Theatre Special by Makarand Deshpande: 10 reasons why drama is syrup for the soul
For Makarand Deshpande, life and theatre are pretty much the same thing. “I had realised one thing very early on: that life is not optional. So if I have to live, I want to live in a way that I won’t get bored,” he says. “It is important to me that I don’t lose interest in my own life. And with theatre, there is never a dull moment! I am writing, directing, acting, and I am living life.”
Though Makarand has done the Bollywood thing several times, giving stellar performances in mainstream films like Satya (1998), Jungle (2000), Swades (2004) and Makdee (2002), he is first and always a theatre actor. “I always ask for small roles that’ll pay me some money, which I can then put into my theatre,” he says. “Theatre was always my first love. I never compromised when it came to theatre.”
A few months back, his theatre group Ansh celebrated his 50th original play Epic Gadbad. Turns out, it was the 53rd play, because Makarand had forgotten three while counting! Of these, seven plays are still live, including his longest-running, Sir Sir Sarla, which has been on stage since 2001.
Here are 10 reasons why theatre is in Makarand Deshpande’s soul. And why it should be in yours too. Over to the star of the stage himself…
1. Live show = Life
Watching a play is like walking into a room where everything is happening in real time. The suspension of disbelief is high in theatre, yet the person in front of you is as real as you are. You can show as much realism as you want in a movie, but it remains a recorded event. In theatre, the audience and the performers share the same time and space, so the play becomes their shared reality. They are not just observing it. They are part of it.
2. Characters = Growth
Ek theatre actor ka yeh kaam hai ke woh anubhav ko anubhuti mein parivartit kare (a good theatre actor transforms experience into emotion). In films you need a lot of realistic research to create a character, but once it is created it is watertight. On screen, the character’s journey begins and ends within the run-time of the movie. But in theatre, the actor performing is creating a version of the character in the audience’s mind, and every person in the audience has his or her own version of a character who has a life of his own after the curtain call.
3. Script= Unscripted moments
You can watch the same movie multiple times, but you can never really watch the same play twice. A play in its 50th show is much more compact that it was at its premiere, as you keep tweaking it based on the audiences’ reactions. Every play evolves with time. It evolves during each rehearsal and every time the actors are on stage. Human elements change the play a bit in every show.
For example, during a recent show of Sir Sir Sarla, I entered a scene at a slightly different moment. It was an impromptu act, and the actors on stage were not prepared for it, so it created spontaneous emotions both on and off the stage. Sometimes even human errors help create new scenes or develop newer angles.
4. Experience = Emotion
A play is always contemporary. You can keep updating it to the socio-political context, or even to a trending twitter topic. But how you update a play affects its impact. The trick is to not take the easy way out and incorporate newspaper headlines. I upgrade with the emotion of the moment. For me, after the audience is seated, the theatre is my cosmos. I and the audience become one and advait. There is no duality. The mood of the audience permeates into the soul of the play and it evolves in a seamless, organic way. That is how the audience also gets sucked into the world we are creating.
5. Us = You
In films, the actor performs for the camera in a controlled environment, and then there is editing and dubbing to polish the edges. The audience only impacts the fate of the finished product. But in theatre, the audience can directly impact the performance. You can have umpteen numbers of rehearsals and be totally prepared, but the audience can still make or break the play. You can have a hugely successful show at 6pm, but that doesn’t guarantee that the next show will work because it will have an entirely new audience.
6. Actors = A whole world
When an actor interacts with the audience during a play, he can make them vulnerable. It is a direct communication. This can’t happen in cinema. There you are emoting to the camera.
People often say that they get goosebumps while watching a play. And they are not exaggerating. Theatre can have that impact because it is a shared experience. The audience feels that they are part of it. They can feel the tremors without special effects. The suspension of disbelief is that much! You don’t even need a proper set or effects or background score to convince people or to get their attention. The audience will only notice the set and the paraphernalia if the play is boring.
7. Every performance = Fresh
Theatre tests an actor in more ways than one. It is not just acting. Even if you have done theatre for 20 years, if you take a break, it is always scary to come back and perform in front of a live audience. It is partly because each time you are on stage you are performing afresh. But since you are playing the same character over and over, you can really get into the psyche of the person you are playing on stage. A theatre actor lives with the character for a much longer period than a film actor, which enables him to find newer nuances and avenues of development. A play becomes stronger over time only when the actors in it keep evolving.
8. Acting= Personality evolution
Theatre is much more challenging for an actor and hence more fun! There are no crutches here. It is the content, the writing and the acting. There are no song-and-dance numbers or special effects to distract the audience. There are no cuts and retakes or editing and post production. It is all at one go and you have to get it spot on every single time. Apart from acting chops, you need stamina, memory, coordination, alertness, and presence of mind. You can’t predict the audience’s reaction. So that is one element that you have no control over and it has the ability to impact your performance. And there the actor’s presence of mind and improvisation skills come handy. Then, you have to be forever ready for human malfunction or human disruption. There are times when your fellow actor might go blank, then you have to salvage the situation on the spot. It is challenging for the director also. Although I lock the content, I have to create that faith in my actors that even while everyone is improvising on stage nothing will go wrong.
9. Story vision: Uncompromisable
Theatre gives you creative freedom. Movies are expensive and stakes are high. But in theatre, I can put my undiluted vision on stage. The vision then needs to connect with the audience. If it doesn’t, theatre also gives you the opportunity to make amends.
10. Theatre = Community
If a film is a collaborative effort, theatre is a community affair. The industry is much more informal. When I am putting together a play, I have Naseeruddin Shah or Ashutosh Gowariker coming to watch the rehearsals and give their inputs. If I was able to rehearse 10 to 12 hours at a stretch before putting Epic Gadbad on stage because Nishikant Kamat had opened up his house for us. It gives you a community feeling and that’s something I cherish.
The cherry on top
The real charm of a play is that it is ephemeral: like life, it can’t be replayed. You see it once and then you relive it in your memories.
Live performances will never lose their charm. What else can explain the popularity of our politicians? They are all great orators who pull off amazing performances during political rallies! People will always be swayed by powerful live performances. And that is good for us!
As told to Ananya Ghosh
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From HT Brunch, December 2, 2018
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