Ensemble art

US-based theatre artists Rowen Haigh and Sean Mahoney, who are in the city for the Pukaar festival, deconstruct the idea of devised theatre

Mumbai | Updated: February 19, 2014 1:27 pm
A play produced by Baltimore-based Whiteflag Performance Group A play produced by Baltimore-based Whiteflag Performance Group

Dressed in comfortable summer clothes, Rowen Haigh and Sean Mahoney, artistic directors of the Baltimore-based Whiteflag Performance Group, look quite at ease for first-time visitors to India. For them, it is more of a wonder how the trip worked out at the last minute, quite literally. “Because of some visa issues we didn’t know till the eleventh hour whether we were coming to India. Almost as soon as it was decided we headed out,” says Mahoney. The two, from Maryland, USA, were in Pune to participate in Pukaar theatre festival that was held over two weekends from February, (7th, 8th, 9th and 14th, 15th, 16th). They conducted a workshop with local theatre artistes to devise a performance that was staged on February 15.
Travel plans in limbo apart, the two say they had all else ready for their trip here. “It all began with the festival coordinator Hina Siddiqui, who I met in Manchester, asking if we would like to bring a production for Pukaar Festival. For practical reasons, we couldn’t bring a whole production here, but we were excited about the idea and suggested that we could create a show here instead,” says Haigh, who, together with Mahoney, is pursuing Masters of Fine Arts in Theatre Arts from Towson University, Maryland, while also teaching undergraduate programmes. They started the Whiteflag Performance Group three years ago and have produced six devised shows since.
Talking about the the idea of devised theatre, Mahoney says that it has been around for several years. He has himself been involved with devised theatre for about 16 years and, without much ado, goes on to present the form in simpler terms. “It is a sort of collaborative choreography where the emphasis is on an ensemble as opposed to traditional theatre that is driven by a single person, such as the playwright or the director,” he says.
Haigh seamlessly follows it with: “In a devised play, everyone is the playwright, creating a text with images, visuals, sounds and narratives.” They go on to explain that, instead of a script being the starting point for a devised play, one generally begins with an idea or theme. “Our process as directors essentially has two parts — first, to create an open and safe space for our collaborators to tell their stories and put things out there; and second, we take on the more traditional role of directors where we become the outside eye and sort through the material to arrive at what will be finally performed,” says Mahoney.
At their workshop, which began on Monday with six artistes, the duo is working on the theme of money. “We are exploring people’s relationship with money and how it has, in a sense, become a central character in their lives,” says Mahoney. Haigh shares that the theme also flows from the specific point of life they are at. “For instance, for this trip to India, we had to think about whether we could afford it. Also generally, as theatre artistes, the issue of money is something we have to deal with often,” she says.
Mahoney adds with a short laugh that he did have a “little iffy feeling” about the theme, considering that they are Westerners coming to India. “But the trepidation I felt made the theme more interesting and we decided on it,” he says.

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