Nishna Mehta is a performer, technician and workshop facilitator with India’s Gillo Repertory Theatre since 2011. She is also a member of the ASSITEJ Next Generation Network. A spirited theatre practitioner, her wish is to share with her audience the experience of watching plays that she had as a child.
This year, Nishna was a recipient of the Tina Sergeant Professional Development Initiative which enabled her to attend the pre-conference masterclass and the SDEA Theatre Arts Conference 2017 between 29 June to 1 July 2017. She shares her experience with us at SDEA.
Drama education is something I haven’t dabbled with much. Then why was I at this conference? Not only attending but also presenting there? The tagline for the SDEA Theatre Arts Conference 2017 was “Projecting Playful Possibilities” and that’s what got me there.
Facilitating workshops is a part of the training process at Gillo which I have made the most of every time I got the opportunity to conduct or assist in one. It was a whole new group of people I was surrounded by – teachers, researchers, students and a few practitioners.
The Unicorn way is a lot like the Gillo way. In the pre-conference master class led by Purni Morell, Artistic Director of the Unicorn Theatre (London), we discussed what theatre for children should be and why. And the 20 of us came up with SO many reasons! Of course, it led to a long discussion where we shared experiences and questions asked by children. Then we moved on to reading two books for children that Purni said she had stolen from the child who lived where she was staying. While discussing how the stories could be staged, I realised how I think in visuals first and then I’d analyse the themes in a story.
After lunch, when we all seemed to be low on energy she made us do an exercise that touched upon one of the most important aspects of performing for children – on playing the character of a child. At the masterclass, I made new friends, experienced new approaches of making a performance for children and shared a bowl of Laksa with Muneeb from Karachi which was the highlight of my day!
An intense day 01 of the conference, started with a workshop on working with refugees ‘Taking Refugee Issues as Our Own Through Dramatic and Non-Dramatic Activities’ by Dr. Norifumi Hida.
Being a privileged Bombay kid I have never directly dealt with grave issues. At the workshop, we were tasked to prioritise certain rights from the point of view of refugees and all the groups ended up having a similar list. Turns out, most of us still set our priorities based on our experiences as privileged city dwellers. “You can prioritise but access isn’t guaranteed”, Dr. Nori said.
The keynote address by Chong Tze Chien, ‘The Perils of Mentorship’, was so relatable and inspiring. He spoke of his journey as a playwright and it told me that it’s okay to be confused and not know where you’re headed. By this time I was getting butterflies in my stomach for my PechaKucha a couple of hours later at the same venue.
But I didn’t want to sit out, so I went ahead and watched a devised lunchtime performance by teenage girls from St Anthony Canossian Secondary School about the use of Instagram titled “The Box”. The performance was part of the Peer Pleasure festival and it was so good to see how they reflected upon their own use of the social media and how it affected them.
Later, I got a mini heart attack when the crew at The Black Box, where I had my PechaKucha presentation, said that they didn’t have my slides. Thankfully, it was just confusion and we found them on their pen drive. Gosh how I was rambling! 6 minutes and 40 seconds is too short for all I wanted to say!
‘Crossroads. You. Terrorist.’, a workshop by Jeffrey Tan was an eye opener. It made me rethink how much I care about things that don’t affect me directly. We played hot and cold and when it came to taking sides for talking about terrorism I was initially on the cold side but at the end of the session, I realised terrorism doesn’t only mean international terrorism but also internal terrorism. We even had light moments like when Jeffrey asked me to read a dialogue by an Indian character from his play. When I started reading it he stopped me and said, “You don’t have to read it in an Indian accent.” Everyone in the room roared with laughter but I didn’t understand what the joke was. Later, I learnt that he thought I was an Indian born in Singapore.
The performance we saw at the end of the day, “Frozen” by Buds Youth Theatre, was a little difficult for me to connect to. It was about young people from a Taoist and a Buddhist family wanting to convert to Christianity. Again, it’s something that doesn’t affect me directly but I couldn’t deny that it’s happening all around me.
Trying to do things I haven’t done before, on day 02 the first thing I decided to attend was a paper presentation on research and archiving titled ‘Artist-Researchers: Archiving Legacies for the Next Generation’. Heavy. But like how our seniors have left documents for us to refer to, we should do the same for our juniors too, right?
The keynote address by Dr. Julie Dunn was about her practice in early years, the interrelation of drama and play and reality and play and about the key aspects of working with the very young. The lunchtime performance of day 2, “Mass Rapid Tales: the absurd tale of perspectives”, as the tagline suggests dealt with my favourite topic: perspectives. How the same story had six different ways of arriving at the conclusion was so exciting (and absurd)! What added to it was the narration of the incident by the neutral characters of a lizard and a cockroach.
And I survived yet another day of presenting our PechaKuchas with my allies Melissa, Terence and Jodi. This time I knew how to use my time. I just skipped talking about some slides (still had lots to share) and let the audience ask questions.
The best part of the day was the ‘Exploring Immersive Drama to Build Connection’ workshop with Elisa Williams. How I didn’t want it to end! The energy in the room was something else! We explore a piece of text with an ensemble a lot these days, but it’s always interesting to see other facilitators at work.
With the busy programme through the two days of the conference I managed to mingle and enjoy the food, yes, SDEA had arranged for delicious food! I wish we had more time to talk to people instead of just chatting in between sessions while rushing from one venue to another. Nonetheless, this conference was the beginning of some new long term friendships.
Read more about the Tina Sergeant Professional Development Initiative here. In 2018, SDEA will be awarding eight complimentary passes to SDEA continuing education & training programmes to successful applicants. Applications to the initiative will open in January.