Friday, March 26, 2010

From the director's seat

It feels like yesterday, when there were more than hundred eyes peering at the stage, more than fifty lights creating a milieu, multiple props adding to the ingenuity of the set, seven characters essaying singular roles and one person, in the front row, looking at all this with the eyes of a creator. That was yesterday; today there is no audience, no lights, no scenes and no voices but the applauses still echo in my ears. I sit in the same hall, with long rows of blue chairs, looking at the empty stage and converse with Shweta Kushal, the director and creator of the play ‘Black Comedy’ at IITM, trying to rake the mind of the lady from the front row.

Bhuji: Was it a management initiative to come up with the idea of screening a play or was it something which the students envisioned?

Shweta: It was something we came up with last year. By ‘we’ I mean students as a group, in the event of the golden jubilee celebrations of the institute. That is how ‘No-Mad Players’ was formed, along with its first production, an adaptation of Mousetrap - Three Blind Mice. And then this year, I thought I will continue the tradition, being the founder director and everything. The management did support the venture but the initiative was taken by the students.

B: Have you got any background in stage, plays or theatre, organizing or watching, other than the two plays that you have done in IIT?

S: I am a student of English literature so I don't have a choice but to have a background in theatre. As part of my subject matter, I have read a lot of theatre over the years. Also, I have watched many plays. However, as far as organising is concerned, I have only directed one play at the college level before these two and that was not even remotely of this scale.

B: What are the different aspects of arranging or organizing a play?

S: A play is like a family of ants with as many jobs to be done. It starts with the conception of the idea, of actually staging one and goes on till after the event is over. Choice of script, auditions, casting (a very important part, as inappropriate casting can spell doom), rehearsals, sets, costumes, makeup, props, sound, music, lights, finances (impossible for the play to take place without this), and so many other small things that I am sure I am missing something. All of it requires immense attention to detail, along with a capability to envisage how it will all look when on stage. It has to feel like a single unit else it is a huge waste and can be a failure.

B: How do you select the play?

S: I don't think I can talk about an accepted, sure-shot and time-tested method of script selection. Mousetrap was selected for its mass appeal and for its credentials. It being our first production, I wanted it to be noticeable and big, and it was. Black Comedy was selected because of its humour, its farce and the brilliant concept of light and human nature it works with. I did read a lot of scripts before making the selections but I am not sure I can outline as to why I selected these two and why not others. However, there is one thing that I try to avoid. I do not like profanities and abusive language, be it in life or on stage and I am reluctant to choose scripts with too many unnecessary expletives.

B: What are your criterions while auditioning candidates for the roles?

S: This is a tough question. Mostly when I go into the auditioning room, I have a general idea of the way I want my character to be on stage and I conduct the auditions accordingly. At the same time, casting is not done at the stage of the auditions. In both these plays, I have called more people after the auditions than required and have taken my time over casting, at the end of which some were turned away without suitable fitment. However, in the auditions, I look for clear diction, audibility, expressive face, stage presence, demeanour and deportment on stage and stage comfort.

B: Do the performers have a history of association with play or theatre during school/college or otherwise?

S: Not all of them, some do and some don't. Quite a few of them have ‘No-Mad Players' productions as their first appearance in a play.

B: Do you alter the original script as you go along or do you follow it without any modifications whatsoever?

S: That tends to happen depending upon the dynamics of the group one is working with and the way in which each individual interprets their character. Also, both these plays are English plays and we did make a few changes to make them intelligible and associable for an Indian audience. Sometimes, as in the case of Black Comedy, the availability or lack of certain props also leads to alterations.

B: Both your plays ‘Three Blind Mice’ and ‘Black Comedy’ are more than four decades old. Do you think the contemporary plays are not appealing to the masses?

S: No, I am not elitist enough to think like that. I have already stated my reasons for choosing these plays and that has nothing to do with the time period of the plays. It was not a conscious choice to select something from four decades ago. These two just happen to belong to that era. If you look at the two scripts and the two settings, you will realise that there are no two plays that can be more unlike each other than these two.

B: Do your plays carry a message?

S: First of all, they are not my plays. I am directing them and they have been written by other people. Secondly, I believe that theatre in itself offers personal messages and take aways for audience whether they carry an explicit message or not. That is the beauty of art, and more so of a performing art like theatre. I am not against theatre with a message and in fact feel that it is a very important part of an engaging art form like theatre, but at the same time I beg to differ from those who believe that it should be used only as a didactic tool.

B: What is the most difficult part of preparing for the play?

S: To be able to actually stage a successful venture is a task in itself. But if I were to isolate one specific aspect of it then I would say casting. If this goes wrong, then everything can end up in a mess. In proportion to the time spent on a play, it is a minuscule aspect of it but god forbid if one gets this wrong, as it is really important to identify the right people for the right roles. Also, it is difficult for me personally as it involves a certain value judgement, something I usually avoid engaging in.

B: What is more important: good script or good performers?

S: This is a very difficult choice and at the risk of sounding diplomatic, I would like to say both. However, I think performers are more important as it is they who make the script come alive. If you have a brilliant script but terrible or even average performers, the chances of things going wrong are higher than when it is the other way around. So, I guess I would place my money on the performers.

B: Do you think being a woman gives you an advantage in a creative field or are there shortcomings because of the same?

S: I have never actively engaged with this idea of being a woman director but now when I think about it, I find it hard to understand the difference between a male and female director. Being a woman might result in a little deference or a different kind of respect that one gains from the male fraternity one works with but beyond that, I don't think creativity or vision have a gender. I might be more sensitive to the way in which one portrays delicate scenes of love on stage (just an off-hand example) both for the male and female actors but that again may not be a fall out of gender. As a director, I feel as long as you have the vision, the expanse of view, the larger picture in mind, the ability to see things as they should be rather than as they are and a keen eye for detail, whether you are a man or woman is immaterial - you have the potential to be a good director.

B: What kind of promotional activities do you do before the play?

S: They mostly include posters, e-invites to people, creating events on Facebook and Orkut, people posting the event on their blogs, telephone invites, messages, announcements through the student community, word of mouth (I think Teena can respond to this better than me)
B: What is the one thing that you fear most during the screening of the play?

S: If something goes wrong the actors will freeze and will not be able to improvise. At that stage there is nothing I can do to better the situation and it all depends on them. Their presence of mind plays a huge role in this. And if they get nervous, we might as well call it a day.

B: What are your personal ‘take home’ experiences from these plays?

S: People have very different and eye-opening ways of looking at situations, interpreting characters and coping with crisis. Human nature is truly diverse and fascinating; there is no end to what we can learn from each other as individuals, as communities, as groups, as countries and as a world on the whole.

B: How has been the support from the management towards this initiative?

S: Our faculty advisor is like a pillar of strength and support and I think I am eternally grateful to him for oiling the wheels of the bureaucratic machinery. At the same time, I wish that the paper work was easier. On the whole, the department has been very encouraging of this venture. There are always differences between the creative and practical sides of society but these have not hindered us in any way.

B: What have been the audience reactions towards the plays so far?

S: The audience has been overjoyed with the quality of the plays that we have produced. Before our productions, I have been told, people in the IIT campus had not witnessed the level of professionalism that is possible in theatre. In fact, after Black Comedy, one of the members of the audience actually said that it was surprising to see such clean comedy that was outright hilarious (she meant without sexual innuendo and cheap jokes). I guess our productions have been the much required breath of fresh air for campus theatre, not to mention a dose of culture.

B: With two successful plays you have built a good foundation. What next?

S: Yes, we have built a good foundation and for now, I am hopeful that this tradition will continue even when I am not around on IIT campus anymore. There is a lot of untapped talent here and I am sure that this will be an impetus for the effort to continue. I also hope that in future we will be able to take our productions out of campus to gain recognition and applause for the group, as this is the most rewarding thing for a performer. If theatre becomes a part of the culture of education as a whole in our department, with workshops and interactions, then I think we would have come a long way from that maiden production.

B: Do you ever feel the pull to go in front of the stage?

S: Yes, it happens occasionally. However, the thrill of seeing something that one has toiled over for many months in front of your eyes, surpasses that pull completely. Also, I thoroughly enjoy directing and I feel that I have a few gifts that may not be common (yes I believe I am unique, like all the rest of us), which can be put to better use as a director.

B: From a personal experience, which one do you think was better: ‘Three Blind Mice’ or ‘Black Comedy’?

S: This is an unfair question as it is like asking a mother to choose between her two children. I think you will understand that parallel and excuse me if I refrain from answering this.


Vigi said...

What a nice read.

Lets hope No-Mad Players does continue.

sush said...

I like :)

Anonymous said...

is this shaffer's black comedy?.
Let me know if they are staging it again sometime, i will try to come down.
"Life is a black comedy"