“The Act of Becoming — Actors Talk” shifts the focus from playwrights and directors to actors. Its editor Amal Allana tells Budhaditya Bhattacharya about the need to pay attention to performers and performance

In the constellation of theatre, the position of actors is often taken for granted. The dominant trend has been one of viewing them as instruments in the hand of the director, or spokespersons of the playwright.

As a theatre director herself, Amal Allana, also the outgoing chairperson of National School of Drama (NSD), has been aware of this for a while. She has edited The Act of Becoming – Actors Talk, a collection that seeks to tell the story of theatre from the perspective of the actor. The book, a collaborative publication by Niyogi Books and NSD, brings together the accounts of 22 theatre actors from the 1880s to the 1980s.

“I am very keen that we start talking about performance as an active entity in itself. Not theatre as literature, not the work of playwrights but of practitioners and actors. The actor is not just an instrument in the hands of director or spokesperson for a writer but an entity in his own right. He begins by using their words but he takes over the performance, and what really comes across the footlights is his performance. I think it’s important to talk about this now because we have had a lot of recent literature on writers and directors but I think actors have been sidelined. So I want to push the focus back on them,” Amal says.

The actors featured in the book range from early trainers and practitioners such as Girish Ghosh and Binodini Dasi to Zohra Segal and Utpal Dutt and more contemporary practitioners such as Uttara Baokar, Naseeruddin Shah and Maya Rao. Through these first person accounts of actors, some excerpted from their autobiographies and others from interviews by Amal herself, the history and vicissitudes of Indian theatre emerge. The complexities of women actors trying to gain acceptance in public life, the pioneering work of Indian People Theatre’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and the encounter with Western conventions are foregrounded through these accounts, which also dwell on personal aspirations, training rituals and stage careers.

As the director of over 60 productions, Amal has worked with and observed some of these actors from close quarters.

“I travel a close journey with all my actors, shadowing them, their every move, their every breath practically. Like the actor lives a double life — his own as well as the character he is playing — a director too lives both those roles on behalf of the actor as well as his own where he tries to maintain a distance so he can help the actor ingest his role. Yes, work with an actor is very intimate as during the course of a rehearsal so much of their personal life gets unabashedly exposed. For the actor, these are painful moments, but for the director these are perhaps the most revelatory ones because they are so true,” she says.

The book also maps the evolutions in acting conventions. From the realism of Mohan Rakesh and Vijay Tendulkar, we have now moved to a phase of “looking at tradition from a modern perspective”. This entails a return to performance traditions, and the “physicalisation of emotion”, Amal observes.

About the interviews, Amal says, “I like the fact that their words are sometimes halting, as they are trying to search for words while giving interviews. So that is compelling and real, because actors give great performances on stage but are not able to talk about what they have done. But the meaning and feeling comes through with a great amount of directness.” With over 300 rare photographs, annotated with dates and other details, the book also illuminates names that have long been shrouded in darkness.

Interestingly, the immediate roots of the book lie in a photo exhibition of theatre actors Amal curated a few years ago, during Bharat Rang Mahotsav, from material that she had been collecting since the 1980s along with her husband Nissar Allana.

In the absence of theatre archives, the book has been a long, arduous journey. “You are doing more field work than writing,” she says with an exhausted laugh.

The book arrives on the cusp of her retirement after two terms as chairperson of NSD, and is her parting gift to the institution. In the offing are an exhibition, and a book on her father and legendary theatre director Ebrahim Alkazi.