Having recently come through a full circle of what I consider to be my first incarnation as a theatre director, after 15 years of work, I ask myself what I have learnt.
One can take up art as a casual or desultory hobby; or as an intensely passionate pursuit. One can embrace art as an amateur or as a professional. It can be a paid vocation or obsessive pursuit involving satisfaction as the goal. In whatever form, once we take up to it, we are artists at some level or other. And we have duties.
First, whatever be the plane of involvement, we are bound by some rules and codes, ethics and etiquettes. Theatre especially is a team game always and ever. Part of the team is an actor. What defines ones frame of mind as regards amateur or professional is this recognition of oneself as a part than the dominant pie. An actor, to put it bluntly, is the most dispensable but most inclusive part of a production. We are not even talking about a performance in terms of a show. A work of production becomes a show only when the audience-factor gets involved. To an artist who is more concerned about the creative process of a production, the audience is/are dispensable as much as an actor. The fact of the matter is an actor could be created. An actor can be developed. Any body could be trained to act. But imparting - self or to other - the foundations or the basic underlying approach to perform a specific role alone does not create a complete actor.
What or who then is a complete actor? Not anyone who can perform, surely. Someone who understands his/her inclusivity, respects the ethics and etiquettes, adheres to the demands made on oneself in the team performance. I am not talking any management therapy here. All that is pure junk and gimmick talked aloud to cheat people into parting with their money in a suave way. If each sets his/her personal agenda secondary and within the group's primary objective, that is the beginning of commitment. The unfortunate part of theatre in most cases from wherever I have observed, especially one hundred percent in the circuit I work, is that personal agenda is so much more important that the primary objective is only impotent. Rather, is rendered impotent.
Should an artist work according to the desires of a director or impose oneself on the character or role that is being essayed? There are some truths which cannot open up to the conception of two schools of thought at all. There is the truth and it is the only one. In this case: an actor is being cast by the director out of various considerations and in Chennai, also out of various constraints. The director's comfort level in working with a person, the person's comfort level with his/her co-actor(s), comfort level in being expected to do certain actions or wear certain costumes, not to mention the importance of the role, which in most cases is defined as quantity of presence. That also shows the shallowness of the pursuit in Chennai. After the casting stage, after one has accepted a character, after one has decided not to desert the production ever till the last curtain call is taken after the first run, begins the actor's responsitbilities towards the play.
The play is all. The playwright is the creator. If the playwright intended the character to be performed in any which way, no one would write. Every piece of writing is born out of a need to express something, however frivolous it could have been conceived, it could turn out to be or it is. That being God's own truth, is an actor justified to change the way the role is played. Yes and No.
Who in the first place decides how to play a role? How flashy or less conspicuous... what right amount of admixture of emotions? Well, irrespective of the nomenclature of the play as a comedy or drama, what is being performed is a narration of sorts. A story is being told. And that is the paramount feature of arts. Everything contains a story, however abstract or real. If the story is not told first and foremost in the way the playwright intended it, then it is no more his. What right have we to tamper on someone's propriety?
When we build a house we do not first fix the chandelier or a sauna. Those are luxurious items that MUST come only after the basic electricity as well as water and sewage connection are provided. Similarly, to the No part of playing a role the way an actor wants, one must realise that the role has to be understood and the role's basic existence conveyed to the audience. To that extent, the actors are carriers and couriers of someone's message. There is no question of rephrasing the message or repackaging the acceptability levels of the luggage.
Once the basic allegiance and obeisance to the original plan of architecture is paid, then an actor can look to make the role his own. Even there, the work is to get into the skin of the role and become it than impose a certain way of playing so as to mislead the audience to think of the role in a particular way. Most actors do this. But then, most actors are not trained. Even those who are trained - self or by someone - are not trained to think a role. They are mechanised in alleged workshop atmosphere to practise exercises to tune (warm-up as the popular term goes) the body, breathe and speak through regulated and robotised inhaling and exhalation patterns. Learning to warm up or improvise or breathe and speak is only the technical part. What about the emotional sensitising of an actor? There is also a certain management-style theatre practise creeeping in some instances. If a person is sensitive enough to think of oneself as part of the whole, or - even if coldly stated - even begins to think I have given my time, let me go through it meaningfully and get out, having contributed what is expected of me, these so-called team-building exercises would not be required. This only shows how much amateurish is our thinking and why we still stagnate qualitatively even if lot of stuff is happening. An individual emotional sensibility is lacking.
At the end of the day, we are dealing with flesh and blood emotions on stage. And what of the cultural, political or social understanding, not to mention the economic and gender status of the character. Do we not have the sacred duty to create a verisimilitude of someone else on stage? Unfortunately one means people choose is to grow or cut hirsute appendages of the body and use make-up or costume to show a change from their real looks. Transformation is internal and not outwardly. All these cost time and energy. And all these are very much in paucity right now because of the cost factor than anything else. The cost to be paid for most people translates into party time or earning time. Since either the mind set more upon social jamming up before and after rehearsals or working in another job (career or not) which monetarily pays more than theatre could possibly afford, we have less trained actors and more mannequins whose brains have been lobotomised by hormonic surges 3 feet vertically to the bottom from their seat of thinking.
Theatre in Chennai may be a place of plentiful happenings, but in the wrong areas of performance. So what should one do to change this, you might want to ask! Nothing. Change must happen internally with every individual. They must think that life is not always one huge celebration of adolescence and that life has its share of responsibilities and commitments to whatever is done. And commitment, like trust, belief or love is 100 percent. You can't half-believe someone. You either do or not. Similarly, one must either do theatre or not. Rather not waste other's time. It is the responsibility of anyone who wants to do theatre in Chennai at the moment, given how much is suddenly happening. Do you hear? Stop backslapping and kissing frogs, seek the real Prince with or without the Kiss. Start now. Or quit.