BWW Interviews: Shunya Series - Directors Talk JUNGLE BOOK
Shunya Theatre's so nice, I interviewed them twice. Or rather, I interviewed them once and liked talking to the cast and crew so much that I decided to cut the interview into a four part series. In this installment, (numero uno) I talk to Directors Sara Kumar and Sunny Sinha. The partners in crime answer the question, "How real is Shunya Theatre's production of THE JUNGLE BOOK?" Spoiler alert: It's really real. If you doubt their realness, take a look at Director Sunny Sinha's finger gun. He's not playing with y'all. Co-director (and Shunya Artistic Director) Sara Kumar's finger gun could use some work. So, it is entirely possible that she is playing with y'all. But I wouldn't risk it.
BWW: How would you explain THE JUNGLE BOOK to those unfamiliar with the play?
Mowgli is a man-cub who is adopted by wolves. Because he's adopted by wolves, he learns the common law of how these animals function in their environment. Simple things like don't kill a man. This is how they live in harmony. He enjoys that. He likes that. He likes living in the jungle. But he's searching for something. He's searching for identity. He wants to discover. But this thing called laws is binding him because it's preventing him from understanding who he is. So, that is the struggle. Am I an animal? Am I a man?
Sunny Sinha: I think the central theme of the story is identity. Mowgli starts off in the village but then is kidnapped. And now he is in the jungle with the animals. When he's with the animals, he feels he is part of that group but everybody else looks at him as an outsider. So, even though he is with them, he is never really accepted as one of their own - except for a few individuals here and there.
Later on in the story, when he goes to the village, it's the same story all over again. The village people look at him as an outsider because they don't consider him to be one of their own.
Sara Kumar: That dichotomy, maybe, I think, is the central structure and the theme of the play.
Sunny Sinha: All the adventures that he has in the story, with the monkeys, the wolves and all the other animals eventually lead to the question "Who am I?", which, I believe, resonates with a whole bunch of people.
Sara Kumar: Though it's Kipling - and I think Kipling gets kind of a hard time because he's not taken as seriously as some other writers because JUNGLE BOOK seems simplistic - within JUNGLE BOOK there are fundamental philosophical questions that are unanswerable.
BWW: I see that you are focusing on the human themes in the story? But how do you reconcile what is usually termed a colonialist play with the vision of Shunya Theatre?
Sara Kumar: Kipling, well, he was born in Bombay then he went back to England and he actually wrote The Jungle Book in Vermont. We could define him as a colonialist. However, if we look at the material of the play, and this is true, it's actually saying it's a play about freedom. It's saying there is a power struggle occurring. These are basic questions. So is it colonialism?
Well, we're also talking about a system of elders within the jungle. That's a system of government that is being examined within the play. Then we go to examining a dictatorship with Shere Khan. So I think it's a nuanced play. Though the play is written by a British person who was part of the British empire, still, within that, I think he was able to see that struggle for freedom. [To Sunny Sinha] Would y0u agree?
Sunny Sinha: Yes. Some people believe that what Kipling tries to convey through Mowgli is a part of his own angst. What he felt while growing up in India. He felt a part of Indian culture and he felt a part of British culture as well. But the British looked at him as somebody who was much more Indian than one of their own. And the same thing happened with the Indians. They looked at him as one of the many aggressors in the country at the time. So, again, I think Kipling was searching for a little bit of his identity, where he really belonged.
BWW: Why did you choose to produce THE JUNGLE BOOK this season?
Sara Kumar: We were looking for a script and this script really stood on it's own merit. Unlike the Disney script, this particular script keeps a lot of the poetry.
BWW: How did you prepare for THE JUNGLE BOOK as directors?
Sara Kumar: It started with music.
Sunny Sinha: Even before we conducted the auditions for the play, we got together with our group of musicians.
Sara Kumar: For the past ten years, we've been composing original music for our productions. I like to start with music because I feel like it creates a texture, an aesthetic for the show. I think that's really fun. And, like I was saying, the poetry in THE JUNGLE BOOK is there. So we could start with the poetry.
Sunny Sinha: Before that, we didn't really need to get into a lot of the history of the JUNGLE BOOK because it's a story that we've all grown up with. When I was growing up in India, there was a TV series, which I used to watch. I was very, very, very dedicated to not missing a single episode. [Laughs] We've read the book and, obviously, seen the Disney movie at some point in time. So we really didn't need to do a deep dive into this book because the content is so known to us. However --
Sara Kumar: We learned something new every day.
Sunny Sinha: Exactly. [Pause] The perception of the JUNGLE BOOK in the eyes of the people is it's a children's story. It's a Disney musical. But we wanted to take it in a slightly different direction. It's not dark. It's not intense. It's none of those things. It's still a fun show. But it's not very Disney.
Sara Kumar: It's real. It's totally real.
Shunya Theatre's production of THE JUNGLE BOOK will run from August 8th to August 17th (Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM) at The Barn, 2201 Preston Street, Houston, TX 77003. For more info about tickets, pricing and Shunya Theatre, please visit www.shunyatheatre.org. For more information about The Barn visit http://dancesourcehouston.org/.