A bunch of theatre enthusiasts showed that Hyderabad has pulsating theatre groups, Ratna Shekhar Reddy and his pals take a walk down a week's memory lane.
For one week, Hyderabad basked in the glory of sumptuous theatre as little-known amateur groups gave a shot at big time theatre with slick productions, perfect timing and striking performances. It didn't happen out of thin air, the man who conjured it up is Ratna Shekhar Reddy, who along with a bunch of college students made it happen. As the audience soaked in the experience, a curious thing happened. At the end of the play, or when the play is about to end, Hyderabadis get fidgety and eye the exit and get ready to race with the parking lot mapped out in their head, but it was different. People waited for the announcements. “With tickets priced low, we had a lot of audience which didn't feel tricked by the experience. The productions had fresh appeal, the faces were new and their approach was also different that created a buzz,” says Ratna Shekhar Reddy.
Ratna is not new to theatre as he made that rare career move from an MBA in Finance to an MA in Theatre Arts topping it up training in acting and direction from the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, New York. The volunteers call him sir, Kashif calls him Shekhar, others call him Ratna. “Theatre is not about just acting. The group is called Samahara as I learnt in the University that it is Nataka samahara kalalu,” says Ratna as he shuffles from English to Hindi to Telugu.
It is Kashif Ali and his energy that best symbolise what amateur theatre is all about. “We have nothing to lose. No lineage, no legacy and no name. So the teams brought in loads of energy and wanted to succeed. The criterion Shekhar insisted was that all productions be new, that ensured that there is freshness to the plays and more creativity and energy. Earlier, the groups were basking in their comfort zones, playing safe and not pushing the envelope,” says Kashif who directed the hilarious as well as the bar-testing Lysistrata.
“The one thing that we insisted was that all the plays should be staged first time. No repetitions. When a production is staged twice, there isn't enough energy to bring in new people for the third show. The production is nearly perfect but it doesn't have the energy. There is a huge demand for theatre but the audience wants fresh stuff,” says Shekhar who did a bit of analysis to reach the conclusion.
“We had 33 volunteers who oversaw and worked on all aspects of the festival. Every bit of input for the festival was ours. Right from the scene in the wings to the aisles to the publicity material, we took care of everything,” says Anjali Parvati Koda, who co-produced the fest.
Is Hyderabad ready for theatre with high literary value? “Theatre cannot grow in isolation, the audience needs to be informed but not educated about the plays being staged. We cannot spoon feed them, but at the same time we cannot dumb it down,” says Kashif who has T.S. Eliot's lines from Four Quartets tattooed on his forearm: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
“If it is theatre it has to reach out to the masses, it cannot be exclusivist,” says Ratna who says the various theatre groups are catering to different audiences and have their own niches. Kashif doesn't mince it. “If you have a good production, show it to everyone. Don't price it out of reach. All theatre enthusiasts are not rich, they also would like to see brilliant productions with high stage values,” says Kashif for whom theatre was a byway stop as he moved from a freelance editor and journalist to graphic designer and photographer, “I have undertaken whatever has come my way,” he says. “Theatre happened to me (as if it is some infection) about two years ago when on a whim I decided to act in a comedy play. The absolute high of being on stage had me hooked before I even knew it. Having worked as an actor in five productions, I decided to give directing a shot. Lysistrata was a play that my cousin had talked about incessantly and HTF seemed like the perfect testing ground for my maiden venture as a director,” he says.
“I act, direct, conduct theatre workshops and train actors,” says Ratna Shekhar Reddy whose first shot at mass appeal was as the narrator in the folk-and-mathematics medley Crest of the Peacock. “We did 50 shows at each show there must have been about 250-300 students of all ages and it gives a kind of confidence that's hard to replicate,” says Ratna whose tryst with theatre included Purushotham (a solo in English), Duryodhana in Urubhangam, ‘Dora' in Praanam Kharidu, ‘Landlord' in Kukka and in plays such as Dongatakam, Chavu, Praja Nayakudu Prakasam, Antaral, Ashru Ghosha and Nagamandalam.
But when Ratna talks, he talks more like a manager: “The reason why theatre groups are not hitting big time in Hyderabad is the resource crunch and absence of a platform. By roping in sponsors and creating a platform we removed a major worry. We saw a lot of sharing and all the groups worked like a team instead of appearing to compete for the same audience.”
“A stage actor has to use his voice,” says Kashif who confessed to making his actors scream for two months so that we are not handicapped even if the sound quality in the auditorium declines.
Working in the background is Anjali who earlier teamed up with Ratna for the Crest of the Peacock (on the music) and wrote the play Purushotham apart from co-organising the festival.
The other members of Samahaara are Krishna Shukla, Faiz Rai, Jawad Ali and Sana Mirza apart from volunteers and internees during events.