Stray Factory from will be performing as part of Speaking of Theatre 2016 on 2nd & 3rd July’16. This conversation aids in providing a peek into this Chennai based group. Do watch their collection of shorts – “Anthology“. Tickets on BookMyShow.
Straying Beyond Conventional Borders – A Conversation with Mathi From Stray Factory
(“Mathi”), founder of the award-winning Stray Factory, is a paradox – he carries with himself a precarious balance of the laidback and the passionate, the easy-going and the driven, going from an industrial engineer who’d studied the psychology of technology users to a writer-director-actor manipulating the psychology of the theatre audience. As a design researcher and theatre aficionado myself, I find this paradox exciting. I envy the seeming ease with which Mathi and Stray Factory straddle different worlds – sometimes literally. Their performances and settings range from little villages in India to the big city lights of Sydney and Dubai. Their characters span a similar range, as do their storylines and approaches. So much so that they don’t even call themselves a theatre company, preferring instead, the all-encompassing (if vague!) “entertainment collaborative”. I explored some of these questions with Mathi, founder and captain of the Stray Factory ship, as he halts at “Speaking of Theatre” a 2-day theatre confluence curated by Tahatto and Atta Galatta, on the journey to more unknowns!
Snippets from a conversation with Aarti Shyamsunder (on behalf of Speaking of Theatre):
AS: The first thing I noticed about Stray Factory is that you describe yourself as an ‘entertainment collaborative’ – not a theater company, not even a collective or ensemble 🙂 Why do you describe yourselves this way? Tell us a little about the origins of Stray Factory.
Mathi: The description wasn’t really a well thought-out decision or anything…I just knew going into this, that I didn’t want to be restrictive. Ultimately it’s all about story-telling, isn’t it? We knew from the beginning that we wanted to experiment. Another reason – for the ‘collaborative’ part especially – is that I like working with people a lot, to learn by working with different mediums and different people. I founded Stray Factory in 2010 but its identity has more or less crystallized over the last 3 or 4 years. So at its core today, Stray Factory is both, a performing arts company and a new media (including digital and online) company. We are also very interested in exploring the ‘glocal’ entertainment idea – using local aesthetics but being able to present stories to a global audience.
AS: What is the inspiration behind your productions?
Mathi: 90% of our work is original. We realized that the stories that excite us aren’t on paper yet, and so we decide to write them! We enjoy the process a lot but are still open to others’ ideas – like we met this Australian playwright whose work we loved and so we performed his play. But in general, we look around us for inspiration – current events, things that bother us… We work with what people know and can bring to the table. We are an odd mix of people because of this [laughs] – we meet someone who can play the flute, or speak a new language, or have a quirky voice or body style, and we find interesting – and we find a way to incorporate them into a piece.
The downside to that, in a way, is that we are always a ‘work in progress’, always evolving our content. And we’ve realized that that is okay!
AS: And Anthology? Is that work-in-progress? What’s the connection between these 5 short plays?
Mathi: The plays are not connected in terms of storylines, but there are similarities across them. The same people perform all of them, stylistically there are some common threads. But they’re a mix – some of them are just brilliantly performed, even if the writing is just average, others are written better…The language of theatre keeps changing, and these plays reflect various stages of where we are in that evolution too.
AS: One thing that keeps changing for you is where you perform. Stray Factory seems to have performed all over the world. How did that happen? Do you have a favorite venue or experience to share?
Mathi: You know, we weren’t even thinking about this consciously…were always just keen to learn. We like borrowing locally from a lot of the places we go to as well. E.g. on our trip to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur – we just loved the way they speak. So we localized our performance a little bit, used a little Malay etc. In Sydney – the sense of humour is unnerving and raw. But through a workshop there, we also picked up things like how they speak, how they get things done – it’s so professional and classy – like, they serve wine before the show!
One of my favourite experiences was when I was in South Africa – this was by myself actually, and it was for a monologue performance. But I had no clue what I was doing – I learned to do everything myself, right from setting up at the venue, to distributing flyers, to actually performing – and then I walked out feeling so special, but nobody gave a shit! I really cherish that experience J
Another memorable experience was in South Africa – we performed for prisoners at a jail there. The first shock was that they were all so young – 18 and 19 year olds! After the performance, we asked what they were in for – most of them were in for rape!! We came away questioning what we had just done – we share a special relationship as performers, with our audience, but these were rapists! It makes you think…
But no matter where we’ve gone, we have had fun and learned a great deal.
AS: Any favourite spaces to perform?
Mathi: I think it will always be the Alliance (Francaise) for me, in Chennai. It’s a personal thing – it takes me back to when I was starting out, as a 21-year-old with no direction or no idea about it all. It’s a space that I cherish for those memories.
AS: And how have things changed? Is there anything you dislike about the theatre scene today?
Mathi: There’s really nothing to hate…but I wish some things were different. Like, the amount of infrastructure support and focus on the arts is abysmal. We are making ourselves intellectually poor because of this…we don’t even have spaces for people to rehearse. Theatre runs on the goodwill of people. Lots of artists have lost out on great opportunities because the support simply doesn’t exist. For instance, in Chennai – everywhere you go, you see so many temples, posters and statues of politicians etc. but no visible symbol of support for the theatre or similar art forms! Even if there’s no monetary support, there are other ways to support theatre – like giving us space and just honouring it.
Another thing that annoys me is that some people have distilled theatre to a very simplistic thing – it’s because of this cinematic culture – people used to the world of cinema don’t have the right measures to critique theatre, yet they do.
Oh, and I really hate it when people ask me, “What’s the message in your play” – as if it’s this pure, moral medium which should be a moral or social message. Sometimes, it’s just fun and entertainment! I say, respect the purity of the process, but enjoy the outcome with a more easy-going attitude!
AS: How are events like Speaking of Theatre helping? What are you looking forward to with your involvement in SoT 2016?
Mathi: Very simply – sharing experiences with others. There is no single way to do it “right” – to create a theatre company or a show. But I do know that our experiences have been unique and interesting. In forums like SoT, if I am able to share my story then others understand that this is yet another way to approach theatre – there are so many options. We spend too much time consuming all day – it’s time to take ourselves a little more seriously and share more with others, and that’s what I’m looking forward to with SoT!