Fresh ideas stage a new act
The English theatre scene is gradually seeing a steady rise of original works penned by new, young writers who not only have a modern, contemporary voice but also connect with the audience
After acting in various plays such as Special Bond 1, 2 and Classic Milds, produced by Akvarious Productions and helming a few others including Damages and Shape of Things, 30 year-old Siddharth Kumar felt it was time he turned to playwriting to get a better perspective in theatre.
He decided to pen his thoughts based on his experiences as a freelancer in a corporate set up and the travails of a young, ambitious man looking for work. Kumar decided to name the piece ‘The Interview’. He sent it as an entry to Writer’s Bloc, an initiative by Rage Theatre (set up by Rajit Kumar, Shernaz patel and Rahul Da Cunha) to introduce new playwrights to the Indian audience.
He also emailed a copy of the script to his friend Akarsh Khurana, proprietor of Akvarious, to seek his feedback. Khurana realised the piece had potential and decided to direct it. The rest is history. The Interview went on to bag multiple awards for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Stage Design and Best Play at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, 2011.
After that, there was no looking back for Kumar. He realised that writing was his calling and went on to pen Spunk (about a young man who produces special semen) as part of the Writer’s Bloc this year. His latest work, In The Cat House, which premieres on May 29 at Prithvi Theatre, is a children’s play that revolves around a magical cat. Kumar is one of the many young writers who have carved a niche for themselves within a short span of time in the English theatre scene in Mumbai by penning original works.
Purva Naresh, who holds a full-time corporate job with Reliance-Big Entertainment, has, in the past two years, written a wide gamut of plays like A Special Bond 1 and 2, Afsana Bai Se Biocope Tak, Aaj Rang Hai and Ok Tata Bye Bye. Each production is different in terms of content and the age group it caters to. While A Special Bond series is a children’s play based on the works of acclaimed writer Ruskin Bond, Ok Tata Bye Bye follows the travails of two filmmakers who want to document the lives of sex workers in a small village.
Twenty three year-old Meherzad Patel, who owns Silly Point Productions (set up in 2008), has, in the past five years penned and helmed four English plays — Like Dat Only, A Class Act, Rusty Screws, Four Square and a Hindi production Kalaam, which premiered as part of the recently-concluded Hindi Ananda Natya Utsav at the National Centre for Performing Arts.
Little wonder, then, that people from the theatre circuit feel that these are exciting times. The influx of fresh talent is pushing the envelope in terms of content — an achievement in itself, because for the longest time, directors’ biggest grievance was that most English plays were adaptations of classics and there was a lack of original content.
As playwright and director, Rahul Da Cunha says, “I first realised the importance of original writing when I penned I’m Not Bajirao in 1996. Set in Five Gardens in Dadar, it was a story about two old men — Madhukar Kulkarni, a Maharashtrian ex-freedom fighter and Dhunjisha Batliwala, the Parsi secretary of a building — who meet daily. The play was staged for 10 years and changed my thinking. I realised that audiences want to see original works set in the Indian milieu that they can relate with.”
Define the character
Da Cunha, Kapur and Shernaz Patel thought of starting the Writer’s Bloc, in 2004, after the Royal Court Theatre, Britain’s leading theatre company, came looking for partners to train playwrights. The first edition of the festival took place in April 2004, where nine plays were showcased. The next edition of the festival was held in January 2007 where 11 new plays were staged. This year, it got 107 entries from across the country.
Da Cunha and his partners selected 30 most promising writers and sent them for a fortnight-long residential workshop in Vasind near Nashik, where they developed an idea for a script under the tutelage of teachers from Royal Court. They were guided through writing exercises, analyses of plays and actors’ enactments. They submitted their final drafts after revising them. The final 12 writers made it to the festival and staged their works.
Writers like Naresh and Kumar have clearly benefitted from the festival. As Naresh says, “After writing a few plays, I decided to be a part of Writer’s Bloc, as I wanted to connect with young, like-minded people and finetune my writing technique. It helped me structure my thought processes and attain clarity in terms of developing characters. After Writer’s Bloc, I learnt the importance of developing a backstory for my characters and fleshing out their background and the conflicts they had.”
But others like Meherzad Patel have found their calling by following their instincts and understanding their audience’s tastes. Patel, says, “The audience want to see more realistic work. They are craving to see something new. I personally like writing pieces that compel the audience to think. For instance, every story has a beginning, middle and end. But what is more important today is that the characters need to be clearly defined. You have to introduce people who the audiences have never met, but can connect with.”
It’s a party
Writer’s Bloc has clearly set the ball rolling for other events like the NCPA’s Centrestage Festival that promotes new writing and stages original plays. Started in 2010, it has staged plays such as The Interview, Rusty Screws and Life Through The Songs We Like: Songs of Love, Laughter, Loss and Longing, which went on to win rave reviews.
Deepa Gahlot, Head-Programming (Theatre and Film) at the NCPA, says that Centrestage was set up to offer original content to the burgeoning younger population that loves watching plays. “Today, kids are exposed to theatre from a young age via summertime or college festivals. Something like Centrestage works well for writers, as it helps them get noticed, stages their plays at a professional venue and takes them to English-speaking audiences across the country.”
The profusion of new talent means that directors, too, are willing to take a risk. Theatre veteran Makrand Deshpande, who directed newbie Nivedita Pohankar’s (a former copywriter with an ad agency) monologue What A Lota! and the recent Time Boy, says, “I’m always looking for fresh talent. Nivedita’s writing has a certain ingenuity and originality. When you are working with young writers, you not only get to learn new things but also expand your own horizons.”
Khurana, meanwhile, says directing original works helps him connect with the audience better. “There is nothing better than a work with a contemporary voice. When I decided to direct Purva’s Afsana Bai Se Bioscope Tak in 2010, I wanted to showcase the foregone culture of Hindustani folk music to an urban audience. I was intrigued by Siddharth’s The Interview as it had a modern voice and was written in a language that people understand and communicate in today.”
Exploring new horizons
Though new writers are happy with the response they have received, they aren’t wary of getting out of their comfort zone and staging diverse works. Kumar, for instance, admits that while his first play, The Interview, was easy for him to write, his second work, Spunk, compelled him to think differently. He adds that his forthcoming play, In The Cat House, has been his most personal work till date. “Apart from the fact that it is directed by my girlfriend Sananda Mukhopadhyay, it deals with cats and caters to all age groups, right from five year olds to 50 year olds. So it was challenging.”
Naresh, who is a trained classical dancer and has explored the milieu in her earlier works, including Aaj Rang Hai, is now craving to write a children’s play based on the life of noted Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai. She says, “Though I’m open to adapting a classic, I enjoy original pieces as they have a local flavour. Also, at the end of the day, it isn’t an easy task to produce your original work. It’s a huge risk as your plays don’t have big names to attract audiences. People come in to watch your work on the sheer strength of the story.”