Radio drama specialist Anthony J. Sloan creates ripples in Auroville's theatre scene by directing Stephen Briggs' play adaptation of Terry Pratchett's book Wyrd Sisters.
“Mike test 1…2… I am kiddin'! I am Anthony and we are at Johnny's lovely Fertile. You hear some birds – Heckyl and Jeckyl as we say in the US .” The unmistakable radio personality spills out of New Yorker Anthony J. Sloan who grabbed our recorder just as our interview begins. “Conceived, born, raised, educated and damn near drafted in the South Bronx , the real South Bronx ,” he rattles off his brief bio without a pause.
“You hit it. You quit it – basically that's what I like about radio drama,” he declares introducing his speciality. “The radio medium frees you and I am basically into justice and freedom. These are my tenets in life and what I look for… which is probably what brought me into Auroville.” Anthony is an African-American who holds degrees in English literature, urban communication and in playwriting. With his own theatre company doing off-Broadway shows, he has clocked up over 30 years in the field of theatre. Later he started a successful career in radio drama. “I like radio theatre because appearances don't matter, it's all in the voice. It goes into your ear only and your imagination fills in the gaps.”
Preferring to live very low to the ground and working mainly with people who have little resources, Anthony is a nomad who makes his home wherever he finds himself. His last sojourn was in Cape Town , South Africa , where he worked with BUSH Radio, a community radio station offering workshops to ‘township' boys on radio drama production. India came into his travel plans as a place to recover from a serious injury which had left him near paralyzed. “At Chennai where I landed, someone mentioned that there is this place called Auroville which would be a perfect place to heal, and foolhardily I arrived in the middle of the night, in high season just before Mother's birthday.” Luckily for him, André of New Creation had a space, and Anthony was able to put down new roots. “You know what they say in Auroville – you just end up here!”
While Auroville became his nursing pad, what Anthony had not bargained for was another relationship – an intimate involvement with the community through his first love of theatre. Within a few days of his arrival, he met Norman Bowler at New Creation. “This English guy, Norman , wanted me to ‘comment' on a play that was being rehearsed. I went there, saw the scene, and the situation looked pretty bleak, especially since they had less than a month before performance.” Anthony immediately stopped the rehearsal, offered his help to direct the play with the condition of “the right to rehearsal.” After a hasty conference amongst the cast, his offer was accepted. Thus Anthony got himself inextricably entangled as director of Stephen Briggs' adaptation of Terry Pratchett's ‘Wyrd Sisters', an ambitious production with a huge cast of twenty five. Says Anthony of this experience, “I still maintain it was duplicitous on Norman 's part to somehow get me involved, which he continues to deny.”
Then began the saga of learning for both sides… Anthony had to tread carefully but also swiftly as time was at a premium. He had to constantly remind himself that he was working with a community theatre group and not a professional company. “I quickly realized that I had to approach this as a workshop.” It was not easy being an ‘outsider' directing a group of ‘insiders'.
Anthony shares how it required a great amount of firmness to deal with some of the cast who would come to him with stories and excuses. “Basically I am trained not to go for excuses – ‘Oh, This is Auroville. We only do things this way' I don't take that. No! I'd say to them, ‘Yeah sure, but lemme explain somethin' to you', and I'd launch into my diatribe. Auroville is YOU! You change, Auroville changes.” For Anthony, one of the biggest challenges was to resist this ‘Aurovilian way' of doing things. “They wanted a lot of props but I insisted it be a costume drama and chucked out much of the stage directions.” Minimal scenery with creative props became a necessity due to the lack of budget. “It was a give-and-take process, many times with their will against my will.”
But an even more important challenge was the human element. “I had people come to me and say, ‘I don't want this person in the cast because we had a problem with him or her before.' And I'd say that it is the director's problem and they should not worry about it.” For him, the stage is a ‘sacred' space, where one can leave everything behind. “It is a different reality in theatre. It's a space for people who normally don't talk to each other to talk to each other, those who have never had alliances to have alliances or misalliances.” It appears that Anthony in his short stay here has hit upon the essence of what ails Auroville. “The point is that you have the opportunity for a limited amount of time to get over your miscommunication, therapy yourself and move on to the next level. ‘Cause if you hold a thought or a grudge against somebody in a small community like this, sometimes for 15 years, it doesn't make sense!”
Anthony is also quick to admit that there were times during the rehearsals when communication became a challenge even for him. “As I was seen as the bad guy, the dictator, or the evil-whatever, any exchange would become difficult. Then I'd say, ‘Go talk to Johnny, he knows how to talk to you, or go talk to Jesse, he knows how to talk to you' and that worked.” Anthony was lucky in that several of the cast were trained in theatre including Catya, the visiting stage manager from Ireland .
Was it an exasperating experience? He shrugs off the query. “I am a seasoned director with 37 years behind me, and believe me, I have seen it all. I know all the resistances. Basically people don't wanna go on stage and make a fool of themselves.” For Anthony, it is not about “getting the adaptation of Stephen Briggs right, or Terry Pratchett's view correct,” but to “take the instincts of the players, perceive where they are trying to go with it, and just help to bring it out of them.” Close to production, Anthony stepped back further, assigning increasing responsibility to the others. He views theatre as an exercise for the community including the audience community. “So they can see someone in a different light. ‘Wow, that person is really talented,' or ‘My goodness, why didn't I see that before' – y'know? For the next two weeks, everybody should be looking at Sam in a different way, Loretta in a different way, Jeff in a different way, the kids in a different way…That's what I want. It's not about being an auteur and wanting to impose my vision of things.”
The lack of time with only six rehearsals made certain things impossible for Anthony. “A kind of bonding you try to get with the cast didn't happen. Perhaps it was also because of the large size of the group.” But perhaps it did happen, for on the night of the farewell dinner when the entire crew got together to celebrate, the children who had minor supporting roles came dressed in costumes of the lead players and re-enacted scenes without an ounce of shyness. He regrets that there was not enough time “for sharing, enthusiasm, vision, and blah blah!” But there was magic. “People got into the mood. And it is amazing what people got doing when the adrenalin was flowing. Especially in Auroville because you only have opening night and closing night, with no shows in between for a downer.”
Another regret that Anthony has is that the theatre scene in Auroville is not organized, and this he believes should be the next logical step. “It is a shame because this is the kind of play that you do here and then travel around with, performing at other theatres in the area.” He feels that it should not be difficult to “put a group of actors and their costumes on a bus, be someplace for a weekend to do a Friday night performance, a Saturday matinee and an evening show, and travel back on Sunday. Everything is possible – just takes somebody to think about it.”
While his time at Auroville is coming to an end, he definitely plans to be here next year. “This is a great place to write and meditate,” he shares. Perhaps offer a play-writing workshop? “Well, it will be possible… but it will be easier if you had a radio station; then you'd have something to work towards.” He immediately takes off on that thought. “We could hook up the Sri Aurobindo Auditorium, which is a terrible audio space I must say, and use it as a recording facility for a little Auroville radio station. Then the possibilities are endless.” Anthony will be really glad to hear that the Indian Government has finally decided to grant community broadcasting licenses to established educational institutions. Auroville should definitely qualify…