Why We’re So Excited about our “Ramayana” Residency

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You might have noticed, since we keep mentioning it, that we’re just a little bit excited about our first-ever Residency collaboration with both EnActe Arts and the City of Cupertino. We’ve had people wonder, though: “Why Ramayana? Why not the usual Shakespeare play?”

There are plenty of answers. We love Shakespeare and his stories–we’ve proudly named him our house playwright. We recognize, however, that there are countless other stories from cultures around the world that are every bit as exciting, as fascinating, as full of depth, and as brilliant as Shakespeare’s plays. Ramayana is definitely one of those stories. We asked SF Shakes Artistic Director, Rebecca Ennals, and Sukanya Chakrabarti, a Co-Director for the production and EnActe Strategic Relations Manager, to weigh in on why this is such an exciting project.

 

1) What excites you most about this project, and the collaboration between SF Shakes and EnActe Arts?

Rebecca Ennals: I love the story, and had a great experience working on it in Pleasanton about 5 years ago. That time, about 10% of our participants were of South Asian heritage, so it was really new to many of us. This time, we’re going to learn so much more because we have EnActe Arts as a partner, and we have so many more participants who have cultural familiarity with the story and its importance. With Shakespeare, we’re often the experts in the room. This time, we know that we’re good at working with youth and putting up compelling shows, but EnActe and many of the kids will be the experts on the material.

Sukanya Chakrabarti: The Ramayana is a centuries-old Sanskrit epic that has been told in various forms, methods, languages, and narrative styles. The epic has been performed and retold in the Indian subcontinent since its conception in the form of books, live performances, films, television serials and comic books. Growing up in the 1980s in India, when the television industry was emerging, Ramayana was one of those serials that brought our family, friends and neighbors together. I encountered Ramayana for the first time over television as a four-year-old, much before I had read any version of the epic. The visual aspect of the storytelling, therefore, undoubtedly influenced my perception of this complex narrative. What is most exciting for me is the opportunity to reprise this timeless epic on stage in Cupertino, thousands of miles away from the land with which it is associated, and yet still find its relevance in everyday life in America.

To be able to preserve our ancient and rich culture of storytelling without succumbing to any fixed notions of what ‘tradition’ may imply is a tricky balance. While treading the tenuous line between tradition and contemporaneity, I find it both challenging and exciting to take on this project, with a responsibility towards our next generation for them to remember, experience and absorb the essence of our age-old epics that teach us about life, love, duties and, most importantly, how to be good, dutiful and responsible human beings. To be able to collaborate with SFShakes, I feel we reach a wider and a much more diverse audience in the Bay Area, and we’ll also have a multicultural cast, which is most exciting for me as a director.

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2) What do you think that Shakespeare’s works and the Ramayana epic have in common?

SC: I think the way the plot, characters and interactions between characters are developed in Ramayana and many of the Shakespearean plays can be considered Aristotelian: while there is an evocation of ‘pity’ and ‘fear’ in many senses, the denouement of the epic almost makes it seem like a comedy. But the various strands and overlapping layers of the epic complicate the narrative, and raise pertinent questions for all of us. Like Shakespeare’s works, while Ramayana deals with grand dramatic plots, it also incorporates light moments of comedic relief. And besides such parallels in dramatic structures, I believe that this epic–just like Shakespeare’s works–ultimately deals with the human condition, human fears, insecurities, strengths, resilience, passion, devotion, and love.

RE: I think both Shakespeare and the different writers of the Ramayana epic were interested in what makes human beings behave as they do, as well as the human relationship to the divine. We’re in the middle of Hamlet right now, and the character of Hamlet is so concerned with the larger universe, the things outside human understanding: for example, what happens after death, and whether there is such a thing as a moral imperative. Ramayana also asks a lot of questions about the obligations of the spiritual person in the world – is it better to live as a holy recluse removed from worldly things, or to go to war against evil?

There are also some interesting parallels between the women in these two stories. Women are equally held to unreasonable standards by Hamlet and Rama, and accused of crimes they didn’t commit. The women in Hamlet don’t fare very well, so it’s nice to see that in our version of Ramayana, Sita proves her righteousness and power.

 

3) What about the Ramayana story makes it accessible and enjoyable for people of all backgrounds?

RE: I think it’s exactly that – we can relate to aspects of the story that feel universal. Ramayana really asks what it means to be heroic, in the true sense. Rama and his brother Lakshmana are the two men on the side of good, but sometimes they don’t behave heroically. Sometimes their foe, the demon Ravana, behaves in a noble way, as do other demons. And the most brave and heroic characters are not men, but animals and Sita herself. There’s a lot of nuance in the story about what it means to live a good life and fight on the side of right, but it’s not cut-and-dried or black-and-white. I think that’s useful to us in the world right now – I think there’s a tendency politically for people to declare their side as good and the other side as evil, without really looking at the nuances involved. Ramayana invites you to empathize with every character, even the ones you would assume are the most evil.

SC: I think more than any cultural specificity, what Ramayana offers us is a complex labyrinth of adventures, drama and human emotions. Ramayana, to me, has always operated at various levels – at the level of a metaphor, that of a literal adventure story, and a book of ethics working at the level of spirituality. It’s a story depicting a range of human emotions such as love, lust, greed, compassion, duty, devotion, nobility, hubris and hamartia – not too different from its Greek counterparts. While the narration may be complex and layered, the essential core of the story is warm and endearing, and appeals to universal human emotions. Sita’s travails as an abducted woman in a foreign land, as a wife separated from her doting husband, and as a woman having to prove her purity; Rama’s conflicting emotions between his love for his wife and his dharma as a king; Hanuman’s unflinching devotion towards Rama; Lakshmana’s and Bharata’s sense of dharma; Kaikeyi’s insecurities and jealousy arising from her maternal love; all these examples in the story are not only representative of the whole gamut of human emotions, but also provide for us human values towards which one can aspire. Ramayana is both an elevated epic and a most relatable story of human flaws, aspirations, love and human condition, which makes it both engaging and inspirational at the same time.

We are thrilled to partner with EnActe to present a production of Ramayana featuring young actors ages 8-18. Enrollment is still open until August 14 at http://www.sfshakes.org/programs/tailor-made-residencies/ramayana.