Global Lab Fellow Devika Ranjan shares details about her journey and upcoming projects on an emergent artist in commemoration of World Theatre Day
The Laboratory for Global Performance & Politics
Written by Devika Ranjan – I come from eight suitcases and four plane tickets, my family’s first one-way flight from Mumbai to Pittsburgh. In the United States, we followed job opportunities that continued to move us from the mountains to the prairies to the sea.
I come from six-hour drives to the closest Indian store, hopeful trips to the hospital where my brother received life-saving treatments, and temporary shelving made out of cardboard boxes, always ready for the next move. I come from Bollywood movies – the 90s romantic musicals my mother would screen to convince me to reconnect with my culture. I learned to read from subtitles. I re-learned my mother tongue from Shahrukh Khan. I learned that color, dance, and joy are essential even in the most tragic of stories.
Every year, I started school in a new part of the country. I come from making friends quickly, sharing my hybrid cultural identity, and performing my nomadic sense of self.
As an immigrant, building community is survival. During my family’s moves, we were greeted by plates of cookies from neighbors. My parents swapped homemade meals with the only other Indian family in town and sat in Big Dig traffic so I could be with my cousins. My white friends learned to sing Bollywood songs from pirated mp4s. We found those who connected us to multiple ideas of home, multiple ideas of belonging. Now, as a writer and director, building community is a key part of my theater-making practice.
I come from facilitating workshops with asylum-seekers in London, using drama to help them to process their past, find friends, and prepare for their futures in their new home. I come from transnational artistry, building connections at the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, where Fellows worldwide commit to performance-making that imagines a better world. And I come from making theater that transforms audiences and artists alike.
At Albany Park Theater Project in Chicago, where I am Associate Director, I work with our teenage ensemble to conceive, create, and perform original work about immigrant stories. We interview community members about their life experiences, and devise immersive theater based off of the stories we hear from our neighbors and each other. Because the teen ensemble members meet the storytellers—or they recognize the storytellers’ experiences within their own histories—the youth perform the roles with empathy, holding the stories with respect.
In our upcoming immersive production PORT OF ENTRY, audience members will enter into immigrant homes, sitting alongside performers on couches, making food with them in kitchens, experiencing life with them as the characters make their homes in the United States. The political is made undeniably personal. In this way, both audiences and performers are entwined in a community of witness, holding the stories in empathetic embrace. I come from offering these stories to my communities, along with responsibility – civic, generous, interpersonal. I come from the responsibility to care.
“I Come From” is a storytelling exercise that comes from Albany Park Theater Project, in which people are invited to fill in the blank “I come from” with a true statement about themselves — as literal or as metaphoric as they’d like to offer. I Come From, although about the individual, is an inherently collective exercise — it invites people to search for connections and learn something new about each other, sparking conversation and relationship between people who may not otherwise identify as storytellers.
Especially within the pandemic, I saw my ensemble, audiences, and friends reaching for connection. My students are learning how to interact with others again, stretching their social muscles in play-filled spaces. Audiences are hungry for the unique exchange of energy that happens within a live theatrical space. Given the challenges of my generation — in which fascism, isolation, and white supremacy are deeply rooted in society — I find hope in strengthening networks of kinship and community that allow us to see others beyond ourselves. Contrary to Western individualism, my generation learns what immigrants have known – that in the face of grief and difficulty, we must expand the notions of family, invest in mutual aid, and build out networks of community care.
My generation is shaped by two connected and intensifying crises: mass migration and climate crisis. As a result, the way we think about community must extend beyond the human. On World Theater Day, I invite theater practitioners to consider the ways in which climate justice is implicated in all of our work — especially in centering sustainability in HOW we work. Maybe we take a note from migration — learning to adapt, to innovate, to reuse, to gift, to make a lot with a little, the magic that is bodies in space.
I come from collaboration in rehearsal studios, classrooms, and city blocks. I come from learning from and with others. And I go towards continuing to build community. I go towards climate justice and a better world for immigrants, and therefore for all of us. I go towards a theater that holds community at its core.
About World Theatre Day
World Theatre Day was created in 1961 by the International Theatre Institute (ITI), and is celebrated annually on March 27 by global ITI centers and the international theatre community. Various national and international theatre events are organized to celebrate an international message and remarks from national cultural leaders. The Global Theater Initiative (GTI), a partnership between Theatre Communications Group (TCG) and the Laboratory for Global Performance & Politics (the Lab), encourages U.S. theatres, individual artists, institutions and audiences to celebrate the occasion annually on the 27th of March.
Since 1962, World Theatre Day has been celebrated by the circulation of the World Theatre Day Message through which, at the invitation of ITI, a figure of world stature shares their reflections on the theme of Theatre and a Culture of Peace. The first World Theatre Day international message was written by Jean Cocteau in 1962. Succeeding honorees have included Arthur Miller (1963), Ellen Stewart (1975), Vaclav Havel (1994), Ariane Mnouchkine (2005), Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi (2007), Augusto Boal (2009), Dame Judi Dench (2010), Jessica A. Kaahwa (2011).
In GTI’s role as the U.S. center of ITI, a U.S.-based author is chosen to circulate a national message for World Theatre Day in addition to the international message. Past U.S. honorees have included Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and Steven Sapp (2021), Indigenous Direction (2019), Heather Raffo (2018), Kwame Kwei-Armah (2017), Ping Chong (2016), Diane Rodriguez (2014), Jeffrey Wright (2011) and Lynn Nottage (2010).
In 2022, for the first time, GTI invited a U.S.-based Emergent Artist to pen a message and that author was storyteller/activist Jasmin Cardenas. This is now a continuing feature of the U.S. celebration of World Theatre Day.
To learn more about World Theatre Day, visit the official website at www.world-theatre-day.org.