Doing theatre is not just about being on stage and performing. In fact, what one sees on stage is only a manifestation of theatre. Doing theatre is about the process. It is about peeling away layers of one’s self and the stories one wants to tell. It is the lives we lead, the human beings we become, the manner in which we meet our bodies and voices.
Consequently, acting and theatre training is not just about acquiring certain skills or learning some techniques. Being an actor and theatre-maker requires one to be vulnerable: to ourselves, to the characters one plays, and to others around us. Part of being an authentic performer is the ability to meet one’s vulnerabilities and be open to receiving. In the absence of training, it could perhaps take longer to get there.
Professional theatre training acts as a vehicle to release the body, breath and voice of an actor – , tools essential for any performance. It helps in grounding oneself physically and emotionally. It compels us to look inward and become a witness to who we are before deciding on how to move forward. Seasoned actors are often asked the question, ‘is theatre really necessary?’ Here’s what some of them had to say about how theatre training prepared them for life on and off-stage and screen:
“Training made me realise the patterns I carried with me as an actor,” shares Adarsh Gourav, the BAFTA-nominated actor for his performance in The White Tiger. “I used to walk with a drooped spine, my shoulders always slouched and I had a slight head tilt. I used a certain bag of tricks as an actor. All my characters started having similar traits because Adarsh had those patterns,” he says.
Prior to learning acting and theatre-making, Gourav didn’t know how to use his body well. He had worked on camera earlier, which required one to be minimal and was usually discouraged from engaging the lower body. That changed during his training at the Drama School Mumbai (DSM).
“It centred me. It helped me channelise my restlessness and gave me a sense of direction and purpose,” he says.
He adds that what he carries most from his time at DSM is the idea of ‘listening’. “I never used to listen to my co-actors and always decided what I wanted to do. So, I never got affected by what other people did. I learned to be present and respond to things as opposed to deciding what you want to do.”
Bag of tools
As much as being a place for self-discovery, a drama school is also a space for experimentation, making mistakes and trying to find one’s voice as an artiste. To this end,students are introduced to new techniques and tools that’ll help them find what works best for them when it comes to performance. Training ranges from yoga, kalaripayattu, voice-work, singing to learning animal work, improvisation, Laban and Lecoq’s techniques, working with heightened text (Shakespeare), script analysis, among others
Srishti Shrivastava recalls a moment from her time at DSM when things clicked for her. One of the things taught during the course is animal work i.e. using animals to build a character. “At one point during school, we were working with Faezeh (Jalali) and learning Shakespeare as well. I was doing Shylock’s monologue from The Merchant of Venice. And I couldn’t crack that monologue until Faezeh suggested I do Shylock as a hen. It worked! Even now, when I’m working on characters, I go back to animal work to see which animal fits a particular character,” she shares.
With so much new information, it is often not possible to use everything one learns. Sometimes, it takes years to understand what was taught and seeing if it works for the performer. Shrivastava recalls an exercise the renowned actor Neeraj Kabi made them do during the training. “He used to make us sit in front of a wall, recall memories and perform it for ourselves. Yet somehow I could never use it in my work. It was only recently while working on a film that I tried it out,” she says, “He used to say, you take the memory, it changes your breath, changes your voice. It changes everything, changes your body and it happened to me during the shoot.”
Apart from learning and discovering new tools, theatre training also helps an actor understand how to use their body in the best way possible.
At 46 years, Mahitha Suresh came to study at DSM with a back problem. During that period she had to take a month off to undergo a spinal surgery. Despite this setback, she asserts that her training helped her understand how to use her body not just on stage, but in life as well.
“The whole program is highly physical. And all of the teachers know exactly how to use the bodies for best effect. However, when they teach how to use your body in a similar way, it isn’t just about acting on stage – it is about how to take care of your body and let your movements flow: minimal effort for maximum effect,” says Suresh.
The doubt before certainty
When working within an ensemble, the learning is both collective and individual. Each student is on a separate journey while going through it together. And a lot of times, there are no ‘Eureka!’ moments during the training.
When Shrivastava joined DSM, she admits she was shocked. “I didn’t know what the hell to do because everyone around me was so good. Somehow, they seemed to know what they were doing and I had no clue as to why we were doing kalari and voice riyaaz every morning,” she recalls.
It was only when she performed in the play Shikhandi one and a half years after graduating from DSM, that it all made sense to her. “That’s when I understood why we did kalari, voice and other exercises. I understood that it opens up my body and makes me really aware when I’m performing on stage and in front of the camera.”
Theatre training is never a smooth, steady ride.
It certainly wasn’t one for Aswin Sasi Varrier, who went through a rollercoaster, one that was filled with more downs than ups. “Drama school broke me and my confidence down,” he recollects, “There was technical jargon thrown at us which I didn’t connect to and it made it really tough for me to crack the whole training process. For most of the TMLs (Theatre Making Laboratory), I received negative feedback.”
But the finding-an-actual-oasis-in-a-desert moment, for Varrier, was when he did an improv with two other ensemble members where they were three old men discussing the construction of a bridge. After the improv, their teacher Puja Sarup observed that he had a knack for coming up with convincing voices for characters.
Varrier admits that even today, 80 percent of what he learned at drama school doesn’t make sense to him but he still considers it to be one of the best years of his life. “I believe I needed to go through it,” he says. “DSM brought discipline and rigour into my life and made me realise the amount of hard work that goes into making theatre. The fact that you just have to get up in the morning, show up, and be there and work hard, and hard, and hard, until the end of the day.”
For Shimli Basu, another DSM alum, training helped become more disciplined, as a person and an actor. “There are days when I don’t have anything to do per se but I feel a lot of things. It is on those days that I get up and I do the Chekhov exercises that we were taught. It is on those days that I know, if I do my breathing exercises, if I do push and pull (archetypal gestures in Chekhov technique), if I do my voice riyaaz, it will make me feel better.”
Training isn’t just about acting. It opens up different avenues within theatre and aims to create thoughtful theatre-makers. Niketan Sharma, an alumnus and the founder ofNOW Productions, says there wasn’t enough time during the training period to do a deep dive into other aspects of theatre, apart from acting.
“But since we were given a good foundation in the other areas, I found the strength and courage to make a play from scratch and see it through to its performances on stage,” he believes. He also adds that the training he received at DSM gave him the confidence to create his own work even when he wasn’t getting work from others.
“For the first three years after drama school, I was not comfortable giving auditions for screen work – the whole idea of ‘fit/not fit’ (the casting conundrum where directors look for ‘perfect’ actors based on their idea of the film/web series) just didn’t sit right by me. So instead, I went ahead and made my play, Adrak.
Training, at DSM specifically, aims to build more resilient, capable human beings who are able to understand nuance, have diverse viewpoints and hold complexities in their head.
To this end, Suresh now describes herself as not ‘just an actor’ but a ‘thinking actor’. “Today, I’m an actor. I’m a writer. I’m a storyteller. I am a theatre maker. I know how to create performances for myself. I know how to take something small, like a line from a conversation and create a 10-minute performance piece out of it. I know how to do that because of the skills I learned at DSM. And as long as I can create theatre for myself, I will never be an out-of-work actor,” she concludes.
Disclaimer: All those interviewed above are alumnus of the Drama School Mumbai:
- Adarsh Gourav (Batch 2016-2017) – BAFTA nominated actor for The White Tiger. Other credits include Rukh, Hostel Daze, Leila.
- Srishti Srivastava (Batch 2014-15) – Stage credits include Shikhandi, 07/07/07, Chuhal. Screen credits include Gully Boy, Girls Hostel, Gulabo Sitabo, Zindagi In Short.
- Mahitha Suresh (Batch 2016-17) – Actor/writer/spoken-word artiste – Screen credits include Sacred Games. Stage credits include storytelling for Kommune, Tape-A-Tale.
- Niketan Sharma (Batch 2014-15) – Actor/writer/ director. Founder of NOW Productions. Stage credits include Adrak, Photocopy, This Is All There Is When There Is All This, Mahish. Screen credits include Cubicles.
- Shimli Basu (Batch 2018-19) – Actor/singer. Stage credits include Jo Dooba So Paar, Rakt Kalyan. Screen credits include Dhulo.
- Aswin Sasi Varrier (Batch 2017-18) – Actor/writer. Theatre credits include Maati, Thief. Cactus. Goat. Smut. Has also worked with festivals like International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) and Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa.