Indulge 14th Anniversary Special: Jill Navarre of the Auroville Theatre Group gets candid about her three-decade-long journey

Ahead of its silver jubilee year, The Auroville Theatre Group’s production of The Elephant Man adds to a long list of classics staged over two decades
Jill Navarre of the Auroville Theatre Group (Picture: Pattabi Raman)
Jill Navarre of the Auroville Theatre Group (Picture: Pattabi Raman)

In 1987 when the then 42-year-old Jill Navarre, artistic director of The Auroville Theatre Group came to India, it was a complete culture shock for her. But she had no apprehensions about exploring the ancient country and started by heading to Rajasthan. She fell in love with the country gazing at stars at night amidst the Thar Desert in Jaisalmer and riding a bicycle to Auroville from Puducherry to explore a new world of creative minds. The memories of India were etched in Jill’s heart and she tells us, “Something was changed in me and I became curious about what would happen if I stayed in India.”

Journey to dreams

Jill went back to the US and continued her life in Washington DC where she was working in a theatre group. Three years after her first trip to India, Jill came back in 1990 and kicked off her journey with her first play, Mommy, I’m Home in 1991. “My friends weren’t convinced because I was leaving my life where I had everything. But, I was sure that I wanted a place which would test me and I was ready to live somewhere else,” shares the 74-year-old director, as she along with one of the members of the group, Rupam Mishra welcome us in her creatively decorated two-story home in Auroville. “I felt a connection with India,” recalls Jill, who met Jeff Goodchild, a theatre director from Australia in Auroville. “Jeff was the first person I met here and we discussed theatre,” she recounts.

Jill’s second play was Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett in 1993 with four artistes. “The audience was familiar with the play and I chose to do productions which were known to the people here. There wasn’t much theatre happening at that time so people were happy and that gave me the idea to have regular theatre,” Jill confesses.

Sneak peek into one of the rehearsal sessions <em>(Picture: Pattabi Raman)</em>
Sneak peek into one of the rehearsal sessions (Picture: Pattabi Raman)

Playing to her strengths

Jill continued her journey as a theatre director and formed The Auroville Theatre Group in 1996. And she is all set to celebrate 25 years of the group’s conception, coinciding with her 75th birthday next year. Over the years, Jill has directed and acted in over 45 plays including existing plays, improvised plays and now she vows that next year she will be staging her own script for the first time. “I choose plays for the beauty of the expression,” says the former poet, who has a degree in English literature and has done a play-writing course as well. Curious, we ask how does she sponsor her plays? “I receive social security money from the US and cultural grants from the Ministry of Human Resources Development and Sri Aurobindo International Institute of Educational Research (SAIIER),” she reveals and tells us about her ongoing play The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance that she rehearsed for over two months with 11 artistes from different parts of the country.

Based on a true story, The Elephant Man is a story of John Merrick played by Raunak Khan, who lived in London during the latter part of the 19th century. A deformed young man — the victim of rare skin and bone diseases — he becomes the star freak attraction in travelling sideshows. “This play touched me because it narrates the story of how we treat people who are different from us, on the basis of caste, religion and how we outcast them,” expresses Jill, who tells us that she encourages her actors to use their creativity to get into character as authentically as possible. “I trust my actors, unless I have to handhold someone.”

A scene from <em>The Elephant Man (Picture: Pattabi Raman)</em>
A scene from The Elephant Man (Picture: Pattabi Raman)

A hint of romanticism

In an interesting turn, the play also unveils a love story between the protagonist and a well-known actress, Madge Kendal, in London played by Rupam. “The relation between Merrick and Madge is grey. I feel they connect intellectually but they have a romantic moment as well which she calls ‘Paradise’, so you can’t exactly say what it is,” says Rupam as Jill requests her to explain her character to us as we conclude our conversation.

The Elephant Man, October 28 to 30, at Sri Aurobindo Auditorium, 7.30 pm.

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