The unbelievable story of Sampat Pal, the leader of a movement of more than 400,000 women fighting for their rights in India in a uniform of pink saris, is told in a new production arriving at Northern Stage in November, an adaptation of the book by internationally-renowned journalist Amana Fontanella-Khan. Suba Das, who directed East is East for the theatre earlier this year, told us about the challenges of putting on such a show.
What’s the role of the director in the theatre?
It varies. On a project like Pink Sari Revolution, the show was my idea, so I read the book, heard of this movement and decided that a show should be made about them. I then called the team together to enable that show to exist. I’ve had quite an active curatorial voice in how all of those elements are then realised. It’s very different to the last time I was in Newcastle, directing East is East – a play that exists. There, the territory was how do I feel about the play and stage it to its best potential?
What makes theatre so interesting?
One of the most exciting things about theatre is exploring a character and their complexity, and our lead character is a complex woman: a woman who has had accusations of corruption thrown at her, who has created a movement that revolves around violence. We want to provoke an audience to come out of the theatre space asking questions like: ‘What would I do if I were in that world, and what do I do in the world I’m now in?’ The issues we’re trying to dissect in the show – about gender, power and resistance – are not confined to North India.
Nor to that time either.
Absolutely. The terrifying thing was I read the book about two and a half years ago. Donald Trump was simply an idiot on the television and at the start of the year there were women in pink marching in their millions. In India they’ve been doing it for years. It’s extraordinary to know that something you’re working on is keying into the zeitgeist. There’s a risk of making characters inauthentic, but we found a way through that creates something in depth and detail.
Where did your life in theatre all start?
It all started in Seaton Delaval. Being of quite modest means, me and my twin brother kept ourselves entertained by constantly running around the house imagining we were spies. I’d concoct these epic storylines and get very annoyed when my twin forgot them. That was a starting point, but at the Royal Grammar School I had a teacher who was a great personal champion. He came to see a lot of my shows at university, and really encouraged students to create their own works. At the age of 16 we were making our own shows – they were all awful, but we were making our own shows. We were in an educational environment where we were encouraged to do that, and that was so important.
Do you think drama is given a fair shake in schools nowadays?
No. We know it’s falling off the syllabus, we know the government has a sceptical attitude towards the value of arts in education. That’s deeply disappointing, because we know our education system is constantly straining towards the quantifiable and art is a much more nebulous thing, but the skills it instills – like empathy and perspective – are really simple, but important. It’s really fascinating when you see young people begin to understand what it means to be in a theatre space with other people. The fact that you’re actually training people about the idea of community, of democracy, and it’s so important we continue to find ways to do that, otherwise we’ll become increasingly isolationist and lacking in empathy. That’s the real challenge we face, I think.
Pink Sari Revolution arrives at Northern Stage between 2–4 November. To book tickets, visit www.northernstage.co.uk or call 0191 230 5151.