Interview with Counter Offence’s playwright and director

Rahul Varma and Murdoch Schon share some thoughts about their current project

By Irwin Rapoport

March 30, 2023

Playwright Rahul Varma’s first production of Counter Offence opened on March 14, 1996. On March 15, 27 years later, the play that takes on the fight against racism as it comes into conflict with the struggle to end violence against women is being performed at the Segal Centre until April 2. It is presented by Teesri Duniya Theatre, whose motto is Change the world one play at a time. An updated version of the play had just started a run in 2020 but after two performances it was suspended due to measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Counter Offence is a collision of virtues. It asks what happens when the fight against racism comes into conflict with the struggle to end violence against women. This gripping murder-mystery explores the intersection of the two issues via a play set in Montreal in 1995 with Jacques Parizeau’s infamous referendum line about the “ethnic vote” still fresh in the news, and its repercussions were spreading. Shazia, an Indo-Québecoise woman with traditional Muslim parents, is in an abusive relationship with her husband Shapoor, an Iranian facing immigration issues. When a body is suddenly found, everyone is a suspect as lines between what is right and wrong become blurred, and officials satisfy their own agendas.

You turned my crime against my wife into a crime against my race.

– Shapoor

Varma’s script chronicles the events working backwards through flashbacks, with both sides of the issue investigated, examining the consequences of gender versus race and skin colour. Although serious in nature, it includes moments of humour as audiences continue to question their own biases almost thirty years later.

Counter Offence

Counter Offence – Image: Brooklyn Melnyck

Varma, a multi-award winning published playwright, is Teesri Duniya Theatre’s Artistic Director. His play brings together a variety of ethnicities, languages and cultural backgrounds on stage and behind the scenes. “This is a play that touches everyone, so representation is important,” he said. “Domestic violence affects every community, and racism does not just come from one side or the other. Today’s news is filled with racism between people of the same colour from the same country. Issues of racial profiling, multiculturalism and gender are complicated, with no easy answer forthcoming. This is a story that needs to urgently be told.”

As playwright Rahul Varma and director Murdoch Schon were preparing for the run, they responded to a few questions:

Rahul Varma

Rahul Varma – Image: courtesy of Teesri Duniya Theatre

WM: Counter Offence has been performed in many cities. How is the play making a difference, and how concerned are you about the increase in racism and discrimination in Canada and the United States, often with individuals and groups openly expressing their hate?

Varma: Counter Offence was one of the first few plays that addressed domestic abuse and racial profiling in one story in the mid-nineties when it was first written. The need to respond to these issues and other social factors, e.g. immigration, judiciary, police, etc., has only been heightened due to the sharp increase in domestic violence and racism. We witnessed a 30% rise in domestic abuse cases during the COVID lockdown and a sharp rise in anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Semitisim and anti-immigrant racism. We witnessed a rise of majoritarian ethnonationalism worldwide, the rise of Islamophobia, the discovery of unmarked graves and the implementation of discriminatory laws such as Law 21 and Bill 96. Counter Offence offers the public the opportunity to engage in ending violence and racism at a grassroots level.

WM: How would you describe your writing process and choice of themes, and what are some of the plays that you are working on currently?

Varma: I always write about life-affecting issues and communities marginalized by the mainstream. A great Indian writer Sahir Ludhianvi said, “What I observe in society as an experience, I return to society through my art.” I use that as a basis and an inspiration. This means writing is not merely the craft and library research but engaging with society to learn about it. A permanent engagement with people and society is part of my writing process.

‘… theatre is not merely entertainment; it is more than that. It is enjoyment and educating ourselves on what ails society and how to transform it.’

– Rahul Varma

During the COVID lockdown, I wrote four new plays at different stages of their development and I will be finalizing them one by one in the coming months. These plays are Dhara’s Revenge, about age and ageism, and Kali’s Dance, about sex-selective abortion, a hidden practice by which parents determine the gender of the unborn child and abort if it is a girl. I wrote Merchant of God about Eastern Gurus preaching to their predominantly white followers, and a play called Talaq to draw attention to the issue of divorce within Muslim families.

WM: Plays such as A Raisin in the Sun, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, and Fires in the Mirror have dealt with racism and raised awareness. In your view, how important is the theatre for taking on pressing issues of the day as The Crucible did during the McCarthy era?

Varma: This is very important – theatre is not merely entertainment; it is more than that. It is enjoyment and educating ourselves on what ails society and how to transform it. Theatre has the power to engage audiences because it is done with artistic beauty. A thriving theatre is transformative and performed for a positive social change.

WM: This play takes on serious themes. How did you prepare for the performance of Counter Offence?

Murdoch Shon

Murdoch Shon – Image: courtesy of Murdoch Shon

Murdoch: As a director, I have always been interested in exploring the full range of what humans are capable of. Pain, brutality, and fury are part of the human experience in the same way joy, love, and ecstasy are. I don’t usually have to prepare in any special way when I work on plays that feature violence or trauma.

The most difficult part of this work actually comes from repetition. Watching the actors as they commit these acts over and over can be difficult. It’s especially frightening when an actor has perfected their fight choreography. But my job is to give my whole attention to the artist, to ask what story does this act tell, and is it doing its job? Thinking in these terms helps to focus my work and concentration.

WM: In addition to reading the play and speaking with the playwright, did you speak with Montrealers who experienced racism and discrimination?

Murdoch: I started by reading testimony and reports specifically about racial profiling and police brutality in Montreal. When working on material about specific lived experiences, I prefer to set up a space in which people can share if they feel so moved but don’t feel pressured to. As we began our work, my team came forward to share personal stories about their experiences with racism and systems of oppression. These moments were intensely brave of the team and contributed to the sense of authenticity and genuine care for the show that we cultivated in our process.

‘Directing is all about collaborating. My best advice is to work on serving the art with the least amount of ego possible.’

– Murdoch Schon

WM: What advice would you give to people considering a career as a theatre director?

Murdoch: Directing is all about collaborating. My best advice is to work on serving the art with the least amount of ego possible. Listening is really the key. When faced with a challenge, I try to slow down and ask what does this moment require of me?

Feature image: Brooklyn Melnyk

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Irwin RapoportIrwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist with Bachelor degrees in History and Political Science from Concordia University.



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