Experts spoke about the making of a good play at The Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Fest symposium

“If a play is ‘possibility’,” a theatre director was once heard to sigh despondently over his nth glass of wine, “a bad play is a distinct possibility”. And seeing as how we are in the middle of theatre season, it was time perhaps to whittle down to an elementary question — “What Makes a Good Play?”

The Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Fest symposium sought an answer; and so it was that four people with different views of the stage — physically, as well as perceptually — were chosen for the evening.

It began on a suitably cathartic note. Critic and director Keval Arora considered the topic for a moment, and then neatly did away with the word ‘play', and then, a moment later, proceeded to do the same with ‘good'. (“How about ‘performance' instead? And ‘a stimulating experience'?”)

“Risk,” began Keval, “to move away from the obviousness, the deadness of some performances.” It was “danger”, for actor Sheeba Chadha. Because each day, it has to be done all over again; and it must create a sense of wonder. “If you aren't going to pick me up and put me on the clouds,” she said, “I don't want to see it.”

But theories and abstractions aside, what about the warm-blooded people who must engage with the audience under the arc lights, the flesh and blood performance? This, indeed, is probably why some of the panellists' most heated arguments revolved, reassuringly, around nothing more philosophical than a biscuit. “In a scene in Neel's play ‘Taramandal’, the actor picks up a biscuit and crunches on it,” said Keval. “The actor, magnanimously miked, could be heard loud and clear; and he, realising this, began to use the crunches as punctuation.”

Such actions, immediate and volatile, might never happen again.

Sadanand Menon, photographer and journalist, stressed it was the ability to recover experience, and rework it, that would eventually enable a political engagement in theatre. But that would leave the performance almost primevally open to criticism — “open at that moment, to receive the sensation from the walls, the ceiling, from the bodies of people.”

And that is possibly the essential physicality of theatre — “that by just standing there, you should be able to make the play happen. That the power of the body, its experiences and memories, can move beyond the text,” he said. Like Martha Graham said, “The centre of the stage is where I am.”

Arshia Sattar, who moderated the discussion, felt that theatre imitates the bonding of ritual. For Neel Chaudhuri, director and playwright who won The MetroPlus Playwright Award this year for his ‘Taramandal', it was simpler: “Write about what you know, and about what moves you; develop a text that is curious to itself.” Contesting the notion that good dialogues make for a good play, he said, “Our great fear of the mundane, a compulsion to make every line count, leaves us feeling that a script has to be composed of witty one-liners. I disagree.”

Abhishek Majumdar, the first recipient of The MetroPlus Playwright Award of 2008, said, “The greatest storyteller I know was my sister. She had one clear objective — that by the time she finished her story, the plate she was feeding me from should be empty. I don't know if she was the actor, the director or the playwright. All I know is,” he smiles, “she genuinely wanted me to eat.”

In many ways, the discussion was like a performance. (For instance, when Sheeba declared that she felt Ibsen's iconic ‘Hedda Gabler' was a rather unwieldy text to manoeuvre, one particular member of the audience was horrified. “I think there's something lovely in what she said, and in watching your jaw drop open,” Keval observed gently.)

The evening was also infused with a remembrance of director Mithran Devanesan who had passed away that morning. A short interview of him was screened, recounting a life devoted to philanthropy and the stage.

And as the drama unfurled off the stage for once, what emerged was a sense of how potent the stage could be. “He steps on stage and draws the sword of rhetoric,” said writer Pete Hamill of it, “and when he is through, someone is lying wounded, and thousands of others are either angry or consoled.” The four who spoke restated that here battles could be fought, empires could fall, dialogues could be undone, politics could be questioned, and more importantly, a biscuit could be crunched.

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