The New Wood Cutters of TUIDA:
Its 7am, showered, ready and smelling of my new set of Korean bath works. As I walk up the hill towards the theatre, I see logs of wood and a blunt axe resting on a bed of wood dust. Of course I was miserably unsuccessful at my first attempt but it was not before too long that I found myself chopping wood, cutting grass, cooking for the cast (okay, that wasn’t me), setting the stage, loading the garbage truck, clearing the eco toilets and settling into a lifestyle very different from my own.
Theatre, is their lifestyle.
Most of us saw the production ‘Tale of Haruk’ by the Tuida Performance group at the Metroplus Theatre festival last year. 4 Chennai actors have had the good fortune to work with the famous Korean theatre group this year. V.Balakrishnan (Theatre Nisha), Palani Murgan (Kalari master and koothu artist), Angel Glady (clowning artist) and I, Pooja Devariya (Stray Factory).
How we got to be a part of this production is a funny story.
None of us knew there was an audition. We knew there was a ‘workshop’ of sorts but no idea about what it entailed. But the clichéd ‘I’m attending a foreign theatre company’s workshop’ was something to boast about. In the first round of auditions, we were interviewed. It wasn’t just any kind of interview, but one in which we were asked questions about our sexuality, sexual orientation and thoughts about the LGBT communities. After 4 days of attending workshops and auditioning, did we realise what we were getting into. One month later, the four of us proudly signed our contract with the InKo Center and somewhere our mind voice echoed in sync – About how theatre was FINALLY paying us.
It has been 2 months together. 5weeks of residency at Kalashetra, Chennai and 3 weeks since we started our Residency at Korea. Another month to go with close to 20 shows lined up before we head back to Namma Chennai.
Yes, No, Okay. Indian Head Nod Is World Famous Only In India:
I can’t say I’ve been doing theatre for long, but I have been extremely fortunate to have travelled the amount I have performing on stage. This production that we are a part of is called Bahuchara Matha: Beyond Binary– A story not about man or woman, but about love. The Tuida staff have been working on this production for 2 years now. They have been researching and interviewing the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities in Korea and India. This is a movement based piece which does involve heavy usage of text. Here’s the interesting part, only 2 of the 5 Korean actors can speak English and only a quarter of the 4 Indian actors can speak Hangul. I read it better than I speak it mostly because I don’t have a great vocabulary as yet. But I’ve really taken to the language mostly because of the modulation with which one speaks it. Also, it’s true- none of their names really mean anything! My name means ‘rich person’ in Korean. At least in the name if not in reality I’d think.
The night we got to Seoul, we took a bus to a town called Chun-Cheon where we were supposed to be picked up by our Korean co-actors. Timings were a little mixed up and I very bravely walked into a restaurant close by thinking I’d be able to request to make a call with my limited Korean vocabulary, which to be fair was all of 10 words and none of them were ‘can I’ or ‘hand phone’ or ‘I don’t know Hangul’ 15 minutes of Dumb Charades ensued and I needed wifi to use my translater. The wifi gods were very kind and I managed to make a call to Byung Jun on Kakao (Korean whatsapp). Thrilled that I actually got through, I kept rambling away about how we’re becoming popsicles and to pick us up soon only to realise that the handsome co-actor doesn’t understand English either! But somehow, was reassuring, even though in all that panic all he said was, “Haaaiiii Poooojjjaaaaa!” Something really interesting about this set up is that, having a limited diction made things more clear. The director tells you only what you need to know. Because we are so comfortable with the language, we tend to spoil the essence of the idea that we want to get across by explaining in a kind of detail that does not let your imagination or creativity flow. Often we’re put in a spot when we are told to do anything we wish to in school. A very similar situation I’d think. (Note to self: abstract is good as long as the intent is strong)
LEARNING AND UN-LEARNING:
Culture is strong. It is a way of life that is not routine but beautiful. Culture has a lot of meaning and describes the people, where they come from, what they do, etc. As Indian performers, it is in our culture to be very expressive. Our facial expressions are undoubtedly to die for and this is our strength. For this production, undoing this was the hardest part for me as an actor and dancer because performing as a part of the LGBT community needed us to look the part without stereotyping.
Each of us play 5 different characters and all of these pieces are true stories. Stories that we picked and re-wrote into monologues ourselves. Containing my emotion, Not feeling it in my head/heart but through my body was my biggest learning in the last 3 months. I was told that as actors it is important that the audience and your body feel the emotion, your head must be aware of your presence on stage. How does one ‘act naturally’? Something I find hard to describe in words but found the answer to through movement meditation, a form that the Tuida artists practice. The rule of movement meditation is to focus on the ‘chakra’ right below your navel and think of it as the center of creativity. It is this point that makes you move the way you move. Rule: you are not allowed to feel any emotion. We actors think we know it all. Heh. I went from posing like Arjuna straight out of battle, to Pina Baush moving like the wind, to Roxie being manoeuvred by Richard Gere in the puppet song in Chicago. Which made me think, is it really that hard to just be normal? Picking the essence of every character and their thought, making very subtle corrections to the spine and voice, discovering new muscles and movement in my body everyday…there is so much I have learnt, corrected and re-corrected already, and I’m only half way done. Amongst all this learning and un-learning I’m finally fulfilling my long time wish to learn a percussion instrument as well. After rehearsals the musicians bring in all the knick knacks and we jam together. I’ve taken to the Korean percussion instrument ‘Jhanggu’ that looks like a sand clock and our very own ‘Tappu’ from Tamil Nadu. I find it ironical that I get to work with Chennai based actors and learn South Indian Instruments in another country. Not just that, I even found some family connections with our Flautist, Sameer Rao who I met for the first time during this production!
BORDERING THE BORDER:
Tuida is located in a small city called Hwacheon which is popular because of how close it is to the border of North Korea (No, I’m not wearing any bright coloured clothes to call attention and yes there are many attractive South Korean Army men out here). On a mountain in Gwang-do, Hwacheon, Tuida has based their office. Doesn’t end there- Opposite the office is located a black box theatre and between the two spaces, an open air theatre as well. Tuida has 2 guest houses for all their exchange programme artists, and a kitchen and play ground to complete their already ultra-cool set up. Of course, to top it all, a gorgeous view of the city is a must mention. Tuida was started in in a garage in Seoul and slowly moved into bigger spaces until they decided to move here when the government agreed to fund them. The village is surrounded by ever-motivated and inspired artists, painters, woodwork craftsmen, and so on. It really is hard to not be inspired here. Imagine a town that smells of art, wood dust, paint, food, winter tuning into spring and the sound of ice melting into streams.
Being vegan in Korea isn’t as hard as I thought it would be. At least not with a restaurant close by that in translation literally means ‘tofu lovers’! There are many vegetarians out here that do not consider fish or egg to be vegetarian as well. Rehearsal begins at 9am and the day comes to a close at 6pm. Sundays are off days. We know when it’s time to break for lunch and dinner, when we can hear each other’s tummy rumbling during contact lessons. The view from the black box theatre is that of the director’s house in the foreground and the village kitchen in the background that chimneys out gorgeous patterns of smoke against the mountain and clear sky scenery. Feeling like ‘little girl Heidi’ who lives in a house with wooden flooring, drinks hot soup that you know tastes delicious by looking at the steam patterns from the boiling pot, who jumps on a bouncy pile of hay and is loved by all, I know I’m describing a Swiss cartoon in a Korean country but oh well! The local drink here, ‘soju’ tastes like vodka except no one uses ‘mixers’ here. Every sip is one shot and you typically don’t say no when someone elderly offers you a drink. At least I’d like to think so. Makkoli on the other hand is the local rice wine that looks like milk and tastes like spiked sprite. No it’s not as weak as I made it sound, it is a very wicked drink and I can proudly say I beat the village head ‘ijangnim’ in a drink-off battle and he now calls me his ‘Su-chingu’ meaning ‘Alcohol buddy’. Alcohol buddies are a great deal here alright!
Got The Moves Like Seaweed:
The director, Yo Sup Bae, believes strongly in symbolism. With a major in physics (along with one in directing as well) he uses his love and logic of physics in his movement. Makes you think, take the next best thing you like to performing arts and use the rules of that in your art and you might just have a truly honest piece in hand. My ambitions with physical theatre have come true, and it’s a truly motivating and inspiring journey. A journey that is still going on. All I can say is that I’m only 22 and just like all of us artists out there I dream. Up until now, ideas remained ideas and how to execute them was the biggest problem. What I experience here are moments that have added craft to intention.With every trip I look for more. With every trip I itch to share more.
This is going to be my first performance at an in-the-round theatre in Seoul at The Namsan Arts Centre. The show premiers in Hwacheon on the 28th of March and in Seoul on the 5th of April. After about 20 shows in Korea we will be presenting this piece at The Hindu Metroplus Theatre Festival, Chennai, Bangalore and Cochin as well this August.
It is believed that Heo Hwang-ok, a princess from Ayodhya travelled to Korea by boat and married King Suro of Gaya in 48 CE. A temple was built in honor of Heo where she and the king supposedly resided. I’m not sure how far this is true but I sure do get the feeling that the Koreans will eventually find a pantry of Korean ingredients where I reside!