When starting out as an actor or theatre-maker, the idea of creating one’s own work can be quite intimidating. Many artists prefer to search for opportunities in productions being made by ‘established theatrewallahs’. However, during our time at Drama School Mumbai, our teachers really pushed us to create our own work. While some of us were hesitant, some others found the courage to express themselves and shake things up by making their own plays.
It was in June 2022 that the school invited applications for the DSM Alumni Production Grant for 2022-23. This was an opportunity for the alumni to build on their ideas, stage the kind of plays that hold value for them and collaborate with other theatre-makers as well. The school offered mentorship and applicants were able to choose their own mentors too. The grants were disbursed depending on the scope of the project and the strength of the application.
Five productions were awarded the grant in October, and this piece delves into each recipient’s unique process, learnings, and discoveries about their voice as an artist. The conversations with the grantees offer valuable insights and inspiration for young theatre-makers.
Baap Re! by Vaishnavi RP
Adapting Brinda Shankar’s story for stage, this play was a solo performance with an all women team of ‘Unheard Elephants’ – Vaishnavi’s new theatre group. Vaishnavi decided to take on the challenge of performing and directing the play herself because she felt it was a personal story that only she could do justice to. To assist her, she actively sought out new collaborators who could dedicate their time and energy necessary for this play. While Vaishnavi had a clear vision for the play as both director and performer, she ensured that all collaborators were in sync with her vision. “Sometimes it was difficult for me to separate the two. I found it tough to not be a director when I was performing, but because my assistant directors were on the same page, they would take the onus and tell me to just perform,” she shares.
The process of sharing between the team members was very liberating for Vaishnavi as it helped to shape the play and the character she plays.
“It was a very happy process”, Vaishnavi says, adding that she has been a part of toxic rehearsal rooms where a certain hierarchy was followed. She credits the success of the play to her team and shares that she felt loved, supported and empowered after putting up the show.
Paperwalls by Sharodiya Chowdhury and Sarthak Sharma
Co-written by Sharodiya and Flora Wilson Brown, Paperwalls was born out of a project of Thespo in collaboration with NSDF UK. Through numerous conversations and personal experiences, the two playwrights decided to explore the theme of intergenerational sexual trauma.
“I wanted to make my own work instead of waiting for someone else to cast me in a production,” says Sarthak Sharma, who acted and served as the creative producer for the play. He found the process to be rigorous and challenging, and said that it felt like they did a year’s worth of work in just two months. Initially, Sharodiya and Sarthak wanted to work with artists who they admired and had an “impressive” body of work. However, when they first began working with them, they found it difficult to convince them of their vision. Soon, they realised that in order to learn something significant from the process they might actually need people who are somewhat closer to where they are in their artistic journey. “Working with established artists is not as essential as having a shared understanding of what we want to say through the play,” said Sharodiya, adding that she realized that as a director, she needn’t have all the answers and that was okay.
Humorous Folktales from the land of Rajasthan, a storytelling performance by Sikandar Khan
After completing his course at DSM in 2018, Sikandar pursued an internship with teh dastaangoi storyteller Danish Hussain. He had noticed how everyone wanted to share their own stories which inspired him to take up storytelling himself. Sikandar immersed himself in different forms of storytelling and enjoyed the fact that he could perform solo too, without a large team. In his shows, he is the one-man team – who handles everything from performing to production. For the alumni grant show, he chose stories from Vijaydan Detha’s collection, which include a variety of genres.
“Storytelling is more about listening than telling,” Sikandar says and adds that helps him narrate his stories to the audience better. He likes interacting with the audience and adjusts the number and order of the stories depending on the audience’s mood. In one instance, he originally intended to perform for 40 minutes but ended up sharing stories for 1.5 hours because the audience seemed so engaged. It was a big learning for him, that while it was about pushing the audience to pay closer attention, it also gave Sikandar the opportunity to test his own memory and stamina to perform. He admits that he is still trying to figure out how one can draw more audiences while maintaining the integrity of the tales.
All Night Longg by Shimlli Basu
Adapted from Badal Sircar’s play Saararattir, Shimlli was clear from the start that she wanted to stage it in a haunted house. Though she had a clear vision for the play’s design, she was open to what her collaborators brought to the table, and they all ended up bringing their unique flavours to the play. The theme of infidelity really drew her in, and engaging with the text further challenged her tendency of seeing things in binaries.
She admits that at first, she was shying away from some of her choices and that the play underwent significant editing as a result. She sensed that there was some discomfort because the play had heavy stage design and had musical elements to it. But it was after the zeroth show, that she truly began believing in the choices she made, even when some people didn’t understand them or found them unconventional. “The one thing I think I can improve upon as a director is to come up with a common language, which works for all the collaborators and the play as a whole,” she reflects.
I Killed My Mother, It Wasn’t My Fault by Mallika Shah
The play was inspired by a poem Mallika wrote after a family argument that left everyone upset. This made her wonder what it would be like to break free from their controlling influence and live life on her own terms. She worked on the play during a six-month-long workshop with the Indian Ensemble, and the grant she received from DSM provided the structure and motivation needed to finish it.
“When hiring actors, I was determined to not just work with friends, and hence I kept open auditions for the play and tried to get as many people as I could,” she says. Mallika also wanted to keep things as open and accessible to all as possible to align with KathaSiyah’s (one of the play’s producers) core values. She wanted to create a rehearsal room that she never had: where things were professional yet open, where one could ask questions. During the process, Mallika was determined to lead by example and to practice what she preached.
Initially, Mallika was undecided whether she should direct the play or act in it as well. “However, I then realized that there are limited opportunities for directing in our industry, and I might not get another chance,” she says, “Not many people are commissioning things out to be directed by other people, so I decided to take on the challenge and not shy away from it, despite feeling scared. Ultimately, it was a wise decision to not act in the play, as it allowed me to focus solely on my role as the director and not switch back and forth between the two roles.”
During the process of making the play, Mallika, as a director, made creative decisions, questioned them, but also stayed firm with those decisions, which doesn’t come naturally to her. To be able to do it without shame, was a huge learning for her personally.
From the initial inspiration to the final performance, the journey of bringing a play alive is filled with challenges, discoveries, and growth. While the learnings are many, it’s only by actively participating in the process that one can truly understand and appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into making a play work. Through sharing these experiences, we hope to inspire future generations of theatre-makers to express what’s within them fearlessly and to stop waiting for the “right time” to do so.