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Discover That's What I Learnt

That’s What I Learnt ft Sunandha Ragunathan

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Are you a theatre artist who strives to be better at your craft? Have you considered studying in a full-time theatre course? Do you find the process of researching universities stressful? Do the options seem too many or too few? Do you question if it is even worth it? Would you like some help making these difficult decisions?

Aadyam’s got your back!

That’s What I Learnt is a series of interviews with theatre artists from across India who have studied full time theatre courses in India and abroad. They share their experiences, the highs and lows, what they wished they knew and what they know now.

The series has been compiled by me, Meghana AT, an actor/writer/production manager who worked in Mumbai’s theatre scene for 6 years before moving to Prague to study a very unique theatre course. For the two years that I was seriously considering taking up this course, I changed my mind a thousand times. Everyone had an opinion on whether I should study at all, if this course was the one for me, how I should finance it, whether I should stay abroad or return to Mumbai. At the end of the day, it was a decision I had to make myself, but I wouldn’t have been able to manage without the advice of the many theatre professionals who were kind enough to help me. I hope this series can offer some insight to other people who are in the position I was once in.

We hope that reading these experiences will help you navigate this next stage of your career! Good luck!

Sunandha Ragunathan

Sunandha is an actor, writer & director with over 13 years’ experience in Chennai’s English theatre. Some of her roles include Jocasta in Seneca’s Oedipus, Claire in Maids, Paulina in Death & The Maiden, & Lee in Motortown. She has directed several plays for schools and the professional stage. Sunandha has written Mundhirikkotte, developed as part of The Royal Court’s International Writing Programme & also written the screenplay for Irudhi Suttru and Soorarai Pottru. Sunandha is a Charles Wallace scholar who graduated with a Master’s Degree in Text and Performance from RADA and Birkbeck College. She was a member of the 2019 Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab. Sunandha is also trained in Kalaripayattu and Bharatanatyam. You can find her on instagram on @Guduguduppukkari.

Photo by Sunder Ramu
Photo by Sunder Ramu
  1. What convinced you that you needed to study theatre formally?

I think working in theatre in Chennai for over 11 years meant that I could call myself a theatre-maker or theatre-actor or any label I chose but the work was relegated to two hours of rehearsals in the evening to accommodate many who had full-time jobs. Considering I thought of theatre as my full-time job, I felt a bit like I was laying claim to something I was pretending at. I wanted the rigour of doing something full-time and actually working at it full-time.

Writing a play as part of The Royal Court’s International Writer’s1  programme opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I could achieve. That idea slowly took hold in my brain until I actually applied for the Charles Wallace Scholarship2  and researched courses in the U.K.

  1. What was the audition/application process like?

I wish I had known that many conservatories were Euro-centric and demanded in-person auditions which is impossible. That ruled out a few. The course I ended up doing asked for a 4000 word critical essay on a recent performance and I chose one I had watched as part of a street festival in Chennai. There was a Skype interview which was an informal conversation on what my idea of theatre is and so on.

A still from Sunandha’s original show Bad Hindu. Photo by Sivanesan M.
A still from Sunandha’s original show Bad Hindu. Photo by Sivanesan M.
  1. What is something you wish you knew before you had started your course?

I also wish I had chosen an entirely hands-on course rather than it being half theory and half applied. Though, I did enjoy many of the texts I encountered in the theory part of the course, I didn’t particularly acclimate well to lecture sessions where the approach to theatre was entirely academic rather than practise-based.

  1. How did you select your course? Were there any others you seriously considered?

I always knew I wanted to study in London. Though it was more expensive, I knew my learning would be partly from the university and mostly from watching plays. For me, the practical approach to theatre that would be taught at RADA was a huge boost in choosing the course.

I don’t remember too well the other courses that I was chosen for – I applied for 6 and got into 6. The MA Theatre Practice programme at The University of Exeter however is still in my memory. Ultimately, the Birkbeck course won out because of RADA and London.

A still from Mundhirikotte written by Sunandha, performed at Writer’s Bloc. Photo by Vijay Boothalingam
A still from Mundhirikotte written by Sunandha, performed at Writer’s Bloc. Photo by Vijay Boothalingam
  1. What’s a lesson/learning from your course that you continue to use frequently in your current work?

Approach to Directing gave me many tools I apply in rehearsal rooms. Plus, the Viewpoints3  work (a method popularised by Tina Landau and Anne Bogart) that we did is something very close to my heart. Actually, I started working on Viewpoints with some very talented collaborators in Chennai in January 2020. The idea was that we would have 2 full day workshops every month to explore Viewpoints and our journey through it with no end goal attached to the workshops. Unfortunately by the time March rolled in, Corona was such a factor that we postponed our workshop and we are yet to resume.

  1. Any major off-campus learnings that you’d like to share?

I watched over 65 plays in my one year there. I was manic in how many shows I would catch and what I would learn from them all. I found, to my surprise, that sometimes I would be bored by a play simply because it was too white in its theme and cast whereas there would be plays such as Real Magic by Forced Entertainment and The Encounter by Complicite where race seemed to be pushed to the background. I am still in thrall of those plays that managed to speak to me at an entirely cellular level.

A still from Complicité’s ‘The Encounter’. Photo copyright Samuel Rubio.
A still from Complicité’s ‘The Encounter’. Photo copyright Samuel Rubio.
  1. When you first came back, did you feel that you could apply what you had learnt in the local context? Has that changed in the following years?

I applied every little thing I picked up from watching others direct in my class and also from watching plays over there and discerning what kept my interest when I felt my attention lag. I tend to change my approach based on what works for the actor rather than have a set method of working. I find that more productive and when I am in doubt, I read The Director’s Craft by Katie Mitchell and always return to the text and what I need to be apparent onstage and amend my methods accordingly.

  1. What were some of the first steps you took within the local theatre scene when you returned?

I returned with a one woman show Bad Hindu which I had performed as my final presentation and wrote a dissertation on. It was a 40 minute piece of theatre that blended Indian story-telling, Kattai Koothu4  (Tamil traditional theatre) in a structure that the Western Audience (and most Indian urban audiences) would be familiar with. I expanded it into a 70 minute show and premiered it at Pentameters Theatre in London for a limited engagement but my first step after returning to India was to tour with it.

A still from Sunandha’s original show Bad Hindu. Photo by Sivanesan M.
A still from Sunandha’s original show Bad Hindu. Photo by Sivanesan M.
Sunandha outside Pentameters Theatre, before a show of Bad Hindu
Sunandha outside Pentameters Theatre, before a show of Bad Hindu

Anitha Santhanam and I had started Guduguduppukkari to perform ‘Mundhirikkotte’ the play I had written as part of The Royal Court’s international writers programme, which she directed for the Writer’s Bloc festival in Mumbai in 2016. After I came back in 2018, we revived that outfit to perform our solos and for it to be our channel that would amplify our voices and our stories.

A still from Mundhirikotte written by Sunandha, performed at Writer’s Bloc. Photo by Vijay Boothalingam
A still from Mundhirikotte written by Sunandha, performed at Writer’s Bloc. Photo by Vijay Boothalingam
  1. Could you recommend a book/essay/speech for theatre aspirants?

I’d recommend them reading plays and watching plays.

I love Anupama Chandrasekhar’s ‘Free Outgoing’ with all my heart. It is a fantastic piece of writing that gets more and more claustrophobic as the people in it are cornered.

‘Edgar and Annabel’ by Sam Holcroft made me proselytise its worth to everyone who cared and many who didn’t. I recommend it highly.

The Mahabharata is a text I return to every year and I find that it inspires me in my explorations in Theatre.

Most importantly, I’d urge them to find a Shakespeare workshop where the focus is on the language and its rhythm. That will open their mind to the beauty of language and how it can be wielded by them in their work. This would be relevant to them whichever language they work in and regardless of whether they’re an actor, playwright or director.

Notes:

  1. The Royal Court’s International Writer -The International Writer’s programme supports the initiative Writer’s Bloc in India. http://www.ragetheatre.co.in/writers-bloc/
  2. Charles Wallace ScholarshipThe Charles Wallace India Trust offers scholarships for post-graduate studies, research grants and artistic residencies in the UK. Read more here: https://www.britishcouncil.in/study-uk/scholarships/charles-wallace-india-trust-scholarships
  3. Viewpoints -The Viewpoints method was first created by choreographer Mary Overlie, and later popularised by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau. It is used in rehearsals and is a method used to physicalise the acting process. Read more at the following link, or in the book ‘The Viewpoints Book’ by Bogart and Landau
  4. Kattai KoothuThis traditional theatre form, usually performed by men, would last through the night, and typically consisted of scenes from the Mahabharata.

About Meghana AT

Meghana AT is an actor/writer/production manager from Mumbai, currently based in Prague. She’s worked with theatre makers like Mahesh Dattani, Quasar, Faezeh Jalali, Trishla Patel, Rehaan Engineer and others. She is the author of two solo shows, ‘Plan B/C/D/E’ and ‘The Art of Crying’. She is soon to finish her Master’s in Authorial Acting and Pedagogy at The Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.

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