Arts Interview Theatre

Kalaa Utsavam 2022: An Interview with Playwright/Director A Yagnya on ‘Between 5 Cows and the Deep Blue Sea’

When theatremaker A Yagnya’s play Between 5 Cows and the Deep Blue Sea was given a dramatised reading in 2020, we praised it as ‘relatable, fun and poignant’, impressed and hoping for it to receive a full staging at some point. 2 years later, and that staging is finally happening, as part of the Esplanade’s 2022 Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts.

Written and co-directed by Yagnya, Between 5 Cows and the Deep Blue Sea…follows the character of Girl as she struggles to come to terms with her identity, and battles with societal expectations heaped upon her. From Indian arranged marriages to modern dating, Girl undergoes a series of wild transformations and encounters, as she grapples with the myriad of facets to her identity.

“The original idea behind this work started in 2018, when Sharda Harrison and her company Pink Gajah held their magic.lab programme. I came up to Sharda and had a casual chat with her about the idea for 5 Cows, and she ended up pairing me with Shanice Stanislaus to devise an early version of the play,” explains Yagnya. “Since performing some of those early scenes in Sharda’s own living room, the play has continued to grow and change, being adopted by Brown Voices to help develop over informal table reads and getting feedback, and Grace (Kalaiselvi) helped pitch it to the Esplanade, where programmer David Pandarakannu picked it up.”

Of course, what then happened was the dramatised reading it received in 2020, streamed online during the height of the pandemic, as directed by Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, and performed by Sajini and Kewal Karthik, where it received positive responses. Between then and now, the play continued to grow and evolve, with additional feedback from other theatremakers such as Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma of The Necessary Stage. As it turned out, Alvin would go on to continue working closely with Yagnya, not only on projects such as Bridging The Gap, but also ending up co-directing 5 Cows alongside her.

“After that reading, I decided it was time to let the script rest a while, and that’s when I worked on other things like Bridging The Gap, and Playwright’s Cove, and when you finally come back, you can see the ‘cringe’ moments more clearly than before, and really edit it properly,” explains Yagnya. “And over the course of the process, I invited other people to come onboard and offer more feedback, and it was so much reflection on how much it’s changed and evolved. I’m proud of how far it’s come.”

In terms of how the work has evolved, Yagnya elaborates on how she went ham on the magic realism, and bringing that to an even greater extent to stage. “I watch a lot of Disney and anime, and read Murakami as well as research Japanese theatre, and all of that sort of comes into this chaos that I bring to the stage and translates to Girl’s world,” says Yagnya “A lot of times it’s the sense of Girl being thrown around, and sharpening that vibe in the new version. And now, Girl also learns to take more accountability and introspection towards her life. She realises how crazy and carnival-esque the world outside is, and so she retreats into herself to consider and process all that’s happening, and thinks what do I do now, where do I go from here.”

On the process of working with Alvin as co-director, Yagnya is thankful for his assistance, and recalls her own experience growing up close to The Necessary Stage. “It was quite funny because he started off as the sole director, but I’m the kind of person that’s a very kaypoh playwright, and I kept going ‘can we try this, can we try that’ until Alvin just said ‘Maybe you can co-direct,'” says Yagnya. “And Alvin isn’t territorial, and neither am I. It’s a very intuitive working style where we respect each other. Alvin was also concerned about him not being Indian, and wondering if it was his play to direct. But I do want the play to go beyond the Indian context and audience, because I don’t want to pigeonhole myself as just a Tamil theatremaker. So the main issue was me coming in with my own ideas, along with locking down certain cultural references and deciding how much of it to explain within the context of the play, or allowing audiences to figure it out on their own.”

On the creation process, Yagnya describes the creative chaos she experienced, and the satisfaction of working with such a large and supportive team. “My WhatsApp is filled with maybe 10-20 groups relating to the show, from the design group, to the cast group, to the production group, and I have to be reminded to wear different hats with each chat I enter,” she explains. “But also, I’m thankful there are so many eyes on this work, with so much dramaturgy that goes into it, and how I’ve learnt from Alvin and Haresh to create this freedom in the room for anyone to speak, and have all this input during the process. There’s a lot of value in that refinement process, and all the way up till October, we were editing and rewriting parts, and so satisfactory to see the play at the end of that journey.”

Speaking on the feedback she’s received from various parties, Yagnya notices a clear difference in reaction from audiences of different generations. “A lot of people my age are very ‘yasssss thank you’ when they watched the play, but then you have my relatives who come from a more traditional background, and wondering if it was speaking quite strongly against tradition,” says Yagnya. “My own parents wondered if it was a balanced approach to the issues, and I kept thinking about whether I needed to, or would be able to balance it out more. And this affects me, because my main audience are people who aren’t theatre trained, and I enjoy it when people don’t agree with my points of view, because it provokes some dynamic responses and questions.”

Those responses in themselves speak volumes about the sheer complexity of the Singaporean Indian identity. “I wanted to question that stereotype, and expand the idea of the Singaporean Indian woman. People asked me why I was portraying Japan in such a good light, and well, Indian women can speak Japanese or German or anything if they like, whether or not the face ‘matches’ the language,” says Yagnya. “I know a lot of younger women who are into Korean culture or study Chinese as a third language, and I’m trying to represent that onstage.”

“I also thought about Aswani Aswath’s Absence Makes The Heart… at Centre 42, and about the representation of Indian bodies onstage. It’s undeniable that I’m a brown person in the theatremaking scene, and people will no doubt see me that way, and it’s not a problem, but I want to extend the possibilities that has,” she adds. “I’m still very much exploring that idea and the work I write, and no matter what kind of character I put onstage, it will be a ‘brown’ work because I’m writing it from my perspective and experiences, even if say I write two Chinese characters speaking in Mandarin. As a lighter skinned Tamil Brahmin, I know the immense privilege I have, and that will colour my view.”

In this edition, the role of Girl will no longer be played by Sajini, and instead, be played by Indumathi Tamilselvan (who previously worked with Yagnya and Alvin in subTITLED 1.0), “Sajini does a great job, but she’s also a big personality in the Indian entertainment industry, and that comes with its own perceptions and assumptions,” says Yagnya, on the casting change. “I also wanted to divorce the character of Girl from myself, to go beyond myself. Indumathi brings a very different energy to the stage, and she comes in with a lot to give, and works well with Kewal, who has this crazy energy too, and that I worked with before for an ITI Noh theatre module.”

And as a relatively younger theatremaker, Yagnya also doesn’t feel constrained by the expectations of the older generation or ‘hierarchy’ in the industry. “Alvin and I work together so well because we see each other as collaborators, although he still is my mentor. I think we’re both comfortable enough to exchange feedback and criticism, and take it, or have a healthy argument about it,” says Yagnya. “For me, I’m still searching for my voice, and I think the minute you stop searching is the minute your work dies. I think theatre should be about constantly discovering something new in the process of creation.”

“It may be tiring to juggle it with my 9-5 job, but the freedom I get from doing what I do now, I’m glad for it, and thankful I can still pick and choose the artistic projects I get to do and develop,” she concludes. “For now, my number one priority as a theatremaker is to develop my personal voice and style, kind of like an auteur, and to keep evolving my craft.”

Photo Credit: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Between 5 Cows and the Deep Blue Sea… plays from 25th to 27th November 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets available here

Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts 2022 runs from 18th to 27th November 2022. Full programme and lineup available here 

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