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. JIM SARBH
“As an adult there are so many checks and balances but as a child the freedom is beautiful”
Jim Sarbh is a theatre and screen actor based out of Mumbai. He is the recipient of a Screen Award, an International Indian Film Academy Award and two Filmfare Award nominations. Jim has also directed several theatre productions during his career which started in the city of Atlanta. He moved to Mumbai in 2012, where he continued to act in plays including Rajat Kapoor’s ‘What’s Done is Done’, Rage Productions’ ‘The Glass Menagerie’ directed by Rajit Kapur, Vickram Kapadia’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Kalki Koechlin’s ‘Living Room’, and later made his directorial and writing debut with the 2014 productions ‘Bull’ and ‘Eat’ respectively.
I was thrilled with the opportunity to interview Jim. There were so many stories that it was quite difficult to stick to a particular topic. Under any other circumstances, there would have been a million questions on the tip of my tongue, but for now I was most curious about…
What was your first ever professional theatre experience?
“The moment you said professional theatre experience, I started thinking, first semi-professional acting job? First professional experience as a production assistant? As a professional actor? Because there are so many.”
I would love to hear about all of them…I’m just going to ask you one by one! How did you learn the skills necessary for assisting a production process while pursuing acting?
“The theatre program at Emory University in Atlanta functioned as a theatre company. So right from the first year itself you were given the opportunity to try your hand at different skill sets that fall under the larger umbrella of theatre. In my first year, I got cast in a tiny role in the chorus under the guidance of a professional director from the Atlanta theatre circuit. The school/theatre company would showcase their productions with a cast and crew that was more or less a 50-50 ratio of students and professionals from the city. The play we were performing that year was ‘Alcestis’.”
What was your first ever experience as a production assistant in Mumbai?
“I remember coming back to Bombay after the first year and assisting Rehaan Engineer. It was a funny coincidence. I knew he was an established theatre maker, I had no idea he was the best theatre maker. He asked me if I’d read ‘Hamlet’ and we began the process of creating ‘The Secret Love Life of Ophelia’. The production was so intriguing and surreal. There were kimonos, swings, images drowning in pools and of course the stunning actress, Imogen Butler Cole. Basically, the play was a series of letters written between Hamlet and Ophelia in the iambic pentameter. I remember a very intricately designed silhouette scene and the music done by Dhanendra Kawde was more like sound accompaniment rather than music; it was a bizarre live setup where he was performing. This project was a very special taste of experiencing theatre in Mumbai. It was much later that I realised this production experience was not the norm…far from it. The commercial theatre functioned very differently, which needed experience on my part to understand better. This was my first job as a production assistant. I think there was a stipend in place but the whole process was a sort of a collaboration so not too much money was involved.”
Was Rehaan acting in this play?
Rehaan was the director. I did get a chance to act with Rehaan later in ‘One Flea Spare’. It was another incredible experience. So much love for him.
What was your first ever acting experience whilst still a freshman in college?
“My first time as an actor was again back in Atlanta, in a play titled ‘Alcestis’, the one I mentioned earlier? It was being done by the theatre company, Out of Hand Theater. It was really cool. They were quite experimental and we really enjoyed devising the piece within the parameters of the original text. I mean, their modus operandi was to create stage pictures. Vibrant stage pictures, using the human body. For example, there was a scene where Hercules was fighting a giant snake, the giant snake was a bunch of us actors who were also part of the chorus. My best memory from the play is Hercules vs the vulture and then Hercules banishing the vulture.” (Prometheus reference; which I admit both of us had to google during the interview as…’vulture eating kidney Greek’. We did have a good laugh about it).
Any stories from the ‘Alcestis’ process?
“Oh yeah! One of the leads in the play was a guy called David Quay. I had no idea David was a sophomore, ‘cos he was in the play as a lead character and usually professional actors would snatch those roles. To be fair, he was very good and went on to play a majority of lead parts as the years progressed. After university we landed up living on the same road…Ridgewood drive! In the house next door in fact. And we would audition together. More like, he would find auditions and I’d get a chance to be his plus one. He took me for two auditions, ‘Around the world in 80 days’ and ‘Ice Glen’. Funnily enough, we’d gotten called back for the same role for both auditions. My most vivid memory is the audition for the play ‘Ice Glen’. We were both up for the same part again and this time I got the role! It goes without saying that he didn’t take me to a single audition after that.”
So would you say that ‘Ice Glen’ was the first ever professional play that you got paid for as an actor?
“Yes you could, it was the first big play for sure. The character that I was playing was 23 years old who thought he was 8 years old. It was so much fun playing a character like that, because the scope for experimentation, improvisation and following through on impulses was so organic. It’s like emoting as an adult and emoting as a child. As an adult there are so many checks and balances but as a child the freedom is beautiful. Our director was Ellen McQueen and she was terrific in terms of allowing us, especially for my character, to find something true. Bottom line, it was so much fun. I tried to bring in my comedy and make it as impulsive as possible. The play was very well received, the audience seemed to enjoy my performance as well.”
Was this the play you won an award for?
“Yes, this was the one. In Atlanta, the awards are split into two categories. The Suzan-Lori Parks award for professional high budget productions and then there are the Metropolitan Atlanta Theatre (MAT) awards for the smaller production companies. I won the best supporting actor at the MAT. Unfortunately, I couldn’t receive it. I think Ellen still has my award. I had started working in Mumbai by the time the award show happened.”
I think that’s a perfect segue for me to ask you how your journey has been on the Mumbai theatre circuit?
“On my return to Bombay I went on an exploratory year, because of my theories related to acting. I was going through the medium of acting, when actually I was more interested in the ideas of self, oneness and spirituality. Begging the question, was I using theatre as a means to experience self/spirituality? That took me on this journey to try and figure it out. I did realise that I’m actually most interested in acting and story-telling…of course! It also made me realise I didn’t need to stop my other explorations. The journey to explore oneself can happen through anything. I’m glad it was theatre for me. I’ve found a lot of comfort from yoga, walking and movement as well. For now it’s both journeys running quite harmoniously.”
What was your first play after returning to Mumbai?
“My first play after coming back…that’s a tough one. I think it happened after my visit to Himachal. I was travelling post Vipassana to Dharamkot, Mcleodganj. I remember not carrying any music with me. I just wanted to walk around. There was a cafe called OM Cafe. Funny thing was each time I’d walk by I’d vibe with a song they were playing, that would invariably invite me in. The tea and food were terrible but it was such a good vibe. The people running the place were really cool. They were really chilled and would come talk to me about their books. Long story short, I met Sameer Thakur there after a night of rum and karaoke to Janis Joplin. He offered me a job to act in his play ‘Almost, Maine’. It was a series of short plays and the rehearsal process was in a house in Goa. We would literally cycle to the beach and rehearse the play for a couple of hours a day. The others involved were great and we did our shows in Goa, Bombay and Delhi. Personally, I don’t think the content of the play would’ve floated really well in India but you know we try things to figure things. Really memorable rehearsal process though!”
So would it be fair to say this was the first play you were paid for after returning to India?
“Yeah you could say that. I think it was a collaboration with the American Embassy and there were salaries in place for the actors. So it was the first paid job after being back. But my first theatre piece after coming to Bombay was ‘Ok Tata Bye Bye’. This was written by Purva Naresh and directed by Rabijit Gogoi. I think the play is still running.”
With that, I’m going to ask you my three favourite questions:
Something unique that you do on show day
“I love going for a jog before a show, especially on the streets. Studies have shown across the board that 15 minutes of exercise before a test makes one perform far better. Provided the production team is not too freaked out, I do like to go for a jog. The obstacle course of the streets makes it even more exciting, because your brain goes into a problem solving/I’m aware mode which works in my favour on stage.”
Most nervous moment in the theatre?
“Definitely ‘Sea Wall’! I had just come out of shows for ‘Constellations’ on a Monday and ‘Sea Wall’ started rehearsals on the Wednesday, with shows due on the immediate weekend, Sunday to be specific. There was a matinee and an evening performance scheduled. I think it was the first time ever in my career that I requested Bruce Guthrie, the director, that I may need a line prompt during the show. I wanted it to be a rehearsed reading, but I’m kinda glad Bruce disagreed with that. It was a 13 page monologue with a very stimulating, yet terrifyingly complicated speech rhythm. I mean, given more time and effort we could have made it easier, but three days for that script was too short. That said, it’s a fantastic and truly remarkable play. I have never been more nervous before a show. I think Bruce barely remembers show day as his eyes were glued to the script in case I did shout ‘LINE’ at any point.”
(Jim went on to demonstrate a line from the play and trust me when I say this, his nervousness was not uncalled for at all.)
Fondest memory on stage?
“I think my fondest memory was getting cast in an Alliance Production in Atlanta straight out of university. Context – it is absolutely unheard of to be cast in an Alliance Production in Atlanta without having worked there for years. The odds were slightly tipped in my favour with the character being an Indian named Rajeev and the fact that I was working there as an intern. It was still an incredible opportunity. I remember hearing the news and being really cool about it. But the moment people cleared, I went down to the basement and literally ran around in circles screaming ‘I got cast! I got cast!’
“Just keep having fun with it. Sometimes it might not make sense. Just trust that somewhere in the future after you’ve experienced real life events, some things on stage that didn’t make sense earlier will be abundantly clear. You need to let it season.”