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Between page and stage

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on February 12, 2021

A fine balance: Hayavadana by Karnad (first from left) was among the best works of Karanth (second from left) as a director   -  BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The director’s chemistry with the dramatist — living or dead — is pivotal to the success of theatre

* In earlier times, perhaps when the director’s role was less defined, the playwrights who worked best were the ones who understood the workings of the theatre the way a director does today

* The collaboration between a living playwright and the director has spawned major theatre movements in modern times

* Anton Chekhov, considered the finest playwright in the modern world, had at one point almost given up writing after a disastrous production of his play The Seagull

* Playwrights Girish Karnad and Chandrasekhar Kambar probably found their director in BV Karanth

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A joke made by a director about playwrights goes like this: How many playwrights does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: None, because there will be no changes.

It sums up the divide between the writer and the director. The writer’s more successful marriage with the director is when this imagined wall is broken. There is an actual negotiation of the artistic concerns of both planes, the literary and the physical.

In earlier times, perhaps when the director’s role was less defined, the playwrights who worked best were the ones who understood the workings of the theatre the way a director does today. In his lecture at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in 2015, Canadian playwright and director Robert Lepage lays out a brilliant scenario. He extrapolates from the success of Shakespeare that he was a man of the theatre first. Lepage claims that the Bard’s genius lay in the fact that he worked from within the machinery of theatre. He takes the example of Hamlet. The play undoubtedly has the most famous soliloquy ever in a stage play. It was probably written for very practical reasons. Hamlet has enormous set and costume changes, so between scenes, the best possible solution, in Lepage’s words, would be to “send the guy up front” and talk to the audience. Shakespeare wrote some of his best lines to serve the most rudimentary theatre needs of the time — change of scenery.

The collaborative nature of theatre is most visible in the chemistry between the director and actors. Beneath the tip of that iceberg is an alliance that was the backbone of almost all theatre movements for the past century or so. Perhaps it is more visible now, with many actors taking on the writer’s role when they devise a play. The collaboration between a living playwright and the director has spawned major theatre movements in modern times. Some practitioners see the script as a treasure. Some see it as a treasure map. For a director, the writing is indeed a gold mine just as the world’s subjective perception around them is a gold mine for playwrights.

Stage fright: Anton Chekhov did not hide his misgivings on how badly plays were produced   -  WIKIPEDIA

 

Anton Chekhov, considered the finest playwright in modern theatre, had at one point almost given up writing after a disastrous production of his play The Seagull. He did not hide his misgivings on how badly plays were produced without much thought to the writer’s intentions. His famous quote sums up his anger: “The stage is a scaffold on which the playwright is executed.”

And then Konstantin Stanislavski founded the Moscow Art Theatre (Moskovskiy Hudojestvenny Akademicheskiy Teatr or MXAT) in 1898. Chekhov was among the first to become a shareholder in the company. Yes, they had their major differences, but this collaboration saved both the playwright and the theatre company. The complete failure of The Seagull’s first production by a local group left Chekhov so disillusioned that he announced his retirement from theatre and started to focus on serving society as a doctor. Stanislavski’s partner at the MXAT — Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko — convinced Chekhov to allow a re-staging under the direction of Stanislavski.

Stanislavski’s detailed analysis of the text brought clarity and dramatic force to the play, making it a huge success on the opening night. A telegram was sent to Chekhov who was in hiding and refused to attend the premiere.

The collaboration between the playwright, the director and the company worked well thereafter. It enriched the world of theatre with three of the most influential plays written in modern times — Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. All three resulted from Chekhov’s observation of rural Russia and the human dilemma in the face of change. A perfect example of the playwright’s universe breathing life on stage through the director’s imagination and dedication.

Closer home, growing up in Bangalore, one always heard of the three Ks spoken of in sombre tones denoting respect — Karanth, Karnad and Kambar.

BV Karanth was legendary in giving holistic interpretations to plays by incorporating music, folk traditions that included dance, song and narrative. Playwrights Girish Karnad and Chandrasekhar Kambar probably found their director in Karanth. And some of Karanth’s best works as a director include Jokumara Swamy by Kambar and Hayavadana by Karnad. Both playwrights offered the kind of lyrical, idyllic structure that Karanth must have loved.

Theatre’s own: Alyque Padamsee added value to the plays he directed from his experience of being a performer   -  SIVA SARAVANAN

 

I have achieved a modicum of success only because I have had an ongoing collaboration with producers and directors. One of my biggest lessons in marketing was when I wrote a play called Twinkle Tara. I was very pleased with the clever use of two languages in the title. (This was way before such hybrid titles became trendy in mainstream Hindi cinema.) When Alyque Padamsee, who directed a production of the play, ran it through a marketing drill, he drew me aside and said, “Change the title.” He argued that it sounded like a children’s play. So the ‘twinkle’ went out of the play, and it was just Tara.

In one of the scenes, Alyque made the actor playing Tara put on her false leg in partial view of the audience. At rehearsals, I thought it was a little contrived because the actor had real legs to deal with. But Alyque took great pains to make it work on stage. That moment helped the audience experience what Tara, a girl with disabilities, must have to go through every single day of her life. The play won accolades for me and brought me a lot of media attention. This wouldn’t have happened without the dance of dialogue between me, a budding writer, and Alyque, a true man of the theatre who worked from within the machinery of this art of artful representation.

Recently, I directed a Zoom version of Poile Sengupta’s play Thus Spake Shoorpanakha, So Said Shakuni — a thought-provoking play about how we view these characters from the epics. The playwright offers a fascinating set-up where two people meet at an airport and discover their affinity to the mythological characters and how they were victims of their stories. As a director, especially for a Zoom show, I wanted the dialogue to be supported by the stories of Shoorpanakha and Shakuni, so I brought in visuals of the epics’ paintings. This not only helped the text but also the digital format, which is primarily visual.

Just as it takes two people to bring a child into this world, it takes the page and the stage to make the intangible manifest a tangible, palpable form.

Lepage once said that a puppet “is just a piece of wood, a couple of rivets, but put them together, and if you know how to do it, and the audience’s imagination joins in with this, then a miracle will come out of that machine. That is what we and the audience do in the theatre — we create miracles in that space.”

We all need the wood, the rivets, and a collective imagination for the illusion to work.

 

Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

Published on February 12, 2021

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