The playwright’s burden

Can theatre really contribute to a better world? Himali Kothari and the other participating playwrights discuss these and other related questionsduring the panel discussions at the festival.

Published : Jun 11, 2022 18:09 IST

A dramatic setup for the play What Ignites, What Burns.

A dramatic setup for the play What Ignites, What Burns. | Photo Credit: Himali Kothari

Panel discussions give me the heebie-jeebies. First, there is the pressure of sounding intellectual. Not intelligent. Intellectual. To sound intellectual, one’s conversations must be peppered with a fair quantity of textbook words, words which no regular person would use in daily parlance. Yes, parlance is one such word. I could have just said speech right? Then there is the fact that panel discussions happen generally in well-lit halls and not darkened auditoriums, which means you can see the audience. And, clearly read their expressions. Was that a smile or a smirk? Was that yawn a response to my gabbing? Is he laughing with me or at me? And, of course, if you are camera shy like I am, the cameraman darting around for candid shots does not make it easy to focus. And with my luck, he is almost certain to click me mid-speech which will make me look like a yawning baboon.

I rehearse my smile and an elegant laugh before the mirror before I head out of my hotel room. Thankfully, the Graz streets are now well-embedded in my head and I can rely on muscle memory to guide me through the cobbled maze. And, I can focus on going over my points for the discussion. And think of some intellectual substitutes for the blah words that would usually roll off my tongue. Elizabeth, one of the dramaturgists at Schauspiel and the moderator for the discussion, had briefed us on the flow the previous day. The panel includes Camila Lebert and Nathan Ellis, whose playlets about climate change will also be performed alongside mine over the weekend.

A plastic dinosaur makes its presence felt in the Pipelines reading.

A plastic dinosaur makes its presence felt in the Pipelines reading. | Photo Credit: Himali Kothari

Fortunately, it is a small audience of about 30, mostly other playwrights, some literature professors, writing students and a few theatre enthusiasts. The programme starts with a recorded message from Chantal Bilodeau, the co-founder of Arts & Climate Initiative, the organisation that commissioned the climate change plays. Earlier known as The Arctic Cycle, this group has been working tirelessly to deploy art to encourage discussion on climate change.

The chat veers from us talking about our plays and where they emerged from. It then moves on to the relation between theatre and social effect. Can theatre truly make an impact on the issues that plague our world? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ from the panel. Camila talks about how art has been a significant player in the changes that have come about back home in Chile in the recent past. The walls of Santiago were plastered with artwork and graffiti, new statues were installed, musicians gathered to protest, new poetry emerged... to the point that Chile is at the cusp of voting for a new Constitution. We wind up with some thoughts on writing and storytelling as a craft.

I stay back for another discussion, in the audience this time. This one is with the playwrights of Pipelines. An innovative project by the European Theatre Convention, Pipelines has brought in five playwrights from five European countries—Austria, Luxembourg, Albania, Malta and Belgium—to develop plays about the use of fossil fuel in their countries. The chat is preceded by a reading of excerpts from each of the plays. As the playwrights share the concepts of their plots, it is evident that while the dramaturgy may have taken on a fanciful form, the research behind it was intense. Only the Austrian play will be showcased here at the festival and each of the other playwrights will premier their plays back home later in the year.

As I make my way from out of the Volkskundemuseum towards the main theatre for the Pipelines play, I catch the last bit of the Writers in Climate Crisis, who have taken their stories on a cycling trip around the city of Graz. Unfortunately, the last story that is being narrated at the museum gate is in German and I have to be in time for the next play, so I rush off after a quick click and a shoutout to Lisa, my translator from the Catcalls show of the previous day and the very enterprising coordinator of today’s travelling theatre.

Travelling theatre by the team of Writers in Climate Crisis.

Travelling theatre by the team of Writers in Climate Crisis. | Photo Credit: Himali Kothari

The black box space, Haus Zwei, at the Schauspielhaus has been transformed with a dramatic performance area. The story is based on the Adria-Wien pipeline that connects the Transalpine pipeline to a refinery in Vienna. The plot follows two actors on a road trip and their interactions with various eccentric figures as they attempt to shut down the pipeline. The powerful production sparks many thoughts on our role in these crises that threaten our continued existence. Magdalena Schrefel, the playwright, is in the audience and, as we troop out, after five curtain calls, I congratulate her on her sensitive yet impactful story.

Curtain call for the Pipelines Project play.

Curtain call for the Pipelines Project play. | Photo Credit: Himali Kothari

“Really?” She responds. “That means a lot coming from a fellow playwright.”

I don’t feel like a fellow anything to somebody who had created that which I had just witnessed and I mumble something to that effect. At the same time, I am struck by the insecurity that is a universal sentiment across creators. No matter the awards, rewards or ovations.

I take a different route back to the hotel. Maybe I am feeling confident about my way around. Maybe I am feeling exploratory. Or, perhaps I am just trying to delay the inevitable dawn.... The dawn of the day when my little play will be performed.

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