They are an entertainment collaborative with new fangled ideas and creative energy. The members of Stray Factory tell Shonali Muthalaly what theatre means to them.

Why Stray Factory? “Hmmm. We made up a cool back story, didn’t we?” says Mathivanan Rajendran aka Mathi thoughtfully. “Yeah. And it was really good one too,” adds Rajiv Rajaram, staring at his cheese pizza with concentration. “What was it?” asks Nikhil, gazing at the ceiling for answers. Mathi interjects, “Wait! Have you seen our monkey?” Um. Monkey? They all sit back with a satisfied sigh. “Yes. Monkey.” “He has a beret,” says Rajiv, helpfully. “Now who can resist that?” grins Nikhil. Their monkey mascot is proudly ‘gangsta,’ with Top Gun aviators and a beret startlingly similar to Che Guvera. Muddled metaphors?

Welcome to the world of Stray Factory. An entertainment collaborative with open arms. Comprising a network of actors, writers, artists and musicians, the two-year-old company welcomes ideas and creative energy. Strongly rooted in Chennai, they have charmed the city with their very ‘local’ productions, which have now begun to travel the world. At Amethyst, the company’s core group, Mathivanan Rajendran, Rajiv Rajaram and Nikhil Sriram (the fourth member, Venkatesh Harinathan, is travelling on work) attempt to define what they do, and why it works.

A free wheeling chat? Well. It’s more like being in a get away car. Fast and furious. “The idea of a collaborative was to create original work,” says Mathi. “We wanted to experiment with Trans theatre,” adds Rajiv. Nikhil interjects, “After all, there is only so much you could do with theatre in its conventional form.” Mathi adds, “We’re used to staging plays in a certain way... But collective vision is so different.” So they began to create their own scripts. “At the end of the day, it gives you that leeway to make changes. If Rajiv’s written it, we have a link, we can talk,” says Nikhil. “Also, it’s never a bound script. We include the actor. Because in theatre there are no second takes. On show day, on stage, if he takes a different line, there is nothing you can do. So he should feel a sense of ownership.”

It’s a big change from traditional director-driven productions. “There are differences of opinion,” Mathi concurs. “But no ego hassles.” He rolls his eyes and laughs, “Though we do end up talking for hours about just one line.” When they’re not wrestling over scripts or hooked to their office PlayStation, they plot how to make theatre a business. “Right now, theatre is production oriented. But it should be product oriented to be economically viable,” says Mathi. “We create characters that are products. Or a format, like Bar Comedy, which is a product.” Nikhil adds, “It’s a philosophy of content generation. We might create a play, a short film, a song, a video. Your idea can be anything you want it to be. You have that freedom because you own it.”

We’re back to the question of ownership. “Because that’s very important,” says Mathi. “We come up with ideas, then we use our talent pool to figure out how to make them work.” Like creating characters that can be revived in various formats. Step-Step Mani played by Venkatesh, for example, went viral on YouTube. Then Rajiv became Takkar Mani, in a popular YouTube video titled, I’ve Been Everywhere, Man. There’s Noodles-hair Mani. “Next comes Mallu Mani. All form part of the Enna da Rascalas universe — our Bar Comedy,” says Mathi. “So, we’re creating an ecosystem of sorts.”

Stray Factory started with a production titled Hitchcock at Museum Theatre. “But we never want to repeat those shows again,” says Mathi. Pause. Rajiv says, “You get past certain things.” “No more Neil Simon. If you don’t have anything new to say, don’t say anything,” Mathi states. Their first successful experiment was Yours Digitally Madras: The Great Indian Blogologues. “We decided to adapt blogs to stage. Its true democracy of urban theatre,” says Mathi. They received more than 1000 entries in three days, and chose 15 to work with. “You get interesting ideas,” says Rajiv. “Someone spoke about Chennai traffic being like beads. We made that into a musical.”

So is theatre economically viable? “It is if you want it to be,” says Mathi. “But we don’t want to limit ourselves to theatre. Step-Step Mani got 90,000 views on You Tube. It resulted in an invitation to the Tamil Youth Conference in Singapore. It got Venkatesh a part in a movie — which is why he’s not here today. We got requests from companies asking if we can shoot videos for them… There are many possibilities.”

Stray Factory’s biggest achievement so far however, has been their success at ‘Short and Sweet’ plays. (Short+Sweet Theatre is the biggest festival of 10-minute theatre in the world.) This year they won top three awards for their play, My Name is Cine-Ma: Best Actress, Best Director, Audience Choice in Chennai. They then took the play to Mumbai, where they won again. And then to Kuala Lumpur, where they won in the same three categories. They perform in Sydney in January.

After which they plan to make it into a one-and-a-half hour play. Along the way, they’re figuring out what works: “Theater that is rooted, and original. It has to have the flavour of where you come from,” says Rajiv. Mathi adds, “Instead of seeing theatre through just one lens, we need to find forms of entertainment that the mainstream audiences can relate to.” Video, for instance. Which is why ‘Stray Studio’ was formed. “Theatre is not the be-all and end all of entertainment,” says Nikhil, “I’ve worked in cinema for six years and I love to make movies.”

“Now we must decide in which direction we want Stray Factory to grow,” says Mathi. “When you’re 27-28 years old and figuring things out, its ok. But we don’t want to be 40 and still experimenting randomly…”

Fortunately, their forties are far away, and they’re still excitedly juggling ideas: a crowd sourced art project with NalandaWay, an attempt at Twitter theatre, Slam poetry…” They stop for breath. Mathi adds, “And hopefully we’ll make some money too.”