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 NIPUN AVINASH DHARMADHIKARI
“It was received well…very well actually”
Nipun Avinash Dharmadhikari is fondly remembered by the Thespo family for his 2008 festival opening play, Dalan. It went on to set the tone for the festival and received the Outstanding Play Award, along with Outstanding Actor, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress awards. An established Marathi, Hindi and English theatre artist, who has been honoured repeatedly as both an actor and a director, he is currently receiving much praise for his directorial success – the web-series Mismatched.
It was my honour and privilege to relive the past with Nipun as I hit him with the question,
What was the first ever performance you were paid for?
“This happened back in 2001. I lived in Pune where there has always been a very strong theatre culture. I was in school at the time and was inspired by the play Varhad Nighalay London La, a one act play that featured 52 characters all portrayed by a single actor. It was written, directed and performed by a professor from Aurangabad, Laxman Deshpande. So I found myself imitating the professor. Apparently it was really entertaining, even my interpretation. One thing led to another and there I was getting paid a thousand rupees for my performance, at a Ganapati Society Puja.”
What inspired you to pick such a challenging play?
“Back in those days we used to listen to audio cassettes (he said, breaking into a laugh). I had watched professor Deshpande perform this play live and I got my hands on an audio recording. Don’t ask me how! I remember listening to the cassette again and again for two years. I had heard it so many times that I actually learnt all the lines without intending to. In school, when the teacher would leave the classroom, I would perform bits of it … a few characters… for my classmates. Word got around and I started performing the piece for annual functions, classroom ice-breakers and then later got paid to perform it…as I’ve already mentioned.”
Fascinated by these recollections I couldn’t help myself and urged him to share the plotline. My head could not fathom the fact that a student was being asked by his teachers to entertain other students’ in between classes!
“The teachers realised that at least with me performing the class was quiet.”
Nipun took the time to summarise. “The story was a Gold Mine”, he said, “Because it allowed me to impersonate almost all sections of society.” The play is about a young man who, after excelling academically through school and college, secures a position in London. The drama unfolds when he returns home to disclose his love for a British girl, the British family then travel to India, disputes are handled, multiple characters from the village and city are introduced, dowry is questioned and finally the whole community travels to London to celebrate the wedding.
“It is a collage of very interesting characters with some amazing dialogue – rooted and colloquial, and it is an out and out comedy. I had the opportunity to play kids, elderly characters and quite literally an entire village travelling to the airport, arriving at London and then finally experiencing the wedding there.”
How did you manage to create the sets, props and costumes for the play?
“There was no set. I think that was a brilliant creative choice. The main prop/costume was a shawl. Imagine a massive piece of cloth that is a gentleman’s shawl on one surface and a saree on the other. So it was completely down to one’s creativity to drape the cloth in multiple ways to portray women, elderly men…quite literally 52 different characters.”
What is your most treasured memory from this play?
“I enjoyed the demand the performance had created in school. It reached a point where my core subject teachers had to object, because of the number of classes I was missing. I wasn’t just performing in my classroom anymore, these demands were coming from other classes and other years!”
At this point I could feel myself drifting further and further away from the scope of my questions. Frankly, this story seemed to be the tip of the iceberg! Looking at the energy of Nipun as a storyteller and the benchmark he set with this story, I am certain he possesses a treasure trove of experiences that would keep me engaged for days. Wary of the time I abruptly jumped in with:
What was your first ever theatre experience as a professional theatre artist?
“I was still in college. I had no formal training, but I was a part…actually still am a part…of many amateur theatre companies in Pune’s thriving amateur theatre culture. Working with them sort of trained me for the stage and where I recognised my love for direction. I directed a play for a company called Samanvay with Sonali Kulkarni, Sandesh Kulkarni, Amruta Subhash and Shashank Shinde in the cast.
It was a play called Lose Control, which dealt with teenagers who bring a ‘call girl’ home. Obviously we could not perform it at the college level, but we experimented with it nonetheless and had Sushama Deshpande play the call girl. It was an absolute blast performing the play. Its success got us an invitation to an Aavishkar curated space at Mahim in Mumbai. It was one of my proudest moments, as there were stalwarts of the theatre – Atul Kulkarni, Vijay Tendulkar and Sulabha Deshpande – in the audience. I remember being very nervous but we performed our best and it was received well…very well actually.”
What was the outcome of these performances?
“Unknown to us there were a couple of big theatre producers present in the audience. I’m not exaggerating…when I returned to college in Pune, I would get a call during every class inquiring about our availability. It was surreal! I had to duck down under my desk, apologise to these big producers and request them to allow me to revert back in an hour. I remember one producer even went as far as to say he was the biggest producer in Mumbai and I was making a big mistake.”
Nipun described his journey with Lose Control as one that taught him a lot about the craft. For the commercial Marathi circuit, the play had to be extended from 75 min to 100 min. An interval was added. The hope was the play would be a “Cash Cow”. Nipun and co. even introduced a new character and a scene, but realised…
“…it was too bold for the commercial stage. Talking about ‘sex’ in front of a live audience proved more challenging than we thought. I remember an instance when a young man came backstage to say that he really did not appreciate the play, because he had brought his younger sister along. To this day I’m confused as to why he sat through almost two hours of a show he didn’t like from the start. I realised it wasn’t just the genre. The cast was not appropriate and the newspaper ads and reviews were horrible. All in all the play, which was predicted to buy my producer a flat in Dadar, ran for the shortest spell – from 5th December 2006 to 24th Feb 2007.”
It was truly insightful to uncover these stories, as they have shaped Nipun to become the artist we all love and respect.
Before we concluded I was keen to know his answers to these two questions:
1. Most nervous moment?
“As funny as this may sound. I used to find myself getting terribly nervous introducing myself as an actor. Nowadays, I introduce myself as a director who likes to act, so it’s fine…but back then it was just nerve-racking.”
2. Theatre Practice before a show?
“I don’t eat anything for 4 hours before a show. I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t sit well with me. Some tell me it’s dangerous, but I manage the rest of the 24 hours accordingly.”
“There is a quote by Steinbeck along the lines of…The theatre is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive…and this is my belief. The theatre will survive this too. I can’t wait to see what’s on the other side”
-Nipun Avinash Dharmadhikari