Setting the stage for women

Ambika Shaligram
Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Actor-director Neha Singh is all for providing opportunities to women in the realm of theatre. The challenges involved in having an all-women’s creative and technical crew are many, but Singh is undeterred

Neha Singh is an actor of many parts, the prominent among them being the one promoting sisterhood. As an actor, she has done plays directed by men. That’s when the realisation struck — there were very few meaty roles for women. 

“Like in films, even in theatre, most drama companies are run by men. There are male directors, male writers and male producers. The plays would be from male perspective. So a woman would either play the role of a sister, wife or love interest. I thought I should start my own theatre company, and make plays that not only have women’s perspective but also give an opportunity to female technicians like light designers, sound operators and production managers,” says Singh, who is bringing her production Jhalkari (Jhalkaribai commanded Rani Laxmibai’s woman army wing) to the city. 

An all women team
Singh thought of having an all women team, where the director, producer, the writer, technicians and the actors are all women, as far as possible. The first play, under Rahi Theatre was Dohri Zindagi. It is based on a Rajasthan folk story written by Vijaydan Detha. “The story is of two patriarchal sahukars (moneylender). Their wives become pregnant at the same time and they decide that they will get their children married to each other. One of the sahukar lies that he has become father to a son. That was our first production, which I produced and acted in. It  was directed by another girl. The set design was by a girl. The idea was to give opportunities to more and more girls,” explains Singh. 

When asked what difference does it make to a play to have a woman as a light or sound designer, Singh replies, “Women who are sound or light designers in the world of theatre, are already very aware that they are few in number. They have come with a strong awareness that they are doing something which only men did. The light designers have to interact with people who manage the auditoriums across the country and face discrimination on a daily basis. Even the light man will tell them, ‘Nahi madam, yeh aise nahi, aise hota hai’ (Madam, this is not how it is done, I will show you). The men will not take orders from a female light designer, even if she has worked on 100 odd plays. Whereas if it’s the man setting the terms, then they will immediately follow the order. The female light designers have to be very loud and aggressive in such circumstances. If they are soft spoken and gentle, people think that they don’t know their job. They have to walk a very fine thin line between being masculine and feminine.” 

Men and women
The thought of having an all women’s team is laudable, but predictably it hasn’t gone down well with men. Singh says that she has been criticised for wanting to work with females. To which she retorts, “For so many years, people have only worked with boys. I guess, I am the only one, who prefers to work with women. I am not eating into other people’s jobs. I am giving opportunity to females who were not given a chance for so many years.”

The artist affirms that she finds girls to be very efficient than boys. “I think girls are sincere because we have to prove so much more than boys have to. When I have an all women team, I am trusted more. Men question my actions, ‘Are you sure, this is how we need to do it?’, ‘Neha, this isn’t working’,” she adds. 

Recalling one incident from her play Jhalkari, which has three females and three male actors, Singh points out that male actors didn’t agree with the scene in which Rani Laxmibai cries and sings a song. “They told me, ‘She is brave, she is strong. Why will she cry?’ I told them, ‘To cry doesn’t mean that you are weak. When you are able to express your emotions, that’s a sign of strength. The Rani has lost her husband, and her baby, so she can cry. We don’t know if she cried or not in real life; but there is a possibility that she must have. I didn’t need to convince girls. They know that a person is not just one colour,” she says, making a pertinent point. 

Having said that, Singh wants her play to be applauded for its content, for being engaging, and not because it comprises females. “Our intention is to bring our play to different cities and ensure that they are received well. We want to do a good job and we want people to watch it. It shouldn’t be acknowledged just because it’s driven by women,” she adds. 

Questioning patriarchy
Much of Singh’s work involves questioning the prescribed norms — of being a casteist society or curtailing freedom of females. “I have been running a women’s movement in Mumbai called, Why Loiter? We loiter around in places that are deemed unsafe for women. It’s about reclaiming public spaces. Why do we have to battle restrictions — Don’t go out in the night, don’t go to this area, don’t laugh loudly, don’t sit on the pavement, don’t lie on the grass and so on. We do everything which people say that women shouldn’t do,” emphasises Singh.

The artist has also written a book for kids titled I need to pee. She points out, and rightly so that a simple need like going to a toilet becomes an issue, especially for girls and women. “It’s easier for men to go and urinate on walls, without any care in the world. Whereas girls from childhood are told to control it, till they find a toilet,” she adds. 

Future work
Singh is interested in working with visually impaired people and exploring their sexual desires. She has got in touch with a person who works with the blind people and is in the process of learning how to direct blind actors on stage. Says she, “Disability and sexual desires is not something that has been widely explored. We don’t think of visually impaired people as sexually active. I haven’t seen blind people on stage. This will be a longer process for me to understand how to direct such actors on stage.”

Her next book is also ready to be released next year. Titled Is it the same for you?, the book is about a Kashmiri girl who is reaching her puberty. She is comparing her inner conflict with what’s happening in her state. For her, both are serious issues. But for others, they don’t count for much. That’s why she wants to understand that if it’s the same for other girls too. 

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