I decided to take the fall semester off from teaching. I wanted to volunteer my abilities somewhere in the world. With guidance from a friend and Volunteers in Global Service, I exchanged emails with Visthar: an Academy for Justice and Peace in Bengaluru, South India. “Visthar” means open space. What I discovered right away was that the work of Visthar dovetailed with my own: gender, sexuality, religion, education and theatre.
Visthar presents workshops on the intersection of gender, sexuality and religion to lgbtq activists, social workers, students, women pastors and inter-faith leaders. Within the trainings, Visthar asked me to offer a theatre workshop that allowed participants to creatively embody and strategize these issues.
What I want to write about here is how theatre and religion can be sisters. I’ll focus on just one part of my journey in India— my experience with Visthar’s Bandhavi residential school program for girls. I collaborated with sixteen girls for a week to create a play that would then be performed in one of the local villages.
Saturday, Oct. 18 : Bandhavi is located in the northern part of the state of Karnataka, out in the flat and fertile countryside. I arrive in the nearby town of Koppal by overnight train from Bengaluru..
We begin our work of creating a play together the next morning under a tree…. a shrine to the Goddess Jedagama/Durga. And so we sat under the protective branches of a very large Neem tree, that was the center of the shrine. We asked a blessing for our creativity and collaboration, a blessing for struggles, we thanked the Mother and then we put the red powder of blessing on each of our foreheads.
We learned that trust in each other is crucial through playing a theatre game: “blind walk”—trusting the other to lead us to new textures and objects as we keep our eyes closed. Here were their comments following the exercise:
–I did not recognize anything I touched, except textures of things.
–I will trust because she trusted me
–I felt I saw/imagined the worker of everything I touched [a rice bag, a lattice piece]
–now I am aware of the beauty of walking
–I learned I was afraid — I was afraid and then she gave me a flower to touch, and I trusted her
–she felt like it was my mother leading me, taking care of me
–blind people have their light in side—we all do
–so many things we can’t see—but all is there when we close our eyes…..when we close our eyes we can see more
Who we are: Urja, Ganga, Yellama, Kaviangeli, Mala, Goori, Maria, Aishvarya, Devima, Durga, Sampoti, Heymawatee, Nagama, Shasheekala, Yashoda, Sonya…….and Sheela my collaborator [an actress/singer and all around theatre person and a mother of 2 wonderful girls.
In the afternoon I asked them to sing children’s songs they know: “Let me fly, mother” “Learn while you play” [for learning words like: ama, games, creatures, Creator/God, child] “Ask the Crow” –sung on the arrival of a person, “In her Dream” [she went to the moon’s world, sun, and stars…]. I also asked them to play games they knew: Hide and Seek/blind fold, Under the bridge. I was following my intuition with the hope that these songs and games might be forms for our work together.
I notice they call me “madam.” Some call me “ama” [mother]……I say “call me Victoria.” Their names are, at least here at the beginning, so difficult to pronounce. And so I begin to call each one, sister. “Thank you, sister.” “Good morning, sister.” And it sticks. We all begin to call ourselves “sister.”
From Monday to Thursday, we built the play– “Come Fly to the Dream.” It is built on the structure of children’s games and songs—but tells the stories of the girls’ mothers and the relationship of each girl to the Sacred.
One evening in rehearsal, we turned off the lights lit a candle and began a conversation about the Sacred. What is it? I asked: it’s a search, it makes you feel better; there is no God—I am God; God is a tree; someone who helps us is God; the environment is God. What in your imagination does the face of God look like? Her tongue is out and she’s angry; she has wild hair and wears a sari; God has a monkey face; the face of Jesus has thorns; the face looks like ourselves.
We began an exercise. Everyone laid on their backs on the floor. There was the flickering of the candlelight. I asked them, starting with the bottoms of their feet, to feel God/Sacred/Shakti-Energy moving up through the entire body. Next I asked them to slowly rise, in silence, hanging on to that Shakti-Energy/God in them as they walked about the room. My collaborator Sheela and I gasped as the girls slowly stood and moved around the room, their giant shadows filled the candlelit walls. We viscerally felt a huge presence of Energy/ Spirits/? This went on for many moments.
What does the future look like from where you are? I asked. Three said there would be another tsunami; another, Pakistan haunts us; another said people trust, the world will develop more, but the environment will spoil; floods will happen, and we will have to move; all will get equality; all will work.
I asked them to slowly sit ,nd take a piece of paper and pencil and write what the God/Shakti-Energy wanted to say to the world, to women, to men, to children. When they finished I asked them to stretch and breath as they released the Shakti-Energy/God.
Several scenes that became part of the play came from this exercise. One of them was this short dialog:
Nagama [a nine year old girl]: Sister, I think about these questions: who am I? where do I come from? Where am I going? What do I believe in? Do you have these questions?
Urja [a twelve year old girl]: Sister, yes, I too have questions, but my questions are different: why do some people have so much and some so little, and some have nothing? Why do people hurt each other? Why is there hatred?
Nagama: A long time ago I was born as a God. Do the Gods have the answer?
Urja: Sister, if they do have the answers, I think they work through us.
The performance of the play, “Come Fly to the Dream” took place in the village of Kodadal, a Dalit village, October 24 with some 200 children and adults in attendance. After the play there was a Q & A and many children [last photo] got up and told their dreams for themselves, just as the young girls in the play had also told their dreams for themselves.
It was an extraordinary week. Many deep feelings of gratitude for how giving and honest the young girls were in creating their theatre play……and Sheela, my collaborator and translator was spectacular to work with. Together, we all indeed did fly to our dream. And amazingly enough, we began under a Neem Tree and we ended, under a Neem Tree!! Indeed the Goddess was with us.
If you wish to read more about Victoria’s journey and work in India, connect with her blog.
Victoria Rue, M.Div., Ph.D. is a Roman Catholic woman priest, a lecturer at San Jose State University in Comparative Religious Studies, Women’s Studies, and Creative Arts, and a theatre writer/director. She teaches courses in gender-sex-religion, and senior seminars in creative writing.
As a theatre director, Dr. Rue’s work has been seen in Los Angeles, NYC, and San Francisco. For ten years she was on the teaching faculty of the American Conservatory Theatre of SF. Her book, Acting Religious: Theatre as Pedagogy in Religious Studies, is widely used by professors and offers theatre as a method of teaching religion.
In 2005 Victoria was one of four women ordained as priests on a boat on the St. Lawrence Seaway by three women bishops. Victoria is part of the organization Roman Catholic Womenpriests which has over one hundred and fifty women priests in the United States. www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org She has helped to found 4 small faith communities in the Bay Area: www.sophiaintrinity.org