FREE OUTGOING by Anupama Chandrasekhar, directed by Kelly Thornton, with Anusree Roy, Sanjay Talwar, Ash Knight, Andrew Lawrie, Ellora Patnaik and Asha Vijayasingham. Presented by Nightwood at Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst). Opens tonight (January 30) and runs to February 16, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $25-$45. 416-504-9971.
We often don't think about how much electronic media shape our lives.
In Anupama Chandrasekhar's Free Outgoing, a Tamil family in Chennai, India, discovers the repercussions of the single click of a "Send" button.
Deepa, the family's teenage daughter, has had sex with her boyfriend, who's sent a video of it to a friend who then starts spreading it to others. When it goes viral, the family's lives are irremediably changed.
"This takes place in a conservative society where a woman's virtue is prominent," says Andrew Lawrie, who plays Deepa's older brother, Sharan. "Anything that tarnishes her image causes an uproar, a backlash, and that's what the family faces, not just from their local community but a wider one as well. If you don't obey the role you've been given, you're likely to be shunned."
At first their widowed mother, Malini, refuses to believe her daughter would have sex with a fellow student, even when Deepa's principal suspends her for misbehaving in an empty classroom; neither adult is yet aware of the video. Malini, a part-time accountant and saleswoman, blames the boy, the school, society in general.
"Malini's a strong-willed, stubborn woman living in a culture that requires you have a man to stand by you in a situation like this," explains Lawrie. "She's fighting a losing battle because she can't counter society's beliefs, and Sharan, at 16, isn't yet able to be her defender.
"I'd forgotten how complicated and utterly energetic a teen can be," smiles the 23-year-old Lawrie, a Ryerson grad who's returning next summer to Stratford. "Sharan's expected to take over his father's role in this crisis, but he's not yet up to it and that makes him angry, as does the fact that he feels the repercussions of what his sister has done.
"By the end of the play he's started to rise to the role, but you can still see the helpless child in him every once in a while."
Though we meet Malini's business associate, the principal, the boyfriend's father and a seemingly solicitous neighbour, Deepa surprisingly never appears. Instead, she spends her time locked in her bedroom as others discuss her action and her future.
"That's a clever choice on the playwright's part," notes Lawrie. "It's interesting where your imagination goes, for you're also left wondering what the other characters see when they watch the video.
"I don't necessarily want her to be present onstage. Deepa's a figure of rebellion against tradition, an active participant in the video in a culture where a woman doesn't choose to do something like this. She's defined by her actions, and we don't need to see her face."
Free Outgoing makes an ironic point not just about the universality of social media, but also about the intrusiveness of the news media in our lives.
"In an interview, a newswoman tries to put a spin on the story to hook an audience. At the forefront of her questions is the idea of teen sex, not the person who's being examined. There's no thought about why Deepa took part: love, curiosity, the desire to be free from an oppressive society. All the reporter's looking for is an enticement to get viewers to watch.
"Along with the video going viral, that ‘news' angle further blurs the line between the public and the private, suggesting that whatever used to be intimate and personal has now become something for anyone to investigate."