Literary theatre

It’s playtime: An Indian repertory company is making children’s theatre more inclusive

Gillo Repertory performs its adaptations of popular books for children in cities as well as villages.

Children’s theatre group Gillo Repertory, whose mascot is a squirrel, has a spirit as intrepid as its symbol. The theatre company has produced nuanced and colourful plays like Kyu Kyu Ladki and Hanuman ki Ramayan, and has taken theatre to children in semi-urban and rural areas with a tour of 20 performances in Karnataka.

Gillo was travelling with four different productions to Bengaluru, Mysuru, Chamraj Nagar, Heggadadevana Kote and Ninasam, a cultural organisation located in Heggodu (a village in Karnataka) from October 31 to November 16. The theatre group also performed at Gubbi, the hometown of widely acclaimed theatre director Gubbi Veranna, in a performance space named after the thespian.

Diverse audiences

According to Gillo’s co-founder Shaili Sathyu, the expense of staging shows and limited availability of platforms for children’s theatre mean that groups like hers wind up performing exclusively for audiences from privileged backgrounds. But as of the last four years, Gillo has been attempting to take theatre to diverse audiences by reserving a few seats of their performances for children associated with non-profit organisations. They charge Rs 10 to 20 per seat so that the performances are not entirely free and often get some benefactor to sponsor the children.

“There are a lot of under-served children in cities as well, and we wanted a mixed audience in the theatre, because I want to breed a sense of inclusion,” Sathyu said.

In the past, Gillo has performed in villages and small towns in West Bengal, Karnataka and Maharashtra, travelling with productions that do not require traditional stages and auditoriums. Sathyu recalled that the last time Gillo visited Birbhum in West Bengal, they performed in a makeshift tent that was made from a torn parachute. These experiences have pushed the group to do more for economically underprivileged children and find inspiration for new content from different parts of the country.

Hanuman ki Ramayan. Photo credit: Gillo Repertory
Hanuman ki Ramayan. Photo credit: Gillo Repertory

“We want to do at least 30% to 40% of our shows for children who cannot afford to see them,” Sathyu said. “Getting out of the city, and seeing how other people live in the country is very essential for us.”

Since these productions can be performed anywhere, they dismantle the hegemony of the stage and the intellectual and physical inaccessibility attached to theatre performances. Sathyu said that their aesthetic was motivated purely by practicality and the limitations that children grapple with. “Adults will travel 10 to 15 km to watch a play, but children cannot,” she said. “It’s not practical. They don’t have control on that. So we make plays that can go to the children.”

Alternate dreams

Sathyu wanted to publish children’s books when she was selected for an International Directors Seminar hosted by the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (known as ASSITEJ) in Germany in 2010. “The German experience gave me a window into the fact that theatre for children is a possibility,” Sathyu said. She started Gillo with a team of twelve performers. The team has now expanded to 27, including five trustees.

Although she is vocal about her group’s commitment to crafting plays for children of all ages, Sathyu is often asked when Gillo will start making plays for adults.

“People look at it as a linear progression; in the beginning of your career, you make plays for children and when you get the requisite experience, you start producing for adults,” Sathyu said. “But we are going deeper into exploring how we can work on theatre for children, that is more challenging for us and for the audience.” Gillo still harbours plans to venture into publishing children’s books and toys in the future.

The cover of 'Catch That Crocodile'.
The cover of 'Catch That Crocodile'.

Sathyu’s fascination for children’s literature is still reflected in the plays produced by Gillo, most of which are adapted from books. For instance Kyu Kyu Ladki, written and directed by Sathyu, was inspired by Mahasweta Devi’s story, The Why Why Girl. Devi’s story chronicles the adventures of curious and intrepid tribal girl Moyna, who can’t go to school but persistently questions the adults around her.

Gillo’s most successful production, Hanuman Ki Ramayan, is based on a book written by Devdutt Pattnaik. Adapted by Sangeet Natak Akademi Award-winner and traditional nautanki artist Ramdayal Sharma, the Hindi play was directed in 2012 by Sharma’s son Devendra. Hanuman ki Ramayan was one of the productions that Gillo took on its recent tour; another was Catch That Crocodile, adapted from Anushka Ravi Shankar’s eponymous book. Produced in basic, simple English, Sathyu said the play was made on a small budget and contained a lot of mime and slapstick, physical humour.

Catch That Crocodile performance. Photo credit: Gillo Repertory
Catch That Crocodile performance. Photo credit: Gillo Repertory

Two other non-verbal productions opened on the tour to Karnataka. Adapted from four Urdu plays written by Sathyu’s grandmother in the 1950s, the 20-minute productions traced a middle-aged man’s adventures in his own home. “He’s basically doing things around the house and he’s clumsy and doesn’t know how to do household chores,” Sathyu said. “The plays are very dated and contain some gender stereotypes, but I have altered that in the production.”

Gillo did not, surprisingly, include a Kannada play on the tour, apart from Catch That Crocodile, which features a few lines in the language. Hanuman ki Ramayan was in dense Hindi. “I know there’s this debate happening in Karnataka about the use of Hindi but we have performed this play in Bangalore before,” Sathyu said.

Gillo also travelled with a mobile library of 100 to 200 illustrated children’s books that were sourced from different parts of the world. “It’s our love for books and stories which we want to share,” she said. “If a performer sits with ten children and communicates with books using pictures and illustrations, some interaction can be started.”

Thespians and new audiences

Sathyu said the tour is the first step in connecting audiences for children’s theatre with performers. Although young audiences are eager and receptive, she points out that theatre meant exclusively for children is still a rarity in most places. “In smaller spaces, sometimes, we get a really thirsty audience so they come with a different purpose and motivation,” she said. “They just want to see something. They don’t have a choice.”

Sathyu believes that children make a forgiving and generous audience, which makes performing for them a rewarding experience. “They learn something new, they ask questions and they get confused. You can see that some questions have been inspired in their mind by watching your play.”

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