‘Sitayana’ production allows students to become the teachers

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From the moment rehearsal begins -- cast gathered in a circle, hands pressed together as in prayer as a gong resonates across the space -- it is apparent that this is more than just a theatre production. It’s a community where there are no lead roles and everyone is a teacher.

“I am pretty confident that if you asked anyone in the cast that they would agree, it feels very much like a family,” said Thomas Baker ‘13.

Baker is one of the students serving in a directing role for the upcoming William & Mary theatre production of Sitayana, the epic Hindu story of Sita, “sublime princess of Earth.” Although Class of 2015 Associate Professor of Theatre & Africana Studies Francis Tanglao-Aguas is the director of the production, he has sought to make it a collaborative effort between faculty and students, with several students serving in leadership roles and every member of the production providing input from his or her own experiences, talents and backgrounds.

“In Bali, Indonesia, from where I learned the main structure of the ceremony, every household in the community contributes to the retelling of our source epic, Ramayana,” said Tanglao-Aguas. “So here, I teach students the integral value of what diverse innate talents every student brings. And the talent is becoming vast for every year that we increase diversity in our enrollment. This collaborative exercise would not have been possible without our efforts in diversifying our student enrollment, curriculum, and faculty ranks.”

Teaching assistants at work

Baker serves as the vocal director for the production, which also features music from the William & Mary Gamelan Orchestra now led by a student, Caio Davison ‘15, who is on a teaching apprenticeship with Tanglao-Aguas.

“Our Gamelan director retired, so when the Music Department asked if I would supervise the continued teaching and use of the Gamelan, it was a blessing I could not turn down,” said Tanglaos-Aguas. “The Gamelan, known as the world’s first full orchestra, is a set of sacred polyphonic instruments prevalent all over South East Asia.”

The goal is to make most of the sound effects in the show live, so those involved in the show have tried to minimize the use of pre-recorded music and sounds, said Baker.

A teaching assistant in Tanglao-Aguas’ Southeast Asian folklore performance class last year, Baker was one of five students who traveled with the professor and costume designer Patricia Wesp  to Bali in July 2012 to do fieldwork for the production. The trip, which was sponsored by the Charles Center, the Hunt Fund and a Reves Center for International Studies’ faculty fellowship, allowed the group to train in several aspects of Balinese performance, including music, dance, mask-making and the “batik” cloth-dyeing technique. Baker was particularly drawn to a form of chanting called “kecak,” which accompanies dance performances in Hindu temples.

“The way I think of it is like beat-boxing, but with a group of people,” he said. “Each person has an individual sound or pattern of sounds, and when they are put together it makes a whole soundscape.”

Tanglao-Aguas added, “Thomas turned out to be a natural in keeping rhythm so he became our vocal director of chant called kecak. It was all so auspicious because he learned from my very own master teachers in Indonesia, my original sources. That seldom happens so it is all quite auspicious.”

Throughout the semester, Baker and the other students have has been sharing the skills they learned on the trip to Bali with the cast of Sitayana. Because many of the elements – such as “kecack” -- were unfamiliar to Western students, the rehearsals began with Friday workshops on a variety of skills, including chanting, singing and dance.

Although Bindu Sagiraju ’15 did not travel with the group to Bali last summer, she has been sharing her personal expertise in “kuchipudi,” a classical Indian form of dance, with the other students in the production.

“It’s very rooted in Hinduism, so it’s closely tied to the religion,” she said. “It’s been around for thousands of years, but it was actually specifically for males only. I think just in the past two generations, girls have become more involved in it.”

Unlike some other forms of dance, kuchipudi focuses on using every part of the body at all times, said Sagiraju. These movements are especially important because Sitayana does not include dialogue.

“You have to be very conscious of everything,” she said. “You use your feet to keep the beat, so loud stomps are typically necessary, and then your hands pretty much tell the story and help convey the mood. And then your face also does emotions, and it will go all the way into how your eyebrows move, how your eyes move, how your neck moves, so it’s very detailed and intricate.”

Her kuchipudi dance training has always involved students teaching other students, so stepping into the role of teacher for the W&M production of Sitayana is nothing new for Sagiraju. However, she does feel the added responsibility of representing her own teacher and her community in Richmond well particularly because she inherited the Teaching Assistantship from her teacher’s daughter, Ameya Jammi ‘12, who was Tanglao-Aguas previous TA.

“Bindu and Ameya belong to the ranks of students who came to me in the past eight years volunteering to pay forward what they learned prior to being William & Mary students. This is part of dharma, that all who have learned something must pass it on, and the cycle continues,” said Tanglao-Aguas.

“I feel the pressure of that, this has to be good not just because of me but because there’s an actual whole community back home who are counting on me to do a good job with this, too,” she said.

However, Sagiraju is grateful to have the chance to teach her fellow students something that they may not have experienced before.

“When I first came in and told these kids what kind of dance I did, they had no clue. It’s just increasing awareness in that sense,” she said. “But it’s also more about learning to acknowledge and respect that this is from a different religion and a different culture, but that’s still okay.”

Everyone teaching each other

Although students like Baker and Sagiraju are bringing their unique experience and knowledge to the production, all of those involved are equally encouraged to provide their own skills and expertise, said Baker. Everything organically fits into the Southeast Asian aesthetic of the show because according to Tanglao-Aguas, “almost every performance tradition in Asia is rooted in classical Indian performance of thousands of years ago. What we have done here is a sort of reunion of performance styles.”

“It’s very much everyone teaching each other,” said Baker. “I’ve learned ballet; I’ve learned breakdancing moves, and I’m a director. I’m supposed to be a master, but I am just like any other person in the show. I bring my two cents, and it will be used somewhere and it just becomes a show – all of these little pieces manifest themselves into something bigger.”

In the end, Baker hopes his fellow students – and their audiences -- learn not only about Asian music or dancing, but that they experience the kind of community that he experienced in Bali, where performance is believed to be essential to the survival of society.

“The effect of that is that everyone supports each other, everyone is very interconnected and interested in what the other person is doing, and they rely on that other person and they know that the other person is relying on them to create something larger than themselves,” said Baker.

“That’s the real sort of message that we’re trying to do in this performance, that all of the little pieces that people are bringing are going to create something bigger than ourselves which is hopefully is a community.”

The W&M production of Sitayana opens April 18. Tickets may be purchased at the William & Mary Box Office.