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Lia Gladstone's Reports - the International Women Playwrights Conference, Mumbai, November 2009

WPI -Mumbai - a few highlights, November, 2009

The day after I arrived, a few of us went to see Elephant Island full of caves with statuary and reliefs of Shiva and all the Hindu deities; on the dock where we got the ferry (sublime to be on the ocean after all this landlocked time), a man asked if we’d like to be extras in a Bollywood flick:
VEER which means Brave, takes place in the 1750's, (hence the Scarlett OHara gowns).

VEER stars hottie Salman Khan-I only learned this was the guy strutting back and forth, the seams on his jacket about to burst every time he moved a mega muscle -after the fact when every Indian woman of any age almost fainted when I told her- I didn't get a photo of him but he offered Rosemary and I tea around 2 AM when we probably looked like we were about to pass out having already been on the set for 9 hrs.


When I told people at my university where I was going there was not much interest- women? playwrights? who cares. There were 80 women delegates from countries around the world and about 200 Indian women.

Many of them were playwrights in addition to being attorneys and scientists. Probably everyone was an activist, some more than others. These women are playwrights and theater people so they can have a VOICE.

Every evening at the conference there were performances by groups from throughout Inda. One of the most brilliantly exquisite was by an Indian 'ballet' troupe from Hyderbad.
The beautiful young girl in the photo below is the youngest member.


Her grandmother, Vasanth Kannabiran, a pioneer in the Indian women's rights movement and nominated in 2005 for the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize, wrote the play, Menaka, that forms the context for the dance.

Indian Ballet Troupe

Vasanth Kannabiran.jpg
Vasanth Kannabiran

More than 60 international plays were presented over the week with ten readings a day so it was difficult to choose. Here's a very small sample: Salute the Man by Jeannie Haughton of Melbourne, takes place during the early settlement of Austrailia. ...

Jean Haughton presenting "Salute the Man"


Who Will Sing For Lena?
by Janice Liddell of the US is about the first woman executed for murder - an African American woman who has killed her abuser in self-defense terrifically acted by Vanessa Adams-Harris, also of US.

Picture left - Vanessa Adams-Harris as Lena Mae Baker in "Who Will Sing for Lena" by Janice Liddell  (USA)

Another play was about a white woman scape-goated in Rwanda. Many plays were about race and ethnicity. There was a play about Indian prostitutes and transvestites written and acted by the prostitutes themselves- they have formed their own theater company!

Reading of Rosemary John's play, ""At the Centre of Light,"" about a
radical Austrailian nun, soon to be canonized

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Unlike most of the internationals, I stayed in a guest house on campus and across the hall from me, occupying the same size room that I had to myself, were 10 members of a traditional folk group from Maharashtra who were there to perform the ten incarnations of Krishna-it's hard for me to keep all the Indian gods straight but I think Krishna is also Shiva.

Above and Below: Members of the Traditional Folk Theater of Maharashtra performing the ten incarnations of Krishna based on a novel by Mahashwetan Devi


Shibani, offered to take Gail Nyoka of Toronto and me around Mumbai. After we checked out the aptly named FabIndia and Ghandi's cooperative, Khadi, with its beautiful hand woven silks and cottons and wonderfully smelling skin products-all for the benefit of the villagers who make the products, we drove very far north (in the 1600's Mumbai was a string of islands that have since been consolidated with land fills and bridges) where all the Bollywood and TV studios are.

Shibani's daughter, Smriti Irani, is one of Indian TV's top stars, though we didn't learn this until after we had visited her on the set. They were shooting her current serial,, when we arrived- a family comedy about a village woman who comes to the city but tries to keep her traditional ways.

Left to Right: Lia Gladstone; the "Messenger of Death"; Gail Nyoka (of Toronto, Canada); Smriti; Shibani. On the set of one of Mumbai's most popular TV serials.

The show was adapted from a play that Smriti starred in. Before this, Smriti was a hit in her previous serial that was especially popular in Afghanistan, so popular in fact that one night while an Afghan family was glued to the set, they were robbed and the thieves wrote in big letters on the walls around the house, THANK YOU, SMRITI!" When Smriti is done shooting she heads to the theater where's she's appearing in a new play that she has also produced.

My play Children of the Far Far Away is about an American woman who travels to Micronesia to look for babies for an adoption agency.


The US has a compact with Micronesia that allows for US military bases and bomb testing- remember Reagan's Star Wars.
In exchange, Micronesians get a little money that wipes out their subsistence life-style and are free to travel to the US without a passport.

This is the attraction for adoption agencies. It means an end run around the INS. My mentor when I wrote it, called it "Frontline" on stage. It's debut in the Solo Mio Festival in San Francisco.


The conference asked me to stage "Children" in Mumbai. The cast is a mix of international delegates and University of Mumbai Theater students. One morning I'm walking outside the University when this young pistol of a girl approaches me, just being friendly, I think, to a stranger.

When I get back, there she is, Ripali, with the other theater students, and I instantly cast her as the pregnant Lina. Niru didn't have to work hard to portray the seductive taxi driver. Indian-American actor/playwright Ameera as Kada, the adoption worker, says after he comes on to her: "That smile . . I almost say yes. " She looks at Niru and his drop dead gorgeous smile lights up the room; the 5th wall is broken, everyone in the audience is seduced.


Nilam wears a white sari as beleagured Dr. Rita- "four Caesarians in one day and we dont have water for days."

In the discussion that follows, an Indian woman denounces the play for presenting Lina as a victim. My Indian friend Shibani whispers to me, "You always know it's good when someone in the audience gets angry."

More photos by Lia >

You can also read a report about Lia in DNA INDIA (the link goes to an external site) Read the report

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