This past week I caught two other plays that were once again set in the dressing room of performers.
For almost all theatre people, bringing the backstage world to life is a rite of passage. Each playwright wrestles with it, and more often than not, each director has done at least one play on the unseen life of theatre performers. Over the years everyone from Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to Neil Simon (The Sunshine Boys) to Joseph Heller (We Bombed in New Haven) has toyed with trying to shine a light on the “shadow” side of theatre. There have been some big hits like the perennial favourite Noises Off! by Michael Frayn and Mel Brooks’ Broadway smash The Producers. Some of plays have been profound, beautiful and wonderfully romanticised portrayals of theatre folk like Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty or Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. Closer home, Roysten Abel made his mark on the international stage with Othello in Black & White, about a troupe rehearsing a play, during which the lines between theatre and reality get blurred.
The trouble with most work that is about the backstage is that it is full of “in” jokes, and often only the theatre people in the audience get the references. I once made a similar mistake by staging seven shots about the theatre in a piece called A View From The Stage. I still think the pieces are hilarious…the audience didn’t.
Recently though the Green Room has become source material for quite a lot of new work. A stand-up show looks at a collective of comics rehearsing and practicing with their mentor. Given Bombay’s interest in this new form of entertainment, the play seemed like a wonderful idea. However, the idiom of rehearsals and workshops and working at the craft is something that perhaps audiences are not yet ready to see. The joy of a stand-up show is because it feels spontaneous, like the comic is coming up with these things on the spur of the moment. Looking at the rehearsal process and all the hard work that goes into it is a little like watching what really happens to the goat before it becomes a delectable seekh kebab. This past week I caught two other plays that were once again set in the dressing room of performers — there was the light and almost frivolous Gentleman’s Club and the heavy and verbose Kaumudi. Both interspersed on stage action with back stage conversation.
Gentleman’s Club takes place in a parallel universe of “drag kings”, where women dress up as men and play roles of various entertainers for no other purpose than ensuring people have a good time. Each “drag king” has his own persona from impersonating Shammi Kapoor or Justin Timberlake to playing a male Sardar, etc. Through a reporter we are introduced to this world, which seems almost mainstream not some seedy, dark dance-bar. What is refreshing is that while the reporter is looking for triggers that have pushed these women into becoming “drag kings”, some exciting juicy, tragic back-story, the truth is that they are simply doing it because they enjoy it.
At the other end of the spectrum is Kaumudi; a very heavy and dense text, in which an actor, who has given his life to the theatre, is about to retire due to failing eye sight. His replacement also happens to be his estranged son. So there are complications aplenty. Add to that, the play that they are mounting features the ghosts of Abhimanyu and Eklavya conversing while Abhimanyu is in the Chakravyuha. This is a play with numerous references, and its fair share of “in” jokes; like when one actor describes the creation process as wrestling with your character and putting it in a “Meyer-hold”. The guffaws for that line, immediately told you how many theatrewallahs were in the audience. Kaumudi’s characters could be accused of taking themselves too seriously. And the terrors that haunt them make for almost a voyeuristic viewing, we don’t want to watch, but maybe can’t help. But because of its slow pace, loaded dialogue and Mahabharata plot and framework, it didn’t feel like it properly represented the life of the theatre worker. Perhaps the only time it did was when the subservient theatre manager finally stands up for himself and informs the actors to not forget that they are replaceable and that he doesn’t work for them, in actuality they work for him. So the search for a play that appropriately and accurately represents the theatre world and is also accessible to an audience is still on. Does such a thing exist? Or is this our Atlantis, our Holy Grail, our Eleanor?
Quasar Thakore Padamsee is a Mumbai-based theatre-holic. He works primarily as a theatre-director for arts management company QTP, who also manage the youth theatre movement Thespo.