I build architecture in the theater that is not seen (interview with director Nitish Jain)
In recent years, the name of Nitish Jain has been turning up at various regional festivals co-organized by New Network. I visited his project Spoonfed as part of the Malá inventura just before the Covid-19 pandemic. It was my first experience of a theater in which the audience members are blindfolded. I was really intrigued by this fragile performance conveying both the abstract theme of birth and sensory references to the experiences of childbirth. However, I couldn't quite place the author of the concept, even though our paths crossed fleetingly at other times. I always found him surrounded by an international group of colleagues and I had no idea what they all had in common, or how they all ended up in this small Czech pond, or how they live and create in it. Then Nitish invited me to his work-in-progress presentation: Cradle, Fragments, which at last gave me the courage to crack at least a small part of the mystery, and discover the existence of the group
How long have you been doing theater in the Czech Republic?
I came to Prague in 2015 to study scenography as part of the international program of the Department of Scenography at DAMU.
That surprises me. I thought it must have been the Department of Alternative and Puppet Theater where you studied at, because your work isn’t exactly dramatic.
I have to admit, my studies at the Department of Scenography were somewhat challenging.
In what way?
As students we had no connection whatsoever with the reality of contemporary Czech theater. The international MA DOT program at the Department of Alternative and Puppet Theater, on the other hand, offers artists a number of workshops and internships so they can build a dense network of contacts, on the basis of which they can establish collaborations. However, the students on our program worked in complete isolation.
So how did you learn about set design?
Our teachers guided us to think as directors, dramaturges and scenographers all in one. Each time we had to come up with the whole concept, and then the teachers would provide feedback. The thing was, their opinions do not exactly connect with the contemporary theater. Every time we had to search for contact points between what they wanted from us, and our real creative intentions. We couldn’t work with the Czech students of directing and dramaturgy in the parallel years of the Department of Drama because it wasn’t offered.
It would seem natural to me to be in a dialogue with students of directing about their visions, and together to think through ways of embodying those visions in the set design.
If you could go back in time, would you study MA DOT at Alterna instead? Or would you prefer to avoid the Czech environment altogether?
Absolutely not, I am fascinated by Czech theater shows and find them very inspiring. However, MA DOT didn’t yet exist when I applied to DAMU. There was another international program at KALD, but its content seemed very open. There was no firm study structure to be read from the website, and although the program looked interesting, I didn't choose it because I was afraid I might get lost in it. At that time I’d only just begun to discover the theater. In India, I studied architecture in New Delhi, and I worked and taught in that field for several years before I came to Prague. So that's why I decided to study drama for a master's degree. The University of Utrecht in the Netherlands was another possibility, but it was the same case as KALD. However, I’m still weighing up whether to apply for the MA DOT.
What led you to switch from architecture to theater?
I mostly designed architecture for exhibitions, and made various temporary structures. Not large buildings, but pavilions, installations and ephemeral structures. I was already quite interested in stage design. I liked spectacular operas and was interested in their scenography. So I had the feeling that scenography and theater could be a meaningful step forward for me.
To be honest, I’m unable to imagine your path from the study of architecture through to such miniature productions as Spoonfed where, moreover, the audience is blindfold for the entire performance. You have technical knowledge many designers can only dream of when it comes to creating large scale scenery and yet you hardly use it in your work.
I don’t use it actively, but indirectly, yes. It may sound funny, but there is a lot of scenography in my work, only as audience you are not allowed to see it. I give a few very small hints with the help of which you can create spaces in your own imagination. Recently, since Spoonfed, which is extremely mobile, I have been thinking a lot about the practical issues and the spatiality of my work. I think about storage and where the props go when the performance finishes. And I also use my awareness of space and make a theme of it in the context of the performance itself, which has the audience close their eyes so that for them the space is completely transformed. The spatial imagination becomes a playground for them.
But why did you break off your career as an architect?
I don’t think I have broken it off. I was longing to learn new procedures and as I said already, I was never interested in putting up buildings. I wanted to work in smaller dimensions and experiment with their possiblities, to use their temporality. I sensed that theater could provide me with knowledge thanks to which I would find out how to develop further. What I create moves somewhere between scenography and architecture, between performance art and story telling. In 2018 I founded Studio MoreThanThat for the purpose of producing my own work; it is a company focusing on artistic research in the field of non-digital sensory experiences. These originated thanks to the media of architecture, performance art, immersive theater and the telling of stories – that are combined in our work. So I haven’t broken the architectural link and even in the Czech Republic I’ve carried out some architectural commissions. For example, in Uherské Hradiště I designed the interior of the Fčil Espresso Bar, and I also created the pavilion for the Czech exposition in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (Sharjah Heritage Days, editor’s note). Not long ago I designed the editing room for a film studio.
So you don’t have a problem establishing yourself in the field of architecture, because people perceive you as an experienced professional?
Well, probably yes, although I got all the jobs through friends. Andrea Pelechová, whom I met at DAMU, is the co-owner of Fčil. The leading musician Jiří Dědeček offered me the Sharjah project. He is the father of my friend Antonie, with whom I closely cooperate, and she also got me the editing room project. Currently, however, I’m not actively looking for offers because I’m preoccupied with my own theater work. Plus I’m leaerning Czech in my free time. So I’m not actually looking for opportunities, but if someone comes to me directly with an offer, I’m usually glad to accept.
So how do you earn your living?
I work as an English teacher in a state middle school teaching the eighth and ninth years.
Not art and design?
No, to do that I would need a good level of Czech. Sometimes, when one of my colleagues who teaches art is away, I stand in. But in that case I can teach in English and the kids love it.
Before I started recording, you said that you had just passed the official exam in Czech at A2 level. That may make it possible for you to teach art in Czech.
I would need to spend a month intensively studying the specific vocabulary and then maybe I could. But nowadays children have an excellent grasp of English, I don’t really need to talk to them in Czech. However, I don’t find the teaching of English really fulfilling. I don’t want to do it indefinitely. In order to move on, I conduct workshops in academies of art and generally try to focus on my artistic development in the theater.
Originally I wanted to start this interview about your work by asking whether you collaborated with Cristina Maldonado. Her project Insider resembles yours in that the members of the audience are also unable to watch the performers in the ordinary way. They wear VR headsets (yours are only blindfolded) and headphones. The performers also focus their attention to the audience in a “one-to-one” relationship and the performance is based on experiences of smell, touch and taste.
Cristina and I don’t work together but I was introduced to her by one of her students, Eva Rosemarijn. Eva and I know each other from DAMU; although we didn’t study the same program, because she attended MA DOT, but international students know each other across departments. I then worked with her on her project, that was shown in the festival 4+4 Days in Motion in 2018 in the Desfour Palace. It was called Gastronomie (Fine Dining) and appeared in the section Phenomenological recipes, which Cristina curated. It was again a performance for a single audience member; there were four performers to four members of the audience. They were blindfolded and taken to the kitchen where each of them had to prepare some food. The performers helped them and told them a story. Finally they were taken to a room where they sat down together. The performers placed the food in front of each of the audience members, took the blindfolds from their eyes and left the room. They left the audience members to eat what they had cooked together.
Did you take part in it?
Yes, and this was what actually sparked my interest in this kind of theater, emphasising the experience of the senses. The project excited me, and moreover, I found out that I have no problems in being a performer, as long as the audience is blindfolded and cannot see me. I liked this method of being anonymous onstage very much, and its discovery is an important landmark in my theater career.
Now I understand why and how you crossed from architecture to theater; but it’s still not clear to me how you got from your studies in the drama department to theater that I perceive as alternative even in the field of “alternative”.
I took some intermediate steps which explain that transition. In 2018 I wrote my Master’s thesis, which was based on a production of Erben’s Bouquet that took place at the Strašnice Theater. I chose four of Erben’s ballads – Bouquet, Water Sprite, The Treasure and The Daughter’s Curse. It was an immersive narrative-based performance for twenty people, inspired by Indian storytelling in the dastangoi style. Nordic music was used in parts and the whole performance was in English.
Did you do that work for the school? From the description it doesn’t sound very conservative.
We had asked for support from the Norwegian Funds and we got it. It was a project I initiated with Bard, a friend from Norway who studied at KALD. This all happened even before I began to write my Master’s thesis for which our only obligation was to submit a production concept. No one asked us to create something practical.
How did the link between the work for the Norwegian Fund and that for the department come about?
The scenography for the show was very challenging. For example, in The Water Sprite we had a gigantic grid, inside which the twenty audience members sat on chairs. While the actors told the story about a maiden who entered the water, the grid, with polythene foil attached, slowly rose, creating walls between the audience members. At the moment it reached the highest point they were each isolated from the others. We wanted to convey to the audience that feeling of separation, when you know there are people all round, you can even hear them telling the story, but you can’t see them and you can’t reach them. And then when the maiden returns to the shore and can speak to her mother, then the grid falls far enough for you to see the others but you are not yet together. For The Treasure we created a cave out of soap bubbles which disappeared when the girl touched it. And The Bouquet took place in a room devoted to burial rituals in different cultures. For example, there were urns; and vessels and structures in which the remains of Buddhist teachers were kept, which is widespread in Nepal, and we worked with archaeological motifs.
I never came across this producton.
We only performed it once. The scenography was seriously large, to the point where I couldn’t imagine how I would relocate it. It was my first and last piece on that scale. Then I decided to change my style of working and create performances using more amenable objects.
From the way you describe the project, it sounds pretty ambitious to me. What part in all this was played by the dastangoi narrative style?
Well, we got the grant from the Norwegian government based on the proposal that we would combine the storytelling traditions of diferent cultures. The Bouquet used a Czech text but we wanted to tell it in different styles. Dastangoi is from Persia, and it reached India from there. Two narrators dressed in white sit on a bare stage and they just narrate, leaving the different places, heroes, legends, to the audience’s imagination. Everything takes place in the Urdu language, which is a combination of Persian and Hindustani that originated as a hybrid when Persian soldiers invaded India. Dastangoi narrators gesticulate with their hands and thus create a story. Otherwise they remain completely static for maybe two hours. In India we had a workshop with an artist who teaches this style, and the actors then used those gestures and some of the techniques. However, as it was immersive theater, they walked around the stage and so they violated this format. To be honest I don’t think we were very successful. But it was our first attempt. For a good production to emerge it would require a demanding process full of trial and error.
And what stopped you?
Shortage of rehearsal time; we had ten or twelve days to the premiere.
That’s usual in independent Czech theater. And what did you feel really didn’t work?
The task we set ourselves, to link elements from different cultures, was quite tricky and we set it up in a very complicated way. First we changed the languages. A Bouquet is in Czech, the narrative style derived from Urdu, but we used English. If the performers had had real training in dastangoi, they would have done it completely different and would have known how to handle the techniques. What we actually did was to a large extent cultural appropriation. The actresses came from Ireland and Norway and we dressed them in dastangoi costumes to make gestures that gave the impression of being rather forced. If I had been in the audience watching this performance I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it because I would have known that we didn’t know very much about the things with which we worked. If it was possible to make such a combination work somewhere, you would need seriously large grants and lots of residencies to be able to think it through and try it out.
So you feel as though you committed cultural appropriation against your own culture, without being aware of it?
Yes, and as you said, we were very ambitious. So when we got the grant from the Norwegian funds we talked very idealistically about all those matters that theater should, people say, look like. Now we’re talking about it, I’m wondering why we decided to do this production in Prague at all. Wouldn’t it have been better to create it in India with artists there? We could have translated A Bouquet into an Indian language… When I grew up in India there was a tradition that one of the chapters from the epic Ramayana was always performed in the evening for twenty days and the last day, when the demon in the story was killed, a holiday was held.
Storytelling has a power that binds people together. It was like that in Iceland and in Norway when during the northern nights people went from house to house, gathering around candles and telling each other stories. I discovered somehing similar in my favourite Czech book, Grandmother. The story of Viktorka in particular can be related to life in an Indian village up to this very day. In ideal conditions I would process all twelve ballads of A Bouquet in that immersive form, one every evening. Again, it would be about community, about spending time together, and not just about coming to a single performance for an hour or two hours.
Only then people would have to set aside twelve evenings, which I can’t imagine them doing in the Czech context.
It’s the same in India. No one could devote twelve evenings to storytelling. It would have to be performed in some large shopping centre or on a square where the audience would spontaneously stop to watch the performance. And it mustn’t last more than twenty minutes. But maybe it would arouse curiosity and they would come back the next day to watch again.
I was amused when you spoke about the Norwegian funds in this context, because not long ago a colleague told me they were embarrassed to ask them for help. Apparently their application forms lead the artist explicitly to being very idealistic about their achievements so that they end up omitting any self-reflection.
Maybe there is something in it. The grant application for Kytice was my very first. I got the support immediately and the committee was satisfied with our production. I gained the impressssion that if I wrote more applications I would get more money. Only it doesn’t work like that. I then applied for support for various projects and residencies, and neither the Norwegian Funds, nor any other Czech or European grant committee ever seemed interested in supporting anything. That was a big discouragement because I don’t know what I did wrong. Is it connected with the fact that I don’t come from Europe? Or do people simply not like my ideas? Am I missing something that would interest them? And then I said I would stop chasing grants and create something I could finance from my own pocket. That was how the idea of creating Spoonfed emerged. It is small format because I invested my own money, which I didn’t have much of, in the work. I created the piece with my friends Ivana Atanasova, Ran Jiao and Lara Hereu, all of them who studied different programs at DAMU.. When it was ready we showed it to Adris and Petr at Malá inventura and they were enthusiastic and began to invite us to their festivals. At some point Antonie, who was studying production at FAMU at that time, joined us as producer for the show. So I got my investment back, and it probably would have paid many times over if it hadn’t been for Covid.
Spoonfed is a project based on proximity. It is connected mainly with the participant’s sense of smell and touch. The performers come into close contact with the audience, on a “one to one” format. This is not very practical during a pandemic of Covid-19.
No, it’s not, and as soon as the pandemic started it was clear to us it would damage our project. If it hadn’t been for Covid we would certainly, thanks to the cooperation with Malá inventura, have given more performances in the regions of the Czech Republic. But on the other hand – over the last three years more than three hundred people have experienced our project, which is not a small number if we take into account the fact that each performance is for only three people. And we sometimes played in an apartment just for one person.
I can’t help but notice that your new work Kolébka, Útržky (Cradle, Fragments), currently more of a work-in-progress performed once in Studio ALTA, appears very similar to Spoonfed, which originated in 2019.
It is actually just an expansion of the same production. Lara and Ivana, who are both amazing performers, have been a part of Spoonfed from 2019 up until now, and together we have been able to really refine the sensory qualities of this production. After three years playing that show I had gained enough confidence to decide to expand the work and perform it for a larger group. But in the course of development, we wanted to avoid a situation where we just multiplied the resources (props, number of performers, etc.).
So you’re not planning for example to have a hundred performers playing for an audience of a hundred?
That would be very easy for us, only we would need a lot of material and there would be considerable wastage. And what happens to the wastage? So I applied for a residency in Studio ALTA, where last year we played Spoonfed in the context of the Zero Point festival. They knew the project already and liked the fact that we tried to expand something that already existed. So, I invited Yu-En Ping and Mara Ingea, both of who are also international artists, but from MA DOT, to join us for ths expansion. I want the performance to remain intimate, however, even though it will be played in a larger group – at the moment an audience of ten. It loses its “one-to-one” nature and we have to resolve how to compensate the audience for the unceasing attention they enjoyed in Spoonfed. They have to spend more time alone and so we have to put more elements into the work which they can explore during these moments. But the beginning and the end will be the same as in the original project.
Spoonfed succeeded in conveying quite a luxurious experience because the performers actually figured as servants. The audience received from unknown people the sort of caring attention almost no one gets from anyone in adulthood. It felt to me like spa treatment for the soul.
We call that a “mental massage”. And we call the performers “sensory guides”. At the Lodz Worldfest, where you also met us, many of the audience members were young mothers. This was because they could leave their children in someone else’s care and devote themselves to their own program. After the performance they told us that they don’t remember the last time someone had looked after them in this way. They enjoyed it because most of them have to look after someone else. We are not only performers but really to some measure also servants. But it is important to strike a balance between the amount of care we provide and the openness which enables the audience to interpret the work in their own way.
Do you think if you devoted more care to the audience, they would stop creating their own interpretation?
In Spoonfed it sometimes happens that at a particular moment the audience is completely overloaded. If you are the kind of person who cn enjoy this kind of performance, then you just do whatever you want. People who cannot relax during such theater because they need to be in control of the situation tend to have a different experience. It is hard to generalise about what the audience feels. For some there is too little care and they perceive the whole communication as binding. For another person even that amount of care is already too much.
Do you ever get dizzy when you realise that you don’t have much control over the way your audience interprets your work?
No, not at all. On the contrary, I enjoy the fact that I don’t have to have to keep track of it all. To be honest, I even feel relieved that your interpretation is completely yours and we are only the authors of small clues.
I would feel unsettled if I didn’t know how other people are perceiving the work.
You would want to know?
It’s unusual not to know.
And when you watch a conventional production, how do you know?
I follow the atmosphere in the auditorium a lot, and several things can be read from it. Partly because actors are like sponges, soaking up the audience’s mood during a given performance and adapting to it. But here I can’t really perceive anything about others because my senses of sight and sound are blocked.
I’m aware it’s no small thing we ask of our audience, to block both the senses needed for long-distance perception and at the same time relying on their trust.What we want is for them to concentrate through their senses on the part of space closest to them. They are not accustomed to this, so it can disturb them. To balance it out somehow, we meet all the audience together at the beginning of the performance and peel the seeds from a pomegranate. Someone proposed there should be a passage in the performance when the audience members served the other participants in the same way as we did. Only that would not work: the performance consists of touches and it is important for the performers to know exactly how to carry them out so the audience doesn’t feel threatened.
And you really do have this under control? What if someone is terrified to be blindfolded but doesn’t tell you?
We ask at the beginning if the audience is all right about being blindfolded. Obviously, I can’t tell if people are saying “yes” because it really is all right or because they feel they shouldn’t say “no”. But that part when we ask for their agreement creates an imporant passage in the performance. If one of them refuses to be blindfolded, it can be solved. One colleague who is claustrophobic wore a white surgical mask over his eys and another woman simply closed her eyes. I can only hope and anticipate that participants will share their real feelings with us. Because during the performance we play wth vulnerability, care, and sincerity.
In Spoonfed you gave us the smell of freshly laundered linen, only I am allergic to washing powder and whenever I smell it I have to leave the room. You may not have anticipated my reaction and wouldn’t know about it if I weren’t telling you now.
And nothing happened to you?
(laughing) No, you exposed me to it only briefly. Nevertheless, I don’t really associate nice things with that smell.
Well, I’m glad about that. Our way of working is very demanding because you never know what you might trigger in a participant. We put in the the smell of freshly laundered linen exactly because we thought it was something that would link us universally with childhood. For example, Mum is hanging the washing on the line while you are playing. But our dramaturge, Ping, is from Taiwan and she didn’t associate this smell with anything because she grew up in different surroundings from mine. Many things are culturally conditioned and participants may link some elements with something completely different and others will say nothing to them. The perception of smell is probably very culturally conditioned. For example, we used wet earth, which in India is connected with the monsoon season. Nevertheless, a Czech friend associated it with petrol. But I believe that in most cases the audience is able to understand what we want to share with them and only ten per cent miss it because of a different cultural environment.
Do you find inspiration for this type of project in the Indian culture? Maybe in religion? From my short working visit in India I brought back memories of temples, where sacrifices in the form of food and perfumed mixtures were intensely fragrant. The religous experience there is combined with strong sensory experiences.
It’s true that touches, smells and tastes are a very essential part of our culture and as a society I think we are based more haptically. The culture in which I grew up provided me with a supply of certain materials that I draw on when I embark on this kind of project. Thanks to this I can judge what would fit and operate. It helps me when sometimes I feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin. This type of work is a lot closer to phenomenology, because we focus on how we experience things, and not on meanings. One friend said something interesting about that: that phenomenology is the answer of modern western culture to spirituality because it seeks meanings in feelings and sensory experiences. There are not so many people in India however who would devote themselves to phenomenology, because touch, taste and smell have already long been an integral part of thinking, so there is no need to turn them into philosophy.
Something else occurs to me about your question, that my current work is rather an answer to the very visual and noisy culture we now have in India, In this respect it is worse than in Europe. Everyone tries to thrust their own product right into your face, so you take notice of it. In Bollywood, which inspires other kinds of art, or at weddings and religious ceremonials, everything is about great lights, bright colours and spectacle. It is not about theatricality but about spectacle. Indian culture is characterised by uproar. People let things take their course and no one says there is no need, that it is not the only way to be seen and heard. I want people to close their eyes, to slow down. So I am not so much inspired by spirituality, I am rather defined with regard to the direction in which Indian culture is developing. Well, and then in a certain sense I am also inspired by my Indian childhood at a very personal level, because my mother died in 2016.
Your last two projects explicitly and at a deeper level take childhood experience as their theme. I told you immediately after Cradle that it could be an interesting production for families with children. The experience of adults during this performance resembles the normal experience of young children.
It is possible in the course of the performance to recall what it is like to have no control over anything and be fully reliant on the care of others.
At the same time the work, to an increased extent, and also in an unusual way, counted on combining images which are entirely private. That happens in every theater, but here we work with private ideas from unusual areas. As if this work, to a wider extent than usual, legitimises the moments in art in which the member of the audience simply does what he or she wants.
It really was our aim to give the audience greater freedom. We weren’t interested in meanings and interpretations but experiences, feelings, dreams …
Paradoxically, the moments I enjoyed were precisely those where certain actions carried clear meanings. At one moment for example something fell into my hand which was meant to symbolise either a placenta or a new-born bird. It made me very happy to have chanced on some clue, on something on the whole easily comprehensible.
You are bringing feedback which perhaps almost all the audience gave us universally. They said that when our event and story meet it is a marvellous moment for the audience because it really is immersed in their own imagination which is often filled with beautiful images. My team and I made one enormous mistake, because we fought tooth and nail against being literal and descriptive. As artists we fear these positions because they are perceived as mediocre.
Only if someone blindfolds you, the descriptiveness is suddenly completely different from what one perceives in the world visually.
Exactly. In the environment we created, every little thing is magnified enormously so it is unnecessary to look for overcombined connections. We have never even tried to tell a story literally. It never even occurred to us because to us such an approach seems too common and obvious. But after experience with this project I became aware of the power of the ordinary which turns our performance into a delightful experience. It was very stupid and ignorant on our part to presume we knew better than you what you would like. In Cradle we try to be more literal, but we are not always like that. Most obviously we wouldn’t for example let you hold a snake’s body while you listened to something about snakes, because many people would find that disagreeable. But I think if we let you imagine trees or a nest, then you’ll have a more complex experience.
Barbora Etlíková and Nitish Jain
translation Barbara Day
You can find more about Nitish Jain’s work at the web address www.studiomorethanthat.com