There is never a dull moment when Vaishali Bisht, Deepthi Pendurty and Priyanka Vir talk about their mission to bring good children’s theatre to Hyderabad. .
A conversation with Vaishali Bisht, Deepthi Pendurthi and Priyanka Vir of the Hyderabad Children’s Theatre Fest can go on for a couple of hours and span a variety of subjects. Most questions elicit animated responses, usually from at least two of them simultaneously, others lead to long introspective discussions, some questions lead to short rants while others bring back some happy memories.
Their enthusiasm about the upcoming festival is infectious. Unsurprisingly, it is theatre that brought the three of them together.
While Priyanka and Vaishali met way back in 2001, and the former starting helping the latter out with her children’s theatre workshops, Deepthi met Vaishali later on in 2007 while working on plays for adults.
Over cups of coffee, the trio took us back four years, when over similar cups of coffee and the realization that there are little or no theatre productions for children in Hyderabad, the idea to bring in plays especially for kids was born, and what it took and continues to take to turn that idea into reality year after year.
“In 2010, Vaishali’s children’s theatre workshop had just completed ten years and she wanted to try and reconnect with all our old students,” recalls Priyanka, “Take them to watch a play? There weren’t any plays in town.” After some brainstorming, and considering simply treating their old students to coke and biryani, they decided to bring a play down. “Since Vaishali is from the fraternity, she knows a lot of people in it, especially those working with children and we thought why should the plays be only for our former students who were less than 200 in number? Why not open it up for more children to watch?” Soon, one play became two and then three plays and the group started working on a model.
But pulling off what is still considered a niche event in a city like Hyderabad can be tough. “Once we decided we are doing this we though ‘OK, what should the venue be?’ We started with Shilpa Kala Vedika, If they said no, we thought we’d go to Ravindra Bharathi and if that didn’t work out, we will ask Novotel and if they also say no, we would approach schools to let us use their auditorium,” explains Vaishali. “It was the same with the accommodation for the troupes. We started off thinking we would get a five star hotel to sponsor it and then came down to considering service apartments. Finally we thought ‘OK hamaare ghar mein rahenge’. We decided that, at whatever level it happens, it is going to happen. And once that sense was there among us, it did happen, and nicely too.” Speaking to them, it is clear that their effortless partnership and synergy of thought contributes greatly to the success of the event. While Vaishali works full time in theatre, Priyanka also works with The Hindi Milap. Deepthi, who is also from Hyderabad but moved to Mumbai recently has a job in television.
The first edition of the festival saw one group perform three plays. The model has since evolved to include three plays by different troupes, usually showcasing a totally different genre of theatre.
The one thing that the plays do have in common is that they are performed by professional and highly regarded theatre artistes, contrary to the popular misconception that a children’s theatre fest implies children will perform. These are plays for kids, not by kids. “While we want to have kids engage with theatre, we also don’t want to put them under the pressure and discipline that expertise in this art form requires. I don’t want children to go through such rigorous training but that also means the quality of the plays they put up won’t be great. This is why we bring in professionals from other parts of the country.” says Vaishali.
Another misconception is that all the plays are fun extravaganzas. This year’s festival includes one fun play, one silent puppet play and the last a more serious production. “The idea is to expose kids to all kinds of theatre,” says Deepthi, “It is extremely easy to do something palatable for children, but we have to do something thought-provoking. Why do we leave all the thought provoking stuff for adulthood? It is their right to see interesting things on stage. And they see many of these complex things on a daily basis.”
“Our plays talk about power play, bullying and politics but it is all contextualized for children. I once saw a student of mine walk out of another play during a scene that showed a woman having a miscarriage. It was very powerfully done. If you ask your parents what happened, 6 out of 10 times, you won’t get an explanation but it stays in your head and I hope that there is someone in their circle who can put it in context for them,” says Vaishali. “For instance this year we have ‘Two blind mice’, Proscenium Productions’ version of ‘Waiting for Godot’ which many don’t consider a play for children.”
“We don’t say they necessarily have to enjoy every bit of it right away,” adds Priyanka.
Organising an even like this can be a logistical minefield – transportation and accommodation for the professional troupes, renting an auditorium and other miscellaneous expenses, a good event like this one is a costly affair. “For it to happen in October, we start planning in January,” says Priyanka.
Throw in a question about sponsorship and Priyanka is the first to respond, ‘Let me tell you,” she begins, “It’s very challenging because sponsors are under the impression that children don’t spend. Some understand that it’s okay if the product doesn’t sell but I’m doing something good for the city. We meet all kinds and we are grateful for all who come on board.”
“Now everyone talks about return on investment. They want to see immediate results but we try to tell them that they cannot have such a myopic vision on branding,” adds Deepthi. “And this is not that kind of event,” says Vaishali. While cost does play a role in deciding what plays are brought down, more priority is given to the style and genre of theatre.”
"If Vaishali says she really has to have a particular group down this year, all three of us make sure it happens,” says Priyanka.
However, the fact that it is so hard to find sponsors for an event like this comes as a surprise for Vaishali who believes that investing in culture is vital to the development of a city. “In England, the arts generate much more that what’s invested into them. It’s not just about initial profits but also about creating a space and more importantly, creating future employees,” she says. “Even if you take regular jobs, you need people to think out of the box and have creative ways of dealing with things,” says Deepthi. “All corporates complain that their employees lack soft skills. If they invest in things like this now, they won’t have that problem later.”
Four years and going strong, have they seen any changes yet? “Well we have fewer people calling and asking us what ‘films’ we are screening!” says Deepthi. “Earlier there were also not too many groups doing plays for children but I’ve noticed that is changing as well. Most groups are consciously trying to build a repertoire of plays for children and that’s nice. There is also a very large audience for them; you can go to any school in any state and perform,” she observes.
According to Vaishali’s calculations from the last four years, over 20,000 children have seen at least one good play thanks to the festival but this is incremental and slow. “Over the next ten years, this number will multiply and in the next twenty, it will actually have made a difference. It’s not as if kids are rushing out of the auditorium demanding, “Where is the theatre in our city?” It’s a long term process and the irony is that none of us have long term commitments in the city but we are invested in something that will bear fruit after we are gone.”
While Priyanka, Vaishali and Deepthi are all hopeful that through the Hyderabad Children’s Theatre Fest, they can create a generation that is more appreciative of arts and culture and more imaginative in their thinking, their main focus is on theatre. “All these thoughts about creating a cultural space only came out recently, the root of our venture has always been that we need to bring good children’s theatre here,” concludes Priyanka.