Dialogue with Directors
“Dialogue with Directors” was a seminar-cum-workshop hosted by the NCPA in April, jointly presented by the National School of Drama, New Delhi and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Bombay in collaboration with the Governments of India and Maharashtra. It was a unique experience, in that it brought together five directors who differ greatly in their style, sensibility and approach to their work – and also provided an opportunity for many members of Bombay’s theatre fraternity to convene under one roof for five days in a row.
It seemed later through discussions that ensued – and by virtue of the fact that the majority of the participants were actors – that the workshop was aimed mainly at actors and providing them an opportunity to observe and engage with various styles of direction. However, as a director, I too benefited greatly from the workshop, and learnt much from watching veterans at work. While actors often get to work with all sorts of directors as they move from production to production, it is rare for one director to get to see another’s style of working. This cross-pollination I feel to be an extremely essential part of learning and growth, and one that is rarely experienced outside of a campus environment, perhaps due to lack of initiative, time and resources. Especially in a city like Bombay, and particularly in the English theatre arena, where many of us have not been through the rigours of a training program and have learnt ‘on-the-job’, as we fumble our way through the ABCs of directing, a bit of guidance is always welcome. It was also refreshing to have veterans of the stage come and candidly share their life’s journey and what the stage has meant to them, and inspiring to hear their stories of struggle and eventual triumph.
We had with us on the first day Dr Anuradha Kapur, Director of the National School of Drama. Dr Kapur collaborates hugely with visual artists. Her production of Antigone, starring Seema Biswas, using a giant sand-dune on stage, along with screens simultaneously projecting videos of the Gujarat riots, was visually striking and drew interesting parallels between the historical and the dramatic realities, with the stage being simultaneously used as a documentation of a living reality and a forum for expression. Dr Kapur often uses a prop as stimulus. For example, she assigned an actor a sound – like a shriek – and a pile of sand – and asked the actor to find a movement using the two. In another improvisatory piece, she used surveillance cameras trained on the actors to show a character’s point of view. In another exercise, actors were given a prop to react to – such as a remote-controlled car – but were not allowed to perform or to anticipate the prop.
Dr Kapur believes that over-attachment to the word can be an obstacle and encourages her actors to try starting without the text, with just the body or the self. She uses exercises to get actors to drop their bags of tricks, preconceived notions and own piece-de-resistance. She believes that “Acting is about risking an emotion onstage”.
The second day we had Roysten Abel, whose remarkably honest sharing of his own voyage of discovery endeared him to the participants right away. Since it was by his own confession, the first time he had ever given such a ‘talk’, it was unrehearsed, informal, and in many ways, extremely moving. He spoke about his early days at NSD, wherein he directed mainly Hindi-speaking actors in Shakespeare’s plays and it just didn’t sound right, and then went on to apprentice with the Royal Shakespeare Company in England and they spoke perfect English but it still didn’t feel right. He described his trajectory from NSD’s rather cosmopolitan and somewhat starved and overly political theatre community to the elite Barry John school of theatre where the tea was always ‘perfectly brewed’ and how eventually he tired of it all to create his first original production, Othello, a play in black and white – which dramatized the politics of betrayal within the then Delhi theatre scene, with a theatre group performing Othello – both onstage and off it. Abel said he worked mainly at devising plays out of existing realities. For instance, after the success of his first production – all he had left for the next one were two male lead actors, since everybody else in his former team left, feeling a little left out of the limelight. And so he devised a play called “Goodbye Juliet” – which was a beautiful and bold play on a gay relationship.
After numerous such original and moving experiments, Roysten went on to explode further boundaries, and created a stunning spectacle with one hundred snake charmers – celebrating one of our country’s oldest and most unique traditions, sadly on the decline following PETA’s activist efforts. Roysten saw that this was an amazing community with so much talent, left without a means of livelihood, and decided to bring them all together, on one stage. He did not know how it would happen – he just knew that he had to do it. And so we see the grand spectacle of one hundred snake charmers in Naples. He laughed “In theatre, we take chai breaks. These guys take chillum breaks. And sometimes they would come back stoned… so then rehearsal would have to wait…” His magnum opus was when he brought together one hundred folk musicians together on stage to sing a qawwali in the Sufi tradition, and international audiences wept… for they had never experienced anything like it. Currently Roysten has abandoned the urbane and decided to move to Rajasthan, in quest of something more soulful.
On the third day, Abhilash Pillai, Academic Dean of the National School of Drama, brought the actor-participants back out onto the floor with his well-thought-out exercises. After some initial warm-ups, in the first exercise, he got participants to explore the space of the auditorium, and move to the music in whichever way they wished. He then handed out a story with 3 characters, an ancient Chinese fable called “The Fable of Xua-Xua”, and had the participants enact the story, taking turns playing the various characters. There was no dialogue and the emphasis was purely on expression and building up a character through movement and interaction with other characters. Abhilash shared much of his work with us, many of the productions being international collaborations. Plagued by the lack of tradition in a state where every artist came from a deep-rooted rich cultural tradition, this Kerala-born artist found himself at a loss, until his NSD professor pointed out that to be a migrant was a tradition in itself. Thus his theme is often migration, or rootlessness, and there is much cross-cultural exploration in his work. His main stimulus for his work comes from sound. Rhythm, often ceaseless and relentless, forms a recurring motif in his work. His sets are elaborate, surreal, and sometimes have an eerie quality to them.
On the fourth day, we had with us Neelam Mansingh. A woman whose plays are as direct as she herself is, with the text being conveyed powerfully and primarily through the physical and visual realms. Her session was extremely high-energy, with participants being fully engaged at all times in a series of exercises that required them to be at all times alert and agile. The initial set of warm-up exercises required participants to walk around first merely without bumping into each other or looking at each other, and then later introduced the elements of eye contact, walking with a partner, moving with a partner, and so on. The second exercise required actors to work in pairs, with one actor digging for treasure and the other motivating him or her to keep going. This exercise was designed to get the mind and its baggage to take a backseat, and to help build up energy for a scene, using physical exhaustion to convey mental exhaustion more truthfully. The idea was to push yourself to the limit so that the mind does not interfere in what the body wishes to do, and then say your lines when you can physically go no further. The participants found this to be an extremely draining and yet revealing exercise – since it required them to work their way from the outside in, instead of the other way around, which is most often the case. Finally, she brought in the Navrasa, drawing the nine rasas in a grid on the stage, with participants having to take an emotion and use an unpredictable or unconventional rasa for that emotion. For instance, saying “I love you” not in Shringar rasa but in Adbhut. The idea here was to create the unexpected moment, and to write the unwritten part of a play with your imagination on your own body. Ms Mansingh's own actors, Rocky and Ramanjit Kaur, did some fantastic demonstrations, including one dramatic enactment of a rape scene by Raman in a trolley to convey suffocation, helplessness, and violence.
The seminar was concluded by the much-awaited Vijaya bai, a lady who has captured the imagination of so many for so long. Vijaya bai indulged in only a short reminiscing about her early days in the theatre, touched briefly on her collaborations with playwrights, and then moved on to talk about what she felt had yet to be discussed -- the responsibility that came with being an actor. “Having done about eighty roles, I have been born eighty times -- that is the privilege I give my actors and it’s their responsibility to live it to the hilt”. How does one do that? “An actor has to be herself, the character, a member of the audience, and a sixth sense, watching over herself – all four things simultaneously.” Therein she underlines the difference between an actor and a ‘star’, saying that a star is in love with just one aspect – herself – and so becomes an exhibitionist. An actor must be gullible and possess a childlike simplicity. She quotes Picasso “Theatre is the greatest lie” and then completes it by adding “which takes you to the ultimate truth, by creating abstractions out of the concrete”. The stage becomes an opportunity to drop your mask to yourself and become truly truthful.
When it comes to her own style of working, Vijaya bai says she has moved away from imagery to simplicity and its sophistication. A firm believer that theatre has to be more intuitive and sensuous than cerebral, Vijaya bai’s main stimulus is smell. And like a fragrance, she believes an emotion has to be arrived at slowly, discovered gently, without making it obvious. She finds the display of anything very private on stage vulgar, self-pitying and indulgent, and has no patience for such exhibitionism. As a director, she works by creating an atmosphere of trust and calm, and uses the rhythm and power of dance within the grammar of theatre. This was imminent in the exercises she put participants through, urging them to lie down in the darkness, and find their own shapes, first as fish in the water, then as buds beginning to bloom. Deeply meditative and soothing, the exercises are mainly designed to break down inhibitions, especially when working with actors who come from extremely different schools of theatre. In another exercise, actors were given a set of circumstances (known as ‘units’) and then asked to enact the situation, to help them learn detailing.
As the day drew to an end, and it became increasingly clear that nobody wanted to leave, there was much discussion about how such a forum could be sustained. The final consensus was that it should be carried forward in conjunction with the NSD, with an extended 5-day session with each of the directors every six months. There was also some talk of putting up a production.
All in all, the workshop was extremely informative, inspiring and educational. Kudos to Q and team for putting it all together! Let’s hope it becomes a regular feature, and that going forward, there are many more such initiatives which are also focussed towards playwrights and directors. Perhaps an intensive training workshop for young directors could be next in the offing?