60 senior school students from 12 Mumbai schools to become playwrights

Updated: Jan 20, 2018, 14:23 IST | Snigdha Hasan

Theatre groups in Mumbai and Edinburgh bring together 60 students from across Mumbai's schools to write 20 plays that will be staged professionally next week

Director Emma Callandar in a playwriting workshop. pics/pradeep dhivar
Director Emma Callandar in a playwriting workshop. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

Talks of x, y and π fill a sun-kissed room at the British Council on a late Wednesday afternoon. Actors, all well-known names in the Mumbai theatre circuit, read from scripts, and pause to check a phrase or two with the playwrights sitting before them. After listening in for a couple of minutes, the plot begins to unravel. The complex equations stand for complex relationships among three individuals, and the subject being dealt with here is that of bisexuality. Witty for a professional playwright, but astonishing, as is the case here, for a group of 14-year-olds.

(From left) Shernaz Patel, Stef Smith, Nicola McCartney, Rajit Kapur and Sunniva Ramsay at the workshop
(From left) Shernaz Patel, Stef Smith, Nicola McCartney, Rajit Kapur and Sunniva Ramsay at the workshop

This sense of amazement extends to all artistes present at the Lower Parel venue for a unique theatrical project, Class Act. A collaboration between Rage Productions, Mumbai, and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Class Act has invited 60 senior school students from 12 Mumbai schools to become playwrights. The schools span the spectrum of Indian education, ranging from international institutes to schools run by NGOs.

Schooling for theatre

To help them hone their skills are noted Scottish and Indian playwrights, who have been conducting extensive workshops every day before their words are brought to life through 20 staged readings by professional actors, and directors, next week at Prithvi Theatre. The project has been commissioned as part of the India-UK Year of Culture and is supported by the British Council, the Scottish government and Creative Scotland.

"I have been so impressed with their literary skills, but what's impressed me the most is their ability and willingness to think big, and not be afraid. And the kids have been so receptive. I have never seen 60 more keen faces when it comes to playwriting. It's a privilege to work with young people who want to work so much and so hard," says award-winning playwright Stef Smith, who, minutes ago, has wrapped up the session for the day on the note that much as they should be involved with their scripts, these students also need to soak in and celebrate others' works.

The big themes Smith speaks about go beyond mathematical equations. A group of ninth graders from The Dhirubhai Ambani International School are delving into cause and effect through a series of interlinked situations, while another bunch of 14-year-olds from a school run by the Akanksha Foundation are grappling with women's empowerment and dreams of children from underprivileged backgrounds.

How do the diverse backgrounds of the students play out during the workshops? There is no difference in terms of the language, feels director Emma Callandar, adding that the students can choose to write in Hindi or English. "The big difference is in the type of stories they are telling. One little boy's script from an NGO school, for instance, is about a poor kid and his dream to buy his brother a pair of shoes. There is a level of reality to that, which is very different from the conceptual stuff that other schools are doing," she explains.

Nicola McCartney, who is conducting her 29th Class Act after having taken the project to Russia and Ukraine, adds, "There is a real kind of love of education here. They keep saying that this is an amazing opportunity and their joy is infectious. It's a little different from how it works back home, where you get an entire class and some kids are forced to do it."

Insha Lakhani, one of the participants, points out how it is indeed a unique opportunity, "This is not about watching an online tutorial or reading a book on playwriting. This is so hands-on." Rukaiya Khan, a fellow ninth grader, adds, "The level at which we can explore our ideas is great exposure." What does this mean for children in the long run? We ask Shernaz Patel — of the Rage trio of Rajit Kapur and Rahul da Cunha — who approached Traverse Theatre to bring down the project to India. "We are always giving importance to the actors. It's fantastic to put the writer on the pedestal.

These students may be the shy ones in class for all you know," she says, as she shuffles between rooms to keep the workshops going. "We have such few experiences like this in the city. At the end of it, whether they begin to understand theatre from the writing perspective, develop a love for watching plays, or decide to take up theatre, it doesn't matter. As long as they are affected in some way..." And affected they are. As Javed Shaikh heads back home with fellow Akanksha schoolmates, he beams, "I feel like a writer already."

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