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 ARGHYA LAHIRI
“I would’ve done anything to be in and around the theatre.”
A conversation with Arghya Lahiri fondly referred to as ‘Argho’ can best be described as one that inspires me to wonder…could I use the flashlight on my phone as a Fresnel to experiment with? (I’m sure he noticed the shadow of my ring light during the interview.) For those of you who haven’t attended his Magic Hour workshop at Thespo or haven’t had the chance to pick his brain at the Prithvi Adda or the NCPA lobby, I highly recommend you find Arghya, who now prowls around the new “beast” i.e. digital theatre.
I’ve had the distinct privilege of observing Argho at work sitting in the tiny tech booth at the Prithvi confirming the programming for him. I’ve watched him from the front rows of the TATA Theatre as he created magic on the stage. I’ve studied him, crouched under the big tech window at the back of the theatre, as he transformed the Ranga Shankara stage. And lastly, I’ve been inspired by his ingenious light effects during the tech rehearsals of The God of Carnage, directed by Nadir Khan.
I was on an internship at the time and I remember buying a number 7 spanner for the ‘Halogens of TGOC’ just to keep in my pocket. In case the plan A and B spanners disappeared from the toolbox, I’d have a spare!
I can almost hear Arghya say, “I’m quite militant during a technical rehearsal.”
All these experiences with Argho made me wonder how it started off for him? And how was he able to juggle being a light designer, actor, director and playwright all at once?!
“Okay so there are two First Ever experiences for me. One as an Actor and one as a Light Designer. (The acting one is chronologically just before the lighting one.) So…Devika (Shahani) who had directed me in a play for Malhar recommended me to Hosi Vasunia, for a production of The French Cuckoo, where she was an Actor and Assistant Director. I remember the audition so clearly. It was at the NCPA Sea View Room. I was five minutes late and terrifyingly nervous. I walked up to the room door and hesitantly knocked. There was no answer. Fearing that they may be in the middle of some profound exercise I opened the door gingerly. To my relief, it was empty. I recall the audition panel told me not to bring any of my Xavier’s inner acting bullshit, just play HORNY!” he said, as he broke into a laugh.
“Apart from the audition I remember the production for two reasons. First, I was earning 300 rupees per show and I was RICH. Second, I was only in ACT 2, playing a hormone-ridden, acne-besieged bellhop. It was absolutely glorious! I had a chance to meet Pearl Padamsee during this production as she was consulting for it!”
Arghya continued to animatedly describe his first professional lighting experience in the theatre.
“The lighting opportunity came to me courtesy QTP. I had worked with them several times before in college and after, but this was the first time I was paid as a Light Designer. This was All My Sons. We knew nothing and it was terrible! When I look back at those light plans I think about how much better I could have made them. But we were so excited albeit absolutely ill-equipped at the time. So, the tech booth at Sophia auditorium generated this massive light spill straight into the audience. I tried to control it by switching off everything in front of me, which resulted in one of the sound cues cutting off halfway. It was a CD…We could do nothing except move on. It took me back to a memory of my hands shaking during Ava’s Bridge. To Q’s credit, he knew exactly what to say back then and having him in the present team was reassuring to say the least. We had a really good opening night back then!”
Now I understand why both Thespo and QTP mark the light board so diligently. With complete honesty, Argho fessed up to it. He quite openly admitted that because of the Sophia incident the practice has become non-negotiable since then.
We had a laugh and jumped to our next point of conversation:
Funniest Interactions with Venue Technicians
“This was in Calcutta. We were travelling with Flowers, starring Rajit Kapur. Guess what? The entire set did not arrive. We had to do the show without the set. What was even funnier is that there is an urli on stage, which is focused into by 6 profile lights (7 for this particular show). I asked the technician to focus the last of them from the fly bars…
Argo: Dada oi light taake okhane set kore dao…
[Dada, please fix the light there]
Tech dada: Okhane na, bhal lagbe na
[It will not look very good from there]
I was amazed at the confidence with which he said that. I remember telling him to just put it where I wanted it and carefully observe the show.”
“Oh, my God. This was at IIT Kanpur. Nadir (Khan) and I were the tech team for the play Love letters – a two-hander. The last time we had performed at the same venue, I had to use THREE lighting desks and Nadir was juggling SEVEN different lapel microphones. Can you imagine?! This time, when we arrived, the technicians were quite excited to see us, saying they had invested in new equipment. They unveiled the Avolites Pearl 2008. We programmed everything and noticed that all the lights were flickering. I naturally threw a fit. After a brief call with the supplier, the tech dada replied –
“Nahin! Aap do se zyada lights submaster par daloge toh waisa hi hoga.”
[No! If you program more than two lights on the submaster, the flickering is bound to happen]
These stories made me wonder about the unending possibilities of things that can go wrong. You just cannot predict the uncertainty of the LIVE medium.
Guessed my next question?
“I majorly messed up during the opening show of The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail. The opening 6 minutes of the play have 42 light cues. I remember, each of them came on seconds after they were supposed to, resulting in…(Argho playfully gestures the opening of barn doors with his hands)…Actor speaking in complete darkness, followed by the light. Then again, Actor in complete darkness, followed by the light. Oh God… it went on and on. I was so upset after the show I cried in the parking lot. Although it also taught me that there is no way to get it right other than to rehearse! Farah (Bala) a good friend, read the entire script for me in the light booth and I rehearsed every single light cue again and again till I had it right. The next show, I nailed it!”
I couldn’t conclude without finding out after twenty-odd years in the theatre, what practices and rituals Argho now religiously follows.
As a light designer he believes in watching a minimum of four full run-throughs of a play and for the first two he’s not even thinking about the lighting. He’s just observing.
But it was his ritual that surprised me completely, I found out that Argho has two preserved black T-shirts bought at the end of the 20th Century (yes, I added that for effect), which he still wears for every show! The second one, bought in 1998, is worn on the opening night of every play that he directs. When he saw me gaping at this revelation, he added, “I have a sweater from ‘92 that still fits me.”
“Buy a black tee-shirt. This will become your lucky tee-shirt. You don’t need a lucky tee-shirt. Lighting is about contrast. So is drama. Contrast propels everything. Don’t get hung up on symmetry. Fight the urge to make something beautiful for the sake of making it beautiful. Never, ever think about how hard it might be to do. Instead, dream big, as big as you need to. Don’t be fazed by the size of the problem. Break it down into manageable bits. Be polite, even when you’re being rude. Make sure the light guys get a break, get lunch, get tea. See it in your head. The audience doesn’t know something is a mistake unless you make it obvious that it’s a mistake. The world you create is a temporary one. Get used to this.”