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Behind The Scenes

Friday, March 01, 2013

Last week saw us pointing you towards the best plays in the city that you must not miss. Now that you know what happens onstage, Priyanka Singh & Dev Goswami tell you about the action behind the curtains, which is no less than the performances that you see live!

“Movies will make you famous; television will make you rich; but theatre will make you good.” As we quote these lines by American actor Terrence Mann, we secretly believe that this is what most theatre actors believe in. Because only this can explain the fanatical passion that they have towards theatre. Most juggle a day job, personal life, routine chores and when the sun goes down, for most of them, the line “where’s the party tonight” is replaced with “where’s the rehearsal tonight.” Needless to mention, there’s an enormous thought process that goes into putting the pieces of this big jigsaw puzzle together, called a play.

While you feasted your senses on some of the best plays suggested by us for the week that has almost gone by, we were out sniffing around to try and gauge exactly how the puzzle pieces fall right in to place. We spoke to actors, directors, writers and production people from across the city and tried to sift through their daily lives, rehearsals, last minute glitches, forgetting lines, writer’s block, collywobbles, going insane and everything possible that can take place before those crimson red, velvety curtains are drawn.

Mind numbing minutes before the final act
The curtains are drawn, lights are dim, the crew is bustling about, setting up the props onstage while the director supervises everything… this is the time when the actors are standing in the stage wings, waiting to come onstage and face their worst fears. Almost everyone we spoke to describes this moment, just before the curtains are drawn, as the most nerve-wrecking one. Meherzad Patel from Silly Point Productions simplifies it by telling us that his mental state is something like this —‘!$#$%&%^$^’ — no, we did not make that up!

However, if you think that performing the same play over and over will make it easier for the actors, then you are wrong. Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, of Vagina Monologues fame, says that even though she’s staged the act a number of times, her mind still is like a bowl of noodles or totally blank just before going onstage. But, on the flipside, stand-up comedian Atul Khatri says that even though he has bats and not butterflies in his stomach, as a performer, if you don’t experience a bout of nervousness, there’s something wrong with you.

The milieu weeks before the final act

What the actors go through just before the lights are turned on might not be very surprising. What, however, is surprising is what they do on the days leading up to their performance. The lack of financial viability in theatre (see box), means that most of them are juggling jobs and rehearsals. For Preetha Mathur from Ank Theatre Group, her weekdays are filled with the rush against traffic and irritating her bosses to ensure that she reaches for rehearsals on time. Similar is the case of Anand Tiwari from FAT Productions. He tells us, “During the week, I rehearse for about 4-5 hours daily. However, the rest of my day is spent making ends meet so that I can continue doing theatre.”

For stand-up comedians like Sapan Verma, who also write their performances, weekdays also mean generating new content. He also clears a major misconception when he says, “People think that while comics are not onstage, they’re usually sleeping, consuming alcohol and doing drugs, but that’s just wrong — we’re not rich enough to afford drugs. 50% of my time is actually devoted to writing.”

That’s not it. Directors like Meherzad have to deal with much more than irate bosses and a writer’s block. He tells us, “My usual week is filled with 10 phone calls from 10 actors changing rehearsal timings and then five phone calls from the rehearsal venue saying this and that isn’t working.” And once all that is sorted, Mahabanoo tells us, there come the workshops with actors and rehearsals. She also says that as a director, it is important for her to keep the energy of the play alive.

A plot begins it all

It’s here where it all begins. Walking through a by-lane amid the honking of cars, sitting at the dinner table with the family, having a drunk conversation or even bathing — these writers get hit by ideas from unexpected scenarios. Meherzad’s family is always wary of saying anything foolish in front of him, lest it appears on his next onstage performance! Actor, writer, director, Dhruv Mookerji often gets ideas while watching other shows and plays. He further confesses, “I frequently have brilliant ideas while bathing! I’m most comfortable with comedy, so my inspirations are from comedy greats such as Stoppard, Ives and British TV actors from sketches and shows.”

But, how diverse is writing for plays in comparison to books or movies? Dhruv and Meherzaad point out the intricate differences. Dhruv says, “There is no way to bend the imagination like with books and with the massive scope of films. For a play, you have a stage/space, some basic restrictions and in that, you create the best you can.” Meherzaad clearly points out the creative difference and challenge while penning down a play, when he says, “The art of bringing a character to life, to ensure the conversational style of everyday living and setting it apart from the verbose style of a book — that’s a challenge.”

While these brilliant writers are busy scraping their quills, churning out some brilliant literary material, a lot of times they come across the most dreaded phrase in any writer’s life — writer’s block. They have their ways of dealing with it. Dhruv stops thinking about it and watches some cricket to distract himself. Sometimes he also whines about it with his friends and their terrible solutions tickle his funny bone once again and bring him back to the fore. Meherzad just sleeps over it or becomes a glutton and thinks about everything else under the sun, except writing. Whereas actor and standup comedian Sapan often takes other writer’s help. According to him, their ideas help you explore things that you never thought of.

Cut to a table where a team from a production house is having a mini round table conference at a café, discussing whether the script should be brought to life or not. This is a script’s make it or break it moment where the production house decides its fate. How do they make this decision? For Meherzaad, it all boils down to the script. He says, “Everything else is secondary, the script has to be a winner. If you have a good script, everyone else is aboard — sponsors, actors, theatres — everyone wants a piece of a good script.” Anand Tiwari looks for things that he as an audience member would like to see onstage. He adds, “If there is a play that makes you want to watch it and if no one else has put it up yet, you should move heaven and earth to get it made.”

Isn’t the entire process an exhaustive play in itself? We are surely going to applaud, whistle louder and tip our imaginary hats the next time we watch a play, not just for the flawless culmination onstage, but the grueling execution that took place marvellously offstage as well.

Ghost of the theatre present
Apart from all the excitement, there’s one thing that came out strongly during our conversations with the various theatre artists: a majority of them don’t think that theatre is financially viable. However unfortunate that might be, they argue that, this is the reality and is also the reason why most of them have day jobs, so that they can make ends meet. Mahabanoo tells us that even though her production house, Poor-Box Productions, is blessed to regularly perform at the Comedy Store, getting the dates and venues is still a constant strain on their budget. She adds, “Unless you have connections and access to sponsors, it is not monetary viable to take up theatre full time.” Others, like Vishal Asrani from VAIPA Productions, believe that it is too early for them to be able to answer this question.

On the other hand, actor/director Tathagata Chowdhury is of the opinion that theatre has come to a stage where it can be considered financially viable. However, he also adds, “It is the workshops that I conduct that actually sustain me.” In the end, the broad consensus that emerges is that while the current theatre scene might be better than what it was before, it cannot, in any way, considered to be a financially stable career choice. Preetha Mathur sums it up the best when she says, “Even if your bread and butter is possible, theatre cannot promise you cake.”

Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards
Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) has announced the nominees for its 8th edition and has shortlisted 10 productions for the Best Play category. The shortlisted plays will perform at the 2013 META Festival from March 3 to 8 in New Delhi, and the awards will be announced on March 9. The 10 shortlisted productions are:
1. After the Silence (Directed by Martin John & Produced by Sadhna — Center for Creative Practice)
2. Fevicol (Directed by Jeetrai Hansda & Produced by Maidi’s Artist Association of Tribal)
3. Gasha (Directed by Abhishek Mazumdar & Produced by Indian Ensemble)
4. Kizhavanum Kadalum (Directed by Sasidharan Naduvil & Produced by Rembrance Theatre Group)
5. Matte Eklavya (Directed by Satyabrata Rout & Produced by Aadima Ranga Tanda)
6. Mirudavidushagam (Directed by S. Murugaboopathy & Produced by Manal Magudi)
7. The Priestess (Directed by Ningthounja Deepa & Produced by NT Theatre)
8. Savitri —Dancing in the Forest of Death (Directed by J Ed Araiza & Produced by Thresh)
9. Shillak (Directed by Pradeep Vaiddya & Produced by Aasakta Kalamanch)
10. So Many Socks (Directed by Quasar Thakore Padamsee & Produced by Q Theatre Productions)

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