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Sherry Bokser reports on the International Women Playwrights Conference Mumbai 2009

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."     

B.  Readings

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.

While, in my opinion, the play itself fell into the trap of too much exposition, Ms. Gladstone's ideas and themes are intriguing and may, when the play is completed, provide us with a compelling evening of theater.

The post-reading discussion gained momentum when an Indian delegate forcefully took issue with Ms. Gladstone's portrayal of the "natives" as victims, rather than as individuals with responsibility and power over their respective destinies. Other delegates' comments built upon that to expound their belief that white writers whould refrain from presuming to write a non-white character or non-white voice.  A counterpoint to this position was presented by the argument that we, as writers and artists, are charged with exercising our imaginations and challenging ourselves to create characters whose voices ring true in the worlds we envision. Suffice to say that the audience did not reach consensus on that point.
The Netherlands' four writers: Marijke Schermer, AnneMarie Slotboom, Marjolijn van Heemstra and Matin van Veldhuizen presented varied forms of theatrical experience. I was particularly affected by Matin's "The Crumpled Dialogues", about women with disabilities, pride, psychology of help--giving and receiving it.
Knowing Cairo: Andrea Stolowitz's (USA) comedy addressed the tensions between mothers and daughters, the toll of eldercare on family members, the stereotypes and prejudices that inform many interracial relationships.
Who Will Sing for Lena?: Janice Liddell's (USA) play about a black woman's trial for murdering her white rapist was deeply moving. One of the few plays that I felt connected with the audience on a deep, emotional level.
USA Showcase: Janice Liddell's play moved me. Safa's "Are you my Baba?" confused me with its repetition of lines (see above re: Saphhire Butterfly). Anna Kay's piece about a serial killing widow was simply wonderful. Aamera Siddiqui's play about a South-Asian girl whose family has emigrated to America, like Singh Tangos, used humor and pathos to discuss the costs of assimilation. I very much enjoyed participating in and watching the showcase.

C. Speeches

For me, Katherine Thomson was the most engaging of the keynote speakers. She presented on "Politics in Theatre" forthrightly, candidly, and humorously. She discussed the way she imbues her plays with political issues, always maintaining her focus on creating interesting, well-developed characters who, in the course of the action, will present the various sides of the political points at issue in the play.
The Swedish contingent's discussion about the steps taken to ensure that the work of dead female playwrights is not forgotten was fascinating. Especially given the government's participation and funding for the effort.

D.  Performances

Like Lia Gladstone's play, there was one performance that culminated with a heated discussion among audience members and players. This particular play was performed by actual prostitutes who had had input in the development of the script. Essentially, the audience discussion centered upon the question: does the presentation of something on stage effectively glorify it? Many of the Indians in the audience fiercely felt that question would be answered in the affirmative. And they were aggressively opposed to such "glorification."

II.  Personal Thoughts and Suggestions

This conference was very poorly organized. We were not provided with schedules in advance. Through repeated and dogged telephone calls to Stree Mukti, on October 31, we were finally able to ascertain the precise time and place of the opening ceremony. Schedules for the conference were finally distributed at the venue of the opening ceremony, immediately before the ceremony was to commence.  (The registration process/receipt of materials required one to navigate past a throng of conference delegates as well as volunteers working the conference.)
However, the schedules and documents we received did not contain synopses of plays that were being read/performed. (A souvenir program that we heard about on the final day of the conference purportedly had such synopses.) Thus, it was impossible to make an informed decision regarding which plays to watch.
Those performing/reading during the conference had to take time away from the conference agenda to rehearse, and were not given access to the performance space prior to the time of performance.
Additionally, there was no moderator to assist post-reading discussions. it would have been much more productive to have someone familiar with the play and its subject matter leading/steering the discussion.
Finally, notwithstanding the fact that approximately half the attendees had traveled from the corners of the world, the conference schedule ran from 10 am to 9.30 pm, each day of the conference. This allowed attendees no time to explore the country or the culture outside of the conference. For anyone whose time in India was limited to the weeklong conference, the experience of Mumbai would have been limited to the University's campus. And that would be a shame.
That said, there were several memorable moments during the conference. Better planning and organization would merely have increased the number of such moments. All in all, I look forward to WPI Conference IX in Sweden.

Sherry Bokser

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