Sunday, Dec 17, 2017 | Last Update : 04:02 AM IST
This feudal ownership stems from traditional view of the actors being seen as belonging to the director of the play.
Indian theatre directors are a possessive lot. It doesn’t take much for us to lay claim to an actor with the prefix “my actor” before their name. If you spot a theatre director in the audience, there is a good chance that one of “his/her” actors are in the play being performed. Like children, we check up on them and their progress. This feudal ownership stems from traditional view of the actors being seen as belonging to the director of the play. At a festival recently, I overheard a director turn to the organiser and say, “My actors are hungry. Can something be organised?” The organiser headed off to make arrangements and quipped under his breath, “Just yours? What about the actors?”
Over a decade ago, I worked crew on a play, where the director decided to leave the show after the opening run. However, when we regrouped for the next round of shows, the actors were noticeably unenthusiastic. It was akin to dealing with homesick children.
That’s when we realised that they were actually performing for the director, not the audience. He had cajoled and cradled them to this point, and now had abandoned them, or so they felt. It was irrational, but highly emotional; a zone where actors thrive.
In the early days of repertories, this ownership was actually much more formal. Actors who were part of a repertory were forbidden to work outside that particular group. There were even admonishments handed out if repertory actors have sought out work elsewhere. It was similar to the old Hollywood Studio system. However, that is all changing. Directors, today, are less autocratic, and most theatre groups work with actors on a freelance basis. Therefore actors are now working with multiple directors almost simultaneously. Yet there remains a slight possessiveness, which leads to a different conundrum — numerous directors claiming a metaphorical ownership of the same actor. The ownership claim is stronger if the director has given the actor his or her first role. Or that the director works regularly with the same actor. But what about those that haven’t been given their “break” with this director or are perhaps working with him/her for the first time? How can they also be “claimed” by the director? Part of the
answer to this lies in the huge effort that is invested in the rehearsal process. Urban Indian theatre doesn’t just rehearse. It imparts training. Thanks to the paucity of proper training schools and courses, a large chunk of rehearsal is dedicated to bringing the actors up to speed.
Some of these could include philosophical or stylised ideas, but most of the time it’s the basic tuning of the instrument: working on the voice and body of the actor. A theatre actor requires a very specific set of skills. And like a singer or musician must be in constant riyaaz. Unfortunately, the low pay cheque of theatre means that actors are too busy finding paid work to take care of their “instruments.” There are numerous actors who are almost transformed after a long rigorous rehearsal process, and the director who works with them, next reaps those benefits. But this part rehearsal — part drama school process builds a two way bond. Directors claim ownership, and actors sometimes stop working as partners but rather as subjects; creating an unhealthy artistic relationship.
Directors like Roysten Abel were frustrated with the lack of skills among actors, so then decided to work with people who had heightened skills. He is now working on his third production with Manganiyar Musicians.
Fortunately, this environment is changing. The advent of more training programmes such as Drama School Mumbai, Mumbai University’s Masters in Theatre Arts, etc. have thrown up a greater percentage of “trained” actors. This means that the amount of rehearsal time wasted on skill-building is reduced, and more time is spent on artistic creation. This has also led to greater collaboration between actors and director, resulting in a shared ownership of the project. It is only a beginning but the road has been paved, and already trained actors are being preferred to their untrained counterparts particularly dealing with stage work. As more actors emerge from drama programmes and run down this highway, it bodes well for the artistic future of theatre in this country. Maybe then, directors will finally stop referring to actors as their property.
Quasar Thakore Padamsee is a Bombay based theatre-holic. He works primarily as a theatre-director for arts management company QTP, who also manage the youth theatre movement Thespo.