As an initial matter, thank you very much to the ICWP for the grant that enabled me to attend the WPI Conference in Mumbai, India, in November, 2009.
I. The WPI Conference
Approximately 250 women converged upon the University of Mumbai in Kalina ("the University") for the VIII WPI Conference, during the first week of November, 2009. Nearly half of the attendees were from India. The remainder hailed from all corners of the world, representing Australia, Canada, the Philippines, the United States, Afghanistan, and several European countries.
The conference was organized by the Stree Mukti Sanghathana together with the University's Academy of Theatre Arts.
A. The Opening Ceremony
On the evening of November 1, 2009, the red carpet was, literally, rolled out at the University of Mumbai. The Opening Ceremony of the WPI Conference eagerly awaited the arrival of Shabana Azmi, Bollywood film star and social activist, before commencing. Ms. Azmi, striking in a scarlet sari, emerged from a white Mercedes Benz sedan. She glided past the papparazzi, cameras clicking furiously. Ms. Azmi entered the auditorium and joined on stage: Anna K. France, a founder of the WPIC; University Vice Chancellor Dr. Chandra Krishna Mukhti; Dr. Jhabar Patel, a patron of the arts and theater community; Sushmita Deshpandee; Professor Wamen Kendre; Dr. Magare; and Jyoti Mhapsekar, founder of Stree Mukti. The panel members opened the conference with a ceremonial lamp lighting and presentation of floral bouquets. All members of the panel spoke, with Dr. Khendra presenting the welcome address, Ms France detailing the history of the WPI, and Jyoti Mhapsekar, the conference chairperson, extolling the role of mothers and grandmothers as storytellers and the use of drama to express the need for individual freedom. This theme was further echoed in Ms. Azmi's comments regarding art's transformational ability and the guidance grandmothers' stories give to women in their negotiation of life's journey. In closing, Dr. Chandra Krishna Mukhti exhorted and encourage playwrights to exercise their ability to "think, write, and change lives."
The morning portion of the conference program was comprised of a keynote speech and several choices of play readings: five play options for each one-hour time slot between 11 am and 1 pm. Below are descriptions of play readings that I observed and my impressions. Please understand that, although, I am a novice playwright, I have frankly stated my impressions below.
Letters to Clio: Jennifer Jones's (USA) one-woman show was inspired by the events that succeeded the March 1976 military coup in Argentina. The government detained, tortured, and killed potentially subversive persons, often college students, leftists, and journalists. The detentions were extralegal and family members of detainees were given no notice of the detention or information regarding their disappeared loved ones. This reign of terror continued into the 1980s.
Ms. Jones's first-person narrative was a fine portrayal of the mothers of the disappeared, a group who formed and then gathered at the Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential mansion. Her performance was searing, touching, and revelatory. She hit upon the sense of isolation and helplessness of each individual woman and the transformation and empowerment that giving voice held for them, individually and collectively.
Kayak: Jordan Hall (Canada) presented a comedic account of the social polarities regarding environmental protection and the "green movement". Many of the audience members appeared to appreciate it very much.
The Fold: this interactive play by Allison Richards (Australia) explored the way memories are passed down, reconstituted, and reconfigured over time. Images made from contact photography were projected onto billowing white fabric. Ms. Richards divided the audience into three groups and assigned specific sounds to each group to be voiced on her cue. Additionally, individual audience members were encouraged to shout out certain words or effects at will. It goes without saying that each performance of the piece will be unique.
Art is a Cupboard and Sapphire Butterfly Blue: both by Melissa Major (Canada). Ms. Majors is an accomplished playwright and has had 10 plays produced in Canada and one in Hong Kong. Both of these plays, however, forced me to confront my ignorance: I remain at a loss as to what Art is a Cupboard is truly about or what Ms. Major seeks to say through it. (Ms. Major announced that the play is about Russian exiled artists and the time is circa 1920.) Similarly, while we were told that Ms. Major's Sapphire Butterfly Blue was about the Salem witch trials, I was confused by dialogue that included scientific facts unknown in the 17th century, as well as the playwright's use of line repitition throughout the read portion. I believe that a well-moderated post-reading discussion would have elucidated that playwright's message and enlightened me about the playwright's use of certain devices.
Singh Tangos: an entertaining comedy by Bettina Gracias (UK), an Indian-Austrian woman raised in England, about the Indian emigrant experience. The play shone a spotlight on assimilation at a cost of loss of some cultural identity. It did so with a gentle humor.
Children of the Far, Far Away: Lia Gladstone's (Afghanistan) play about
American exploitation of Micronesian women for the child-adoption
machine provided fodder for one of the more stimulating discussions
during the conference.