Growing up, Priyaranjan Samal, 32, was an introvert who was conscious of people’s reactions. In school, he would want to act in plays but had a crippling fear of the stage. “I wasn’t comfortable talking to people and in college, I would mingle with just a few,” he recalls. Then, in 2016, he decided to enroll for theatre workshops at Yours Truly, a Bengaluru-based improvisational comedy and interactive theatre group. It would prove to be a game changer.
“Theatre is one of the most magical art forms. Everyone should try it out,” says Arundhati Nag, theatre thespian and artistic advisor of Ranga Shankara Theatre, Bengaluru with firm conviction. Youngsters these days, she notes, slouch, speak through their nose and don’t have clean gestures. “Theatre would help them overcome these shortcomings, make them articulate and improve their vocabulary,” she says. Incidentally, when Nag started theatre, she didn’t know Kannada. “After doing 25 Kannada plays, I was fluent. I literally learnt a language thanks to theatre,” she says.
Nandini Rao, artistic director of Yours Truly, likens theatre games to ‘social warming’ exercises. One game devised by Yours Truly instructs participants to talk gibberish. Rao demonstrates it over the phone and laughs. “This activity is effective in removing the barrier of trying to make sense all the time.” Understanding is overrated, she says, as 80 per cent of all communication done is based on non-verbal cues. There’s also the mother tongue game where participants are asked to explain their name in their mothertongue.
“English represses a lot of who we are,” she feels. “When you are listening to a room of different dialects and languages, none of which you understand, you start paying attention to the body language.”
As for the impact that Yours Truly’s theatre workshops have had on participants, Rao says that she usually sees a change after a couple of months. “Self-esteem improves noticeably but the real transformation happens after a year or so. Their voice becomes clear and they are confident in any social situation.” Samal affirms, “Within a year of joining the workshops, I started going on solo trips and was open to chatting with strangers. Importantly, I developed the attitude of ‘we will see what happens’ when facing unknown situations and uncertain circumstances.”
But it takes more time for those with extreme social anxiety. Rao says, “We allow them to go out of the room whenever they want as usually individuals with this condition may get panic attacks within 10 minutes of social interaction.”
With 20 years of theatrical experience, Rao believes that over the years, especially after covid-19, social skills have gone down and inhibition levels are high as more people work in isolation. “We do a lot of activities on just making eye contact!” But can someone dare think of theatre if they are crippled by the presence of an audience?
“You don’t need to be a performer,” Nag says, “You need to practice performance.” She recommends reading a sonnet from Shakespeare or something similarly classic, in front of the mirror, every day. “You will realize the power of your voice, the rhythm of the language and how the body moves along with it.”
Did you know that normal people who don’t dance use only 5 per cent of proprioception? Jayachandran Palazhy, artistic director of Attakalari Centre for Movement Arts, poses the question. Proprioception is the awareness of the position and movement of the body. “With multifaceted dance movements, the body is encouraged to think, remember and act on it.” Palazhy can’t stress enough on the power of dance movement with music on one’s sense of being. “Our sense of being is socially constructed and dance movements help unravel that.”
24-year-old Sameer (he prefers using a mononym), experienced the power of movement arts by chance. “I was always conscious of people around me, which made me very awkward,” he says. “I had started to avoid meeting people. Last year, I happened to bump into an acquaintance at a mall who mentioned how she enjoyed learning contemporary dance. I was intrigued and decided to give it a shot for a month.” Initially, Sameer would stand awkwardly unable to move. “I would think, ‘Oh God! I look like a fool. Other dancers are laughing at me.’”
The dance trainer taught Sameer simple hand movements at first and then some footwork. After a year of weekly classes, he has changed. “Today, I can take my position right in front of the class and dance,” he says proudly. “Socially, I am more relaxed in front of people. I feel like a new person.”
Learning contemporary dance is about developing new skills and a good set of patterns and routine. “Our body has the capacity to develop new skills,” Palazhy notes. Dance dissolves our inhibitions. So does theatre. They shift the way we think. If one is in a socially awkward moment, as Samal discovered, theatre or movement arts help us to be creative, playful, and animated about it. The moment passes and the world seems kinder.
Jayanthi Madhukar is a Bengaluru-based writer.