We are in the middle of what seems like a never-ending pandemic. For the theatre industry, it has meant closing its doors and opening new virtual ones. Nearly everything has migrated online – learning, teaching, performing and experiencing the performing arts.
The pandemic has given us a much-needed pause that has compelled most to rethink our values and introspect what we, as a society, are heading toward. Most of us have been closely impacted by COVID-19, be it in the form of losing a loved one, or knowing someone who has, or facing changes in our work-life balance. What it has also done is shattered one’s idea of success.
For most who undergo training in theatre, stage or screen acting is a common or expected objective. As we live in a country smitten by cinema (commercial and independent), the benchmark for success is often measured as public visibility – how much stage or screen work has one done, how often one does it, and how well-recognised one is etc.
In such instances, one fails to note that training in theatre is not only about acting onstage or on screen. Theatre goes beyond that. Theatre training is not just for an act of performance; it is tied to the lives we lead, the human beings we become, the way in which we meet our bodies and voices. Training in theatre can inform other professions such as education, corporate training/coaching, social outreach and research to name a few. To better understand how success is perceived and defined, we asked some of our alumni to reflect on: what success means to them.
Theatre for community-building
When Sritej Bhatt and Archana Patel joined Drama School Mumbai, they knew they wanted to use the tools of theatre to pursue other professions.
“I love teaching and I love acting,” confesses Bhatt. “The idea behind enrolling at the Drama School Mumbai (DSM) was to train myself a little more, so that I can at least become a better actor before I start teaching something.” Bhatt, who is also an architect, shares that he had the clarity that he wanted to do something in the education sector long before joining DSM. Last year, during the lockdown, he started his own company called Atman Theatre Collab (now called Atman Theatre School) through which he has conducted multiple in-person and online workshops for adults and children.
For Patel, who has been doing theatre since her school days, and had worked as an HR trainer, she joined drama school with the intention of using theatre as part of her corporate training. She says the training she received as an actor and theatre-maker greatly informed her approach to corporate training. “Firstly, I managed to break the stereotypical pattern of conducting training programs. I was able to mesh drama and theater-making techniques into my training programs. That gave me my foot in the door in most corporate houses, because in comparison to what their other vendors were offering them, this was far more creative and far less time consuming. It was more productive and engaging,” Patel shares.
Tools and techniques used in acting and theatre-making are rich mines that can be used in building connections within a community. Theatre builds multiple capacities that can be used in a multitude of ways. If one forges a good theatre maker, who is connected to the role of art and society, then everything they do is an intervention in trying to make society better, by reaching one human being at a time or affecting a whole community. Having worked in the NGO sector as a researcher for many years, Apeksha Vora had some experience in using theatre tools in engaging with local communities to discuss topics such as gender and sexuality in rural Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and in resettlement colonies in Delhi. In her workshops, she found that it was easier to talk about hard-to-broach topics, if the elements of theatre were involved.
With a keen interest in applied theatre, Vora joined DSM to gain a deeper knowledge of theatre as a craft before using it in her work. After a year of training, Vora found herself writing and performing apart from facilitating workshops with people working at the grassroots, in different industries and communities. Though she discovered acting and performance as something to explore at drama school, she confesses, “I still see myself more as an activist and researcher than as a theatre person.”
For most actors, the logical step after completing actor and theatre training is to get in touch with casting directors, send their profiles and audition for different projects. Depending on how ‘successful’ one becomes at this, success begins to reflect in how many screen/stage projects one has worked on.
Arjun Iyer did the same as soon as he graduated from Drama School Mumbai.
In the beginning, he tried to create his own work with his friends but realised that making one’s own work requires some amount of money. “When you reach the real world, you have to earn money, you have to survive, and you have to scout for places to rehearse. You have to get things organized. Nothing is done for you,” he states.
During this time, like all his peers and friends, he began auditioning for films and other projects. Soon enough, he realized that performing on screen had its own grammar and syntax, one that he hadn’t trained himself in. He faced numerous rejections and at one point he ended up asking himself why he was auditioning.
“And the answer was so clear,” says Iyer. “It was because I felt I would achieve a sense of validation and acceptance from my peers if I got those screen opportunities. I saw the validation received by some other peers but I couldn’t. And that’s why I was chasing it.”
After this realization, Iyer paused and reflected upon how he could continue doing what he loved in a space that allowed him to grow as well. Having studied law and with some teaching experience, he decided to apply to a school as a drama instructor. In his first demo class, he used a pair of leaves – a fresh one and a dried, wrinkled one, and led the students to embody them and create different characters. “That was one of my first experiences as a facilitator, where I realized how I can use my education in drama to create a stimulus in class. And that’s how my journey in teaching began,” he says.
“I’m teaching who I want to teach. I want to be in that class. It’s how an actor may feel when he’s on stage and he’s performing. He gets those claps at the end of it – that’s how I feel when I’ve given a good lesson plan.”
Through this journey, Iyer realised that he loved teaching and little by little, he was able to let go of the resentment he felt about his peers getting work, and the things they achieved.
“When I realized that right now, at this stage of my life, this is my reality and this is the world I chose, and I’m happy with that decision, then that jealousy began to erode,” Iyer shares. He also emphasizes that teaching requires the same skill set that performing on screen or stage does – it is about being present with a heightened sense of awareness and believing in the world one is trying to create for the student.
Re-inventing the idea of ‘success’
If you Google ‘quotes on success’, Goodreads throws up 11,676 quotes on it.
Himani Pant, a theatre facilitator and actor, believes the word ‘success’ is one of the most abused in our lives. “I feel it’s become something where the maximum approval you have, the more successful you are. But that’s not success. Success is very internal,” she asserts.
She elaborates on how, to her, success is subjective – a cocktail of positive emotions. “One might find oneself in a room with 15 successful people – each with a different definition of success. There would be 15 different sorts of successes in the room. Yet if one asked outside of this pool, only one person may be defined as ‘successful’ – this notion of success depends on what the observer’s universe is shaped by, and not the reality and goals of the person in question,” Pant elaborates.
As a step further, Vora questions if one learns more from successes or failures. “Because for me, more than successes, I have learned from the things that I have not been able to do well or things where I felt I’m failing. At the Drama School Mumbai, I constantly felt like I was failing, but it was the thing that taught me the most,” she says.
As a teacher and facilitator, Sritej Bhatt believes success for him is reaching out to a lot of people and making a strong curriculum that can really help thousands of youths and children especially. “It also means I get paid for it,” he adds. “I think I now see myself more as a mediator. I have this knowledge. Maybe if I give it to others, they will be able to use it in a better way than I am already doing it. So, for me, people using this art form consistently would be a personal success for me.”
For the longest time, after graduating from DSM, Patel’s benchmark for success in corporate training was knowing how many days she spent in training programs, the number of new companies she was able to engage with and the number of interesting modules she created. “That really gave me a kick – getting a brief on Monday for doing a show on Friday. It was like doing a TML (Theatre-Making Laboratory) task for me,” she shares.
Given the challenging and wildly uncertain times we live in today, it is imperative to gain some perspective on what constitutes success. “For some people, just managing to stay alive and keep loved ones alive is success at this time,” asserts Vora. “For some, it is making sure they have two meals a day on the table. And if a pandemic, where thousands are dying every day, doesn’t make us rethink the idea of success, I don’t know what else will. Perhaps success should be about how well and how much you were able to connect with another person, or about how meaningful one’s work was for people beyond one’s self .”
Disclaimer: All those mentioned above are DSM alums across various batches.
- Sritej Bhatt (Batch 2019-20) is a performer and theatre facilitator based in Ahmedabad. He launched his own venture, Atman Theatre School in 2019. He is currently cleaning up his backyard to create a training space for his school.
- Archana Patel (Batch 2013-14) is a theatre practitioner and a seasoned HR professional. She runs her own corporate theatre company called Potli Studios.
- Arjun Iyer (Batch 2017-18) is a drama instructor at Chatrabhuj Narsee School, Mumbai. He has trained with G Venu in Navrasa Sadhana. He has also performed in ‘InQueerables’ and ‘With Birbal Its Possible’.
- Himani Pant (Batch 2014-15) is a theatre facilitator currently working at Shiv Nadar School, Faridabad. In the past, she has worked with Theatre Professionals for their Young People’s Theatre Programme.
- Apeksha Vora (Batch 2018-19) is a researcher, educator and recently turned theatre maker based in Mumbai. She is interested in applications of theatre in research, education, therapy and community building and working as a facilitator and applied theatre practitioner.