In her 2015 performance art piece, A Moment of Memory, Aruna Ganesh Ram prepared a tomato chaat on the hands of audience members, using the palm as a plate. The Bangalore-based actor-director explores food and art more closely in her new work, Memory Recipe, which is being staged at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa till December 23. In an evocative moment, people sit at three tables and stare intently at empty plates lit up from beneath. The air is full of the sounds and smells of the kitchen. “No food is served but the audience begins to fill the empty plates with personal histories and associations of eating,” says Ram.
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Excerpts from an interview:
What triggered the idea of this performance work?
Chef Manu Chandra, one of the curators of Serendipity Arts Festival, and I were trying to create an experience by which people would not consider food only as a means of sustenance or enjoyment. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we get people to look at food as art?’ In Memory Recipe, people do not eat but we enable them to create recipes and sensations of meals in their minds.
How have you treated the concept?
This is an intimate performance of 12 people and lasts 15 minutes, though I plan to develop it in future. Three performance spaces are designed as a pub, a café, and a restaurant but the idea is to create the experience of what it feels like to be in a restaurant kitchen, where the pressure cooker whistle is shrieking and the exhaust fan is whirring and the air is filled with the smell of a wok being tossed. As the performance progresses, I, as the performing chef, try to enable people to transcend physical and mental spaces — from dreamscape to nostalgia, among others.
How is the audience response?
It has surprised me. In one session, they started drumming the table. In another, a lady said that she wanted her husband to attend a show to know what she experiences in the kitchen. There was a sequence in the pub in which a man, a professor of Vedic studies, started chanting as he was transported to his familiar food surroundings.
What are the challenges before a performer in an immersive theatre experience?
In an immersive piece, the audience is not passive. The whole idea of the audience disappearing into the darkness is what I want to change. For performances, such as Memory Recipe, I create a structure but the challenge is to respond to the piece as the audience shapes it. When a woman wanted to click a selfie, I realized that, that’s what we do in a café — we take pictures of ourselves, our companions and the food. So, I said, ‘Why not?’ We try to embrace the developments in the piece.
Where did you train in immersive theatre?
I have been working with youth and children’s theatre for 15 years, but it was when I began my postgraduate studies at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London that I had my first immersive theatre experience as an audience member. A group called Secret Cinema had presented Shawshank Redemption and I underwent the feelings of being a prisoner, right from being locked up to being abused and given bad food. I thought that this was the kind of theatre I wanted to do.
Memory Recipe is being staged at the Old GMC Complex and Courtyard, Goa, till December 23.