Off-Off-Broadway in Mumbai

by Howard Pflanzer

How can you produce a brand new controversial American play in Mumbai?  I thought India would be an excellent place to produce and direct my new play, The Terrorist, a timely commentary on the US government policy of detention of South Asians and Muslims and the initiation of the war in Iraq.   The political climate in India was in some ways similar to the US, where the government had passed and implemented, The Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which was modeled on the USA Patriot Act passed after 9/11.  In India as well as the US many “terrorists” were imprisoned without proper charges, access to legal counsel or a fair trial.  When the Congress party returned to power in India several years ago the act was rescinded.                                                                         

            The play is about Frank, who claims to be in security, his girlfriend, Claire, her boss, Roger, and a government agent, Paula, who is trying to find a terrorist conspiracy at all costs. The play explores each character's particular view of terrorism.  Frank is a self-proclaimed fighter against terrorism, Claire is Frank's supporter, Roger believes wholeheartedly in the US government's fight against terrorism and Paula sees a terrorist conspiracy everywhere. Frank, Claire and Roger are ordinary Americans victimized by the US government.  In the end, the persecuted turn on their persecutor, Paula, in a bold reversal of roles.  Some people in the audience felt my ending did not take the terrorist threat seriously enough, while many others applauded the ending as a powerful protest against US government policies.

The Terrorist was presented at the Little Theatre of the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai for two performances, May 8th and 10th, 2003.  The play with a cast of four Indian actors, had a live tabla (an Indian percussion instrument) composed and performed by a young American musician, Daniel L. Scholnick.

The Terrorist was started at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois in August 2002.   I read an excerpt to a group of the other artistic residents and several people said “it would stir things up.”  I knew I was on the right track and completed the play in the fall of 2002 before I left for India.    Some revisions and additions were made during the rehearsals for the premiere production in Mumbai.

My liaison at the NCPA, Arundhathi Subramaniam, poet and administrator, whose husband is active in the Mumbai English theatre, read the play with excitement and approved it for production.  She arranged for me to have the Little Theatre for two performances and rehearsal space as needed and available and introduced me to the key staff people.

In my first few weeks in Mumbai, I went to see every new play in English that I could, to meet the writers, directors and actors.   Indian plays written in English are being presented with greater frequency by a growing number of Indian theatre artists.   Writers are finding their voices, writing in English that is neither British nor American, but Mumbai-English, inflected by the rhythms and words of the Hindi and Marathi languages.  And many actors are performing plays in English.

I cast Radhika da Cunha, appearing in a play, Class of '84, as the government agent, Paula.  I auditioned a number of actors for the part of Frank, finally selecting Darshan Jariwala, who not only performs Indian plays in English, but in Hindi and Marathi.  After I chose him for the part, he was worried about his accent and I told him, “it would be an asset for the part.”   Avantika Akerkar, who was appearing in the Indian premiere of the Vagina Monologues, was cast as Claire.   As Claire's boss, Roger, I cast Denzil Smith, a Mumbai actor with a wonderful voice who plays contemporary and classical parts.

I developed a production concept for the play that included a live tabla player on stage.  The stage at the Little Theatre was much deeper than it was wide.  I divided the stage into five playing areas: Frank's workshop, where he is creating his “security” device, Claire and Roger's office, a street area, a park area and a café.  Other transitional places were spun off from these locations.  The four actors remained seated at the back of the stage in a darkened area when not in a scene, along with the tabla player who performed live throughout the play.  The actors were able to move smoothly from one scene to the other underscored by the tabla.  All the playing areas had shadowy illumination which highlighted the ambiguity of the situations in the play.  The final scene of the play, where the characters are interrogated, was lit by a powerful flashlight, which was aimed at each actor's face as he or she was questioned.

The fifth actor in the play was a musical instrument, the tabla.  It became a live musical presence.  I had listened to Indian vocal and instrumental music in a number of  Mumbai's venues before I began rehearsing The Terrorist..   Every type of musical performance I heard used the tabla.  I thought, why not create a contemporary tabla score to emphasize theatrical elements in the scenes and link the scenes in the play.  I would use a traditional Indian instrument in a non-traditional way.  It would be a wonderful way to propel the action.   The composer, Daniel L. Scholnick, was excited by the concept and developed the score while watching the rehearsals.  After the performances, audience members commented how effective the music was in moving the plot along.

During the first few rehearsals, the actors thought the characters were simple because my dialogue is so spare, but as we worked they became challenged by the characters' interactions.  As we explored their roles and improvised some scenes, the actors began to dig into their parts and complex characters began to emerge who defined their conflicting attitudes towards terrorism.  One of the actresses, Radhika da Cunha, had never done animal exercises in her acting classes, and we worked on her developing dog-like characteristics (listening for and smelling out terrorists) which she seamlessly incorporated into her performance as a government agent.  In the scene, which I dubbed “the discovery of the weapons of mass destruction” scene, Roger, played by Denzil Smith, did a brilliant improvisation underscored by tabla sounds, in which everyday tools: a screwdriver, a pair of scissors and a plastic hair band became extraordinary objects of terrorist menace.

My stage manager, Vijayalaxmi Londhe, went with me to the Chor Bazaar (Thieves Bazaar) in Mumbai to purchase props.  She bargained in Hindi and we bought everything from a powerful flashlight to an electrical switch that was the “security” device Frank was working on.  Going to the Chor Bazaar with its crowded streets and hundreds of shops of Muslim vendors was a theatrical experience in itself.  And I thought about the hundreds of Muslim detainees in the US imprisoned after 9/11.

To publicize the play, I obtained a list of the half dozen writers/editors who covered cultural activities in the Indian English language press and phoned each one personally.  Unlike in New York or other major American cities, it was not necessary to write a press release, but in each case when I spoke to a journalist, I pitched the basic idea of the play and the unusual circumstances of its production.  The Asian Age did a feature with a photo, “The Terrorist Strikes in May”, with a face-to-face interview about me as a playwright/director working in Mumbai, which appeared two weeks before the opening of the play.  The other press pieces were published around the time of the performance.  Midday ran an article, entitled, “Staging a Terrorist” about the subject of the play with a photo of two of the actors.  Afternoon did a feature, “The Terrorist Hits the Marquee” with a photo of me and the cast posed in the rehearsal space.  Briefer articles appeared in The Times of India and The Indian Express, which had profiled me earlier in the year.

To create further interest in the play, three scenes were performed by the actors on the tiny stage of the Tea Centre as part of the COHO Arts Festival in Mumbai to an audience of eighty people who crowded into the space the Saturday before the premiere.   The scenes were well received and this helped to produce a buzz about the play.

On a shoestring budget with great help from Indian theatre people, who worked in the English Indian theatre, the play was rehearsed for five weeks.  I focused on getting the Indian actors to perform as an ensemble and give an American feel to their performances.  Their training in Indian traditional theatre performance techniques helped them to create the stylized feel for the play that I was seeking.  It was a challenge for me to work with the actors to incorporate their techniques into my production but in the end it was greatly enhanced.

A few weeks before the production opened I was told by the director of the American Center, a career diplomat, that they would give me money to produce any other play during this time of the Iraq invasion.  I refused.  I was then asked not to mention the American Center or the Fulbright program as assisting this production in the program and publicity.  The play was officially produced by an Indian foundation under the auspices of the National Center for the Performing Arts where I was a visiting artist.

The Terrorist was performed twice to packed houses.  All the officials from the American consulate turned out including the director of the American Center.   And the Indian Fulbright newsletter did a brief article with a photo about how I had directed a production of The Terrorist with some of Mumbai's leading actors about “the psychological effects of terrorism” which the play was clearly not about. After each performance there were questions and a discussion of the politics of the play.  Most of the Indian audience members shared my concern about American policies in Iraq and towards the detainees.  I did another short performance piece, Surveillance, which was thematically related to the play.  The Terrorist was documented through photos and a video. After the performances were over, I found out there had never been a premiere of a new American play in Mumbai before.  It seems I had made theatre history way Off-Off Broadway.

Howard Pflanzer was a Fulbright Scholar in India during the spring of 2003.   The Terrorist was given its   American Premiere at the Laurie Beechman Theatre of the West Bank      Café NYC by the Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret (UNYYC) in June 2006.