I clearly remember one of those ‘90s summer afternoons. The cruel heat of scorching sun had compelled people to hide inside their homes for shelter but could not prevent a bunch of young, enthusiastic boys and girls who sat under the modest shade of a Banyan tree, gleefully working on a special project. Between the ages of five to fifteen, these lads were so absorbed in rehearsing an act, which I guessed must be a stage drama that they seemed to care two hoots about the agony of the brutal weather. They were practicing a script. Sometimes laughing boisterously and sometimes weeping tears that could melt a stone heart, they intermittently created background music with their implausible voice modulations. The place was an open playfield in the Jawahar Bal Bhawan (Dramatics) back in my hometown, Allahabad, which I had joined with a school friend to utilise our summer vacations more creatively.
A new teen that I was, stepping into the touch-me-not girly phase of adolescence, I’d have hated to even stand under the sun for a couple of minutes, when the grit and commitment of this group left me mesmerised. Who are these people? What bonds them together in the thread of diligence? What drives them to work tirelessly in tough conditions and yet be thrilled about it? How do they create such magic with their art?
Returning home, I slept with the restless imageries of smiling pink faces wet with dripping sweat, that spoke more of the ecstasy of their work than of the fiery suntan imprints on their body.
In hardly a few days, I joined their theatre troop. My journey from dust to gold, an effortless priming to become a better human being, had begun.
My theatre training, thus, started.
As I grew up, time took its own toll. After completing my academics, I joined India’s biggest power sector conglomerate, got married, made babies, dabbled in an alternative career of an author and got attuned to regular lifestyle of a modern day working woman. Theatre, like a noble first love, quietly receded into the background giving me space to work out priorities. It had already given me more than I could have asked for. It didn’t matter any longer where was I and doing what, theatre was so ingrained in my being, that in all moments of conflict I found a lesson from ‘Dramatics Training’ to fall back on.
When I look back, I can easily list down some of the most valuable lessons from theatre that have chiseled my being and helped me evolve. Here are my favourite 10:-
1. It teaches how to give the best with whatever we have in hand
Every theatre artist would vouch on the days when a play had to be produced on a shoe string budget, zero sponsorships, borrowing of clothes for costumes, making props out of waste and setting up stage like it was a giant SUPW project. The days when few cups of tea, and samosas, if we were luckier, was all that the team could have during day long rehearsals. Theatre taught me how in even in the least magic can be made.
2. Deal with different people and celebrating differences.
A theatre group is often a funny and interesting mix of strikingly different people. From a sombre script writer to a joker in the pack of actors, from a lethargic light assistant to a hyperactive sound engineer, from a director who thrives his day on chain-smoking to his assistant who is forever hungry for food, the team is like an entertaining mash up of varieties of personalities. Theatre taught me to celebrate differences.
3. Strategize and execute
Every single play put up is a massive project management assignment. It needs to be have a goal with a vision, be put on paper in blueprint, financially be vetted for viability, manpower resources hired, strategies detailed and execution done as per a well laid out plan. There are silos of in numerous work activities, like light design, sound engineering, set design and construction, public relations, acting, directing, producing, marketing, ticket sales, customer service, ushering, make-up, and costuming. Theatre basically taught me project management.
No matter how well rehearsed, there would be no play executed without unforeseen mishaps taking place. Goofing up of dialogues, wardrobe malfunction, stage setting giving away, sudden mic failures or missed entrances, something which was so meticulously executed during rehearsals would go wrong at the last minute and suddenly, without any prompts, someone from the team would voluntarily step in to cover the accident. Theatre taught me to pitch in for others and fill up gaps with quick and wise acts.
5. To value the power of communication
I have seen theatre productions which have moved audience to tears, have made the house laugh, brought a turn-around reform movement, interrogated a belief, broken a stereotype, and left us all with thought provoking questions. Theatre has unfolded how powerful communication can change the world around.
6. Make difficult choices and Experiment
Audition - A good friend who is an ordinary actor or an acquaintance who is exceptional? Director – Someone with low credentials, backed by sponsors or a fresh talent with promising potential? Venue – Closed or Amphitheatre? Script – Pick-up or Rewrite? Rendition – Traditional or Experimental? I learnt not only to make difficult choices but also to do fearless experimenting. Theatre prepared me to take fearless risks.
7. Take criticism and move on
“Dramatics profession will give you nothing.”
“What a silly play was that?”
“There are hundreds of actors as ordinary as you. ”
“Forget it, you have no mettle. ”
“Oh, she will never make it big! ”
Give me the name of an artist who hasn’t been told any one of those. Theatre has taught me to take criticism and still be focussed on following the life’s call.
8. Hard work
If you have been to the green room, you would know that even the celebrity theatre artist who delivers impeccable performance on stage leaving his audience spellbound is actually a nervous, diligent, school going child backstage who rehearses his lines a hundred times before rendering the final performance. Theatre taught me there is no substitute for discipline and hard work.
9. Placing Us before Me
So many times it would happen that a protagonist in one play would be given a one-line dialogue in another, or somebody who we saw as a deserving lead actor would actually land up getting role of a stage assistant. Yet, no one would complaint. No role was too small for a contribution and no opportunity too big to claim stardom. Theatre taught me to place the team effort before individual credentials.
10. The show must go on
In the middle of a play when the protagonist’s part was half over, a team member informed him about his father having met with a brutal accident. Even before the nervous team began preparing contingent plan with co-actors volunteering as his substitute, he gathered his strength and walked up on stage to stand until the end. Once the curtain was pulled down, my friend broke up. Poor health, irritable mood, cruel tragedies, come what may, Theatre taught me how to keep the show going on.
Years down the line, I may not be in the mainstream profession of theatre but I haven’t missed practicing any of the lessons I incidentally learnt. Theatre and I have almost become inseparable.
Remember, what Oscar Wilde once said -
“Theatre is the greatest of all art forms,
the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.’
[Originally published in Repertwahr, The National Theatre Festival's Blog; Nov 21, 2017]