Thursday, May 7, 2015

Betty Bernhard Departed


After playing an illustrious career as a theatre director, teacher and mentor, Dr. Betty Bernhard passed away on 21st of March 2015. I am still not out of the shock this news gave me. Her sister told me that she was hearing Indian Music and had the scarf that I brought from India besides her in the last moments …

She was known to me from 1996, when she came first to Kochi and directed Roosters with Living Theatre. I have been closely observing her process of play making and rehearsals, and helped her wherever she wanted. And we met again and again as she frequented India looking for Indian traditional and classical theatre as well as to meet and interact with theatre activists in India. She was instrumental in getting me to Pomona College Claremont, as my host institution for the Fulbright Fellowship as my faculty associate here, in the research I am currently engaged.

leonardo, me, betty and Brian Borphy

She was working as a Professor of Theatre at Pomona College, Claremont California USA, since 1984. She was an expert in Acting, Directing; Contemporary Women Playwrights; American Theatre; Devised Theatre; theatre for social change etc. Bhavai the Folk Theatre of Gujarat, and the works of Women Theatre Activists of India were also in her academic and artistic concerns. She kept linked with activist theatre and Theatre for social change, theatre of the oppressed and community theatre all around America and India. Bernhard has researched political theatre, taught as a Fulbright Fellow and made documentaries in India since 1990.

She writes, “Focusing on India, I am interested in how theatre shapes and is shaped by society, particularly the marginalized groups and people in transitional situations such as immigration. Most recently, I completed a feature documentary on ways that Women Theatre Activists of India use theatre as a means to bring about social and cultural change. Many of the older women worked in the Gandhi “Quit India” movement against the British, using theatre as their means. I directed three plays in India and two classical Indian plays at Pomona College. I have also studied with Augusto Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed: Theatre for Social Change. I have produced four documentaries and a CD-ROM on Indian folk, classic and political theatre.”


“In all her work, Betty was an outspoken champion for theatre by, about, and for women, minorities and other underrepresented groups,” writes Theatre Department chair James Taylor. “We will always remember Betty for her strength and sense of purpose, her goodwill and generosity of spirit, and her passionate love for the art form that we all share.”

She has produced more than 60 productions at Pomona College and in India, including two fully produced Sanskrit plays in English. They Include Sakuntalam, Mruchakadikam (The little Clay Cart) as well as other politically minded plays like Kindertransport, The Three penny Opera, The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and A Piece of My Heart among many others. She choose plays written by women playwrights and plays that were speaking of subjects which were barely spoken off. Her last play was “In the next room or the vibrator play” written by Sarah Ruhl which was premiered on the 06th of this March at Pomona College.



In The next Room or the Vibrator Play turns out to be the last play Betty directed. The play takes place in the 1880’s when electricity is discovered and electric bulbs were coming into existence. The other first use of electricity other than bulbs that illuminated was to develop vibrators that enabled doctors to use ‘vibrator therapies’ on their female patients to bring to orgasm as a medical treatment to treat their so-called 'hysteria' a real diagnosis, and a quite common to women in the Victorian age.

The text has other layers and themes including Victorian ignorance of female sexual desire, motherhood, breastfeeding, and jealousy. Betty used this play to speak about frustration of women whose husbands are not at all aware of their sexual needs, and to establish sex as the natural right of women.

in the next room or the vibrator play

The vibrator play is a provocative, evocative and funny about a young doctor and his wife. Dr. Givings is obsessed with the marvels of technology and what they can do for his patients. His wife, Catherine, is only a bystander in her husband's world - listening at the door from the next room as he treats his female patients. The only woman whose problem is not helped by the doctor is his own wife who longs to connect with him - but not electrically.

Both Sabrina Daldry, the patient of Dr.Givings and Catherine Givings are sexually frustrated with their husbands, who creep quietly into their beds at night and only use the missionary position, which they endure but do not enjoy. Both are excited to have their first orgasms with the vibrator machine. Mrs. Daldry is content to continue having clinical treatments with the machine and suffer lifeless, boring sex with her own husband. When Mrs. Givings’s wet nurse, Elizabeth suggests that the feelings they undergo with the machine are the same ones some women experience in bed with their husbands, they responded with stupefied silence…

the vibrator pay

Catherine Givings wants more. Catherine convinces Dr. Givings to make naked snow angels with her and discovers the woman on top sex position, allowing her at last sexual satisfaction while the play ends.

Betty did handle this play quite openly and boldly. She could convincingly portray the situations in the play with pungency and also at times with riotous humour. One of the most hilarious moments in the play was when the electric power is gone amidst of the treatment. Quite innocently the nurse asks the doctor whether she shall try the ‘manual’ way and the doctor agrees … The nurse go ahead manually and brings out the orgasm!!

The writing as well as the performance looked authentic (of course a lot of research work and original thinking has gone into this work) and more than that honest. Application of that electrified wand in the doctor’s hand resulted in shuddering moans, guttural cries and exhortations but it stroked at the real spot.

vibrator play

The ideas underpinning the play, about the fundamental lack of sympathy between men and women of the period, and the dubious scientific theories that sometimes reinforced women’s subjugation, are grim. “In the Next Room” illuminates how much control men had over women’s lives, bodies and thoughts, even their most intimate sensations.

The set consisted of a parlour and consulting room of Dr. Givings, divided by a wall and door; which was dismantled at the end of the play to be converted into an open landscape where snow falls down for the couple to undress and go for a coitus of real orgasm.

The costumes with the corset, the form-disfiguring gown and the petticoats was also speaking about the suppression/manipulation/characterisation/viewing of the female body by the Victorian orthodoxy. (The costumes, by David Zinn, are both lushly pretty and witty in their elaborate construction.)

HE SHE IT (the play) and OUT! LOUD ! (the documentary film)

Betty had been travelling to India many times and had deep-rooted relationship with the practice and practitioners of Indian theatre. She had a profound interest in the aesthetics and practice modes of traditional Indian theatre, both the folk and classical heritage as well as in contemporary Indian theatre. She was specially connected to the female theatre practitioners and their work, and of course to the political theatre as well.

Betty with the  cast of vibrator play

She was also interested in the gender and trans-gender issues and performances associated with. She made an outstanding documentary film named ‘Out Loud’ about the lives of contemporary Indian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and trans-sexual young people and the representations of LGBT in sacred Indian texts. Betty says "this is a documentary that draws parallels between the present with ancient and sacred Indian stories, such as the Puranas and the Mahabharata, wherein representations of homosexuality, bi-sexuality, lesbianism, transgender and trans-sexual activity are clearly described. It shows the lives of contemporary LGBT persons in Pune, India, as they devise a play He She It. The film is comprised of interviews of the actors, clips from rehearsals and final production." The play He She It, an original play devised by the theatre company Pune is based on the true stories of the actors in the play and ancient Indian spiritual literature, such as the Puranas and the Mahabharata. The participants discuss their stories of sexual discovery, community responses to their sexuality and their struggle for self-acceptance. One individual elects castration, one becomes a sex worker, some are kidnapped and raped, and others are punished by their parents and subjected to shock treatments to “cure” homosexuality. Their stories are interspersed with clips from play rehearsals and the final production in the film. Bernhard says her aim is to show that LGBT is not an imported Western idea, but has always been present in India.


The mark Betty Left in Indian theatre in India and in California will remain in the memories of the people who were lucky to work with her, interact and share the performances. She was instrumental in connecting the West to the East, the classical to the contemporary, and aesthetics with the political. She dared to cut across the safe paths and dreamed new and dangerous projects.

For me, she was one of the motivations and reasons to pursue the Fulbright Fellowship, and her absence is leaving a vacuum. One of the dreams she shared in our last meeting was that she wanted to produce and co-direct Bhagavadajjukam with me in Los Angeles.

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Blogger Paul Mathew said...

Heartfelt tribute. I too remember meeting Betty when the play came to Chennai.

May 7, 2015 at 10:22 AM  

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