka’s civil war through the eyes of one family, her play speaks uniquely to the stories of our city, and our time. At Cahoots, we feel obligated to explore and expose society’s scars through the safety of our practice, while many around the world and here in Toronto, are directly impacted from such conflicts. In Suvendripeacock-feather-20067282ni’s play, she speaks of a feather, that can break the axle of wheel. Cahoots is a small company, but in bringing long-neglected stories to the stage, we strive to be that feather. 

Guest Blog: Suvendrini Lena

Cahoots2015brochure-6593We 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.

Suvendrini Lena is a playwright and neurologist. Her first play, THE ENCHANTED LOOM will be produced by Cahoots Theatre in our 30th anniversary season, Fall 2016 in the Factory Studio Theatre. Her position is supported by the Ontario Arts Council.