For young theatre-makers who are starting out in the field wanting to create their own work and theatre companies, a question that stumps them is: How does one start a theatre company with no money?
In an ecosystem that is starving for financial injections, it becomes a task for young theatre-makers to find their way to sustain a living through theatre and allied fields. Starting a theatre company, movement, collective, or a group is not an easy feat. It is a decision riddled with obstacles in any developing economy, with limited funds, infrastructural disadvantages and the ever-changing opinion about the arts.
As we celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi, which in Hindu belief marks new beginnings followed by the removal of obstacles, we take this opportunity to explore stories of young theatre-makers who have started entrepreneurial ventures in theatre in India and ask them the challenges they faced and advice they have for anyone starting out today. They have not only combatted many lose-lose situations but most of them did it during humanity’s most trying few years in almost a whole century.
Before we dive into their experiences, discoveries and advice, there are a couple of things that stood out in our conversations.
Firstly, the concept and culture of equity pay. This wave of makers chooses to employ only when the possibility of remuneration is very real.
Secondly, the concept of time management. The assumption is not to expect all the time from an individual but to make sure they have a good work-life balance which has invariably helped increase one’s productivity.
Thirdly, the curiosity to explore different works of art, their makers and the culture of different languages. It is accepted that there is a difference between comprehending and enjoying one’s languages of comfort and those foreign to one. However, there is also a joy in trying to decipher a piece of work without knowing the language.
Lastly, there is an excitement not seeing things in the binary, especially in gender and sexuality. History holds evidence to the fact that artists have always attempted to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, which has led to the evolution of mankind. The young generation’s initiative to explore more openly, especially through theatre, has forced it to become a community exploration.
Now for the artists who allowed for the aforementioned discoveries:
Anna Ador: Actors at Work
Anna, the 28-year-old Belarussian actor based in Mumbai, started the year 2020 like any other individual but little did she know what was in store. With the month of March came a flood of restrictions on movement, interaction and work opportunities. Anna describes herself as someone who is unable to sit still. Her restlessness this time around forced her to act on her ideas to combat the loneliness, depression and stress brought on by 2020.
She quickly rejigged her schedule to suit the advent of the Zoom Takeover. She spent hours on Zoom on a regular basis. Anna found herself waking up at unfathomable hours to attend lectures, classes and watch online shows. However, none of this seemed to satisfy the hunger that the world of film and theatre had left her with. At this point Anna spoke to some of her colleagues from past projects – Kallirroi Tziafeta, John Britton and Rupesh Tillu – to conceptualize an online workshop or Masterclass series where the participants could experience the benefit of having four teachers at any given session. These were planned in such a way that they would first explore physical movement, followed by voice, then script analysis and finally, the processes involved in connecting with the industry.
She was single handedly advertising, seeking registrations and dealing with all the logistics of the program with the sole purpose of making sure participants had the best experience of this workshop series.
“I merely wanted to create a space like that for my community. These sessions really helped me articulate what I had learnt from my teacher Lucie and what I’ve learnt from my time in the industry. All the seven batches helped me to put all of this knowledge into a deliverable format and you wouldn’t believe how helpful it has been. Even here, in drama school, as I move towards completing the year, I have classmates who ask me how to prepare or get ready for the industry,” shares Anna, who is currently pursuing her MA in performance at East 15 Acting School in UK.
Anshul C Panicker: The Backdoor Troupe
“I was motivated to do.”
Right from the beginning of his final year in college, Anshul wanted to experience the best that his body can do. He spent several hours a day, in the midst of balancing an unforgiving triple major of theatre studies, English and psychology, on making his voice more resonant and worked on his physicality to express more. He dreamt of opening a theatre company in his final semester and wished to lead by example and inspire in his peers the same love he shared for the craft.
Anshul took initiative to ensure that he found fellow theatre bugs from his department to kickstart the vision he had. These came in the form of Jatin Dharamveer, Krutarth Karanjkar, Niraja Deshpande and Sana Kahlon, who eventually formed the core group of The Backdoor Troupe (BCT), along with Anshul.
Anshul shares that BCT was formed with theatre makers who allowed healthy discourses among themselves to try and find a definition for digital theatre, blended theatre, phygital theatre, the beast of so many names. They soon realised that five was too few a number to attempt to do what they really wanted to. BCT began by branching out to schools and colleges with short form courses to teach electives and extracurricular theatre. This proved to be a wonderful stomping ground for BCT where the founders and students had an opportunity to learn a lot.
The revenue they generated from this went towards their first project which attempted to answer the questions about the digital with their play They Entered at Their Own Risk (You can read the entire play here).
Anshul admits that it wasn’t the most they could have done given the constraints, but it was a much-needed experiment to sit with his team and exchange notes about the process. They believe they were onto something. Some realized that they needed more training in certain elements of their practice and some simply needed a little more experience.
“It might sound like we were disbanding but it was not like that all! We were using the digital to expand our network more. We spent the better part of three years already trying to see a production through with all the experiences it entails…We were blocked multiple times due to lackluster ideas and then the pandemic hit. We wanted to work towards creating something that we have spent 4 years dreaming about, an advantage nobody else would have,” he explains.
Their biggest challenge, Anshul shares, was to find like-minded individuals motivated by a common cause. They created an annual plan that helped them keep regular checks on each other for the upcoming year. Currently, they are developing a project called ‘The Writers Lab’ while balancing work in paying jobs and finding the much-needed time to check in with their craft.
Dhiraj Wadhwani: Offbeat Circuit
An electrical engineer, actor and DSM alum, Dhiraj is the founder of Offbeat Circuit, a space that hosts storytelling sessions, open mics, scripts readings, workshops and more. The seed for this idea was planted many years ago, when he was working at a multinational company in Bengaluru.
Dhiraj began actualising his dream when he discovered Drama School Mumbai during his time at his home city of Indore, after his graduation. Stuck in a job he didn’t enjoy, he decided to quit, move to Mumbai, prepare for PG applications and explore the idea of the still unnamed Offbeat Circuit.
It was during his preparation for FTII and DSM that what began as a tiny experiment to start open mic gigs in Indore became a celebration of the craft in his Lokhandwala apartment. “The living room was so big that it could comfortably fit 15 people in it,” he shares.
Much like his professor back at Manipal University who started a film club, Dhiraj started a film watching club in his living room where folks could watch and discuss the film long after it had exhausted its run time.
Dhiraj goes on to explain that unlike others, the confinement of people to their homes during the pandemic proved to be the perfect runway for Offbeat Circuit to take-off. He was able to connect students to tutors, tutors to online classrooms and aspirants to other like-minded individuals through workshops with Mahesh Dattani, Niketan Sharma and Hetal Varia and short masterclasses on Instagram on sound engineering, tackling Shakespearean texts, acting for camera, auditioning and more. A sense of community began to emerge from what started as an impossible dream in a much smaller city of Indore.
In case, you were wondering. Dhiraj has not stopped at all. What began in a living room took to Zoom and social media and is back to a much fancier living room in Mumbai. With the roots sowed deep, Offbeat Circuit is set to break records.
Meghana AT: tafreehwale
“If you have some work…just put it out there.”
Meghana, an actor who founded tafreehwale, is definitely one of our fan favourite entrepreneurs. She has successfully won the hearts of several young and old with her efficiency, blunt opinions, critical insight and perseverance.
She credits a lot of her early theatre experience to the privilege of being based in Mumbai. She completed her undergraduate studies in the city and believes it has led to some of her most cherished experiences.
Meghana always aspired to be an actor but has worked as a production manager for a very long time. She first performed her show Plan B/C/D/E, a play expressing her climate anxiety, 3 years ago on 22 August, 2019. The critically acclaimed, multiple awards-winning play has now completed 3 years and 16 shows across mediums. She laughs as she says, “This was supposed to be a one night only show that found the perfect outlet for my climate anxiety.” She is eternally grateful to her actor friend who came and shook her post that ‘one-night-only’ show reinforcing that she cannot shelf this show.
Meghana doesn’t look at her production manager days as counterproductive to her acting aspirations in any way. She believes it has been an advantage as most of the venues she has performed in have known about her from their past experience of working with her. This has created a trust in her work ethic. Not just venue managers, but her community is far more diverse. For instance, when she was initially planning to present her play online, QTP Entertainment associate producers Srishti Ray and Rachit Khetan played instrumental roles in transferring the ethos of the on-ground play to an equally engrossing online experience.
“It’s so important to have community when you’re starting out. You can’t buy that; you can only build it. Along with the kindness of other people.”
Meghana, currently based in Mumbai, is very inviting towards young professionals looking for support and advice, provided they are open to listening and not wanting to hear out loud what they have already assumed. She has struggled and successfully produced a play, is running tafreehwale, balancing her acting career and production responsibilities while still applying for grants and looking for funding for her projects in the pipeline. Her experience in these various fields has created a database of do’s and don’ts for all possible scenarios until now.
Mohammed Lehry: DOT Theatre
“We have a common saying amongst us DOT folk which describes a play we’re making as a 1 Santro, 1 Innova or 1 Tempo Traveller Play.”
Mohammed Lehry, who hails from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, is the co-founder and former artistic director of DOT Theatre. He started his theatre journey quite early in his life and was sure from a very young age that this is what he wanted to pursue.
He started DOT Theatre when he was studying in college, and went to create shows such as Baksa, which won three awards at THESPO, a youth theatre festival, and was one of the plays to open for two weekends at Ranga Shankara, Bengaluru post the first unlock after the dreaded lockdown of 2020.
DOT identifies as a theatre collective and not a company due to the agreement among the three founders, Amrith Jayan, Tarun Kapoor and Mohammed, to not have a capital investment in the beginning. Mohammed shares that this aided in the collective creating a producing curriculum titled ‘Zero Budget Production’.
Lehry and his fellow partners envisioned DOT as a collective that would cater to youngsters learning the basics of making a production while producing pieces of work that encouraged experimental, devised work, discipline and, most importantly, adequate remuneration when signed on as any working member of the production. Along with his treasure trove of stories about his experiences in the theatre, Mohammed is immensely passionate about research and pedagogy in the theatre.
“It is okay if it doesn’t work out”
His never-back-down attitude and ability to see the positive in any situation has given him the tag of the most loveable person in the process, more times than he cares to admit. Mohammed successfully transferred that to the processes he led at DOT and influenced those he has been a part of. He shares that their previous training with a tutor named Yog, informed their ethos for the collective which was to have storytelling to the best of their ability with minimum complications. “Like, give us a dupatta and an idea and we will tell you a story,” he says.
Mohammed shares a few fundamental things that he believes young makers must understand when trying to create plays or even bring a group of people together:
- One needs to decide early on if they are doing plays to make money or making plays to express something agreed by its makers. This decision affects the audience that one is catering to.
- One should never let the audience determine the mechanics, style or demand from the play. This will limit the running of the show and create an identity that will be hard to shake off. For example: The more you perform, the more streamlined your audience will get. If you only rely on that audience then they will start informing the plays that you do.
Nitya Mathur: CHIP Performing Arts
“I’m a full-time actor but I’m not a risk taker”
Nitya Mathur is a young Mumbai-based actor, a DSM alumna and founder of a company called CHIP Performing Arts which provides companies with personalized and customized plans for employee engagement. She started the company during the lockdown to make some money. Her ultimate goal was to start a theatre company and do something to keep it self-funded or sustainable. Venturing into corporate training made sense to her given the longer adaptations.
The biggest challenge that she is facing at the moment is the balancing act between her professional commitments as an actor and the roles she needs to play to make sure the company grows exactly the way she envisioned it. This led her to hiring a single employee, she says, which has helped ensure there is a little more balance and ensure a steady inflow of profits.
She is quite loyal to her vision in that she will not settle for a lower standard, and to be able to afford that standard in Mumbai comes with a price tag. Nitya shares she is not looking at the option of using her own income as an actor and investing that into the marketing and employing of personnel. She wants to find a way to use her company’s earnings to self-sustain this dream.
One of the tools that has helped her along this way has been LinkedIn. “Become connected to as many HR people as possible!” Nitya encourages. When she started her page on LinkedIn, she sent connection requests to all and got blocked for exhausting the sending limit. Every time someone responded, she would send out a well drafted, informative template message to get work. She spent hours creating genuine connections to facilitate the kind of work that she wanted.
In the beginning, Nitya also struggled with corporate lingo and how people communicate within the corporate structure. She would use exclamation marks at the end of her emails, a no-no she discovered when her father, who has worked in the corporate sector, edited the letters she wrote to her connections on LinkedIn.
Nitya has faith in what she does and says, “Give me 20 minutes with an employee and I can promise that the employees will have a better day after those 20 minutes.” Working on CHIP opened up her eyes to the number of opportunities she was providing to people outside the artistic community. She knew if anything like a pandemic happens again, she would be ready to do the work online.
Nitya says there are few things out there that people are doing for the community. She speaks from her experience that there is a lot of work that is generated in corporations.
“Let’s face it. Corporations are losing employees to freelancing. They are looking for artists to keep their employees within the company,” she says.
Post the pandemic, corporations are reeling from their losses, Nitya says. She believes that even if she is able to convert a few prospective projects, she can provide enough money to the artists working for her where one hour of pay compensates for a whole day of shoot. She feels content that she is able to take the experiences of people in the world and help each other with the same.
She was also pleasantly surprised and proud of how widespread the work has become. She received work, not just from her home city Mumbai, but also from places where she did not expect work from. She has started working towards having artists from the same state performing for certain cities. This has also been a fulfilling process as it allows her to give opportunities to artists from different corners of the country performing for different metro city audiences.