The Mustard Seed
Iris C F Gomes
In Goa, Isabel de Santa Rita Vás is a name synonymous with English drama. Having written and directed numerous plays, this home-grown playwright of exceptional calibre, allowed us to partake of her vision of this art form.
Her illustrious career as a college professor of English Literature has included becoming the head of the English department at Dhempe College of Arts and Science. Her position as an English Literature lecturer indubitably led to her acquaintance with other forms of literature. She was often entrusted with the duty of putting up performances to embellish regular college programmes or whenever occasion demanded it. Her passion for literature and the bond that she shared with her students enabled her to immerse herself wholly in drama and its nuances. In time, the challenge and charm of transmuting play scripts into stage performances encouraged a more adventurous endeavour. Along with a group of young people, she set out independently to stage a well-known American play in the town where they lived. Thus began her foray into the world of theatre and all it offers.
On the topic of which plays and playwrights have inspired and moved her, she declares, ‘There are numerous playwrights that I admire, and many, many plays that have moved me.’ Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Milton’s poetic Samson Agonistes, J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea, T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral; these masterpieces are just a few that have made a lasting impression. Of the most recent works she has found South African playwright Athol Fugard’s Valley Song especially thought provoking. His The Road to Mecca is a particular favourite since she has acted in it. There are plenty of other plays and dramatic genres that Ms. Vás enjoys as she has also studied Asian drama.
The naissance of the Mustard Seed Art Company is the result of the mesmeric hold that preparing for a dramatic performance had on Isabel Vás and her group. These amateurs were so invigorated by the experience of their first play that they thought it a shame to stop at just one play. They agreed to keep in touch with theatre and one another. It was called The Mustard Seed Art Company because they believed a seed was a wonderfully rich metaphor for life.
Her experience with working with the Mustard Seed Art Company and various actors has been tremendously positive and every performance has been a learning experience. It is group energy that drives theatre hence there is little room for rivalry and one-upmanship. Drama is a product woven of interdependent arts like the written and spoken word, music, dance, costume, etc. Its nature of interdependency makes it a mode of art that will deliver optimally only with the aid of collaborative attitudes and mutual support. Ms. Vás says, ‘I never tire of affirming that theatre has been a powerful university of life for me, and I believe, for many who have been part of our group.’ Difficult moments are part of the deal and each brings a wealth of experience by itself.
Writers are stirred by various distinct themes at different times. For Isabel Vás it could be a certain character who has been niggling her creative mind to the extent that at some point she feels compelled to write about the personality. Great individuals making her list are Rabindranath Tagore; Abbé Faria, the great Goan pioneering hypnotist; Mahatma Gandhi; Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart and Mother Teresa. It could be something she has witnessed for herself or she has read about such as increasing violence, exploitation of the land or the place of women in society. Events or dates could bring to mind reminiscences and spark off debates which could in turn be converted into a play, for example, the historic liberation of Goa in 1961. ‘Sometimes even an image in the papers can rob you of rest until you write. You never know what insistent nudge you will receive next…’ she says.
Isabel Vás candidly confesses that she has never consciously written for social work. Playwrights delve within and about themselves and the world, therefore, drama always has a social dimension. A play is an occasion for discussion, provoking debate, dramatizing a variety of points of view, for making space for divergent voices, for creating awareness of attitudes, prejudices and relationships. In a way, drama tends to put life on trial and in doing so renders itself as a form of social work.
Her plays have never meant to be propaganda. Instead themes are approached and explored with subtlety, complexity and artistry. However, as members of society, social concerns and problems become naturally ingrained in and are reflected through the plays. The Mustard Seed Art Company’s very first original play, A Leaf in the Wind, raised social awareness of HIV/AIDS, an issue that was being treated with abhorrence and fear, and quietly swept under the rug at the time. The Dancing Statue spoke of communal harmony while Those Ragamuffins and Frescoes in the Womb revolved around the role of the arts in society. There have been occasions though when performances have been put up expressly to raise funds for causes and organisations. Run Baby Run was staged to set up a counselling centre at Don Bosco High School in Panjim. Some plays have aided in creating awareness of the work done by Sangath, a family and child health care and training centre in Porvorim. Those Ragamuffins raised funds for Muskaan, a foundation for cancer survivors. Proceeds from an art exhibition of works created by artists especially for one of their plays, went towards the fund of Positive People, Goa, an HIV/AIDS care, support and advocacy NGO.
Ms. Vás admits that it is not a lucrative area professionally as the theatre they do is small. Writing which aims at bringing in monetary gains inevitably ends up with the compromising of authenticity. To the question posed that there are people who have the derogatory idea that the arts contribute to ‘loose morals’, she responds, ‘That is a notion associated with Restoration England!’ But she does not deny that the world of theatre is very large and diverse and where ambition is the driving force the casting couch is bound to emerge. But there are plenty of theatre artistes who work to satisfy their inborn love for theatre despite the fiscal limitations it might impose upon them. They may not even be guaranteed appreciation for their work. People who work in the Theatre of the Oppressed (an interactive form of theatre), sacrifice time and effort to rehearse. They perform under trying circumstances and do not expect to be paid at all. She deems this dedication and commitment a high form of morality.
Her collaborations with organisations and causes have been more a matter of collegiality than charity. There needs to be a shared vision and a feeling of companionship along the same journey. ‘Which companions will surface as we go along? Time will tell. We’re still on the road,’ she says in conclusion.