That Theatre Life: Conversations with Theatre-makers who switched careers to make theatre

A couple of months ago, we decided to ask theatre-makers, what they were doing before they started doing theatre. This is a significant question in India. Here, by many standards, theatre is still a developing industry. We don’t know the stories of too many theatre-makers who planned their careers in theatre and pursued them with the same zest that an engineer or architect would. There are no JEEs for acting and no coaching classes to prep you for esteemed institutions you probably only know from a Chetan Bhagat book. But of course, like much else in the industry, all of this is changing. As I write this article, there are workshops happening to train actors for auditions and auditions happening to raise Batch 2019-2020 at Drama School Mumbai as well as other institutes in the country.
Nonetheless, it’s interesting and informative to understand the origin stories of the average theatremaker. It helps us dig deeper into what a career in theatre means and how one can successfully live that theatre life. Most of our respondents with mid-career practitioners, having done 4-6 years of theatre full-time.
Here are some insights and highlights from theatre-makers who switched from other careers to live that theatre life.

1. Do your Research

The first step to any switch is to become familiar with the new. In this case, it’s about educating yourself on theatre and what it means to be a theatre practitioner in the current environment. Find out as much as you can about the local scene in your city. If you intend to move to pursue theatre, learn about where you are headed. Use every resource –  from Google to Facebook, newspapers, event websites, WhatsApp groups, the local theatre’s notice board – everything. But, most importantly, talk to people – those who have made the switch and those who are practicing now. And if you don’t know how and who to get in touch with – research that too.
Theatre-makers, even the ones who have made it big, can be surprisingly easy to reach. Although that does not mean they have the patience for every question (pro-tip: ask them only what Google cannot provide), all our respondents spoke multiple times of the help and guidance they received from people in the industry. So talk to them.
But, do not limit your research only to opportunities and theatre personalities. Read up on theatre, watch plays, understand that what you are signing up for is a craft that has evolved literally over centuries. “I had started reading a lot, so I would go and ask for recommendations to read the next play or book on drama. Search leads, they’re really helpful. Libraries and Studio Sardar was another place that helped in meeting with artists to gather information about events or books,” says actor, puppeteer and theatre educator Shobbit Tandon, whose practice is based in and around Delhi.

2. Make Bank Before

The broke artist; unrecognized and unloved, his relentless pursuit of ideals and the big break-through that gets him fame, money and the girl – is a Bollywood/Hollywood stereotype. If you do not know this by now, revisit Step 1. Recognize that a career in theatre, at the best of times, does not come with a steady paycheck. More so when you are just starting out. And a switch often means a significant dip in the money you make or have saved.  Financial planning means that you’ll be able to focus on your theatre career instead of worrying about making rent.
“I actually sat down and made a monthly budget for my needs and responsibilities. I took a realistic stock of what my investments were and what kind of lifestyle changes I would have to make to survive financial spiral down. Once I identified the problem areas and how to tackle them I tried to stick by it.” Sage advice from Priti Bakalkar, an accomplished arts manager and production manager, who has worked with Thespo, DSM, Goethe and now Indianostrum Theatre in Pondicherry since leaving her highly lucrative career as a lawyer in 2012.
Some of our respondents chose to do odd jobs, some took up a part-time job and switched to full-time theatre gradually and a couple started teaching drama to young people. The point is, they each had a plan to make bank, or suffered for it.

3. Find your Tribe

It’s not just your finances that need to be in order when you start a career in theatre. ” Emotional support and acceptance are very important for young actors starting out. In my case I never received family support in this so it was very important to have people around me to back me up,” says Ana-Maria Deea Lupu, who left an internship at an embassy to become an actor. When starting out, most of us fail to account for the deeper impact the intensity and relative unsteadiness of the theatre life can have on our mental health. And with the Indian parenting trope still very much in fashion, it is quite likely that family may not be a source of solace. So find your strength in numbers. Build your tribe. Find your downtime.
“The theatre community is a very supportive community and my new friends were always there for me when I was sad or dejected. Creatively too, we kept ourselves busy, constantly making new work, and working with friends,” says Padma Damodaran, actor, writer and director who has been making theatre for almost two decades.

4. Get some Training!

When asked what was one thing they’d change about the way they started off, almost all our respondents spoke about getting formal training. Whether it was through some of the drama schools in the country, international institutes or traditional spaces – each respondent was able to pinpoint the workshop or training that changed it all for them. There are more workshops and training in theatre today than there were when most of our respondents started out. And though certainly not enough, there are full-time programmes as well.
It’s true nonetheless, that a lot of theatre training still happens informally in rehearsal rooms and backstage, during shows. But the power of immersive training, under the guidance of experts in a structured environment, cannot be understated. How to find the best course for you, how to be able to afford it and how to commit your time to it  – are questions that you still need to answer though. And there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the theatre life. Priyanka Charan left her banking days behind to make plays about the caste system and breast cancer and she says, “Everything comes with practice and consistency. If you have talent but lack discipline, if you have the drive but lack integrity, don’t do it.”
Well, that about says it all.