Gestures of Auto-Ethnography
After a month of working with armed forces cadets, working with devised theatre and exploring the art of writing monologues, we have a script. Waiting weaves together excerpts from Waiting for Godot, with compilations of texts that were written by the cadets themselves about something they are waiting for.
“I am waiting for the day my father will see me in this uniform, with stars shining in his eyes, flagging off the aircraft which is being flown by his son.”
“I wait for the day I can shed every drop of my blood in serving my motherland and her boundaries, and when I come back from war, to continue my work to make this country a better place. It’s this wait that keeps me alive.”
“I’m waiting for her. For her to come back to me and say to me that yes, she was wrong in her choice. I want her to feel that I was the best guy she could have ever met, and she made the biggest mistake of her life by choosing him.”
“I am eagerly waiting for the day when I’ll pass out from the Academy. I feel suffocated; like I’m caged in some kind of prison.”
From fulfilling father’s dreams to seeing the uniform as an avenue to avenge a lost love; from devout nationalism to a desperate questioning of choices made; the cadets committed to the task of writing monologues. Their gestures of honesty and creativity get stronger every day, and as this happens, the more openly they voice their opinions about what ‘theatre’ means to them.
After reading the script of Waiting, a script that I pieced together from their monologues and from the desire to give them something challenging to work with, the cadets politely and diplomatically questioned the piece. “What is the point of a performance if it doesn’t entertain?” they asked me. “Pieces like this are too…intellectual…audiences at the Academy won’t understand it; they won’t like it; it won’t be successful.” “Well, what does it mean for a performance to be successful?” I asked back. We discussed, debated, challenged each other, and finally, decided to give the script a shot and see what happens. As rehearsals for this performance begin, I see the cadets exploring what is to them a ‘new’ form – i.e, non-proscenium, non-Bollywood-comedy-esque – with cautious excitement. There is a keenness there to explore the unknown and yet, a caution that comes from wanting to do what is accepted, what is the norm.
What does it mean to use gestures of art with military men? When I first started posting on this blog, it was this question that I hoped to find some answers to. What would it mean when gestures of art are used by those who use gestures of violence? Would it lead to some variation of ‘sensitive’ soldering? Some form of embodied cognition about ‘greyness’ in an otherwise black and white setting? Or would it simply be chalked up as being ‘affective’, with a clear understanding that, well, one can never know how the trace of this artistic experience will manifest itself when these young men then get deployed to their field and peace postings across India…? Two considerations I have to come to, two beginnings of answers perhaps, are these:
Perhaps it is not about what gestures of art can do with/for those who wield gestures of violence. Perhaps it is about what working with those who wield violence can do with/for those who work with artistic gestures.
Perhaps it is not about an ethnographic analysis, as I initially assumed it would be, about the place of theatre in a military environment. Perhaps what it is about is auto-ethnography, and what the process of working with an armed forces’ establishment might reveal about this theatre maker’s understanding of her own gestures of identity, nationalism, and art.