Sunday, July 15, 2007

Some thoughts about Merchant on Venice from director Stuart Carden

There is a fascinating idea in Indian philosophy, most associated with the second century thinker Sage Bharat, that all human emotions are encompassed by the Nava Rasa, the nine emotions (or flavors). According to Bharat all masterworks of art manifest on stage and in the audience the full spectrum of these emotions or essences. The Nava Rasa include; 'Rati' - love or amour; 'Hasa',- humour or comic sentiment; 'Shoka' - pathos and compassion; 'Krodha' - fury, wrath or anger; 'Utsaha'- valor or heroic sentiment; 'Bhaya' - fear, fearful, or that which strikes terror; 'Jugupsa'- loathsome, loathing, horrible, or odious; 'Vismaya' - dismay, amazement or marvellousness and 'Shanta' - peace or calm.

I love this concept and have found it to be true when thinking of my favorite novels, plays and paintings. What these works have in common is their ability to conjure the entire range of the human experience and explore emotions and ideas that range from the pitiable to the sublime. Many of Shakespeare's major works exemplify this multiplicity of emotion, style and color. Think of Hamlet and the whimsical delights of the "players" speech, the desperate love of Ophelia, the thrilling action of the duel and the existential contemplation of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy. All of these aspects create a rich portrait that reflects the breadth of human experience. A work like this engages its audience on every level and a contemporary play that serves up all of the of the Nava Rasas is a rare and delightful find. Shishir Kurup's wildly imaginative retelling of Merchant of Venice has just this kind of rich resonance.

On my first read of the play last year the characters, ideas and language jumped off the page. The free-wheeling, colorful and muscular language begs to be spoken, the implications of its politics demand to be debated and its Bollywood dance numbers positively glide off the page. I'm in love with this piece and thrilled to direct the work for SRTP.

And now for something completely different--

SRTP is known for being a company of many firsts. For a director, who wants to engage contemporary ideas exploring who we are as Americans and world citizens at this moment in time, there couldn't be a better company of which to be a part.

With a company of this nature however come some very unique challenges. Casting is one of them. Never before, that I know of, has a play been produced in America with this many South Asian actors asked to tackle language and characters of this degree of complexity. While Merchant on Venice has a contemporary vernacular and a very irreverent and modern sensibility it is also a work written in iambic pentameter with poetic language that could challenge the most skilled classically trained actor. Because plays with South Asian characters have long been a rarity in Chicago and many actors of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan backgrounds have migrated to the East and West coasts where they are represented more often on stage and screen, the pool of South Asian actors in Chicago is comparatively small. There are incredible actors of South Asian descent here for sure and I've had the fortune of working with several in the past, but a play with over fifteen South Asian roles all with specific age and type needs in addition to their ethnicity create casting challenges that are quite exceptional.

One of our hopes as a company is that by producing work by South Asian writers, with complex South Asian protagonists that we will encourage artists of these backgrounds to remain in Chicago. This play is our first step in that direction and it has been quite a healthy step!

Balancing the desire to cast the play with South Asian actors who have an understanding of the culture and mind-set of the roles with casting actors of the appropriate age and temperament for each role as well as finding actors that have the necessary experience and training to navigate Shishir's wonderfully rich language has been an incredible learning experience for me. It has required much discussion within the company and with the playwright as to what is more important -- casting ethnically specific? Or telling the story with the most experienced actors? What trumps? -- the most powerfully told story? Or giving an opportunity for a South Asian actor to develop in a role that s/he might not quite be ready for? In most circumstances these two qualities were not mutually exclusive but in some roles, particularly the older roles where there are fewer actors of SA descent working in Chicago we decided to hire actors with the experience and training to handle the technical needs of the roles and who could fit believably in the world of the play. This decision making process was one that we did not take lightly. Ultimately, I'm pleased with the balance of actors of appropriate ethnicity and actors of appropriate skill and believe the conversations surrounding this decision making process have informed my own understanding and perceptions of self. And in doing so have given me fresh insight into the intersection of race, culture and identity that I hope will inform our approach to the production.

This is a beautiful work and I'm looking forward to getting started on August 10th.

All for now,
Stuart Carden

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