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Nicola McCartney, Sunniva Ramsay and the Traverse Theatre - Class Act Mumbai

By the time you read this, a team from the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh will already be in Mumbai, the city formerly known as Bombay, which, as the capital of the state of Maharashtra, forms one of the most densely populated cities of India. It is not only the wealthiest part of the country, but is the birthplace of Bollywood, India's fantastical form of musical cinema.

Whether any of this has any bearing on the Traverse's work with young people in the city remains to be seen. Either way, the initiation of Class Act Mumbai, which is the reason for the two-week long visit, promises to be as lively as similar set-ups have been in Scotland for the last quarter of a century. 

For those who may not be aware of Class Act, the now annual event began in 1991 as what was then styled as a theatre in education initiative, in which professional playwrights and theatre directors worked with secondary school pupils from various Edinburgh schools to help them develop their own short plays. What the young people wrote was then developed further in the rehearsal room, with professional actors lifting the students' work off the page and bringing them to life. All of the plays were then performed on the main stage of the Traverse, with what was effectively a classroom-size compendium of world premieres being performed before an audience of the young writers' peers, friends and family.

As symposium held at the Traverse last autumn to coincide with the 2017 Class Act presentations made clear, such a relatively simple idea has grown in stature to not only enrich the artistic lives of those taking part. It has also helped foster a radical form of artistic exchange which has developed into an inclusive aesthetic, through which young people get to express whatever is on their minds in suitably dramatic fashion. With Class Act having long developed into an international concern by way of exchanges with Russia and the Ukraine, the Mumbai visit is one more link in a world wide web that puts its participants in physical proximity with each other rather than a virtual one.

“It's really exciting to be working in a different cultural and theatrical context,” says playwright Nicola McCartney, who has been involved in Class Act since 1997, and will be part of a four-strong Scottish delegation in Mumbai. “Working in different countries as well, I'm always fascinated to meet the young people and hear the stories they want to tell. India has its own set of traditions and concerns, so it will be interesting to see how they influence things.”

While McCartney will direct the work produced by the students as well as mentor them as a writer, she will be accompanied by fellow playwright Stef Smith and director Emma Callander. Traverse creative producer Sunniva Ramsay will lead the project which, in keeping with every Class Act, looks set to be as much a learning experience for the artists as the students.

“To have that opportunity to speak with these young people, and to put ourselves in their shoes, I think that's a really important part of the project,” says Ramsay. “Just to have them tell us what matters to them. That's about empathy, and because the young people come from such different backgrounds, they might not share a similar walk of life, but because they'll be sharing the same space with this project, it will hopefully give them an opportunity to find some kind of common ground.” 

This chimes with McCartney's experience with Class Act in Russia and the Ukraine.

“It's been fascinating watching how Class Act has developed over the years,” she says. “In Scotland it's changed enormously, and has grown into what I think is a really important platform for young people finding their voice. In Russia and the Ukraine, it's application has been in a very social and political way. Whether that happens in Mumbai I don't know, but I suspect it will reinvent itself in its own Indian image.” 

For Class Act Mumbai, the Traverse have teamed up with RAGE Productions, the pioneering Indian theatre company who similarly focus on new and contemporary work. Having previously partnered the London-based Royal Court Theatre, RAGE were ideal to team up with for Class act Mumbai, and a team of four Indian playwrights and four directors will be taking part. Over an intense fourteen days, this Scots-Indian supergroup will work with some sixty-four 15-18 year-olds from fifteen schools. These will come from a diverse array of backgrounds that will accommodate several different languages, as well as from schools whose focus is educating street children.

The assorted workshops rehearsals and a final performance will take place at the Prithvi Theatre, the purpose-built auditorium opened in 1978 by Indian acting legend Shashi Kapoor, who sadly passed away at the end of last year, and his wife Jennifer. The Kapoors built the Prithvi in honour of Kapoor's father, Prithviraj Kapoor, who founded what was then a travelling troupe of actors in 1942. With Kapoor senior unable to fulfil his dream of creating a permanent venue in his lifetime, his son picked up the reins of his vision, and for almost forty years the Prithvi Theatre has provided a home for contemporary Indian theatre. This makes it perfect as a safe and neutral space for Class Act Mumbai. 

Class Act Mumbai comes at the end of of the British Council's UK/India 2017 Season, which was designed in part to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the partition of the country that set up the two separate independent dominions of India and Pakistan. Class Act Mumbai is also supported by Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government. 

While such international cultural exchanges as Class Act are vital, it is important too that there is a two-way traffic, whereby Scottish artists can learn from different cultures in the way McCartney and Ramsay have highlighted. While the current political and financial climate across the world may yet impinge on Class Act making further international strides, given the success of Class Act over its twenty-six year existence, it is imperative that all doors are kept open.

“You can't under-estimate the power of sitting there on the opening nights of one of these projects,” says McCartney, “and seeing the audience go, wow, that's what our young people think. There is hope.”

McCartney quotes a high-tanking Ukrainian official who watched a performance.

“He said, if our children can do that, why can't we?”

Whether Class Act Mumbai provokes such epiphanies remains to be seen, but McCartney and Ramsay are hopeful.

“I hope we're able to inspire the young people in engaging with us,” says Ramsay. “We want to hear about their experience, and to have a belief in their own voices . Rather than doing anything academic, as with every Class Act, wherever that might be, we want young people to engage with things through creativity, and to take a leap into that world in a way that matters to them.” 

The final performances of the Traverse Theatre's Class Act Mumbai will take place at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai on January 23-24.
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, January 12th 2018

ends

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