Creator-Director Michael Walling discusses ORIENTATIONS with Gill Jaggers, Marketing Manager of Pegasus Theatre, Oxford
GJ: Border Crossings as a company and yourself as director are known for creating new writing for the stage that, as the name suggests, really crosses boundaries of culture, expectation and artform. Your latest work, ORIENTATIONS, is no exception and is quite a challenging piece of work. What inspired you to write it?
MW: The first thing to say is that I didn't "write" it in the conventional sense of sitting down at the keyboard and waiting for inspiration - we workshopped the play very extensively, and many of the scenes were improvised, either by actors or people from relevant communities, long before I scripted them. That makes sense to me as an approach to theatre - it's about dialogue and the coming together of multiple voices in an open space.
In terms of the inspiration...... I think with any piece of theatre it tends to start from something as formless as a hunch, and you then build around that in terms of the people you bring together, the material you suggest to them, and so on. For this play, the hunch grew from a number of things. I'd spent a long time in India when I did The Tempest there, and I'd become very aware of how aspects of my own identity as English, male, heterosexual and all that seemed to mean something different there, even to be something different, from what they are when I'm in England. As a company, we started to explore those sorts of issues when Mahesh Dattani came over and we did BRAVELY FOUGHT THE QUEEN; then we took a very different tack on it when we did TWELFTH NIGHT and made use of Asian theatre's transvestite tradition, and I slowly got thinking about gender and culture as being in themselves a sort of performance, which makes theatre a really interesting place to play with them and subvert them a bit - expose them for the performance they are. So I suppose, in retrospect, ORIENTATIONS is like the coming together of a number of strands of work we've been engaged with for some time.
GJ: The theme of the play, questioning sexuality, especially within the bounds of cultural identity, seems on the surface to be very controversial. Do you expect your audiences to find it so?
MW: I hope they'll find it provocative, in the sense that it gets you to think and feel about things in ways you haven't done before - and if that's controversial then that's fine by me. But it's not a piece of "in yer face theatre", because that's what people might expect of a play on this subject, and our job as theatre-makers is to give people what they don't expect, because that's how you get them to see things differently. So yes, there are scenes where you see people having various forms of sexual contact, but we've tried to find the beauty in those moments, and maybe that's what's shocking...... We all know about the dark side of human sexuality - it's incredibly current in our culture. What we've lost sight of is the tenderness.
GJ: Male sexuality is a very sensitive subject and in popular culture is either stereotyped, ignored or dismissed. Your treatment of the issue is very different. Could you explain how you have responded to these issues in this production?
MW: I'm intrigued by what you say - I'm not sure that male sexuality, whether gay or straight or whatever, is ignored or dismissed, although I would agree that it's stereotyped and as a result made much less interesting than it really is. If the treatment of male sexuality in the play is different, then I suppose that's partly a tribute to the men who came to the workshops and gave so much of themselves, of their own lives, towards the telling of these stories. Their sensitivity and their openness demanded a respect which (you're right) popular culture doesn't tend to give.
It's also to do with theatricality. I suppose I'm so tediously conventional in my own sexual tastes and identity that I find myself full of admiration for people who have to re-make themselves in order to fulfill, to become, their sexual or gendered self. I think it's really interesting how that becomes a form of display, a sort of performance, which leads you into the baroque world of alternative sexualities. Because, if those sexual identities are created and performed, then probably so are the more conventional identities which we judge as "normal". And the moment you start seeing that the normal is itself theatrical, then it's incredibly freeing.
Also, the play is less to do with sexuality than with gender. I think we've seen a lot of theatre work about sexuality, but not very much about gender, and in a way gender's a more interesting subject because it moves us onto an almost metaphysical plane. Gender is the sexuality of the soul.
GJ: In the early stages of creating the piece, you workshopped ideas with young Asian groups in London and in Bangalore. How did they react to the subject matter? Did you discover anything unexpected in those sessions?
MW: Yes. Constantly. It was rich. Really, really rich. One of the things which really surprised me was the way in which the young British Asians didn't regard themselves as Asian. It was quite strange - they were all together as a youth group for people of Asian origin, but when one of the girls said "My parents are Asians, so they think differently about things like that", none of the others so much as batted an eyelid. They all clearly thought of themselves as not belonging in any meaningful way to a specific cultural identity, but to the global mainstream. It's not just the old thing of defining yourself in opposition to your parents - it's a really strong sense that there's only one sort of identity for the future. And I find that incredibly disturbing. Because the global culture really does stifle the sort of personal creativity we've just been talking about - you know, it has absorbed gay culture, but it's done it through the stereotype, it's blanded it out, and destroyed what's truly outrageous and subversive in that movement.
That's why, at the end of the play, it was really important that our main characters weren't absorbed into the mainstream. We couldn't have (say) A coming back to London and settling down with Julian or something - A had to move towards an identity which was more specific and dealt with cultural rootlessness as well as gender confusion (and the two are very closely related, of course). Similarly, at the very end, we see Linda working herself out through her dancing. That's a very different way of ending her story from the way we ended A's: Linda's more like the young people in that workshop, in that she does have one of the hybrid identities which are becoming ever more the norm in the 21st century, and the only way to embrace that is to move forward through creativity, exploration and engagement. So at the end, when the lights fade, she's still dancing. It doesn't stop.
GJ: Border Crossings is renowned for its very successful cross cultural casting in previous productions. Many UK audiences know little about Radakhrishna Urala, the Asian performer who appears in the play, although he is extremely well known for his female roles in the Yakshagana performances in South Asia. Can you tell us more about him and how you got together?
MW: I knew I wanted somebody who had a really powerful connection with the traditions of the Indian theatre, and especially the transvestite tradition - a performer who'd been playing women all his life, and who lived and breathed the mythology on a daily basis. But who was also open to working in very new ways. It made sense for it to be a Yakshagana performer because we were looking at Bangalore.
How we got together...... Nisha, my wife, studied fine art in Santiniketan. One of her University chums, Archana Hande, was in London, and we all met up. I liked what Archana was doing with painting, installation and video, and asked her if she'd like to be involved with this project as designer. Then I told her I was hoping to find this very special Yakshagana performer - Radhakrishna is her cousin! It was one of those coincidences that are so amazing you can start getting a bit Jungian about it.....
What I love about traditional artists like Radhakrishna is the total lack of preciousness. It's because, unlike Western actors, they have a really strong sense of what their craft is, and how it fits in with the social context in which they operate. It makes him a wonderfully steadying presence in our company: the bedrock on which the production rests.
GJ: ORIENTATIONS blends a whole range of performance styles together, from opera and dance to film and folk theatre. How have you achieved this and what do the different disciplines offer to the show?
MW: It's not something we've chosen to do for aesthetic reasons: it's the way we live now. As I said earlier about Linda's dance - we're looking for new ways in which our cultural forms can respond to our hybrid identities, and I think that's bound to be through hybridity and inter-breeding. Salman Rushdie said that "Mixture is how newness comes into the world", and I'm sure that's true, even on a basic biological level of mixing the genes of two people so a new person turns up. All the great cultural Renaissances of history have been to do with mixture - all those Levantine traders coming into Venice, or Leonardo ending up at the court of the French King - and I think we're looking at the conditions for a cultural Renaissance right now, so long as we embrace the Other and don't destroy it (which is what globalization is tending to do, and the new imperialism is very definitely doing - leading in turn to reactionary caricatures of non-Western cultures emerging, like Islamic fundamentalism or the Hindutva in India, which we touch on a bit in the play). It's both an exciting time to be an artist and a very scary one. Things could go either way.
GJ: Can you explain what Yakshagana is, how it is used in its traditional form and how you have used it in your play?
MW: Roughly translated from Kannada, Yakshagana means Celebration of the Celestials. It's a theatre form which re-tells the mythological stories that underpin Indian culture, and it does this through dance, dialogue, song and these really amazing rich costumes, wigs and make-up. What I love is the total theatricality of forms like this - you have musicians sitting at the back singing the story, sometimes in the characters' own voices, and no real set as such, just this magnificent emptiness into which the actors come, and that gives them a sort of priestly status. Vehicles for gods. It becomes a space for the imagination, and the audience are complicit in that alchemy: they turn a man into a woman and a dancer into a god just by the power of their collective imagination. We've tried to bring some of those qualities to bear on our production: so the space is very empty, the actors constantly transform, and the mythic becomes present in contemporary lives in a very immediate and surprising way. The use of music is very Asian too - although the music itself is mainly baroque opera - it's there as a way of lifting the story out of an ordinary world and onto a spiritual plane.
GJ: Now that the production has been touring for some time, what impact do you think ORIENTATIONS is having on the theatre-going public?
MW: It's very hard for me to know. They laugh a lot, they're often moved, they often talk about the show being very beautiful. I hope it's getting people to look at things in new ways. Even to look at themselves in new ways. That would be an achievement, wouldn't it?