By Taraana Madhok
Based on the experiences of a group of underprivileged children in Pune, the play, The Greatest Show On Earth, depicts the intricacies, truths and the dark underside of the Indian education system through the metaphor of a circus. Presented by Teach For India, to mark its 10th anniversary, the play will be staged on September 4 at The Royal Opera House, Mumbai.
Written by Shaheen Mistri, the CEO of Teach For India, and directed by Kritika Rawat and Shivani Patekar, the play stars children of a Pune-based theatre group, Umang. The title draws from the 1952 American drama film, The Greatest Show On Earth, which revolves around the lives and relationships of the performers of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. “Just like the circus is a place that promises dreams and magic, an education also comes with the promise of dreams and potential. A circus has a dark side to it as animals and performers are ill treated. Similarly, there are a number of dark truths that accompany one’s entry into the education system,” says Mistri.
The plot revolves around a young boy entering school for the first time. He is excited about the opportunities the education system promises. The strong character of the headmaster is likened to the ringmaster of a circus. As the ringmaster shows the boy around, introducing him to the other characters in the school, the protagonist witnesses the trials and tribulations of his peers. A place that he perceived to be full of happiness and hope is plagued with evils of competition, bullying, abuse, rote learning and monotony. The play reaches a turning point where the boy appeals to his fellow students to come together and make a difference.
“Each experience will be told through a different art form,” says Mistri. The children have not received any training in the arts. While a couple of kids have been practising dance, others have picked up skills like juggling to tell the story. The backdrop of the play is that of a traditional circus but there is an Indian feel and look to the scenes. Bright colours and brocade on the costumes add a desi touch,
“Getting the kids to share their stories has been a cathartic process. We started with sitting together in a circle where the kids told stories. It required a lot of courage for them, but hearing others’ stories and realising that one is not alone in one’s experiences was a great source of comfort,” says Mistri. “It has been an emotional rollercoaster for all of us, the kids are struggling with different aspects of their lives even as they rehearse for the play,” she says.
The Greatest Show On Earth will be staged at The Royal Opera House, Mumbai, on September 4 at 7 pm