Features The First Chapter

The First Chapter Ft. Sam Kerawalla

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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.


If nobody was there to do a job it would automatically become your job

Sam Kerawalla is an artist celebrated for his tremendous work ethic, tenacity, vision and ability to adapt quickly to any situation under the large umbrella of theatre. Sam started his journey as a stage manager and quickly propelled himself to become one of the most sought after directors of his generation. He is an inspiration for stage managers, light designers and directors across the country.

With that in mind I asked Sir…

What was your first ever paid professional theatre experience?

“Very frankly I don’t remember. Since the day you told me about the interview I’ve been trying to recollect, but it won’t come to me. One of the reasons I suspect is in those days when we did theatre we never got paid at all. Finally, when payments started coming, the money would get split equally among all those involved. It was always a profit share. There were desperate times when the auditorium would run empty and we would lose the money invested, rather than actually earn.”

Sir the work your generation put into developing this profession, your sacrifices and selfless work are so admirable. Thank you for paving the way for so many generations that have benefited from your work.

“Oh, nothing has changed. Even today theatre people ask me for my services and help, because there is still no money in the theatre. But theatre has to go on. It will always go on, because of the love for the medium.”

Could you tell me about your oldest theatre memories?

“A lot of us belonged to Adi Marzban’s group. You follow? We were an ensemble of dedicated artists. If money ever came it was a token amount. If we got 5 rupees we were very VERY happy.

Adi Marzban - Image Courtesy Laughter In The House by Meher Marfatia
Adi Marzban - Image Courtesy Laughter In The House by Meher Marfatia

In those days there were a lot of drama competitions. Especially by Marathi Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan. We performed in many languages as well…Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati etc. As a result we were involved with everything that was happening in the world of Bombay theatre.

I remember my first production vividly. I was studying at St Xavier’s College. There was a dancer…I just cannot recollect her name….she was supremely talented. She asked me excitedly if I’d light her show. I said to her very clearly, that I am a professional. She said she would pay the lighting designer 5 rupees, because the budget of the production was 30 rupees. It was quite funny to hear her list out her budget. She told me my fee would not be an issue, because she had already spent 10 rupees on costumes.”

Do you remember your first play with Adi Marzban?

“Now that is a million dollar question! (He said breaking into a laugh) I apologise if my ability to recollect names and dates is disappointing, but it is because there were so many productions. In those days, we didn’t do many shows.  We would rehearse for a whole month and have one show and that was it! After the solitary show was over sometimes someone would express an interest to sponsor another one. You would assume that would be exciting news, right? Wrong! It was a nightmare to assemble the same cast again. Even if the cast agreed, finding a rehearsal space was even more obstacle ridden…” 

Did you not have seasons for any of the productions?

“Nothing like that. It was such a scary time.”

Sir, I feel so guilty complaining about our obstacles after listening to you. It is truly inspiring to see how all of you overcame such serious problems.

“The thing is we did a lot of interesting theatre that took over our lives and at no point did we  focus on the challenges we faced. For example, the play Piroja Bhavan, written and directed by Adi Marzban, was an adaptation of an English play, in which the male protagonist excitedly buys a house at an auction. When it happens, on the stage we see a broken down house and collapsing windows. It was really quite a sight. When the characters try to open the main door the door frame comes off into their hands. To be very honest, the budget restrictions made the set quite unsafe and actors were given instructions to respond to real time challenges in the guise of their characters.

The set of Piroja Bhavan-Image Courtesy Laughter In The House by Meher Marfatia

There is a point in the play when the sound effect of rain comes on and I clearly remember the characters have to let the audience know that the bedrooms (which were on the imaginary second floor of the house) must be completely flooded. We had water droplets falling to show the leakage.”

Piroja Bhavan with Piloo Wadia, Burjor Patel, Ruby Patel, Dinshaw Daji and Dadi Sarkari - Image Courtesy Laughter In The

Sir in what capacity were you involved with the play?

“I was the stage manager, who assumed the role of stage hand, prompter, assistant to the director and quite literally everything else, except for appearing on stage.”

From our brief conversation I get that you’ve been a light designer and a stage manager. So how many hats have you worn in your career so far?

“I started off as a stagehand. I used to work at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan every Sunday, because they had a performance there every Sunday. My mornings would start with prop and set hunting across the city. Mostly going to the houses of friends of the theatre to source them.

CHOOPO RUSTOM-Sam Kerawala, Batuk Bhat, Phiroze Chaina, Pesi Khandalavala, Govardhan Panchal - Image Courtesy Laughter I
CHOOPO RUSTOM-Sam Kerawala, Batuk Bhat, Phiroze Chaina, Pesi Khandalavala, Govardhan Panchal - Image Courtesy Laughter I

One of the first plays I worked on needed not one cup, but an entire English tea set…sugar bowl, milk jar, everything. You can imagine the task of collecting all of that from friends and later returning them to their rightful owners. The actors at the time were like children as well. During interval they would all swarm around the food props and gobble them down before the second half of the play!

Now, this play also needed vases and it was risky to keep borrowing them as they are so easily breakable. So I went and sourced used bottles. I managed to find these old cognac bottles which I worked on with papier mache and created whatever shapes I wanted. Sometimes I would cut the bottles in half to create other set decorations.

Oh here is a fun story! There was a play in which the character of the female protagonist comes back to haunt the male protagonist by wreaking havoc in the house. She needed to be able to break everything and I needed to figure out a way for her to do that without her actually touching anything. What we did was quite unique! The frame of the cyclorama was wooden, not just the edges but it was like a grid at the back. We made tiny hidden holes through which we would push the props exposed to the audience with pencils, so they would fall on stage and break. Our imagination and creativity were challenged because of tight budgets, but that definitely made us much better artists.”

Sir do you have any other stories about this production?

“Oh so many! Every production usually had a budget of 20-30 rupees. How could we keep breaking props every show?! So I went to Chor Bazaar and found someone who made matkas.. Again I did some papier mache work on them just to create the illusion that they weren’t matkas. My house was stacked with tiny accessories, because I had to be equipped for these handicraft projects. I don’t remember the name of the play but they were all part of Adi Marzban’s initiative. I remember working on many…many…many…productions for him”

The theatre was such a challenging space at the time. What appealed to you most in order to pursue it full-time?

“No, you couldn’t take up theatre full-time. Shows only happened on Sunday evenings, so what would you do the rest of the time? Also because of limited performances and resources, very few people were inclined to take up theatre. Besides everyone involved wanted to do the glamourous jobs like acting, directing and script writing. So in the 70’s I decided to take up stagecraft and did a two-year course in theatre studies at the Indian Academy of Dramatic Arts. It was started by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. The school would hold workshops as well. Through those I got introduced to the likes of Alyque Padamsee, Gerson da Cunha and the incredible Derek Jeffries. To sustain myself during this time I worked at Voltas as well.”

The line-up for MOTA DIL NA MOTA BAWA - Sam Kerawalla standing second from the left - Image Courtesy Laughter In The Hou

How did you manage both the training and work?

“The moment the shift was over I would punch my card, run to the bus stop and take the 17:15 bus that got me to Electric House by 18:00. The classes for IIDA would happen behind Regal Cinema and I hated being late.”

What inspired you to become a director?

“From the beginning my primary focus was to become a director. I would always try to be in the rehearsal room for as many productions as possible. I cherished those moments of learning as they allowed me to better my craft. Being a stage designer inspired me the most, because I could draw and paint reasonably well and IIDA had a fantastic library. I would read the theory and then try and put it into practice. I was hungry to learn everything. I didn’t do all of that just to quench my thirst for more knowledge. My motive was very clear. I was thinking about the productions I would direct in the future and how I could save on employing specialised professionals for different aspects of the production. I can guarantee that effort was not in vain as my plays would generally win awards at the competitions we participated in.

In fact there was a period of time for a couple of weeks, when I was directing 6 different plays on the same day. Every day, 6am to 8pm in 6 different rehearsal rooms!”

Sam directing Bomi Dotiwala for Laughter In The House - Image Courtesy Sooni Taraporevala
Sam directing Bomi Dotiwala for Laughter In The House - Image Courtesy Sooni Taraporevala

What was your daily routine?

“I would wake up at 6 am and report to Voltas where I worked in different departments. Sometimes as an electrician, but most times in the welding department. I loved it, because all that work was useful to me as a stage manager. There was a play where they needed a glass vase to shatter on stage. They insisted on glass, so I could not use my papier mache tricks. You know what I did? I found a guy who made these dirty, quite ugly looking glass vases. They were so bad they were cheap…he sold them by the weight. I bought 20 of them. In my spare time I worked painstakingly on them to make them look beautiful. Watching them get shattered show after show made me realise how awful people who lent us props and never got them back must feel!”

Sir, I would like to ask you my three favourite questions of our interview process now.

What is your fondest memory of the theatre?

“It was a one act play in college. I used to go as a helper on tours which would take plays across the country. On one such tour I met a young boy who introduced himself as Homi Daruwalla. He was about to finish school and requested me to direct him in a production when he got to college. Working with him on that production was one of my most cherished theatre experiences. He was a brilliant actor and the play went on to win multiple awards for acting, direction and stage design.”

What was your most nervous moment in the theatre?

“There were many! Every production had one. I think if I had to pick what made me most nervous, it would be the moment the curtains needed to close. Especially when it had already been cued, but you were busy backstage chatting up an attractive girl! Jokes aside, it was really a massive pain. The curtains those days used to be manually operated and would never come down on time. One would have to run up a spiral staircase located backstage to operate the mechanism.

I remember one time I was busy reading a script backstage and I accidentally shone my torch upwards. That was the curtain cue! I had expressly told my support staff they must drop the curtain the moment I shine the light. There was chaos! And I cannot tell you how much I got yelled at. The audience thought the actors had forgotten their lines, so they did not want to sit through the rest of the show and wanted an immediate refund. After profuse apologies we started the show again from the top.”

Sam with Sarosh Bhabha - Image Courtesy Laughter In The House by Meher Marfatia
Sam with Sarosh Bhabha - Image Courtesy Laughter In The House by Meher Marfatia

Any ritual or practice that you followed?

“Nothing like that for me. I was always so excited about everything being just right. We used to have so much work…even moments before the show. There was no time for superstitions. If nobody was there to do a job, it would automatically become your job.  I once did a play with Adi Marzban where one of the set guys got drunk and left the flats unpainted. So I took a water pipe, washed the flats and then painted them with choona. (We couldn’t afford expensive paints you see…the sets were painted with the help of artificial colouring mixed with choona).

This reminds me of another story…Adi Marzban once said to me, ‘people are not coming to see the set. They are coming to see the actors.’ But then one day he got delayed at All India Radio where he worked and arrived late for rehearsals. He saw the set and screamed at me, telling me how horrible he found it. So I had to dig out another set from a warehouse, assemble it and then paint it all over again. Can you imagine? The rehearsal finally began at midnight and went on till 7am.”


“Go east or go west,

Theatre is the best.”

-Sam Kerawalla

About Ninad Samaddar

Ninad Samaddar is an Actor, Director and teacher-practitioner. He studied at the Drama Centre London and is currently teaching at his Alma Mater CHRIST(deemed to be University) while coordinating Flute Theatre India. Ninad is a collector of experiences and is always on the lookout for exciting opportunities in the Theatre.

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