‘I create experiments, not statements’

Veteran director Vijaya Mehta talks theatre with Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Shriya Patil

Vijaya Mehta

Vijaya Mehta, also known as Bai, has long been on a sabbatical from direction. The executive director of the National Centre For The Performing Arts (NCPA) will conduct a two-day acting workshop on June 20 and 21.

Some of the actors you’ve mentored have gone on to become stars of the stage. What is your method?
I concentrate on sensitising the mind, helping the actor connect with what he has to do and making him understand the and reality of the character. For this workshop I intend to narrate my own thoughts, and my personal adaptation of Stanislavsky’s technique. I want the actor’s body and voice to reflect his character’s feeling. Otherwise it becomes deadpan, mechanical acting. It’ll be a two-day encounter with diverse people, including senior theatre persons and actors who’ve made it big. By the end of it, we want to come to an understanding of what good and bad acting is.

Theatre today has workshops for actors and playwrights, but few for directors. Why?
A person conducting a directing workshop needs to come with up the product, not just the concept. He needn’t have the lights and audio aspects, but he has to have some part of a script and actual actors instead of just theoretical jargon. One thing which works is scanning and repairing a play that has already been presented. I did this once with five minutes of Ghashiram Kotwal in Pune University.

Why did you stop directing?
Well, I directed without a break from 1953 to 1993. I used to act and direct 25 days month. Now there are three reasons I’ve stopped… One is, unless a really challenging script comes up, I feel like I am repeating myself. Another reason is that, 13 years ago, I accepted the position of executive director at NCPA; a job that requires me
to help people from various fields make the most of their creativity. The third reason is that in order to direct a play myself, I’d have to weave a cocoon around me, and I can’t do that with the responsibilities at hand.

You found those challenging scripts before, but not any more. Stagnation in playwriting, you think?
I don’t want to be judgemental because I understand that today’s generation has a completely different creative rhythm. But while our generation had the same energy, we were not so pressurised by the constraints of time and money that we couldn’t even step back and take a look at what we were doing. I had 25 days to prepare a play, six days of grand rehearsal and three weeks only to work out the technicalities with the actors according to their characters. The pressures and distractions today hardly give one time
to ponder over their work. Yet I detect a tremendous burst of restlessness in films made by young filmmakers, and I find this encouraging. Maybe theatre and even TV will follow.

That’s odd, considering that in your time, it was theatre that witnessed the zeitgeist, and cinema and TV took over from there. Why are the winds blowing the other way today?
That’s because film is a more global medium, and the citizens of this generation are global. Also, today the onslaught of television has put theatre on the backburner.

You initiated Rangayan, an experimental theatre movement with Vijay Tendulkar, Shreeram Lagoo and Arvind Deshpande, when you were 20. What’s the defining line between experimental and mainstream for you, and what is the relevance of each kind?
Experimentation happens when there’s a void. Which was the case when we started Rangayan. Then eventually that experimentation becomes mainstream. Then the mainstream degenerates. So an artistic burst follows a 12 – 14 year cycle. Rangayan, too, got more and more accepted until it dissolved and each of us went into mainstream with our brand of work.

Can you see a ‘Rangayan’ happening again?
Well, we were a product of the national Independence movement. Our theatre was like a social commitment. Also, there was a renaissance happening the world over – there was Joseph Papp and playwrights Osborne (John) and Pinter (Harold) and, so many more… But on the brighter side, life has opened up and taboos are disappearing. There’s tremendous freedom and flow of information. Unfortunately youngsters imbibe what is quickest and most convenient. But that’s a phase – when information gets processed into knowledge, a Rangayan has to happen.

You discovered Mahesh Elkunchwar via a play published in a Marathi magazine. Do any playwrights today catch your attention?
Today, I feel more playwrights discover a subject and make a statement about it. I create experiments, not statements. Rather than use theatre as a substitute for activism, a play like Purush talks more about the agony of social, political or sexual rape, without making it ‘statementish’. You should touch society directly and warmly.

But you were credited with introducing Brecht here, and that was considered very ‘statementish’. Your association with Brecht was…
…very self conscious! (laughs) I presented this play at a director’s course in Oxford in the Tamasha format, which showed me the potency of folk theatre. So I did an adaptation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle where I really used Brecht as a vehicle with which to experiment with folk forms.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/9npq

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