Actor-director-set designer Michael Muthu speaks to Shonali Muthalaly on theatre in the city, the Boardwalkers and the enduring magic of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Michael Muthu's not easy to interview. Not because he's difficult. In fact, he's absolutely charming. But, he's also exasperatingly self-effacing.

For anyone who follows theatre, ‘Mike' is a familiar name. The Boardwalkers, his company of actors, has always drawn the young, restless and talented. Their productions have a reputation of being fresh, feisty and fun, bringing together everyone from the deeply intellectual to the terminally hip. Laid-back, popular and involuntarily well-networked, Mike's also got a gift for discovering new talent, often from city colleges and culturals. And, he's a popular set designer.

Yet, when asked why Boardwalkers connected so effectively, and immediately, with the city, he shrugs, looking genuinely baffled, “I don't know. I really don't.” Alright, how about his genius as a designer? After all, practically every big theatre group in Chennai's asked him to create their sets. “Probably because I'm the cheapest?” he asks, in all seriousness. Trust us, that's not it.

Perhaps a story one of his actors tells about a road trip will make the Mike factor easier to understand. They were headed to Bangalore for a big production. So they packed their bags and hopped on a plane? Of course, not. Instead, Mike squeezed his entire cast into a refurbished Maruti van, complete with a cooking range. They drove, they slept. Talked, cooked, picnicked… even made languorously long halts so Mike could sit on the grass, under a tree and play his guitar. Finally, they reached, relaxed and happy, to give a great performance.

If Michael Muthu was any more laid-back, he'd topple over. Dropping in at a rehearsal, just a week before the big day, I once spotted the lead actor jumping from table to table in a long velvet cloak while the rest sat cross-legged telling jokes. Even at this interview, scheduled just before his huge production of ‘Jesus Christ Super Star' (JCS), I scramble over random hunks of wood and carpenters who seem to be just starting on the sets. Yet, just before the curtain goes up, almost magically, it all comes together.

“I never thought that this would become a profession. I wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to fly…” says Mike, talking of how his father, an engineer with a talent for theatre, inspired him. (He also learnt set design by helping his father build a tree house when he was ten years old.) Mike's theatre career, however, really began when he joined Loyola College and the prestigious Loyola Theatre Society. “We had a big grand audition. It was scary. I could barely read a line…”

He rapidly grew more comfortable. “In my third year I got to direct my first play.” Then came his big break, the rock opera ‘Jesus Christ Super Star', first staged at the IIT open air auditorium in 1991. “I heard the music on a scratchy old LP. And I loved it. Spiritually, musically, emotionally. We had a cast of 72… all 19, 20, 21-year-olds. We were the young crowd, we attracted the young crowd.” This is when David Pascal made his memorable debut. “I didn't know who would ever be able to play Jesus. Then I was in Trichy for a college cultural and there was David, in long hair, a beard and red jumpsuit. And I thought, ‘Man. There's Jesus.' What a find he was!”

Mid-rehearsals, Mike realised they needed a name. “We picked Boardwalkers. Inspired by the Stones I guess.” (Although ‘Under the Boardwalk' was recorded by The Drifters in 1964, the Rolling Stones released a popular cover version.) Mike pauses, and grins. “We were sitting in IIT. We needed a name. The stage is made of boards. We walk on those boards… so… Boardwalkers.”

His first corporate job didn't last long. “I worked with HTA — now JWT — as a film executive. That was it! I get bored very easily. With theatre there's something new every time.”

It's not always bouquets though. “I'm hoping this will be my last production,” he says, adding with a sigh, talking of his new dream: making movies. “When I did JCS in 1999 there were no cell phones, no Internet… to help us spread the word. But I had more than 75 people on the first day of auditions. This time, with two press ads and Internet campaigns I had about ten. The rest I had to ferret out.”

“It's becoming horrible,” he says, discussing Chennai's divisive theatre politics. “There are so few good actors. The older guys are cool — but the rest don't work outside their groups. So we never get a good production. I think that sucks.”

“The theatre scene's still very amateur here. And that includes me. I've been in the business for 23 years now, and I still think ‘man, what am I doing!'” he says with startling honesty. “I've had times when everything went wrong. Moving forward is so difficult. You can't face an audience anymore. You really feel like trash…” Take the 2002 release of his unconventional, movie “The Girl”. “When I did a preview for the theatre fraternity, they thought that it was fun. The next day, I did a show for the International Women's Association. About 60 came. By the intermission, when the lights came on, the only people left were the waiters and me.”

He's not giving in. “I stay because I can't do anything else. Not that it's easy. I get terrible stage fright. As I get older I'm getting more and more stressed out, man. The problem is you're only as good as your last show…”

He pauses and adds with a wry grin, “But I guess it's the bug. No matter what I say, I know in two months I'll be thirsting to do another play.”

On JCS

Mike has staged the rock opera in Chennai three times already — 1991, 1995 and 1999. “I think the music itself is everlasting. Every four years there's a new audience. Then the old audience comes back.”

“People keep asking me, what's different. But JCS is sacrosanct. You can't mess with it. It was set in the 1970s. Very hippy style. Talking about love, freedom, peace. I saw a punk version. It was very aggressive. All hard and intolerant. Not stuff that you would associate Christ with. For me it only works in hippy mode.”

“As for audiences — they won't come looking for some new-fangled Mike Muthu version. They want the classic. And just for the sake of change to tamper with it — doesn't seem right.” He promises great acting, and live music. “My band's the best in the business! You've got to see this…”

‘Jesus Christ Super Star' will be staged at the Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall on Harrington Road on September 11 and 12 at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at all outlets of Landmark, the Fruit Shop on Greams Road and Odyssey.

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