‘It’s our purpose’: How two young men from the NT combat mental health issues in their community

When Jahdai Vigona and Danté Rodrigues were heading down the wrong path after high school, they had two options: keep going or make a change.

They chose the latter, and ever since they have been working tirelessly to improve the mental and physical health of Indigenous men in their community.

The two cousins, who are are both proud Tiwi Islands men, say that with the help of mentors, family members and positive role models, they were able to turn things around for themselves, and hope to do the same for others.

“Jahdai and I grew up around a lot of things like domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and crime and for a while we were even going off on our own wrong path,” Danté says.

“I’m only 22 and I’ve lost more friends and family than I can count,” Jahdai adds.

“I’ve attended more funerals than weddings in my lifetime. That’s just the harsh reality for someone like me coming from the NT.”

A better self, 1 per cent at a time

Jahdai and Danté decided to take matters into their own hands — or boxing gloves.

“How can you expect someone to be a good person, if you don’t teach them how to be,” Danté says.

“We are lucky that we had a lot of positive role models to help us, but for a lot of people in the Northern Territory, Indigenous or not, they just don’t have that support.” 

With their One Percent program, they try to help young Indigenous men in the Northern Territory become better versions of themselves day by day, 1 per cent at a time.

Mindfulness is a integral part of Jahdai and Danté’s program.(Supplied)

The duo run weekly sessions in Darwin, inviting anyone who’s keen for a work-out and a proper feed to join.

A session usually starts around 10 in the morning at an oval in Darwin. Participants start with a jog around the field.

What follows is Danté leading the physical component of the session, which consists of kickboxing, pad work and other exercises.

The second half of the session moves into the more spiritual side.

“We do team building and I facilitate theatre work as a way of strengthening communications and bonds within the group,” Jahdai says.

Theatre work generally takes the form of games that strengthen group bonds, like one where the participants have to count to 21 by yelling a number without interrupting each other.

If they manage to get to 21 uninterrupted, Jahdai asks the group who didn’t yell out a number. Those quieter members are encouraged to let their voices be heard in the next round.

“Sometimes there are stronger voices and sometimes quieter ones, but we try to teach people that the stronger voices aren’t any more or less important than the quiet ones,” he says. 

Group picture of 20-odd people on a field, behind them are soccer goals.

Participants start off the day with a jog around the field.(Supplied)

The program also incorporates a lot of practical life skills.

“I’ve had to figure a lot of things out for myself, like how to get a loan for a car, how to do my taxes, how to write a proper job application, how to communicate, how to write effectively,” Jahdai says.

“All these foundational skills you think you’d learn in 12 years of schooling.”

Danté acknowledges that a lot of those skills are usually taught by parents.

“But a lot of kids, Indigenous or not, don’t have that. We want to make those services more available to people like us.” 

Jahdai and Danté know from their own experience what it’s like to struggle with their mental health.

One of the things that helped them through it is sports.

Two young men are pictured sitting down on a flight of stairs.

Jahdai and Danté have used their own personal experiences and backgrounds to develop the program.(ABC News: Leah White)

Discipline through kickboxing

Danté, who is also a professional fighter and has competed in the WAKO Kickboxing World Championships, explains how his sport got him off the wrong path.

“There was drug and alcohol abuse, not attending school, running amok and just being a nuisance. You know, normal stuff,” he says. 

“But when I started focusing full time on sport, that’s when I noticed my life was getting better in almost every aspect.

“A really big lesson that kicked into me was to surround myself with positive people, always.”

Two men are pictured, the one of the left is hitting at the boxing pads that the one on the right is holding.

Danté says kickboxing helped him get his life under control.(Supplied)

Kickboxing teaches important values like discipline and self-worth, he says.

“That sport builds so much resilience and so much accountability, compared to any other sport,” he says.

“It teaches young men that when you get knocked down, you have to get back up.”

More than just boxing

“[The program] covers all aspects of needs for a young male. It’s spiritual through meditation and mindfulness, there’s social connection and a mental health side where we talk and listen to each other,” Jahdai says.

Jahdai, who has a mental health education background, has worked a lot with Indigenous youth in correctional settings and remote communities.

He uses those experiences at the One Percent Program. Each session focuses on a different value: from discipline to mindfulness and social connections.

A row of men is pictured boxing, some hold pads as others are wearing gloves, hitting at the pads.

“[The program] covers all aspects of needs for a young male,” Jahdai says. (Supplied)

Fourteen-year-old Numaka Jarlson says the program has taught him about discipline.

“It’s been something that gets me out of bed on the weekends instead of just sitting on my phone all day,” he says.

“[The program] gives me a really good model of a good man … It gives me a standard that I look up to.”

“I really enjoy just settling down and just talking about feelings and life because I think it’s really meaningful and it’s really important. 

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‘It’s our purpose’

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that in 2022 the rate of suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was more than twice that of the broader population, with over three-quarters of those who died by suicide being male. 

Earlier this year a Darwin inquest was told that NT’s child and youth suicide rate was more than three times the national average.

Two men are pictured, both are wearing sunnies are wearing dark shirts. They are standing on a field with soccer goals.

Jahdai and Danté say that there is a need for a program like theirs.(Supplied)

Jahdai and Danté say they get regular reminders of why they started the program.

“We’ve had participants share with us that three days before coming to a session they felt suicidal. The only thing that got them out of the house was participating in our program,” Jahdai says.

“We didn’t think a program like this would have such an impact and to hear stuff like that from our participants, shows that there’s a need for it.

“The program really is just who we are, our characters, our people’s upbringing, it’s what we want to do. It’s our purpose,” Jahdai concludes. 

Danté agrees: “It’s a reflection of who we are.” 

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How theatre enables empowerment

As the contemporary theatre scene in Kerala continues to evolve, learn and adapt, applied theatre is increasingly being used as a tool to speak for a community or for educational and therapeutic purposes. Theatre persons and collectives have been working with inmates of shelter homes, residents of coastal areas, students, teachers, mentally- and physically-challenged students, transpersons, and marginalised groups. Here are a few:

Real-life drama

Scene from Chevittorma which has residents of Puthenvelikkara in Ernakulam district as actors. They enacted their plight following frequent tidal flooding in the play directed by Sreejith Ramanan
| Photo Credit:

A few month ago, 12 residents of Puthenvelikkara panchayat in Ernakulam district made their debut as actors in the play, Chevittorma. The play was a first-hand account of their plight due to frequent tidal flooding. Chevittorma refers to the Christian prayers chanted in the ears of the dying, by relatives and neighbours.

Sreejith Ramanan, head of drama, School of Drama, Thrissur, who directed Chevittorma, says: “I could have had experienced theatre artistes, but I felt that it would be apt to cast the victims as they would just have to enact their experiences. Even though all of them are non-actors, once they understood the concept, they were fully into it. The skeletal framework of a house was used for the scenography and this structure was placed in a temporary water tank built on stage. The actors stood in the water and performed.”

Most of the ‘actors’ work as labourers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Government Scheme (MGNREGS). They rehearsed for two hours in the evening for 25 days, after finishing their work. Among them are Kochuthresia Jacob, 62, Vilasini Surendran, 61, Latha Dileep, 54, and Shylaja Jayanthan, 53. “We had no clue about what we had to do. But since we had to show what we are going through, we would be in tears as we said the dialogue. Life is miserable out there, with houses that are either abandoned or about to crumble. I myself live in a rented house since we can’t live in my own,” says Latha.

Scene from Chevittorma.

Scene from Chevittorma.
| Photo Credit:

Chevittorma will have more shows in the coming months. The group is set to be registered as a new theatre company, Water Theatre Company. “We might even act in a film!” Latha chuckles.

Visionary approach

A first-of-its-kind community theatre workshop for the visually challenged, called 3B Frames, was held in Thiruvananthapuram in May. Organised by APT (A Place for Theatre), Ether India, an NGO, Kerala Federation of the Blind-Youth Forum and Loyola Extension Services, it had 21 participants from across Kerala, who put up two plays at the end of the workshop.

Participants learning dialogues at 3B Frames, a community theatre workshop for visually challenged organised in Thiruvananthapuram.

Participants learning dialogues at 3B Frames, a community theatre workshop for visually challenged organised in Thiruvananthapuram.
| Photo Credit:

Sam George, artistic director, APT, points out that the initial challenge was arriving at a teaching method. “The participants had to understand the concept of space. Some of them are not even aware of the movements of their own body parts, including a simple action like rotating their hips,” Sam explains.

One of the plays had no dialogues and focussed on movements. For this, floor mats of different textures were used and the positions of the actors were designed according to the texture of the mats. Music was used to guide them through the scenes.

Arun Bose, who is visually challenged, giving directions to another participant of 3B Frames, a community theatre workshop for visually challenged organised in Thiruvananthapuram.

Arun Bose, who is visually challenged, giving directions to another participant of 3B Frames, a community theatre workshop for visually challenged organised in Thiruvananthapuram.
| Photo Credit:
Sreejith R Kumar

Both plays were directed by the participants themselves. Anilkumar MK, a primary school teacher from Kasaragod and the director of one of the plays, says: “I have written radio plays. But this is a big moment since I have always dreamt about writing a play for the stage.”

Life is a stage

Life skill training sessions conducted in schools have theatre as a core element. “The module has 10 core life skills; these skills are there in all theatre activities, including empathy, coping with stress and emotions, problem-solving, communication skill etc. For example, in order to become a character, you have to have empathy,” says Sam.

Theatre sessions are also held for undergraduate students of architecture to teach the concept of space. Students pursuing a Master of Social Work (MSW) undergo training in community theatre which they can apply while working with communities such as fisherfolk, sexual minorities, tribals etc. Theatre training is also given to those doing their Diploma in Elementary Education. “Teaching has elements of performance. They are trained to use their body and voice and make use of the space,” Sam says.

Students of Government UP School, Ponmudi, at Theli, the applied drama workshop organised by APT

Students of Government UP School, Ponmudi, at Theli, the applied drama workshop organised by APT
| Photo Credit:

APT has launched Theli, an ‘applied drama project for community empowerment’, among students from tribal hamlets in and around Thiruvananthapuram. “After building a rapport with the students, we ask them to come up with a story. We give wings to their imagination and encourage them to present a play. The stories they narrate often give us an idea about their families and surroundings; invariably they have a district collector, policeman and teacher in their stories! The narrative is often an extension of their primary needs. For instance, if you were to ask them what would they do if they had superpowers, they would say, ‘I would fly and get food,” says Sam.

Healing power

Nireeksha Women’s Theatre group in Thiruvananthapuram has been working with marginalised communities and inmates of shelter homes. One of the initiatives was a two-year syllabus-oriented course for inmates of Nirbhaya Women and Child Care Home. At the end of the course, the participants put up play, Sanghadwani, which was presented as a street play and on stage.

Inmates of Nirbhaya Women and Child Care Homes staging a play under the guidance of Nireeksha Women's Theatre Group

Inmates of Nirbhaya Women and Child Care Homes staging a play under the guidance of Nireeksha Women’s Theatre Group
| Photo Credit:

“It had its challenges. For instance, there was a six-year-old girl who was sexually abusedWe had to work hard to bring her out of that trauma. ,” says Sudhi Devayani, founder-director, Nireeksha.

The group is credited with training physically disabled inmates of Cheshire Home in Thiruvananthapuram in 2002. “An actor’s tools are the body, mind and voice. But in their case, we had to change that; the wheelchair became the legs and their emotions were connected to the movement of the wheelchair,” she says.

Nireeksha has also been associated with students in coastal areas. “We encourage them to write the script so that they can talk about their problems in their own dialect,” she adds.

In the classroom

Malappuram-based Janil Mithra has been holding classes in creative drama in schools for 15 years now, especially in Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kasargode and Kannur districts. Creative drama makes use of theatre games, vocal and physical exercises and improvisation to develop children’s social skills.

Janil Mithra leading creative drama workshop

Janil Mithra leading creative drama workshop
| Photo Credit:

“It is a classroom-oriented form of theatre and we have separate modules for children in various classes. It is the process that matters most in applied theatre and not the performance. While we follow some universal games, at times we include traditional games as well,” says Janil, a school teacher, who also runs Krea Performance and Research in Thanoor, Malappuram.

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Thank You, George Santos, For Reminding Me I Willingly Saw ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark’

Keeping track of actual US Congress member George Santos’s many, many lies is almost a full-time activity. We don’t know how he managed back when his staff was probably just him speaking different voices into a cell phone. Friday, Bloomberg revealed the latest in his web (ha!) of deceit: Santos told potential donors in 2021 that he was a producer on Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.

OK, I understand that not everyone shares my interest in Broadway musicals, so I should clarify that yes, there was in fact a musical called Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, and yes, seriously, for real, that was its actual title. No, it was not a parody of a bad musical within a TV series or even a fictional one I might actually enjoy, like the Captain America musical from the “Hawkeye” TV show.

No, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark was real, and it was a spectacular failure.


Obviously, Santos was not a producer of the disastrous musical, which was set to premiere in 2010 when he was 22. That’s awfully young for a Broadway producer but when you’re a pineapple heiress, you tend to have money to throw around on theatrical abominations. This is all easily checked. Santos’s name doesn’t appear on any Playbills, even if most patrons burned them immediately after seeing the show. The lead producer, Michael Cohl, denies Santos’s involvement, and you think he’d have remembered meeting the Queen of England.

I can’t begin to imagine why Santos would associate himself with one of Broadway’s biggest bombs. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Darklost almost $60 million dollars and didn’t just kill the careers of those involved, it damn well almost killed cast members through dangerous technical mishaps. Actor Natalie Mendoza suffered a concussion during the first preview performance. During the December 20, 2010 performance, actor Christopher Tierney plummeted 30 feet, suffering a fractured skull and shoulder blade as well as four broken ribs and three broken vertebrae.

We have no reason to believe Santos has even seen Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark; however, I was there for the first horrific preview performance in November 2010. I’m a fan of comic books, people in tights, and the music of U2. (Bono and the Edge composed the score, and unlike Santos, the Edge actually invested in the show — a bigger waste of time and money than when I continued buying Spider-Man comics during the 1990s.)

The original plan was that my friend Robert would fly up from Georgia to see the show with me for his birthday, but our performance was postponed because of assorted technical issues, which I can safely assume were never fully addressed. We wound up seeing The Addams Family musical instead. Now, that was fun. Here’s a clip so you can see something good before I assault your eyes with more madness.


My friend Mark, who lives in Washington, DC, joined me for the delayed preview show. It’s hard to describe what happened. “Bad” seems too banal and more appropriate for a production that meets some basic expectations of theatrical competence. This wasn’t just a sloppy preview. It was an extended tech rehearsal with a paying audience present. The stage manager literally called “stop” and “hold” multiple times during the show, which was honestly a welcome reprieve from what we were seeing. I tried calling “stop” and “hold” a few times but they kept going on.

Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark was envisioned as an ambitious theatrical spectacle where Spider-Man would swing through the theatre above the audience while fighting the Green Goblin on his glider. Instead, overhead stage wires dropped on the audience (unfortunately, no falling equipment put me out of my misery) and scenery appeared on stage missing key elements. After Mendoza finished her big number, “Rise Above,” an apparent wire malfunction left her suspended over the crowd for almost 10 minutes.

Like the misguided family in a horror movie, Mark and I just couldn’t leave this haunted house. Spider-Man was stuck in mid-air and required stage hands to rescue him. The Green Goblin vamped on the piano for a while as stage crew fixed the equipment necessary to move on to the next scene.

In fairness, if everything had gone technically well, the production would’ve still been stuck with a book that lacked plot, narrative, and general coherence. A “Geek Chorus” (I know) appeared randomly to explain the story to us but only managed to confuse things even further.

The music and lyrics were, well, early 21st Century U2. I think 13-year-old me was expecting Spider-Man Still Hasn’t Found What He’s Looking For.

Thanks to all the delays, the production dragged on almost three-and-half hours. We stuck it out, though, for no reason I can justify. I think it’s because of the “Deeply Furious” number, which is what possibly cost director Julie Taymor her job. It’s insane and I love it. “Is she singing about shoes?” Mark asked. “Damn right,” I said.


“Deeply Furious” didn’t survive the revamped version of the show, less than promisingly known as Spider-Man 2.0. Once Taymor was canned, the producers, who didn’t include George Santos, valiantly tried to deliver a show that was less of an unhinged fever dream. The critical consensus was that it was better but still not very good. They should’ve kept the song about the evil spider goddess who envies a human woman’s ability to wear shoes. I’m tearing up just thinking about the song again.

Fun bit of trivia: Rightwing pundit Glenn Beck was an early champion of the show after seeing the early previews several times like it was Rocky Horror with just the audience participation and no movie. Maybe he identified with the Green Goblin.


So, if George Santos was ever a Broadway producer, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark would’ve been his very successful Springtime for Hitler scam. But none of the actual producers in this very real flop flew off to Rio. They just hugged their accountants and wept.


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New York’s First Irish Theatre Festival returns to live performances!

After a long pandemic led hiatus, the annual First Irish Theatre Festival is finally back on the board with live performances this month.

Theatre is a community activity, but since the pandemic, all major social gatherings including most stage productions had to be spiked. Until now.

Vaccines, masking, and basic health precautions have allowed one of the world’s oldest art forms to take steps toward full recovery and no one is happier about it than Origin Theatre and First Irish Theatre Festival artistic director Michael Mellamphy.

Perhaps it’s because as well as the festival director he’s also a working actor who will finally get back on the Irish Repertory Theatre’s stage as part of this year’s showcases.

Origin 1st Irish a week away 🎭 – https://t.co/ywCIzdYExG Spotlight on just some of the highlights from this seasons Origin 1st Irish! #origin1stIrish2023 #origin1stIrish pic.twitter.com/RN2Q9OyHMh

— Origin Theatre Company (@OriginTheatre1) January 6, 2023

“I’m performing ‘The Smuggler’ by Ronan Noone and directed by Connor Bagley at the Rep,” he tells IrishCentral.  “It’s a one man show I did at the First Irish Festival back in 2018 and then we were due to perform it at the Rep in April of 2020, but something happened around that time, I can’t remember quite what it was…”

Like everyone else, Mellamphy was forced to put the play and indeed his own career on the shelf for an extended period and this marks the first full return to live productions for the long-running festival, which is now in its fifteenth year.

Origin Theatre is a is an artist led company now, Mellamphy reminds me. “I think the best way to lead is to allow the artist to get up and do their thing as well.”

Combining theory and practice, he will lead the festival and star in this verse play from January 18 to February 26 addressing very timely themes: immigration, human trafficking, and the sometimes deeply dehumanizing way that people here can talk about such things. 

“I think this is very relevant, not just for America, but for what’s happening across the world right now with the splintering of views and ideas, and you know, a lot of the reactionary politics that we’ve had.”

The play is set in an imaginary area called Amity, which is very heavily rooted in in New England and Martha’s Vineyard,” Mellamphy explains. If that rings a bell it’s because that was were the real life Florida Governor Ron DeSantis cruelly shipped some unsuspecting immigrants in the hope they would be rejected instead of embraced.

“Like you, I’m an immigrant to this country. But there is a certain kind of a hierarchy, depending on where you’re from, and what language you speak, and how much melanin you have in your skin. The play takes on a lot of these in a very provocative and very Irish cheeky way. I’m very excited to stage it, you know?”

The festival opener will be provided by Dublin’s acclaimed Fishamble Theatre Company. “They are bringing over a wonderful new show by the Rooney prize-winning writer Eugene O’Brien, called Heaven beginning on January 11 and directed by Jim Culleton, who is an Irish Times Best Director award winner. 

Set in County Offaly during the weekend of a local wedding, guests Mairead and Mal (Andrew Bennett and Janet Moran) are struggling to keep their marriage together. In the hope that attending a wedding will help, or raise questions that are difficult to answer, Heaven looks at family bonds, life decisions, and the ever elusive search for happiness in contemporary Ireland.

“Meanwhile we have encouraged Big Telly Theatre Company from Northern Ireland to make their first foray over here into the United States, performing for First Irish,” Mellamphy says.

“They’re pioneers of very immersive site specific type of theater and they’re bringing us the New York premiere of their acclaimed, immersive take on the classic Frankenstein story called ‘Frankenstein’s Monster Is Drunk,’ which is based on an award-winning short story by Owen Booth. It will play at 59 East 59 Theatre from January 11 until the 28.

Herself by the noted Irish American playwright, poet, and performer Tim McGillicuddy is a dark and sometimes comic look into the destructive power of gossip that’s set in a haunted pub where a young woman returns to her hometown (following the death of her brother) to confront and try to transform the rumors of the past. The play will have a dramatic reading at the New York Irish Center in Long Island City on January 11 at 7 PM, tickets are $5.00.

‘It’s In The Play’ by Orlagh Cassidy and Kate Lardner is an intimate reconstruction of the puzzle of a fractured family’s story that explores memory, loss, and love in a manner both heartbreaking and humorous from January 20 through January at The Cell theatre in Chelsea.

‘The Funny Thing About Death’ by Kim Kalish is an Edinburgh Fringe sensation, which sold out a 5-star run in August. The award-winning sketch performer, improviser and storyteller is an Upright Citizens Brigade alum and a Conan O’Brien regular.

The show takes us through Kalish’s grief after losing the love of her life at just 23 years of age. Steeped in the agony of lost love, and that all too human condition of grieving, the play reminds us it’s okay to not be okay because that’s the funny thing about death. The show runs in repertory from January 20 – 29 at The Cell.

‘Dublin Noir’ by Honor Molloy will be presented in association with Irish American Writers and Artists (IAW&A). Set in August 1939 as Europe is on the eve war, Ireland has decided to have none of it.

On a day trip to Drogheda, Dubliner Tadgh Steele is captured by a dairy farmer named Murphy and locked in a cowshed. Is Tadgh a poet as he claims or as Murphy suspects a Nazi spy? Come to the Irish Arts Center for the reading of this new play by the award-winning playwright on January 29 at 3 PM.

‘Peace and Love In Brooklyn’ commands interest for being that very rare thing, an Irish musical. “It’s on for one night only on January 28 at 7 PM on the main stage of the Irish Arts Center, who we’re really partnering up with this year in a big way,” says Mellamphy. 

Written by Eamon O’Tuama, an Irish writer based in Queens, it’s a story about a young musical prodigy born to a couple who had a little fling back in the early 70’s. “Father and son have never met until one night when the mother hums a melody she has carried for years. A musical thread unravels and a 30-year journey begins in Brooklyn.”

Other festival highlights include a very special staged reading of the play ‘Brigid’ by Maura Mulligan, featuring songs from the Grammy-winning vocalist Susan McKeown and then a Brigid’s Eve talk back at the New York Irish Center. 

‘Those Who Pass You On The Streets’ stars John Duddy, Labhaoise Magee, and Ciaran Byrne (who also directs) is Laurence McKeown’s new work about an RUC widow who walks into a Sinn Fein office seeking assistance with the anti-social behavior in her area.

An unlikely friendship with community officer Frank begins, challenging their pre-conceptions and beliefs, as well as family and political loyalties. The reading runs on January 29 at the Irish Arts Center at 7 PM.

For a full list of performance times, venues and tickets visit origintheatre.org.

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Tamil theatre’s new voice: Chennai audiences cheer for fresh ideas and new faces

Centrestage, under the spotlight, sits a corpse. 

It is not shrouded in white cloth, though. Instead, there are rings and gold chains, a suave pair of sunglasses and an occasionally toothy grin. Unusual? Yes. Funny? The Saturday afternoon audience certainly thought so, given that they roared with laughter for the entire 10 minutes of Sethum Jaichidichu Meesai, staged at the recently concluded Short + Sweet South India 2022. 

The 10-minute play traces an exasperated son’s relationship with his self-centered father through a non-linear monologue in Tamil, hours after the father’s passing. It went on to win Best Production, Best Script and Best Actor (Male) awards at the festival. Similarly, Jayachandran of Tamil group Kael Theatre won Best Director, for the hard-hitting, impeccably timed, Iruvar, an examination of the P Jayaraj-Bennix custodial death case.   

A still from Sethum Jaichidichu Meesai at the recently concluded Short + Sweet Theatre Festival 2022
| Photo Credit:
Mohan Das Vadakara

Case in point: contemporary Tamil theatre in Chennai is having its moment in the sun.  

It is undergoing a makeover in the hands of young theatre groups and individuals, all of whom are experimenting with form, themes, dialect and dramaturgy, while keeping the sentiment of the language at its core. By moving away from traditional and folk formats to embrace contemporary themes, it is also reaching out to a younger, urban audience. 

Vijay Babu and his 69-year-old father Hari Babu, a former National-level boxing champion, who play the son and father in Sethum Jeichidichu… respectively, have been gathering fans ever since their first run. Vijay, who also wrote the script with first-time director Thiravia Sankar, has not performed much outside of the Short + Sweet festival over the years. He calls himself a “run-of-the-mill guy” who found himself through theatre in 2015. His father, Hari, on the other hand has no stage experience whatsoever.

They are among the burgeoning crop of promising directors, writers and actors who are rewriting how the audience perceives the medium. “With avenues like Short + Sweet, there are greater opportunities for people like us to perform. There is space to evolve. I am still in the learning stage,” says Vijay.   

A still from Iruvar

A still from Iruvar
| Photo Credit:
Mohan Das Vadakara

Role models stand tall

“The first time we saw naveena natakam was by Na Muthuswamy sir. He brought in the novel idea that Tamil theatre can be done in a contemporary way,” says B Charles, light designer and member of Chennai Art Theatre who is also one of the founders of the black box, Medai – The Stage, in Alwarpet. It was matched by veterans like Prasanna Ramasamy and A Mangai who looked at radical, and important themes within the milieu of regional theatre. He adds, “Muruga Bhoopathy and groups like Perch and Koothu Pattarai took it to an international level.” The current crop, or atleast most of the directors and writers who experiment, come from similar schools that boast years of experience on stage. 

Vetri of Theatre Akku which formed in 2017 comes from Koumarane Valavane’s Puducherry-based Indianostrum Theatre. “When I came to Chennai from a strict schedule at Indianostrum, I felt empty. I started observing other groups’ rehearsals: both established and amateur,” he says. Their first play, Adavu, derives from a therukoothu artist’s life, an inspiration that struck Vetri while observing the work of Purisai Therukoothu helmed by Kannappa Thambiran in Purisai. It went on to play 26 shows.

For the ages

Traditional tamil theatre has deep roots in the city. The late 19th and early 20th Century was the period of great growth — from folk arts groups becoming organised troupes; to the rise of sabha plays that predominantly ran religious and epic plays based on The Mahabharatha and The Ramayana, and of doyens like Sankaradas Swamigal, Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar and more recently S Murugabhoopathy, Na Muthuswamy.

As a contemporary group, Akku does not follow the traditional tenets of devising a performance. What starts as a discussion among actors, are improvised, to form a loose structure. Komaligal ( a four-play anthology in Tamil that looks at sexual oppression and abuse of women by drawing inferences for real incidents) , which has been touring since 2020, is testament to this process. 

“Thanks to the digital age, a certain sense of expectation is now applied to theatre as well. We have to match these expectations. Only then can we get a regular audience,” says Vetri.

Being contemporary is not only restricted to the content. The way in which it is executed matters. Collaborations with other existing groups would also lead to the creation of new formats, says Vetri. “Art is meant to be democratic. If theatre can reach the people, nothing like it. This would even mean putting up private shows for a group of 50 or 75 people in a community hall,” says Vetri. Komaligal has travelled to schools, public spaces, orphanages, detention centres and other unconventional stages, to reach audiences who don’t have access to theatre.     

Accessible spaces

While curating, for every six plays at Medai, Charles makes sure that at least two to three plays are in Tamil. “The short plays usually come from local writers, and definitely there is a greater connection with the audience as well,” says Charles. This year, the sheer number of new Tamil plays hosted in the space was more. “We hosted around 12 Tamil plays in Medai, all of which were helmed by young writers and directors,” he adds.  

The fact that mainstream stages in the city are not accessible is partly responsible for the birth of Idam, a new performance/workshop space by Theatre Akku, admits Vetri. From a commercial point of view, renting a mainstream stage, like say, Egmore Museum Theatre is unthinkable for an up and coming group, says Vetri. “Even when we sell tickets, we try to keep it economical and accessible. So, we might not meet the profit margin all the time.”

Idam, which is yet to formally launch, is a small, theatrical space. With a bookshelf, murals and seats that fold into the walls, the space is meant for any form of workshops, performances and even rehearsals.    

A still from the play Dhik Dhik

A still from the play Dhik Dhik
| Photo Credit:
R. Pradeep

New audiences are looking for renewed visual experiences, a deviation from the sabha culture that relied heavily on the written word. In the digital age, the production quality of a play invariably comes under scrutiny: from acting, sets, lights to costumes, everything is under the scanner. “Even if you don’t have an exceptional set, something new should be on offer,” says Vetri, adding that it’s important to attract new audiences. 

“Apart from the already existing theatre community in the city, audiences are now looking for good Tamil contemporary plays. In 100 people, at least 80 people come for the content and the language,” says Charles. The idea is to break into the niche, and grow the community, rather than looking at it as a sub community.  “Even within Tamil theatre, there seems to be a gap between traditional or folk forms and contemporary. If these two worlds can combine and bring out a new style, it will be very interesting to see,” says Vijay.

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