The Short+Sweet theatre festival, featuring ten-minute plays, has turned into a launch pad for aspiring directors and writers. Lakshmi Krupa speaks to four newcomers

Akhila Ramnarayan, Director

“Alex Broun's play The Voice Behind the Fence spoke to me because of my abiding interest in human rights work, in how human rights themes and questions emerge in literature and the performing arts,” says Akhila Ramnarayan, who has a PhD in postcolonial studies and has been active in the city’s theatre circuit. “Broun's play requires sensitivity to trauma, to the pain of giving testimony. I wanted to take on the challenge of directing it,” says the artiste who debuts this season as a director. “I've been acting, writing/scripting, singing, doing production, learning about lighting and sound design, and am being mentored in technical areas by some wonderful colleagues in dance and theatre. I've watched my mother (Gowri Ramnarayan) direct an entire range of multi-genre productions (involving dance, music, poetry, theatre) for JustUs Repertory since 2007. I guess I wanted to see what I've learned so far! A ten-minute play seemed like a good starting point. Akhila’s play features Murielle Lapinsonniere from Reunion Island and Paris, who shared the director’s resolve to avoid clichés. “Representing Masooma, a refugee suffering unspeakable, unnameable trauma, is a big responsibility. I wanted to avoid stereotypes at all costs. Directorially, my only goal was to represent a woman with dignity and strength; a survivor, not a victim.” Of the opportunities Short+Sweet offers, Akhila says, “The excitement and passion for theatre is palpable this year, as it was in 2012. Of course, there are plays I like, and those I don't. You'll have that in a context where veterans and new entrants share the same platform. Those who come will hopefully become more sensitive rasikas. We need discerning audiences for theatre to thrive.”

Janardhanan R, Director

When an opportunity to direct a play came his way this year, Janardhanan R, who is part of one of the city’s youngest theatre groups (started last year) Quid Pro Quo and a banker by day, was too excited to let it go. “A short play, I thought, would test my ability since I had to stick to the time limit and also bring out the best of the script. The script I directed (No Place to Hide) was gripping and tight and I had to struggle to fit it into the required time frame,” he says. While Janardhanan has donned the grease paint earlier for his group, this experience, he says, offered him an ‘outside’ perspective of how the play was moving, as opposed to being an actor, where all his energy would be on the lines and the underlying emotions. “This has been an enormous learning experience. More than anything, as a director, you help motivate your team and bring out the best in them. This feeling of finishing a task with positive feedback is unparalleled,” he muses, “Directing the play has also helped the actor in me. As a member of the audience, Janardhanan has also witnessed a lot of performances this year. “Some of them were very emotional, some amazingly funny.” Janardhanan is now working on a play Two Pizzas and a Sambar Vada that will be part of ‘Live in August’.

Pooja Balu, Director

Post winning the ‘Play of the Day’ title for her Maya from Madurai which is about the life and death of a drug dealer, Pooja Balu who was also part of last year’s Short+Sweet winning team from Stray Factory says she wasn’t planning to take up direction this year. “I wanted to stick to performing in two plays this year. Mathi (of Stray Factory) incepted the idea of sharing what I have learnt and understood from touring with our production, My Name is Cine-Maa. I thought about it and three days before submission I called my classmate from school, Naren Wiess, and asked him if he could write something.” Pooja described what she had in mind and, “before I knew it, I was at the other end watching Venky, Ajay and Shilpa outdoing one another on stage!” The only difference, Pooja says, between performing and directing was the fact that she was not on stage with them. “Honestly, I think bouncing ideas and energy off each other is the best way to make a play work. We did the same thing for Maya from Madurai. Nothing different, nothing difficult.” Calling hers a fun and memorable debut, she waxes eloquent on Short+Sweet that acts as a platform for emerging talent. “That is what it did for us and helped us take our play to other places as well (after the win last year). Much as I love performing, I hope to travel more to learn, observe and share with people through plays.”

Jayshree Venkatesan, Writer & Actor

Jayshree Venkatesan, CEO of IFMR Mezzanine Finance, is among the handful of new talent the festival is launching this year. For her, it’s a debut that’s twice as nice because she has not only written a play but is also acting in one. “My play, titled Quest, is influenced by my experiences as an investment banker, my inexplicable interest in Jews and my take on Tambrams in Chennai,” she says. The character Eli Iyer in the play, she says, was born during several long flights across the Atlantic Ocean, and after discussions with her husband (Vidyuth, also a theatre personality) who was in splits each time he read the play. “My debut as an actor is a story by itself. I was attending a book reading by Vidyuth and Vinodini Vaidynathan, who asked me to read her play, Terminal, when we met. I agreed, but had no clue that I would be chosen. I just enjoyed the script and related to the character so much, that when I was asked, I said yes. It has been an intense experience rehearsing for the play, and life-altering in many ways,” she says. Talking about the festival, Jayshree adds, “Live drama provides people with the space to voice their opinions, and S+S does exactly that: creates a democratic platform where people can speak. At the end of the day, I am amazed and delighted that there are so many people who are putting in hours at rehearsal, with zero monetary returns... solely in the pursuit of excellence. That must be lauded and encouraged.” Jayshree, who has a busy day job, feels writing has therapeutic effects. “I find the act of putting pen to paper slows down my thoughts and forces me to reflect. I also feel writing helps me at work and vice versa...there is so much cross-pollination of ideas.”

The Short+Sweet festival is currently on at the Alliance Francaise of Madras, Nungambakkam. For details, contact chennai@shortandsweet.org