Theatre educator and practitioner Aishwariyah Shanmuganathan reflects on her experience attending The Making of an Actor:
The Making of an Actor - A Coordinates Project of Singapore Biennale gave me the opportunity to witness what true intercultural learning in the arts should look like. The experience provided me with a few takeaways which I will elaborate in this paper.
In the multicultural society that we live in, intercultural communication is becoming increasingly important. There is an imperative need to achieve an extensive knowledge of languages and cultures to cope with sensitivities and sensibilities in intercultural communicative situations. This is more so in the world of the arts where artists devise, research, create and perform in intercultural settings for audiences from diverse backgrounds. There is a need to go beyond the usual education and experience that an artist in training might receive in a regular theatre arts course which is usually built based on western ideologies and concepts. ITI’s programme provides students with unique and invaluable insights into traditional Asian art forms, methodology and its influence on the global stage. The unique opportunity that connects students with expert practitioners from around the world to learn from authentic sources makes ITI’s programme the most relevant and accessible contemporary training for the theatre of today.
Also, in Singapore, awareness of multi-racialism is created through social events and celebrations at school and community level. However, these social events display a superficial overview of various cultures that make up the social ecosystem but fail to provide a platform for meaningful learning. I have always felt the need to move from focusing on the development of multi-racialism to the development of intercultural competence, which I believe will be more relevant to the future of Singapore in today’s context. ITI’s programme inevitably provides a platform for this authentic intercultural exchange and understanding to happen in a non-threatening, seamless and artistically charged manner while honouring/embracing cultural pluralism.
The focus on performer-centred and practice-oriented work immerses students in traditional art forms, literally pushing them beyond their comfort zones and boundaries. The rigorous training in traditional forms forces them to juxtapose traditional and Western techniques, make meaning and connections, and then construct their own knowledge. One notable observation during the Kutiyattam training was the use of navarasas from the Natyashastra for improvisation and devising work. A brief conversation with Guru G. Venu on the relevance of Lokhadharmi in modern drama and the relevance of Natyadharmi within its context gave me the opportunity to put my understanding and experience into perspective.
Students from different cultural backgrounds are introduced to traditional methods, ancient systems, Sanskrit terminologies and perceptions of biomechanics that are completely foreign to them. They work on areas such as moving with rhythm, mindful breathing and exploring emotions through breathing patterns, gestures, facial and physical expressions that are distinct to Kutiyattam. Students then present their interpretations of contemporary narratives through the application of the performance techniques acquired.
This process allows conversation between cultures with an extended vocabulary, and the outcome of it is truly authentic barrier-breaking works of art.
The adaptation of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis was indeed an intriguing treat to the mind. The international cast, multilingual approach and elements of traditional forms weaved into the staging of the piece brought out the essence of ITI’s unique theatre programme. The multicultural interpretation of a modern classic was an example of how elements of various theatre forms can come together so well. Specifically, the use of various languages throughout the play created a connectedness as well as a disconnect that felt necessary in order to feel the truth, emotions and intentions of each character.
In his introductory talk, Sasi quoted J. N. Mohanty (2002), “A culture is not a self-enclosed world. It is not an identity but a system of differences held together by history. Not being self-complete, it opens out to other possibilities. Then one finds the other within oneself. I do not understand all my motives choices and desires. The stranger and the foreigner are right in my neighbourhood. My culture and the other culture are not separated as the known, the familiar and the unknown and the unfamiliar, but rather by degrees of familiarity, forgiveness, strangeness. Sometimes, I understand myself only through the other, at other times the reverse happens. The boundaries are shifting.”
The Making of An Actor provided me with a platform to see and experience how these boundaries really shift.