Sohaila Kapur

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INTRODUCING, THE ONE AND ONLY

Publication: The Crest Mumbai; Date: Apr 14, 2012; Section: Culture; Page: 20

INTRODUCING, THE ONE AND ONLY One-actor plays can be daunting for the actor but also thrilling. For the audience, they hold the ancient tribal appeal of gathering around a fire to listen to a story-teller

SOHAILA KAPUR

Agrowing trend among Indian theatre groups, and particularly those in the Capital, is to produce solo performances and dramatised readings. These soliloquies and readings are also being preferred by performers who either want to display their skill and craft to audiences or communicate an idea or script that has moved them, without the hassle of a complicated theatrical set up that would include many more participants and the memorising of scripts.

It is significant that actors Arundhati Nag and Maya Krishna Rao have been awarded the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2009 and 2010 respectively), the highest in the performing arts in India, soon after they opened their solo shows, Bikhre Bimb and Quality Street, to critical acclaim. Though scarcely the sole reason for the award, given their considerable body of work, there is little doubt that the shows helped trigger it.

Solo performers have been around for thousands of years. They were basically story-tellers who narrated tales in front of members of their tribe, thereby orally passing down many of today’s myths and legends. It is a style of performance that helped create the Greek monologists, the strolling minstrels of medieval England, the French troubadors, and our own sutradhars and dastangois, who entranced audiences with their mesmerising tales.

In the 1960s, these story-tellers came to be known as ‘performance artistes’ in Europe and included people from various disciplines, who brought in multimedia to accompany their performances. Post-modernist experimental theatre of the later decades used this form to break the conventions of traditional performing arts and challenge the audience to think in new ways about theatre and performance.

Delhi-based Rao is a performance artiste with a background in Kathakali and acting. She is known for her non-linear, provocative, often comic productions, that prod the audience to think, even though they may not fully comprehend the piece. Rao, who is writer, choreographer, actor and director rolled into one and uses multimedia for her pieces, says, “Good theatre is where everything is not handed out on a platter to the audience but where every moment is so charged with multiple layers of meaning and significance, that not all of them are immediately apparent and the audience is constantly asking itself the question: ‘What else is going on here?’”

Delhiite Lushin Dubey, another solo performer, whose show Untitled, directed by Arvind Gaur, has held over 200 shows in India and abroad, says that she is motivated by sharing an idea or concern with an audience. Unlike Rao, Dubey feels the need for a director, otherwise there is always the risk of getting “self-indulgent”, she says.

Solo debutantes and national awardwinning actors Arundhati Nag and Shabana Azmi agree. “I wouldn’t dare put up a solo performance without a director. The outside eye is crucial,” says Nag, who runs the prestigious Rangashankara Theatre in Bangalore. Both actors encountered their very first solo piece in Girish Karnad’s Wodakalu Bimba. Nag worked in the original Kannada version, which held one hundred performances, and later in its Hindi translation as Bikhre Bimb while Azmi acted in the English version, Broken Images, directed by veteran director Alyque Padamsee. Both term it as a challenging and exhilarating experience, but one that Nag may not repeat because “for me, theatre is about working with other actors with different intensities and creating a wholesome and complete play together”.

Mumbai-based Feroz Khan, who directed Azmi in her dramatised reading Tumhari Amrita, says that one-actor productions are very difficult and stretch the skills of the playwright, actor and director to the limit. “The art and craft of theatre has to be of the highest calibre,” he says. “A great actor will give one rare joy, a bad actor might keep one away from theatre for a long time.”

Performers Navtej Johar (Delhi) and Anita Ratnam (Chennai), both of whom have a background in Indian classical dance, prefer the solo format because it gives them the opportunity to play multiple characters with quicksilver facility. Even though the preparation for it is a “long and arduous process, especially when one is creating from a blank page and a non-linear narrative”, the freewheeling improvisation “that makes time elastic, without the anxiety of completing a full narrative” is what seduces them.

Although some critics feel that soliloquies are not ‘real’ theatre, the genre will survive, as long as there are autobiographers around, feels Delhi director Arun Kuckreja who specialises in writing and directing them. He even earned a slot in The Limca Book of Records for his theatrical and screen monologues (one of them starring Sharmila Tagore) and has been called the ‘Fellini of Delhi’ for his experiments with the genre.

Theatre actor and television personality Sunit Tandon, who has read many of Kuckreja’s monologues and has done several dramatised readings of other works, says that if read well, the audience’s “willing suspension of disbelief can sometimes extend to virtual elimination of the consciousness that the performance was read from scripts, not enacted from memory”.

The seduction of a solo performance can also turn out to be its pitfall. The artistes are always haunted by the fear that the piece may not be understood or liked by the audience and that they may face boredom or, what is worse, walk outs, since the entire piece hinges on their skill as performers. They all tackle this fear in their own way. Nag looks at the situation more positively. The solos help the actor to “optimise and recognise his/her assets and even faults”, she says. Besides, her years in theatre have given her a sense of what will work and what will not.

Azmi feels that a failed solo can be “infinitely more disastrous than a full-fledged play”. She says she was terrified initially and still continues to get anxious because “the solo plays differently to different audiences. Sometimes I have the audience rolling with laughter, sometimes they watch it in stony silence”. But, over time, she adds, she has trained herself not to get unsettled by audience reactions.

Rao is more philosophical. “When you don’t have a separate writer or director, you have to trust what you have created and take it to your audience,” she says. “There is no time or space to be frightened; you just trust it will work, take a deep breath and go on stage.”

Ratnam, who has faced flak for her work, says her critics have stereotypical images about the roles she essays, particularly those from Indian mythology. “I am prepared now, after 20 years of forging my own path of contemporary solo dance-theatre, to be suspected, ridiculed, praised, applauded, dismissed.. I get all of this all the time. They just cannot understand strong, independent female archetypes in dancing!” Humour has been the solution for her, as “audiences today want a higher entertainment quotient”. While Johar works by so liciting feedback from friends during rehearsals, Dubey believes in rushing headlong on to the stage with raw energy, to combat the doubts and nervousness that assail her before the performance.

Solo pieces work fine as audition pieces put together as an evening in theatre, says Feroz Khan cryptically, but they run the risk of uneven quality. He dismisses dramatised readings as “works in progress” which is surprising for someone who has held several very successful shows of Tumhari Amrita, with Shabana Azmi and Farooque Sheikh as readers for close to two decades.

Nag feels that the genre is here to stay because today’s restless audience wants to capture the essence of a particular piece of writing quickly. Azmi feels that they obviate the necessity of coordinating an ensemble cast, which “can be a nightmare”. All of them agree that the budgetary and logistical ease that they afford makes them popular, even with sponsors.

For Ratnam, their appeal lies in our fascination with story-telling. We are a nation of story tellers, a katha-crazy audience, she says. Merging spoken words, song, movement and performance is an Indian tradition. Since the new generation of hereditary story telling families are no longer taking to the profession, “it is the turn of our generation, urban, internationally travelled and story collectors from around the world to become story tellers in a different genre”, she declares. Ratnam has put her money where her mouth is; she has recently opened a centre devoted to training students in the art in Chennai.

• MY WAY: Navtej Johar (above) prefers the solo format because it gives him a chance to play multiple characters in quick succession; Lushin Dubey says that solos run the danger of being self-indulgent

THINKER’S ARTISTE: With her background in Kathakali and acting, Maya Krishna Rao is known for her non-linear, provocative, often comic productions, that prod the audience to think

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