Here in Lucknow, Jessie, Nkoko and I are working at Puran Shiksa Kendra, a free, no-pressure school for slum children from the local area. No pressure means no uniform, no homework, nothing that might put the children off coming to school. Since its foundation in 2007, the number of children who attend has grown to around 120. The school consists of one office, 3 classrooms and a garden.
Working at Puran had its significant challenges. For starters, the no-pressure system means that not all the children come every day, and so the group we were working with fluctuated accordingly – this is fine when doing workshops, where the material was different each time, but it meant that once we started rehearsing we had to be extremely flexible, re-blocking and re-assigning roles and lines a little bit each day, or deciding to take a gamble, leaving things as they were and hoping the missing actor would be back the next day. What’s more, even kids that had shown up were free to come and go as they pleased, and kids that weren’t in our group could wander out of a lesson and join in.
Next was the issue of space – with only 3 classrooms there was rarely one to spare, so almost every day we would workshop and rehearse in the garden, following the shade slavishly as far as possible. I have NEVER sweated so much in my life. I sweated so much I stopped (almost) noticing I was sweating. We tried to start before the sun was too high, but from 11am-4pm was pretty much consistently boiling. Another downside to being in the garden was that all the children not involved in our workshops could see us, distracting them from their lessons and distracting our group from their workshop.
Finally (I have to stop somewhere) there was the language barrier. I found this a much bigger problem than in Jan Madhyam, because of the size (25 compared to the 10 or so we had in Delhi) and the rowdiness of the group. Luckily, we had 3 translators and 2 members of the Lucknow-based theatre group JOSH on hand – of course sometimes this many people trying to help also felt like an obstacle, but the fact is we would have been hard pressed to put on a show without them.
For the performance, we took inspiration from the street theatre we saw performed by university students in Delhi – we wanted to create that same connection with the audience, the same infectious energy. Ideally we would come up with a chant based on the kids’ own demands, a rallying cry like the ones being shouted all over India at the anti-corruption protests in support of Anna Hazare. We asked them what they didn’t like about their world – at first it was hard to get any answers, but after some coaxing and explaining we got a few answers: Pollution and littering, drunkenness, dishonesty and stealing. Using a Hindi song in which a child demands to be taken seriously, and the chorus “If you wanna be somebody, if you wanna go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention” from Sister Act as the chants, we created a 15 minute performance incorporating the skills we had taught in the workshops. All the children were onstage throughout, forming a semi-circle around the edge of the thrust and reacting to the action if they were not involved in the scene. This was the hardest thing for them to grasp – that even if you’re not centre stage, you have to be fully engaged and still performing.
I wish we could have had more time at Puran, but in the two weeks we were there, our rowdy, ever-changing group became a dedicated little cast, demanding that we rehearse more, more, MORE even we were literally ready to drop – and their performance on Saturday reflected their dedication and earnt them a huge round of applause. I was very sad to say goodbye.