That first time you stood in the wings waiting for the third bell or tensely chewed your nails watching the audience file into the theatre; that first sound of applause; that first time when an industry stalwart came backstage and shook your hand; that first tour to another city with your team; that first time you actually got paid for your work….these precious moments and many more stay etched in your memory forever. The masti, the friendships, the sudden feeling of self-worth as if you have finally arrived. That creative high of your first professional experience.
Thespo understands this better than anyone. For they have, over the years, given artists and theatre makers that final push from where so many have deep dived into the profession. So, what better way to celebrate their 22 years than a series of 22 heart-warming and nostalgic chapters from the life stories of a range of theatre professionals… handpicked by Thespo from across the Indian theatre spectrum.
The First Chapter asks each of them a very simple question – “Tell us about your first ever professional theatre experience?” From there unravel stories of joy and inspiration, struggles and triumphs. And that one thing that ties them all, young and old, together – the incredibly contagious spirit of theatre.
Ft HEEBA SHAH
“I consider myself an Artistic Athlete”
Heeba Shah – Some know her as Naseeruddin Shah’s daughter, some know her as the record breaking cyclist from Rishi Valley, some recognise her from her vast body of work as a theatre actor/stage manager and some cherish her on screen appearances for Ravi Goes To School (2007), Q (2017), Poorna (2017) and more recently Ghost Stories (2020).
But we know little about her work ethic, her process and her passion for the stage. She believes in a play or a character evolving through constant repetition. She believes in improvisation. She is always taking notes, observing all those she works with and champions the art of rehearsing beyond the rehearsals.
“I don’t know about God, but there is a Theatre God…you don’t mess with him.” She recollects fondly, a nugget of wisdom shared by her family.
“You worship him by doing your lines and actions consistently, until you’ve reached a point where even if your mind is distracted, your body…your lips, they remember.”
As a young theatre artist, I look up to theatre personalities. I try to unravel their journeys by researching their work and asking questions whenever possible. Studying their lives beyond their performances gives me the confidence to keep at it. I naively believed that for a youngster hailing from a theatre family getting a foot in the door must be easier.
But during this interview I realised how foolish I’ve been. If anything, youngsters from theatre families actually have it far tougher.
“I caught the theatre bug back in the 6th grade. That’s when I first experienced the stage. I decided to take a deep dive and keep at it all through school. Participating in everything co-curricular. Hoping that on graduating from school, Dad would take me under his wing. I was terrifyingly disillusioned! He convinced me to finish my degree in Sociology, which I thank him for, but found quite redundant at the time. My mind was set for the stage. I ploughed on through the three years hoping to enter the Industry after graduating. But that is when the argument about ‘The National School of Drama’ broke the serenity of the house. Dad, very similar to his casting in Bandish Bandits, pushed me towards acquiring the right skills and training.”
At this point in our conversation, I find myself dropping any and all preconceived notions about theatre families! Infected by a burning curiosity, I ask – How did it all begin?
“You can say that I had two Firsts in the world of professional theatre. One before NSD and one after NSD. The first one happened after I graduated, when I went up to Dad and told him I was ready. His response, now hilarious in hindsight, but at the time quite intimidating, was to go speak to Dubeyji (Satyadev Dubey) and Sunilji (Sunil Shanbag). I was shaken, as it was really hard to get a job in the theatre in those days. I stuck it out though, found myself walking into the Prithvi Theatre and operating music along with some backstage work for Police directed by Dubeyji…an area I had experience in from working with Motley. Into the run of the show, I had an opportunity to act with Jaimini Pathak, as the female lead took ill. It was a fantastic experience to operate music done by Sunilji to begin with and end up acting under the guidance of Dubeyji, all in the same and first production.” she says…a smile taking over.”
“The second time was after NSD, which I like to quote as my first ever professional theatre experience…primarily because I was selected as an actor to begin with. This was Ismat Apa Ke Naam.
The show starred Dad, so it was nerve wracking. I had to prove my mettle and establish myself as an actor in my own right. It was such an exhilarating experience, because the show was meant to be performed for thousands of people and I was in the First Act of the play.”
Wow! First, a theatre launch with Naseeruddin Shah as your director and cast member. Second, performing to thousands of people! I could barely keep my jaw from dropping at this point and blurted out – What did you do after the curtain call?
“I ran and hugged my Dad backstage. I was just so excited and overwhelmed with the performance. I remember the journey began when the script was handed to me for the first time. I almost cried. The language being colloquial was hard to grasp. And then after countless
rehearsals when it finally culminated into the performance, there seemed no better way to release that feeling of accomplishment. We’ve since been performing the play for nineteen years and done shows all over the world.”
Personally, it’s among my favourite things to experience during a show-run; having my parents witness the show! I can’t put a finger on what it is exactly, but there is an inner burst of energy. I can only imagine what performing with a parent must feel like. With these motivational experiences came my intrigue towards her personal challenges. I began to wonder if Heeba ever considered pursuing anything besides acting in the theatre or if she ever had a moment when she wanted to give up on theatre, altogether.
“I wouldn’t say that it was my alternate, but it is something I enjoy just as much – stage management. I love having the experience of knowing everything about the production… starting from the layout of the space, property shopping, knowing every tiny detail about the play. It gives me an exclusive insight into the production. This has only helped me regard the performance space with more respect than I already had for it. It’s sacred. When I’m in the audience I love to spot the shadows of stage managers. That stray limb sticking out from the wing or behind the set. It’s the same logic as a slightly crooked bow-tie. That tiny little human touch adds the magical flavour.”
Responding to the comment of giving up on theatre. Heeba looked at me briefly as if checking if she heard me correctly. I should’ve realised the futility of that question but her instantaneous utter of…
“…No. Never. It’s actually my calm when there is chaos otherwise. I’ve always found immense comfort from having theatre in my life. I’m sure everyone who is passionate about the art feels a very similar sense of belonging. Sometimes, I actually feel more comfortable in the skin of my characters or being in a production process, than, for instance, being myself. There have been times when I’ve felt low and picking up a piece of writing, working on it, has been my antidepressant.”
As she speaks about her love for the craft, she reveals her favourite theatre ritual…which co-incidentally started with her first ever professional theatre experience. A moment just before the house opens, when the other actors are busy in their green rooms, the stage has just been swept clean, the ushers are outside getting briefed, Heeba stands front and centre on stage and offers her energy to the empty seats, that will soon be filled by the audience waiting outside. She makes eye contact with them…the ones right at the back and those in the front rows, drawing them nearer…making them her own. It’s one of the ways she is able to keep her performance in Ismat Apa Ke Naam exciting each time she performs it.
“If you’ve chosen a path for the rest of your life, know, it will be ridden with obstacles. If there are none, the journey is not worth it. These obstacles will shape you to be better. The spirit that you find, the tenacity that you inculcate and the emotional roller coaster that you endure, will reaffirm your belief in your art. It will be impossible to shake your resolve.”
- Heeba Shah