On World Theatre Day, meet the backstage heroes
They begin work before the actors arrive and keep at it long after the last stragglers in the audience are gonemumbai Updated: Mar 27, 2018 19:36 IST
“It takes a village to put up a play,” says Toral Shah, member of QTP Productions, a theatre and arts management company. And this village is made up of the people you see on stage and a strong supporting cast.
The light designers, sound engineers, make-up artistes, dressmen, set designers, prop engineers, stage managers, all of whom begin work before the actors arrive and keep at it long after the last stragglers in the audience are gone.
“These backstage heroes are like theatre characters in themselves,” says theatre personality Raell Padamsee, founder of Ace Productions. “They often entered the theatre community by accident, and never left.”
They stay for various reasons; a passion for plays, a desire to meet new people, the joy of being part of the community.
“It is amazing how they stay dedicated for so many years, a testimony to the fact that everyone in this community, no matter what role they play, is passionate about the stage,” says theatre personality Rahul da Cunha, who is also the co-founder of theatre company Rage Productions.
For Neeta Daru, 66, who has manned ticket booths at Rhythm House and the Nehru Centre over 30 years, it is the equations she has built with long-time customers and theatre professionals that keep her in the job. “With online ticketing portals, my work has reduced, but I will be around as long as I can,” she says.
For stage manager Risha Naik, 32, it’s the thrill of constantly putting out fires. “Every play is an exercise in risk management,” she says, laughing. “Sometimes there’s a power failure or a prop has been damaged. You have to be on your toes, your wits about you, all the time. You have to find a way to make it work, not matter what. There is as much drama backstage as there is on it!”
Curtains to depict a rainforest; a wooden panel containing a ballroom — props and sets need imagination, resourcefulness and the ability to piece together an alternate reality that will stay bolted in place. Bhola Sharma, 68, has been designing sets for 44 years.
“I liked acting when I was studying commercial art at the JJ School of Arts,” says Sharma.
He soon realised that set design, supported by his arts background, was his calling. “It was a lot of fun to make those sets of wood, each depicting a different scene,” he says.
Sadly, today’s backgrounds are often backlit LED screens. “It costs less, and it doesn’t take 20 seconds to switch sets anymore,” Sharma says. “But when the lights came on, and the audience gasped, or said ‘Wow’ all together... I miss those reactions.”
Big productions still require elaborate sets. “And you have to find a way to dismantle them to fit into trunks, to fly around. Sharma understands all of this well, and will find a way out of any challenge,” says Padamsee.
Three years ago, Padamsee’s company performed Jesus Christ Superstar. “We had to construct a 40 ft by 30 ft cross,” she says. “Towards the end, the character of Jesus was fixed on it, and with that weight, it had to be made vertical with a pulley. I think it was among the most challenging props he has constructed for us.”
On the crease
For 53 years, Shankar Vargante, 75, has been part of the city’s theatre community. His job is to make sure that costumes are ironed and kept ready in time for costume changes.
When he first started out, the late theatre actor Hosi Vasunia made him watch a rehearsal where an actor was wearing an unironed shirt. “I immediately realised that ironing adds an important touch of perfection to the whole production,” says Vargante.
He started working with theatre groups, with his elder brother. “I liked the relatively relaxed pace and the warm people,” he says. “When I was starting my own laundry business a few years later, for a steady income, it was Vasunia who helped me connect with clubs for contracts.”
In the last 50 years, Vargante says he has had one mishap; a burnt tie.
“We cannot imagine a show without Shankar,” adds Raell Padamsee, whose father, theatre and ad veteran Alyque Padamsee, Vargante considers among his mentors.
Making it all up
Purshottam Jagdhane, 40, has been a make-up artiste for 15 years, following in the footsteps of his father. “Theatre appeals to me because of the balance of time and characterisation,” he says. “Our work starts an hour before the play, but sometimes a character has to go from young in one scene to old in the next,” he says. “You have to make sure that the wrinkles, the wig, everything is in place sometimes in the span a few minutes.”
It is also interesting, he adds, to create a sense of a character’s background through their make-up. “A Gujarati character will wear a different, round bindi and have a different hairstyle. Even before he or she talks, the audience should recognise it.”
Of the several characters he has helped bring alive, his favourite is that of Mahatma Gandhi, done for a Marathi play around two years ago. “The audience was live, sitting so close to the stage. There was no space for flaws,” he says.
His favourite moments are when the make-up team is called on stage and they too are applauded. “Sometimes, people are shocked that a young actor and the older character were the same people. I relish such reactions the most.”
Towards the light
Madhukar Khodke, NCPA’s lighting technician for 32 years, knows exactly how to pose, said our delighted HT photographer, when we met Khodke for this story. He knows exactly where the light is, how the shadows will fall. “I didn’t go to any school for this. It was all learnt on the job,” Khodke says. “Having worked with lights so closely, we understand it, we can see how it will impact the scene. Sometimes, light designers and directors take our suggestions too.”
Khodke retires in May and his dream is to return to the NCPA, with a play of his own. “It’s in my mind. It’s been there for years. I will write it,” he says.