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. TORAL SHAH
“Maybe it was the right people being in the right place at the right time?”
Toral Shah is a Theatre Producer, Arts Manager, Stage Manager and Curator based in Mumbai. She is a recipient of the Shankar Nag Award presented by the Ranga Shankara to young theatre makers (2018). Toral is a founding member of QTP Entertainment Pvt Ltd, Thespo and SPACE: Society for Performing Arts Creation and Education. She began her career in 1999 and has over 40 productions to her credit. The most recent of these is Every Brilliant Thing, with an on-ground premiere at Prithvi Theatre (2019) and a digital premiere (2020).
Along with her admirable career in the theatre, Toral is a mentor to countless aspirants for the production process or the theatre at large. My very own first brush with professional theatre was under her guidance during God of Carnage (2015). Since then I’ve had the distinct honour of working with her for several productions and 2 Thespo’s. The learning never stops! Every time, she is able to teach us a valuable part of the process that we would have otherwise overlooked. Her keen eye, attention to detail and backstage ninja tactics have shown us all what it means to be an efficient production person. This interview is truly a special one.
Excited to add to my theatre stories with Toral, I began with…
What was your first ever professional theatre experience?
“We had performed a play at Ithaca, which is the English department festival at St. Xavier’s Mumbai. This was December 1998. Quasar (Thakore Padamsee) directed the play and the rest of the ensemble consisted of Advait Hazrat, Arghya Lahiri, Nadir Khan and Shaun Williams. After performing the show in college we were recommended to the NCPA. The dates were 19th and 20th of June 1999. We ended up performing The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. This was a life changing experience as coming together outside college to do theatre was confirmation that we were all bitten by the same theatre bug. The same show was featured at the Prithvi Theatre in September of the very same year. Our major achievement during the year was getting successful house-full shows even though the World Cup was going on. (she said smiling, knowing very well that choosing theatre over cricket is a massive deal.)
It was during this play that we realised what it meant to be professionals. We were so used to doing everything ourselves that we even carried the heavy platforms to the Experimental Theatre at the NCPA. The moment we were done, Gawdeji (the caretaker at the NCPA) arrived with his men asking for instructions for platform placement. They were not late, as amateurs we were just not used to help.”
What was the biggest difference between performing the same play as students and then again as professionals?
“I think the biggest difference was the job roles. In college all of us would do everything, as opposed to the professional working space where everyone was free to help but there were designated personnel for each job.
The part of the production that felt exactly the same was borrowing the costumes and sets from the Xavier’s theatre department. They were happy to lend them to us but it was the only non-professional part of the otherwise first ever professional experience for most of us in the group.”
What was the show about?
“It’s one of those shows that we still keep talking about time and again. It’s not just the memories, but the themes of the play. It talks about non-violence, civil disobedience, minority laws, logic, rationality and the freedom of speech. Think about it, in the last two years so many of these concepts have popped up globally and we as a group invariably think about what Thoreau said/wrote.
Something as simple as succumbing to a rhythm, you know? Especially in the theatre, we have innumerable stories of people who have pursued full-time professions and then taken up theatre. Finding one’s identity was something that the play pushed us to believe in and now when I look back, most, if not all, of the people we worked with are still in the performing arts. That in my opinion is truly incredible. It wasn’t just a play…it was a play of ideas that in a weird way pushed us to contemplate about the future and it influenced my personal and professional choices.
As you can see, the play and the memories have such strong emotions attached to them. I would like to credit the script. It gave us so much freedom to interpret and experiment that unknowingly we let that style stay with us moving forward.”
Was the play devised/written by the company or did you acquire the script?
“We got the script. A year earlier, in 1997, we did Inherit the Wind and then we picked The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail for 1998. There are two playwrights who wrote both of them – Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee.
The themes they deal with are Genesis, origin of the species and the Scopes Monkey Trial to name a few. The plays have very similar ideological focus points and are inspired from true events happening during that time. It was very interesting to be doing these plays.”
How did you come across this play? Were you all discussing these themes and it came up? I’m so curious…
“Quasar found the play. I remember that very clearly. I can’t speak with much authority as to how and why it was the one. It followed the traditional process of approval though. We submitted a whole bunch of plays and this one was approved for production.
I do remember that there were a couple of plays that year. This wasn’t the only one. Just clarifying, this is in college, not NCPA. Only Thoreau got picked for NCPA. Among the other plays was Tom Stoppard’s Albert’s Bridge. We also did a dramatic reading of Riders to the Sea.
We were quite fortunate to have been a batch that had theatrewallahs as seniors, juniors and course mates. We had to do multiple plays to give everyone a chance. They didn’t all have to be full length – there were readings, skits, plays, everything.
Maybe it was the right people being in the right place at the right time.”
Which was the first professional play you created after graduating?
“All My Sons. Quasar directed the production, Arghya Lahiri lit it, Nadir Khan, Christopher Samuel, Farid Currim, Yuki Elias and Dolly Thakore were in the cast. Karl Alphonso and I were doing production and backstage.
The shows happened in quite a few venues to my recollection. Prithvi, NCPA and Sophia’s. Sophia’s was the big proscenium space at the time. I remember you were paid a stipend for performing at the NCPA which was helpful to us all. It was a very different time and the needs of the institutions were changing and so were the needs of the theatre companies. It was a very different time when we started out…
That is actually the perfect segue for me to ask you – what was the difference between starting out as a stage manager back then versus mentoring people to start off a career in stage management today?
“The primary difference for me is having the option!
Back then, when we were opting for subjects, your options were Science, Commerce or Arts. There were no specific courses. As for those who chose to do theatre, they could either be curated at NCPA and Prithvi or they could afford to rent out Andrews or Sophia.
I mean I didn’t have my first cell phone till 2001, we were all on pagers. So you can imagine the challenges as a production team.
Now, you all have cell phones, social media groups, venues and so many opportunities. Scripts, Scripts! Back then, we could just get them from the books we read or the books we borrowed. Now you can buy them online and not even wait for the delivery. You’ll have the soft copy available right away.
So now a young teenager with a desire to take up stage management already knows so much more, because of accessibility and education. I mean, you yourself have studied theatre and you know how it is to be engulfed by the subject matter as curriculum. That’s the big difference for me. The youth coming into the theatre now have so many options.
I keep saying we were so incredibly lucky to find our contemporaries when we did, because if we hadn’t, we would have lost them. Doing it together kept us together and kept us at it! If we were alone we’d have given in to various other financially lucrative avenues. So, we were lucky to find the friends we did and blessed further that so many of them are still in the theatre.
The biggest example for your generational advantage is that now everyone has a start-up. Pros and cons to the situation definitely. Massive pro, you have the means to create something from scratch on your own. You can pretty much rent anything and just get going. The only con I can think of would be the experiences you are missing out on. For instance, the pavement artists near Kala Ghoda. They are either graduates, self-taught artists or just incredibly talented. They can’t afford to put their work up in galleries like the Jehangir Art Gallery. They can merely display their work on the pavement and hope that people see it. It was so beautiful to experience as well…walking around the garden, looking for these benches where work was displayed and enjoying the whole experience.
On that note, what’s the biggest advantage starting out now?
“Apart from all the choices, you have social media, which is literally a market place. There are thousands of opportunities and in a way it has made the arts more democratic. That is absolutely wonderful. You can start the process of creating your own play right now if you like.
These opportunities are priceless and what makes it delightful is that when people still choose to volunteer for festivals, shows or a youth theatre movement, you know it’s not because they had no other option, but because they really wanted to be a part of this specific process, festival or movement.
For me collaborations now are so much more precious. Having said that, everyone/everything is so distracted/distracting. Answering the ‘what is new?’ just governs the audience ya. Because of the marketplace mentality we’re just catering to the demand with the supply.”
Do you miss anything from theatre back then?
“I really can’t think of anything that I miss. I feel like we have all grown with time and evolved with the years. Having that incorruptible idealism. Am I a little more cynical now? Perhaps. I don’t see it as cynicism. but attribute it to my experience over the years…
To answer your question,
Do I miss calling actors from a PCO to come on time for rehearsals, No! Do I miss paying 12 rupees a minute for a call, No!
I’m very happy with the way theatre is right now.”
That was really beautifully put. I would like to ask you a couple of my favourite questions with some specificity just for you, tell me;
- What is your fondest memory from Thoreau?
Back in those days, a show curated by NCPA or Prithvi used to be a big deal. We were all thrilled when Thoreau was selected for the summer. My fondest memory from the production is the feeling of successfully finishing a house full show. It meant such a great deal to all of us. The memory was made even sweeter with the cast party that followed the process! As I had mentioned before, a college group putting a play up while still in college is special but when the group is able to meet after college and put it up, that feeling is something else. Truly, my fondest memory of being a part of Thoreau.
- Most nerve racking moment from Thoreau?
My most nerve racking memory dates back to 1998. This is when people were mostly using pagers, etc. No massive mobile phones wala problem. But Quasar was very clear that no phones should ring during the show. We were performing at the St. Xavier’s hall and a phone rang. What you need to know is that during those days most of the audience were parents, siblings, friends, etc. Finally when I found the errant gentleman in the interval I was so nervous. It took me forever to walk up to him, because I knew I would have to ask him to leave. I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous as that day in the theatre. I literally felt hollow. Can you imagine a chit of a girl asking an adult, probably a parent to one of my friends, to leave during the interval of a show? It was truly nerve racking.
“What’s waited till tomorrow starts tonight!”