How theatre transformed my relationship with my body

Continuing the Body Positivity Project, today on the blog we have Supriya Rakesh – a researcher, creative facilitator and fiction author from Mumbai, India. As a passionate story teller and theatre lover, in today’s article she shares how she discovered that theatre can be used to explore our inner worlds and how it transformed her relationship with her body.


As a kid, I was the quintessential bookworm, or as the other kids called me ‘a nerd’.

Thick glasses, rank-holder, reads as a hobby- the complete picture. Growing up, this was the side of my personality I leaned into. Sports was an undesirable compulsion. Pictionary and Dumb-charades were favourite games. Sitting still (with a book or daydreaming) was preferable to moving my body in any way or form. As I progressed from school to college, I traded in my glasses for contact lens, baggy shorts for bootcut jeans, and novels for friends.

How theatre transformed my relationship with my body | My Swiss Story

While I managed to shake off the nerd image, I acquired a new one. Foodie! Someone who said ‘I’m hungry’ all the time, devoured everything with extra cheese and butter, went on diets over the summer, that had failed miserably by winter. I was self-conscious about being larger than my friends, M in midst of petite XS, voluptuous or ‘pleasantly plump’ as I was described, both with affection and as consolation. Suffice to say that my relationship with my body was coldly aloof at best, and awkwardly embarrassed, at worst.

Most of the times, I lived in my head, overthinking and intellectually analysing the world. My body followed me at a quiet distance, something to be managed and perfected, dressed up and concealed.

How theatre transformed my relationship with my body | My Swiss Story

Cut to my late twenties.

I was married and had moved to a new city. I did not have many friends here and felt stuck in a job that I didn’t enjoy. I loved studying about human behaviour in theory or concept, but did not enjoy socialising or connecting with new people. When I joined a PhD program, I felt like I had climbed higher into my lonely mental tower.

Then, theatre entered my life. And nothing was ever the same.

My first encounter with theatre was a course in Playback, a form of interactive, improvisational theatre (popularly known as Improv). I came across a brochure while looking for things to do, and something within prompted me to join.

How theatre transformed my relationship with my body | My Swiss Story

With this, I took my first steps into a whole new world, which changed my life and transformed my relationship with my body. Here is how.

Body likes to move

As a young woman, I was conditioned to always carry my body with elegance and poise, dressing to hide the so-called imperfections and flaws. I remained self-conscious about clothes, choosing the ‘flattering’ versus the ‘fattening’. I even posed for pictures in a way that would highlight my ‘good side’! But when I started my theatre training with games and exercises, all those inhibitions went straight out of the window.

I had to walk at different speeds, form alphabets with my body, trust-fall from a high wall, wrestle with an opponent. I had to learn to loosen up, get silly, and move with abandon. I remember a scene where I had to play a 4-year old throwing a tantrum, rolling on the floor, screaming at the top of my lungs, jumping up and down. It wasn’t easy. I had to shed off my self-consciousness, lose the inner critic and really be that child. When I finally did, it felt incredibly liberating.

Gradually, with time, I have learnt to stay connected with that inner child. Theatre taught me to unlearn a lot of the conditioning around gender, beauty and ‘proper behaviour’. My dressing became focused on comfort and ease, rather than fitting into sizes or standards.

The body became an instrument to communicate, emote, personify a character, speak a new language. And movement became joy.

How theatre transformed my relationship with my body | My Swiss Story

First act, then think

Like many women I know, I am somewhat of a perfectionist. Cautious and calculated, looking before I leap, analysing all pros and cons before making a decision, trying to control all outcomes. Often this led to paralyzing indecision and seeking validation from others.

Performing playback theatre meant improvising. Listening to feelings and stories shared by the audience, to then spontaneously enact that situation. Doing justice to an audience’s lived experience, while staying true to its essence.

There is no time to think, prepare or discuss;  no space for ‘what ifs’, ‘yes buts’, or others’ opinions.

You lead with the body, through an action –a sound, gesture, an image. The co-actors respond with their own actions, leading to the next step, and then the next. The performance relies on these moment-to-moment choices, tuning into your instinct and paying attention to others. The process of interpretation or making sense ‘in the head’ is often secondary.

I remember a show where the audience member chose me to play her Mother-in-Law when she was a young bride. The character symbolized tradition and authority, both of which I was uncomfortable with. On stage, I was tongue-tied, I had no clue what to say! I just ‘embodied’ her, neck high, face tight, speaking only with nods and grunts.

Afterward, the lady congratulated me on the ‘perfect’ body language. It seems the most intimidating thing about her Mother-in-Law was that she barely spoke. The feedback was exhilarating and it turned my expectations around perfection on their head!

In real life, this is still a journey!

I cannot claim that I have completely let go of my cautious side. But I am able to access my spontaneity a lot more. Instead of fearing mistakes and avoiding regrets, I say ‘Yes and’ to life more often.

How theatre transformed my relationship with my body | My Swiss Story

Body never lies

As intelligent, educated people, we trust our minds to tell us what is right, make choices, learn and use knowledge. In working in and with theatre, I learnt about the body’s intelligence and to trust its intuitive ability of ‘knowing in the gut’.

The mind’s vision is often obscured by layers of beliefs, opinions, concepts and our own intellectualization. But the body tells us our truths, what we want or need in the moment. It can reveal hidden feelings that we may not be aware of or like to acknowledge.

For instance: You are conflicted about taking on a particular opportunity or path. You have exhausted yourself trying to ‘figure it out’, counting reasons on both sides of the argument. If you ask your body for a spontaneous response, what happens?

Do you feel energy and vigour?

Do you resist and recoil?

There is your answer. Scientists refer to this as ‘embodied cognition’- memories, associated emotions, experience and learning carried by the body at a cellular level. A powerful source of wisdom and guiding force towards directions and paths to follow.

How theatre transformed my relationship with my body | My Swiss Story

Beyond performance, I discovered that theatre can be used to explore our inner worlds, to better understand ourselves, our relationships to others and to social structures. And as an approach to facilitate such an exploration and dialogue with others. My first experiment in doing this was in a MBA classroom. Through drama, we unpacked the graduating students’ career dilemmas, with confusing expectations and influences of their family, teachers and peers. This led to some introspection, fresh insights and discussion on solutions.

Now…

Theatre continues to be an important part of my work and life.  I went on to finish my PhD, infusing my research with creative, story-based methods. I reconnected with my childhood interest in writing fiction. Theatre and story are my favourite approaches in conducting workshops and courses. I also teach a university level course that explores connections between art and development.

Over time, I realized was that I didn’t just own or manage a body. I was my body.

Seeing body as synonymous with self, I am more able to accept, love and honour myself. I can listen to my needs- for hunger, movement or rest- and respond to them with kindness rather than judgement. I am drawn towards meditation, yoga, dancing. Free of the old ‘weight-loss’ mandate, movement helps me de-stress, find joy and connection. In all my projects and interactions, I can go beyond the analytical mind, role or image, and bring in my whole self. I believe that as children, we are all naturally creative, uninhibited, curious and ready to explore the world. We are natural dancers, actors, story-tellers, cart-wheelers and playdough sculptors.

Over time, we get conditioned into a more constrained, uncomfortable relationship with our bodies. This can be unlearnt and transformed through art and play. Perhaps through rekindling our favourite childhood activities or finding new loves. Art can help us reconnect with our inner child, and develop a wholesome, caring, non-judgemental relationship with our whole selves.


Supriya Rakesh is a researcher, creative facilitator and fiction author from Mumbai, India. She holds a Ph.d. from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Trained in Playback theatre, Improv, Psychodrama, and Theatre of the Oppressed, she has performed with theatre groups The Actors’ Collective and Mumbai Playbackers. She is passionate about using storytelling and theatre to facilitate exploration, reflection, and dialogue in individuals and communities. As Visiting Faculty at TISS, Mumbai, Supriya teaches a course on ‘Art and Organizational Development’. She loves writing short stories, with recent publications in Muse, Kitaab and other literary magazines and anthologies. She also loves the Mumbai rains, strong cups of cappuccino and stories of unrequited love. Her published writing can be found on her website www.supriyarakesh.com



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