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 MAHESH DATTANI
A writer, director, actor…and a dancer!
Mahesh Dattani is prominent in our minds as a writer and director. So it was exciting to find out that his first ever paid professional theatre experience came to him as an actor. His three varied routes into theatre made me wonder, is it possible to be so multi-disciplinary and be good at all of them? In his own words, Mahesh Dattani’s first ever paid professional experience….
As an Actor
“In 1993 I was invited by a professional theatre company from the US to act in A Perfect Ganesh by Terrence McNally. I knew the director Allen Nause quite well, as he had worked with me before on his visit to India. Those days we didn’t have easy access to the internet, I don’t even think I had email. Anyway…he called me. It was a surprise, because I don’t think anyone had quoted me on my acting proficiency. But the excitement to do the play and my prospective reunion with Allen pushed me to take the project. Yes, this was my first ever paid professional experience in the theatre and what an incredible one it was! It was a first for a bunch of things…now that I think about it. First time working with a professional repertory company, the Artists Repertory Theatre. First time I was part of a show that would premiere for the entire American Northwest, starting from Portland, Oregon.”
As a writer
Even though it didn’t materialise, it introduced me to the world of writing for TV, which was very new back then. I mean, the only regular shows at the time were on Doordarshan. I’m immensely thankful for the opportunity because I was so new to writing at the time with only one play under my belt.”
As a director
“Dance Like A Man! This was the first play that I directed. I wrote and acted in it as well. So this was a unique challenge. I did not want to act in my own plays, but back then, due to a scarcity of professional actors, I had no choice. Although, for this particular play I acted because the play featured a Bharatnatyam trained actor. I’d briefly trained in Bharatnatyam growing up and it seemed like a perfect fit.”
These stories confirmed that it is possible to have a simultaneous career writing, directing and acting. It also confirmed the hard work that generally goes unseen and definitely goes unannounced.
As an aspiring actor myself I could not help but notice how Mahesh casually mentioned being a trained Bharatnatyam dancer. It is a dream, isn’t it? To be a quadruple threat? To perhaps be an actor who can dance, sing, play an instrument and act? Here we have a writer who can direct, act and dance! Maybe the standard expansion of quadruple was too mainstream.
How did Bharatnatyam come into your life and has it ever benefited your acting career?
“I’m really glad the conversation steered this way. I trained in Bharatnatyam when I was probably your age. It wasn’t for too long. Just 4 years. I know that sounds like a long time for you and maybe for the current generation. Back in those days we did not believe in the quick 2 year learning modules that are so readily available these days.(He said breaking into a laugh) Jokes aside, in order to train as a Bharatnatyam dancer one needs to train for much longer. So let’s just say I know the basics. Did it ever help me in my acting career? Yes, absolutely! And it was fantastic. So for A Perfect Ganesh, Allen, the director, wanted to create a movement sequence for the character of Ganesh. I suggested a few moves based on my basic understanding of the dance and there I was clad in golden attire, arms and trunk attached.”
What was the play about?
Two middle-aged friends from Connecticut, Katherine Brynne and Margaret Civil, travel to India, avoiding their usual, safe vacation spots. Each is, in her own way, seeking to heal from the death of a son. While exploring its cities (with the goal of reaching the Taj Mahal), they encounter the Hindu god, Ganesha. However, Ganesha is not just a single entity, but exists in many people they meet. Katherine is convinced that she needs to kiss a leper, possibly to atone for not supporting her murdered son, Walter. Margaret is hiding the fact that she feels she let her son, Gabriel, be killed, as well as possible breast cancer. They eventually reach the Taj Mahal, whose splendour transforms them. They return to Connecticut to discover Katherine’s husband has died, but connected in a deeper, honest friendship.
Mesmerised by these stories and perfectly aware that I am quite capable of straying off track, always hungry to learn more, I had to bring the session back to the interview parameters and asked my three favourite questions:
Fondest memory in the theatre?
”Tribecca Centre in New York. It was a three-week run of Dance Like A Man. First week was horrid. A 400 seater and only 50 people. Then a theatre critic from the New York Times was invited by our producer. He was told that the play is a modern Indian play…not very traditional. The critic wrote us a half-page glowing review. Nothing can beat the sight of walking into the theatre on week two with a queue around the block! It was the most fulfilling feeling. To add to that, back then it was very difficult to tour with a contemporary piece…that too set in India. It was such a privilege to have had that experience as well.”
Theatre rituals that you follow before a show?
“I learnt this from an English theatre director. Make the ensemble first listen to ‘silence’ and then at some point play the counting game. It’s a really simple game and it puts the group into an incredible space of focus. The ensemble needs to stand in a circle and just start counting aloud from 1 till 20. The same person cannot say more than one number and any simultaneous utterances necessitate that the group begins again from 1. If you reach 20, that’s great! If not, you just move on and enjoy the process of actually listening before a show.”
Most nervous moment?
“My play Final Solutions ran into some trouble. I wrote it before the Babri Masjid demolition, but it was pulled out of a festival it was meant to be showcased at. Although it was a play about harmony…to try and find peace…there was a lot of objection to the content. Finally after two years it premiered. There were people who came to the show just because of the scandal. That was so different from my usual theatre audience. I was very VERY nervous. Will they hate it? Will it spark another riot? Will they stop the play halfway through without hearing us out? It was a nail biting moment as I waited backstage for the show to open.”
“If someone tells you what a ridiculous idea that is, you should take that as a compliment and keep moving forward. Others should not determine your creativity for you. The minute somebody says something is idiotic or ridiculous, please feel excited that you’ve got something there that is incredible”