Faculty, Students Travel to India to Work on Theater Production

When the award-winning play Harvest opens in Kochi, India, next month, the credits for set, costume and lighting will go to six UT Master of Fine Arts students and two faculty members.

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Maranda DeBusk, Tannis Kappell, Henry Wilkinson, and some of their Indian colleagues learn about Indian culture during a bike tour.

Marianne Custer, a professor who specializes in costume design, and Kenton Yeager, a professor who specializes in lighting, have overseen the project which began in November and continued with a fifteen-day trip to India leading into winter break.

The instructors and the students—Nevena Prodanovic and Henry Wilkinson (scenery), Tannis Kapell and Maranda DeBusk (lighting), and Olivia Trees and Victor Bercher (costumes)—will show slides and talk about the project at noon on January 22 in the Lab Theatre at Clarence Brown Theatre. The presentation is free and open to the public.

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Victor Bercher and Olivia Trees make masks.

Custer, who has taught at UT for forty-two years, has been taking MFA students on an international trip every other year for about twenty years. Their destinations have included Mexico, England, Germany, Bulgaria, Turkey, the Czech Republic, and Wales.

This year, Custer contacted an old friend, a professor emeritus from Washington State University who now spends the greater part of each year working in India and is directing a play for Phoenix World Theatre in Kochi.

“I asked if he would be interested in having our students design it,” Custer said.

Custer said the international trips are a tremendous learning experience for her students, and they are a perfect example of Experience Learning—UT’s new initiative that emphasizes putting classroom lessons to the test in the real-world.

“Many of our students come from backgrounds where they have never been out the US,” Custer said. “A lot of them have never seen a wide variety of theater and art. I use this opportunity to open their minds to other cultures and other ways of doing things.”

As designers, they find that inspiration comes from everything, everywhere.

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Henry Wilkinson, Tannis Kappell, Nevena Prodanovic, Maranda Debusk, and actors from the production take a boat tour.

“There is nothing wasted in any experience,” she said. “These trips are a mind-bending opportunity for them.”

Harvest, an award-winning play by Majula Padmanabhan, is a dark comedy about the grisly, corrupt world of international organ trade, where desperate people sell their body parts to wealthy clients for food, water, shelter, and the hope of riches for themselves and their families. The play’s themes also include the economic and social legacies of western imperialism and technology.

The play opens in Kochi in February and will then tour around the country.

Before leaving for India, the UT students held Skype and video conferences with the Kochi theater team. During the trip, the costume designers drafted their designs and all of the students gathered details and insights so they could complete their work now that they’re back on campus.

The scene design students will finish the set model and ship it to India after the lighting design students have lit it in the Department of Theatre’s model theater and photographed the primary “looks” of the scenes. The lighting design students are also devising a system that will let them set up light cues from Knoxville and be present via the Internet for technical rehearsals.

Technical drawings for set and prop construction will be sent to India electronically, as will the costume sketches. There, carpenters and stitchers will work from the students’ drawings to construct the set and costumes.

The group’s trip to India took place December 2–17, and Custer chronicled their experiences in a journal

They spent five days in Mumbai learning about cosmopolitan Indian culture through walking tours and visiting art museums, galleries, and historic sites, and then flew to Kochi, where the culture is much more traditional, conservative, and religious.

After several days of work, the group took a short hiatus for a side trip to Munar, the mountainous area of southern India known for its tea and cardamom plantations. They saw waterfalls and monkeys, bought pineapples and spices, and some of the students enjoyed elephant rides.

Back in Kochi, the theater work resumed with a production meeting.

“The set designers had revisions and props to show; we made plans for color renderings, models, and lighting looks. It was quite successful and the director was extremely pleased,” Custer wrote.

The group continued to intersperse sightseeing with work in an effort to soak up all the Indian culture they possibly could. They visited palaces and markets staffed by aggressive clerks.

“It is a kind of obnoxious fast-paced pressure selling that takes the pleasure out of shopping, looking and contemplating,” Custer described. “Still there are wonderful things to look at: handwoven saris and shawls made of Kashmir wool, handwoven silk and the real pashmina from the neck hairs of the goat. There were carvings in fish bone and camel bone, carpets of silk and yak wool—a rich variety of handmade work.”

They visited a Buddhist temple and went to a Hindu snake temple, where an aged holy woman dressed in a white sari offered blessings and advice to worshippers. During one outing they got to see the Indian prime minister’s motorcade pass.

Another day, Custer wrote, “We all jumped onto a local bus for the very crowded, swaying, bumpy, sweaty ride to Chenai Beach, where we all changed quickly and plunged into the bathwater temperature surf of the Indian Ocean.”

Custer wrote about the streets (“I felt it a miracle every time any of us got into a tuk tuk, or any vehicle for that matter, and came out unscathed”), the food (“finding something that is not spicy requires some patience and diligent inspection of menus”) and the plumbing (“toilets outside of our hotels were things we would have preferred to avoid, though that was impossible”).

She also wrote about the people they encountered: “Indian people are like people everywhere. They are curious about strangers, but friendly to them. From people you meet in restaurants and hotels to the tuk tuk (motorized rickshaw) drivers to the people who are cleaning the bathrooms, everyone wants to know where you come from and what you are doing in India.

“The people of Phoenix World Theatre were great. Some spoke English and some only Malayalam, but all sought to make contact with our students, were friendly, supportive and helpful.”