We Smell Stereotypes and Break Them - An Interview with The Adamant Eves
It was the evening of September 2017, I step outside the 120-seater auditorium hall of Rangasthala on MG road, few minutes before the clock was to strike 7pm and I see a serpentine line of people. They were the people who were there to come witness the first opening show of India's first all-women improv ensemble - The Adamant Eves (AE). Not only was that show one that went house-full but all the subsequent 'The Adamant Eves' shows have attracted audiences in droves. These are the ladies of Bangalore who came together on an almost-casual idea of connecting their love for improv and discovering the joy of practicing it as an all-women ensemble.
After their brilliant 18 month run, spanning 6 immensely well-received shows, I figured it would be very interesting to find out more about how this journey has shaped them and the improv they do together.
Three of the ensemble members; Balasree Viswanathan, Shweta Bhat and Aarti Shastry answer the questions I had for them:
Q: In one line how would you describe The Adamant Eves to someone?
Bala: We are India’s first and only actively performing all-women’s improv ensemble.
Aarti: Adamant Eves are India’s first all women improv ensemble.
Shweta: A modern-day coven of badass witches enchanting you with improv!
Q: Tell us about your Improv journey so far.
Bala: I began improvising with my college’s improv club in the US when I was there for school. When I moved back to Bangalore, I needed to do improv and so, I reached out to ICB and thankfully was given a chance to attend rehearsals. The rest is history :)
Aarti: I have been an improviser with ICB for over 2 years now. It has been eye opening. For one, it has taught me the power of imagination and stories. It has made me more aware of my surrounding, my thoughts and my actions. I have noticed things that happen to me on a regular basis with finer detail. It helps me reflect on my day, year, life with a telescopic and microscopic approach - which helps me lead a better life. Improv has truly been life changing for me.
Shweta: I started learning improv in earnest in early 2018. Before that, I had taken a few classes on spontaneous theatre, so I was aware of the magic of doing theatre without a script. My idea of improv before January 2018 derived mainly from the show ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’ – short-form improv formats geared towards comedy. I don’t consider myself ‘funny’, so I never really felt I belonged with improv, until I started training and rehearsing with ICB and the Adamant Eves. I was introduced to a whole new world much bigger than my own limited perspective – so many variants of improv, the concept of improv as theatre rather than for comedy, long-form improv, etc.
Q: Being an all-women ensemble, are there some notable differences, be it the good ones or the bad, that you have noticed than from when performing with men in any kind of a platform?
Bala: A negative aspect I have felt a few times especially with beginner male improvisers is their constant steamrolling! I’m sure women do it too but the instances of where a man just ignored what I was saying or disregarded things I have established are so many. It used to bother me a lot (still does to an extent) however, now I see it as an endurance exercise for improv and as an area of improvement for myself – I need to be able to hold my own instead of being negatively affected by it. On the other hand, women are much better at giving space and focus when needed
This quality though can be leveraged positively and I have seen it in a lot of improvisers I have worked with – the confidence and fearlessness with which they step onto the stage and save a potentially flat a scene. It is a similar fearlessness but with more listening.
Aarti: The energies are completely different. I would not say it is better or worse. Improvising with AE, that I have known for such a long time, gives me confidence and a sense of camaraderie. I think I have a better group mind with the women in AE than any other improviser (be it men or other women) but that is maybe because I have performed and jammed with them more. Also, I think it makes a lot of difference since we are also good friends and that the warmth of friendship is evident on stage.
Shweta: I haven’t really performed with as many varied groups but my experiences when performing with an all-women (or a majority-women) group have been quite different from performing with groups with more men. For one, the kind of scenes we do, the kind of themes we naturally gravitate towards, is different. With AE, we somehow play more diverse, inclusive and quirky characters while with other groups, there tends to be more stereotyping or playing characters with pre-conceived notions. Another example has to do with how much we play scenes which are comedic – with the Adamant Eves, we play scenarios showcasing diverse emotions, and with other groups “funny” scenes are played more often. However, I must mention that this isn’t always the case, and that ICB especially is bridging this gap.
Q: Are them some age-old stereotypes that still surface about women that make you clench your fists? Have you been able to address them in any of the AE shows?
Bala: In daily life? Sure, I personally have people trying to reinforce dozens and more stereotypes every day. In shows, as a team we are very in-tune with things like this and we work with stereotypical suggestions very well. I use improv as a way to deal with them in my own way - I spell some stereotypes out in some scenes or characters to outline how ridiculous they are. I also like to take a stereotypical power dynamic and flip it – it makes the audience think about some strongly held beliefs.
Aarti: Of course there are many. No one has personally come up and told me about it but I have heard from others. We have been able to address it in our shows and this one particular rehearsal session that really stood out for me. We were playing male characters - but the energy was not masculine at all. We did not change our voices to a louder and gruffer tone, we did not broaden our shoulders and position ourselves in a taller or bigger fashion. We played characters of men that were sensitive, soft, emotional and vulnerable, we tackled and addressed patriarchal stereotypes while being “men” on stage - which really is not something that we see on stage often. We want to break these stereotypes, and in many of our rehearsals and shows have unintentionally striven towards it.
Shweta: I love how intentional we Eves are about addressing stereotypes that are sexist or classist. Both during rehearsals and in shows we try to be as mindful as possible about this and as individuals as well as a group, our focus is to throw light on harmful preconceived notions (in the improv scene as well as in society). For example, we have played a few scenes where gender and sexuality stereotypes are challenged. One particular scene was played in our last show, which revolved around the youngest son of the family coming out as gay to his grandmother and how she responds to it. Another scene beautifully showed the delicate relationship between a boatman and his passenger and the class differences between them.
Q: I have personally been at your shows where I have seen both genders played out. When playing a male character, is there an attempt to play out the 'man' as the archetypal male, the way we know, or do you play out the 'man' on how you'd like for a woman to see him as?
Bala: No I don’t attempt to play men as stereotypical men if that makes sense. A lot of scenes that I do are played without gender even coming into the equation until the last minute. Sometimes the scenes end without knowing the gender of the characters. When I am endowed with a typical male name, it doesn’t change how I play them – just like how women are complex creatures with different dimensions, so are men. Besides, the idea of what is typically masculine is outdated and needs to die.
Aarti: I think I stated some of this in the previous question. Sometimes, I invariably try to “act more masculine” especially when I am playing high status characters like a King or a bully. But most of the times we are just ourselves and our fellow improviser helps us “discover our gender”.
Shweta: We’ve all grown up with notions of gender role expectations that sometimes limit how we show up on stage and in the world. However, as the Adamant Eves our endeavour is to first become aware of our own biases, and then to work on expanding our perceptions, with respect to gender. This work is tough, but extremely fulfilling and fruitful because I can see each of us playing women and men outside the archetype and without being gaggy – for example, female characters in traditionally “masculine” professions or male characters with feminine characteristics.
Q: Is there anyone you look upto (whether Improv or otherwise) who simply connects with your personal objectives in the Improv you do?
Bala: Kate McKinnon is someone whose work I have seen on television and I admire her a lot. Tina Fey is another artist I love and reading 'Bossypants' and learning about her improv journey has been enlightening.
Aarti: I look upto many many many people in the improv circle. For starters - all my Adamant Eve-ers bring so much of knowledge, either from their past experiences, their abilities to bring life on stage or by just simply being themselves. They are so inspiring, they make me want to do better improv everyday. I look up to all the experienced improvisers at ICB - not just because they’re experienced - but because they have taught me everything about improv. I knew nothing about improv before I joined ICB. ICB-ians have been my improv gurus since I joined them, and I am forever grateful for the knowledge they have imparted. All the instructors (also life coaches in many ways) that came during the Improv festival have been a guiding light - to help me look at improv in a whole new perspective. On a more personal note, I look upto my late grandfather, from whom, I feel, all this theatrical drama came in me.
Shweta: There are so many people I look up to in the world of improv, it would be a rather long list if I named each and every one here! To talk about a few, we Eves learn from each other, and each brings in her experience and skills in theatre and improv into the rehearsals. I’ve grown under the wing of these lovely women. I met Chicago improviser Jonathan Pitts early last year and it changed my life as an improviser. I’ve trained under the mentors in ICB – Nasir, Abhishek and Madhu, and each one brings in their own style and strengths, reminding me to be myself on stage. I learned loads from the people I met and took workshops under in the Bengaluru Improv Festival in November 2018 – Levente Molnar, Katarzyna Chmara, Nick Bryne, Michael Bird, Christopher Conner…the list goes on! Outside of improv, one particular inspiration is Brene Brown. Even though her work doesn’t directly relate to improv, she advocates vulnerability and courage, something I try to bring on stage as much as I can.
Q: What would you like to look forward to from The Adamant Eves in 2019?
Bala: This past year we have really worked on our on-stage stamina and storytelling and I am so proud of us! This year, I want us to keep working on this while exploring more formats and get into deeper musical work. I also want to increase our production quality – lights, sets, props, the works! I think that will really elevate our shows to something India has never seen before.
Aarti: I look forward to more and more learning - as an improviser, as a woman, as a human being. I want to do more long form shows with different formats. Musical Improv is something I am really looking forward to in 2019. I also look forward to tackling social issues through the medium of Improv. I see this pattern grow in the Adamant Eves and it is amazing. I want to do more and more improv scenes that have an element of social awareness in them.
Shweta: Exploration of different long-form styles and performing in shows outside Bangalore are the two things that come to mind right now.
Bala has tried a lot of different things in her short life and continues to add more to the list – but improv has always been a constant. When she isn’t doing improv ore related activities, you can find her in the gym or playing with her cats Ajju and Coco. She enjoys karaoke, discussions on intersectionality and cat videos. A sure shot way to get her to try something new is by saying “it’ll help you with improv”. To get in touch with Balasree, contact her HERE.
Psychologist by day.
Drama queen by twilight.
Asleep by midnight.
Shweta Bhat has been many things in her short life - software professional, teacher, writer, counsellor, theatre artist and poet. She prefers to be a Jill of some trades and a Mistress of some. Above all, she believes in doing everything out of love.
Hi, my name is Aarti. I am perpetually confused about my family lineage and am constantly dabbling with a lot of different things. Improv, however, has been a constant for the past 2 years. I am a saleswoman by day and improviser by night.
See more of Aarti's blogging HERE.
This interview has been curated and edited by Nasir Engineer. Nasir is the Artistic Director of ICB (Improv Comedy Bangalore)