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An unscripted performance explores the power of listening

You go in not knowing what exactly to expect from the India premiere of Two Women Talking, an unscripted performance in the form of a conversation between two women, which took place in Jagriti in Bengaluru last week. Would it be about sexual harassment, about abuse, the darkness present in so many lives but glossed over, more often than not?

After all, one of the protagonists, Monsoon Bissell, had written in the aftermath of the December 16 gangrape in Delhi about her own experience of narrowly escaping being gang-raped when she was 15. (Bissell might be familiar to some as the daughter of Fabindia founder John Bissell.) And how interesting could it be to merely watch a conversation in which you cannot take part, though it might be cathartic for the narrators?

As soon as the two come on stage, Bissell and Benaifer Bhadha, the other protagonist, take turns to stare at each member of the audience, which is a bit disconcerting. Then again, if you are to reveal such personal details of your life, you probably want to see the faces of those you are confiding in, in a manner of speaking.

Bissell begins, with a hilarious account of her stints at a naturopathy institute in Bengaluru, her previous associations with the city. She ended up gaining weight rather than losing any because she would scale the wall to fetch idlis for herself and her neighbour there, none other than the glamorous Zeenat Aman! Bhadha too talks about her fight with obesity, but her story is darker, though it begins amusingly enough.

The stories go back and forth, about childhoods spent in India, fond reminiscences of grandparents, being sent away to boarding school in a foreign country, the struggles there. The stories are personal and real, the kind one shares with close friends, and somehow you feel part of the conversation.

Bissell’s dialogue delivery is perfect, the punch line given deadpan, while Bhadha uses more gestures — a good foil. Towards the second half of the performance, the two come closer to the audience, giving a sense of making the circle smaller and start delving deeper, about deep-seated insecurities and vulnerabilities that you know are not easy to talk about, definitely not to a room full of strangers. The most disturbing story in the evening leaves Bhadha in tears, and some in the audience as well. By the end of the hour, you know you have witnessed something powerful, which is not just a performance.

In the short interaction that follows, Bissell and Bhadha give us a peek into what went into the production. The first time they had tried it before an audience, they had both read from prepared scripts and was a disaster. Now, it is unscripted to the extent that it was just before they came on stage that Bhadha told Bissell she would have to begin, and neither knows which stories would be shared each night.

And they never thought they would be able to perform in India — where they knew too many people but they finally did, coming “on a wing and a prayer”, and the encouragement of their director, Roy Sinai. Some members of the audience share personal incidents too, while others want to know how they could be a part of this. One young man, who indicates he is mocked for his sexual identity, wants to know whether they would take their work to rural areas and beyond cities, where these stories really need to be shared.

Later, in an email exchange about whether the process is cathartic, they say there is a lot of healing that can happen when you are listened to. “We have allowed ourselves to be invisible at times in our lives. There is deep hurt in erasure. And telling your story allows you to be seen. It is this being seen that is both healing for us and for those in the audience who see themselves in us,” they write. We find that by bringing our stories to different spaces we create a sense of safety for other people who are also looking to share their stories, they say.

The India plans for Two Women Talking are still evolving and the duo hopes to take it to other cities, encouraged by the response in Bengaluru. The next performance will be at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad on January 28, followed by a workshop on listening and telling.

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