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High School Theater Arts in India

Students outside
Students outside. Photo by Mitch Mattson. 

India is a massive country with over a billion people and a cultural tapestry that spans throughout the ages. To speak of one part of this beautiful and complicated country, or of one person’s experiences, can be valuable, but is certainly not recognized as a national truth. Some of what I will share comes from my own experience and some has been shared with me by the amazing young artists I now know because of my time in India.

Voices of Now: India
In 2008, the Community Engagement Department at Arena Stage in Washington, DC hosted its first two-day Public Speaking Workshop for Cultural Attachés of the US State Department. Four years later we became aware of an open proposal from the State Department to bring arts programming abroad. We applied and the result became—Voices of Now: India.

In October 2012 four Arena Stage teaching artists (Director of Community Engagement Anita Maynard-Losh, Director of Education Ashley Forman, Partnerships Manager Raymond Caldwell, and myself the Community Programs Manager) traveled to four cities in India: Kolkata, Patna, Delhi, and Hyderabad. In each city we devised a play, made up entirely of words written or spoken by young artists of the city, who then presented the play to their community.

The Voices of Now model, which is traditionally a yearlong afterschool partnership with middle and high schools, service-providing organizations (e.g., grief counseling center, Child and Family Services, and LGTBQ support organizations), or self-elected groups of young artists, had to be truncated, distilled like never before in the history of this twelve-year-old program. It was a test to see if the curriculum of skill building, ensemble creating, and play making and presenting could be shortened—and still prove successful.

In each of the cities we worked with groups of young artists, some as young as six, such as the children from an orphanage in Patna, and others university age, like the artist in Hyderabad who during a lunch break learned his thesis had been accepted. But the majority of the participants were high school age. In Kolkata there were five high schools that sent artists to work on the Voices of Now project, and another half-dozen social welfare organizations that sent high school aged participants as well. One of those charity organizations, Sanlaap, works to rescue and provide care for women and children who have been forced into prostitution. Part of their programming involves dance training for girls and young woman who are rescued from human trafficking as a way of reclaiming their bodies. The performing arts are being used for healing and social advocacy.

In Hyderabad we worked with the Koshish Theater Group, a division of the Youth Training Resource and Activity Center of the social justice organization COVA.

Theater students in India
Theater students in India. Photo by Matt Mattson.

Throughout the four cities, many of the participants were talented performers, some trained by organizations, theatres, or dance companies. Some study theatre and perform as part of their schools theatre clubs. While in Hyderabad, we facilitated a workshop with a group of artists who could not participate in the complete Voices of Now: India process because they were in the midst of their high school’s production of The Sound of Music.

It also ignited a very strong passion for theatre which had no way of finding an outlet—something that is common to many talented performers struggling in our grade-crazy school system.

Theatre in High Schools in India
When I asked Soumashree Sarkar, an ensemble participant in Kolkata, if she had ever participated in a play or musical produced by her high school, she elaborated:

The first was to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of our school. We staged Fiddler on the Roof. I played Golda. Rehearsals stretched for six months, and getting directed by a geography teacher was a pretty big deal then. The stage had no wings and the actors’ lines were dubbed by people behind the stage with microphones in their hands because of the auditorium acoustics. It also ignited a very strong passion for theatre which had no way of finding an outlet—something that is common to many talented performers struggling in our [grade]-crazy school system.

I feel like certain pieces of this story could be true for any number of American high schools.

Kolanu Kotesh Dabbeta of the Hyderabad Ensemble wrote to tell me that his high school “provided extra classes after school hours for dance, music, and acting classes.” The dramas, small skits, and dance performances are performed as part of the annual school celebrations and at the Andhra Pradesh statewide competitions.

Performing arts competitions take place throughout India. Calcutta International School student Arani Acharya (Voices of Now: Kolkata Ensemble) described his school’s participation in the British Council’s annual Inter-School Drama Festival:

I have taken part in two plays produced by our school. The first was an English adaption of a play by the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore for a play festival, which showcased his works. The second was in an all India Drama Festival, which was organized by the British Council. Our school has had a fair bit of success in this festival—having qualified for the finals at least once (in 2011), with one of the students getting the best actor award. This year, we made it to the semi-finals, but missed out on the finals. Our play was directed by our literature teacher, who has his own drama group that puts up regular performances of which he is the director. 

Theater students on stage
Students perfoming. Photo by Mitch Mattson. 

What Arani also explained to me is that his school is independent from the state’s education program—a private school. As varied and complex as the high school theatre offerings are in America, I have been exposed to a tiny fraction of what India’s secondary schools offer. However, my experience of seeing students come together to make plays about their own experiences was life changing.


And because the group had to then work together to create that moment, as truthful and full of tension as it had been in the conversation, they were forced to see situations from different perspectives.

As some artists spoke from protected places of privilege, others wrote of dangerous roads of misfortune. In a conversation with the Kolkata Ensemble one boy explained, “If you want change, just be the first person to change it. Nobody tells me what to do... well they tell me what to do, but I don’t listen.” But an adamant young lady across the group followed with, “That’s because you are a man, my dear.” The response from the room was electric as it erupted into more conversations about power and gender dynamics. It had to be in their play. And because the group had to then work together to create that moment, as truthful and full of tension as it had been in the conversation, they were forced to see situations from different perspectives.

The end result was a thirty-minute play exploring the power dynamics of gender roles, religion, politics, and education that now feels hauntingly prophetic a year later, when international attention of gang rapes in Delhi, Mumbai, and throughout the country are in the news. In one scene from the Kolkata Ensemble’s Power Play a young woman describes being verbally assaulted and publicly called a whore by her landlord after having her boyfriend visit her apartment. These are brave artists telling their own and each others’ stories. And they are also bold activists demanding that the status quo be challenged.

Connections Continue
Voices of Now: India artists keep in touch with the Arena Stage Voices of Now family via the Voices of Now Facebook page. Over the last year Skype sessions, where American Voices of Now ensembles have shared pieces of their plays with members of the ensembles in India, have been a delight for artists on both sides of the computers. And it isn’t over. Stay tuned to see where Voices of Now goes next.

A list of all the partner organization who provided participants and space during the Voices of Now: India project in October of 2012:
American Center, New Delhi
American Center, U.S. Consulate General, Kolkata
American Corner, Patna
Bihar Sangeet Natak Academy, Patna
Calcutta International School
Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA), Hyderabad
Kolkata Sanved, Kolkata
Koshish Theatre Group, Hyderabad
Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Kolkata
Jadavpur University, Kolkata
Loreto Schools, Kolkata
Modern High, Kolkata
Neev Theater, Kolkata
Pandies’ Theatre, New Delhi
Premchand Rangshala, Patna
Ranan, Kolkata
Red Curtain Theater, Kolkata
Sanlaap, Kolkata
Sapphire Creations, Kolkata
Sappho for Equity, Kolkata
Shakti Shalini, New Delhi
Shri Shikshayatan High School, Kolkata
St. James High School, Kolkata
Tin Can Theater, Kolkata
U.S. Consulate General, Hyderabad
Vidyaranya High School, Hyderabad


Thoughts from the curator

A snapshot of today's high school theatre educators across the country sharing about what they do and how and why they do this work.

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Arts is some thing it should be there in our education as speaks more than a verbal communication. This is great to know that art is one f the part of the high schools and it can also help the students more to be practical about the life and beware of that kind of situation.

Schools in Bengaluru