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. GEETANJALI KULKARNI
“Theatre gave me the most magical moment of my life.”
Geetanjali Kulkarni is a prominent actor in Marathi and Hindi theatre in Mumbai. She has worked in several touring productions that have gotten her international acclaim. She has been cast in several movies as well. She featured in Court (2014), the film that won the ‘National Film Award’ in the category ‘Best Feature Film’. Her most recent film is titled Is Love Enough? – SIR that was released in November 2020.
What was your first ever professional theatre experience?
“It was Mukkam Post Bombilwadi written and directed by Paresh Mokashi. I had worked with him on two productions prior to this project on the Experimental Stage at the NCPA, but this play was the first professional experience for a lot of us in the ensemble. This was Paresh’s first professional directorial project and even the producers were doing something professional for the first time. We had all done plenty of collaborative work before this and definitely some amateur productions but as I said, it was the first professional play for most of us involved. It was a very different kind of comedy and we were apprehensive about it working. Our main fear was that there were no stars involved. Marathi professional plays generally cast at least one critically acclaimed star and not having that advantage was scary.
The play premiered in 2001. We honestly thought it would have a 30-40 show run, but our 20th show was suddenly house full and we received really good reviews. Fast forward 2 years and we had completed 488 shows!
It was an unbelievable experience. I vividly recall doing 3 shows a day during some weeks of the run and there were some months when we did close to 40 shows.”
I’m so envious of this journey, almost 500 shows sound like an absolute blast! Could you share a couple of stories from your time touring with Mukkam Post Bombilwadi?
“There are so many stories…as you can imagine! There were plenty of instances where we forgot lines and improvised on stage, characters missed their entries and exits, laughing on stage, going blank on stage and other live show problems. There is one specific story though that all of us cast members love talking about. I’ll give you a little bit of context first. We used to perform 3 shows a day as I said. The show toured quite a bit around Maharashtra. One time, we had a show in Nasik on a Saturday night at 9:30 pm. Our general plan was always to finish the show and have dinner at the theatre by 1-1:30 am. Then a 5-hour bus back to Mumbai and a Sunday morning 11 o’clock show at Shivaji Mandir, Dadar.
This particular day there was an accident or something on the Bombay-Nasik flyover and we were terribly delayed. We knew we would not reach the theatre on time and we contemplated cancelling the show. The producer spoke to the house full audience and told them our plight. He informed them that a full refund would be available for those who wished to leave. To our pleasant surprise the entire audience volunteered to wait for us. We arrived 90 mins later than our scheduled start of 11am and were able to start the show at half past noon. I remember, when we were told that the audience would not leave and the show would go on as planned with a later start, we all started doing our make-up and sorting our costumes in the tour bus itself. The most surreal moment was when we reached the theatre and began to make our way backstage, the audience spotted us and began clapping and cheering.
To top it all we had another show at 4:30 pm that same evening.”
That sounds incredible. Nowadays while rehearsing a show we are so conscious of the play not exceeding the 90 minute mark. It’s almost like an unsaid rule – a show running past the hour and a half mark risks making the audience restless. And here, we have an instance where they waited for that exact time for the show to begin. I think this is a testament to the popularity of the show more than anything else…
“I completely agree. Nowadays, everyone is so impatient and I cannot even imagine a scenario like this happening. Like you said, it is a testament to the show. The writer did a fantastic job. We just had to get up there and make sure we did justice to his words. Even now when I conduct workshops, I use material from the script and the participants find it a treat. Even more surprising for us is the fact that there is a very bad recording available on YouTube, which students watch and write in telling us how much they enjoy it!”
Was this play your first ever paid professional theatre as well?
“Before this we always worked on a profit sharing basis. When we did Sangeet Debuchya Mulee for instance, whatever was earned was split as per the contract. To answer your question, yes, this was the first ever paid venture for all of us. Regardless of profit, cancelled shows or unforeseen circumstances we were given our due. It was a lot like a salary. The pay was not great though. It was only a 100 rupees. In Maharashtra they called it ‘smoke money’ or ‘night’. Night is pretty self-explanatory. The money was basically paid to us at the end of the night. Our pay scale was quite funny though. We were paid 100 Rupees until the first house full show. Then it was increased to 150 until the 200th show. It became 200 Rupees after 200 shows, 300 after 300 shows and finally 400 after 400 shows. We were just shy of our 500. Of course, these were separate from our per diems which differed depending on the tour.”
Which was the most exciting show among all the 488 that you performed?
“This question brings back a lot of memories. George Fernandes, the then Defense Minister, wanted us to perform for the Maratha Light Infantry. The Indian Army took us all the way to Kashmir and we actually performed at Uri. The Army took us there on a Cargo flight and it was such a different touring experience. Recently, we completed 20 years of the production and all of us recollected that specific show quite fondly.”
Geetanjali, that is such a unique experience. I can only imagine how thrilled you all must have been!
“So it was very interesting…the circumstances most definitely. The challenge though was to make sure we did justice to the comedy and the comic timing and the comically witty writing. I remember during rehearsals we would improvise quite a bit and that occasionally led to our director saying, ‘but that’s not from this play’!”
I couldn’t help but notice you mention comedy a couple of times. Were you always inclined to comedy as a genre or was it something you developed for this character?
“The characters we portrayed were like sketches, I would even go so far as to say slightly cartoonish. When I graduated from NSD, I found myself equipped with skills to perform in all genres, but did not have much experience professionally. I think I learnt to find playfulness from the ever talented Paresh and definitely the rest of the ensemble. We are still the closest of friends and love to reminisce about the tomfoolery during the tours and shows.”
I would now like to ask you my three favourite questions.
Do you have any theatre rituals?
“This depends on which play it is. If it’s a play which has done a significant number of performances, anything more than 25, I do not obsess about the lines, breath and movement. For instance, for Bombilwadi we would all play music and dance to our hearts content just to liven up the space. However, if it’s a play for which we are still trying to find a rhythm and it’s not had too many performances, I will practice all my lines in the different ‘Rasaas’…you know, the different emotions. I will rehearse them angrily, happily, excitedly, etc.”
Your most nervous moment in the theatre?
“There are so many to be very honest. Every single moment in the theatre is such a nervous moment. The pressure of recreating each moment as if for the first time definitely pushes me to excel, but makes every moment quite nervous.
The thing is I’m a very hard working actor. Sometimes I get quite stressed and it was when I worked with Atul Kumar that he told me something quite profound. He told me not to take the ‘bhoj’ (the burden) of the whole performance. It helped me so much to focus my energy moving forward from there.”
Your fondest moment in the theatre?
“Performing at the Globe Theatre in London.
There is a story…When I had visited the Globe Theatre in 2007 I had watched a midnight show of Othello. Since then, I have fantasised about an opportunity to perform there, because it felt like such a pure space…the open air and importance to all aspects of performance that I hold dear, like voice and physicality. It blew my mind. I remember telling my husband that I would return and that too, as a performer. Lo and behold, in 2012 Piya Behrupiya blessed me with the opportunity to perform on my dream stage. My fondest moment is when I get to sing a longing song during the interval. On this particular show I sat at the edge of the stage apron, in the sunny, yet drizzly, London weather, singing to the standing crowd in front of me. Theatre gave me the most magical moment of my life.”
“The joy of theatre doesn’t depend on where you’re performing or who you’re performing to. The joy of theatre lies in how often you are performing and how enthused you are while performing. Start small. Start on your terrace if you have to. Just start! The world of theatre will do the rest.”