Four years ago, when Professor Syed Asghar Wajahat’s popular play Jis Lahore nai dekhya o jamyai nai was staged before 300 people from different nationalities at a stadium in Sydney, a woman among the audience was so moved by the intense portrayal of mohaajirs (Muslims who came from India to Pakistan) that she couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks. And, this was a miracle because she was suffering from a disability wherein the eyes lose moisture and tears don’t flow. Much to her delight, the tear duct surgery she was to undergo was not required any more. Such is the impact of a well written and an intense performance.
The National School of Drama is the incubator of all acting talent. A Delhi- based government-funded autonomous institute, it offers a three-year diploma in dramatic arts. With just 20 seats on offer in a year, all aspiring artistes, unfortunately, can’t study at the NSD. Nor is this necessary, claims Aamir Raza Husain, a veteran theatre director, who directed the famous play The Legend of Ram. “You learn only on the stage. Some people tell me that they are going to London to learn dramatics, but I believe what you can learn on stage cannot be taught in a school,” he says.
Though it’s true that Hindi theatre doesn’t pay well, those who are passionate about the performance arts get drawn to it without any material consideration.
“It’s an addiction. I worked for a few years in Iraq, but couldn’t lead a dual life (of an artiste and an administration manager in a real estate company), so I returned to theatre,” says Husain.
Hindi theatre is not so gloomy. “There is a huge audience in Delhi. We have sold tickets that cost Rs 2,500 each. If the play is good, why wouldn’t the audience come,” asks Husain, who has staged plays even in open-air theatres due to lack of spacious auditoriums in Delhi.
Another upcoming theatre artiste duo of Azam-Akbar was bitten by the theatre bug during childhood. “We make documentaries and music videos. That’s where we earn our money. We devote our Sundays to rehearsals for upcoming plays,” says Akbar, an actor-director, who prefers to be addressed as a theatrist. “If I go out of town and spend a couple of months without theatre, I feel a vacuum inside me,” he says.
“Though he rehearses only on Sundays, it doesn’t mean that he does not earn money out of his performances. If we showcase a popular play at Kamani auditorium, then the public willingly buys tickets worth Rs 100-Rs 500 and we can make Rs 70,000-Rs 80,000 in a day,” he adds.
One of the major advantages theatre offers is an opportunity to enter TV and cinema. Several talented actors — Anupam Kher, Naseeruddin Shah, Irrfan Khan, Ashish Vidyarthi and more recently, Kangana Ranaut -- have all proved their mettle on the big screen, thanks to the platform offered to them by theatre. “In Mumbai, it’s common for film makers to attend popular theatre performances to spot talent,” says Professor Wajahat.
Concurs Akbar, “When an actor performs well on a film set, you would hear someone’s cry in the background -- the fellow belongs to ‘theatre’. Such awe-inspiring performances have earned respect for theatre.”
Despite the fact that Hindi theatre is not popular among the masses, actors continue to perform on stage in the hope of making it to the silver screen in the future. A young actor, Fahad Khan harbours similar ambitions. He joined theatre six years ago while still in school in Bundelkhand. He later moved to Delhi.
“Making money in acting is out of question. But it will happen once I get a break in TV or cinema. Some people also help in production work – lighting, set designing – to make extra bucks. Another source of earning is through theatre workshops in schools or college to sensitise youngsters about this art form,” says the 21-year-old, who has worked as an assistant director in a music video and has organised theatre workshops in schools to make money.
What’s it about?
A theatre artiste refers to a person who works with one or more theatre groups as a professional actor. There are many artistes who work as technical support persons such as lighting professional or a set designer to make extra money. Anyone who helps or supports in the conceptualising, rehearsing or enacting plays can be referred to as a theatre artiste. In a musical, a singer is a theatre artiste too
In Hindi theatre, making money could be a bit of a struggle for an artiste. You can earn by organising theatre workshops, that too, only if you are an experienced professional. You can also work as a model in music videos, TV or magazine commercials. If you’re lucky, you might get a break in TV or a film, which are, undoubtedly, well-paying prepositions}
If a play is scheduled for the evening, your day would be something like this.
9 am: Reach the venue. Rehearse
11 am: Enact the play
1 pm: Share feedback with colleagues over lunch
2 pm: Take rest
4 pm: Final rehearsals in costumes at the main venue
6 pm: Show begins
. Exceptional acting talent. Mere passion doesn’t work here
. Loads of patience
. Team spirit. Every stage performance is a team effort.
. Ability to rehearse for long hours
How do i get there?
Attend theatre workshops organised by groups such as, Asmita Theatre Group in Delhi, from time to time. They usually hold workshops when schools and colleges are shut. You can also attend short-term courses run by these groups. Alternatively, you can join an amateur group to learn the ropes of theatre. Once you are familiar with the art form, you can join a professional group, subject to your acting abilities.
You can also join the National School of Drama, the only institute, which offers a professional diploma equivalent to a postgraduate degree in dramatics. To be eligible for this, you must have spent a couple of years on-stage at the school and college level.
Institutes & urls
Three-year postgraduate diploma in dramatics at the National School of Drama
Two-month acting workshop by Natsamrat Theatre Group
Workshops organised by Asmita Theatre Group
Workshops by Antraal Theatre Group
Pros & cons
Gets one fame, especially if one gets an opportunity to enact a lead role
Money is almost non-existent. Very few artistes make money
If you love adventure, THEATRE is for you
If you’re ready to lead a life of financial uncertainty, you may pursue a career in theatre
Theatre personality and former film actress, Sanjna Kapoor has been running the Prithvi Theatre (linked to the first family of Indian cinema – the Kapoors) in Mumbai since 1993. In a free-wheeling interview with Vandana Ramnani, she tells youngsters all about making a career as a theatre person
Did you study theatre?
I went to Herbert Berghof studio in New York. I was fortunate to be there when the renowned Viennese actor/director was around. It was fantastic. Berghof established the studio in 1945 to provide professional theatre training and practice for aspiring and accomplished actors of all ages.
Your advice to youngsters wanting to pursue theatre as a career?
My advice to youngsters is to be ready to live on the fringes of society. Having said that, it’s not as if you cannot make money. Many make loads of money, especially in case of commercial theatre. Some commercial theatre can be good and we’ve had really fantastic productions in that area. We at Prithvi don’t produce plays, we only programme theatre and we depend hugely on corporate sponsorships.
Can theatre be a career?
It can definitely be a career. One needs to be energetic and entrepreneurial. One needs to work for oneself, be imaginative and be ready to choose a life of risk. If you like the adventure, it may be the right career for you.
Nobody at Prithvi has been trained in managing a theatre, we’ve all learnt on the job. We are 15 (including security staff) of us right now but we do take on people on every project.
How much can a youngster expect to earn as a theatre person?
As for salary, one can start with absolutely nothing. Later, one can be paid per show. The amount can vary from Rs 6,000 to Rs 35,000. Fortunately, there are a crop of young talent right now who want to live off the earnings of their work with theatre.