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It's pantomime time again

Aysha Rau

`HERCULES' WILL soon be here — `more or less,' as the amusing logo says. Christmas means the pantomime in Chennai. And carrying the baton of a loved English custom is Aysha Rau of The Little Theatre. Issy Sanderson, the wife of the then Director of Cultural Affairs of the British Council introduced the first of these hilarious shows to city audiences in 1992. Viewers responded enthusiastically to the stock characters — the cross-dressed Dame, the `boy' and the panto animal — who along with others make it a laugh riot where logic is given a delightful go by. The pantomime animal (no prizes for guessing) this year is of course the minotaur.

``I acted in the first four pantos which Issy presented. .,'' says Aysha .When Issy returned to England, Aysha decided to continue the tradition though her Little Theatre group, which was formed in 1991. The bulk of the players in the productions are children who are the members of the group. The rest of the cast comprises adults and college students. Aysha has produced 11 plays and scripted nine. "Hercules" is their tenth pantomime. Hercules' worthy predecessors are figures as well known as Alladin, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Ali Baba and Robin Hood. ``Up to `Cleopatra,' we adhered completely to the script but after that it became more flexible allowing the actors plenty of room to ad lib and improvise. I felt this made the show more fun. This time, I passed on the scripting to Vidyuth Srinivasan, a regular on the acting side,'' she says. The pantos are fund-raisers for the projects which The Little Theatre has for Corporation school children.

``I decided to form The Little Theatre group when I found that there was no such forum for children in Chennai. The education system is very stressful and children need activities to develop their creative talent. The first year, the advertisement for the theatre workshop brought in 99 members when the target was 100. We have children in the age group of 5 to 14 from 16 schools in the city and our annual membership is 75.'' Theatre workshops are held every week in the Spastics Society of India (Vidya Sagar) building and the participants star in the panto at the end of the year.

Creative sessions are conducted by professionals in dance, drama, art and craft, mime, music, magic, photography... Excursions are organised periodically. The Little Theatre has a youth choir and a youth orchestra of which the spastic children of Vidya Sagar are also members. The choir performs a concert every year. ``This year they performed at the Raj Bhavan.''

``The funds that come in through the annual pantomime are used to support a project for underprivileged children,'' says Aysha ``We have a tie up with the Corporation Middle School school in Chetput.''

Creative workshops by the Koothu-p-pattari and Spoken English workshops are conducted for the students of Class 7 and 8 of this school every week. Four of them are selected every year for a seven-year educational scholarship. ``At present 32 children benefit from this. Books, clothes and fees are provided for the students who come from the lower economic strata. Many of them are now excelling in their graduate and post graduate courses.'' The children participate in street theatre shows in the slums of Chennai.

``You know, I gave up the idea of doing a Ph.D in fish diseases to turn to advertising,'' laughs Aysha. She attributes her script writing abilities to the fact that she was a copywriter in two well known ad agencies before turning to the theatre full time. ``It got me ready to do my writing as a copywriter talks to people in a language they understand and which appeals to them ... same as a script for a pantomime.'' What does she have to say to the complaints that the pantomime has become too risque? ``I don't think so. It has been the same from the beginning. The words are aimed at the adult audience and the children don't follow them, The Dame is supposed to be `that' kind of person. I don't think the shows are more risque than cinema.''

Aysha had her schooling in Africa, U.K. and then Panchgani in India. ``We were taught a whole range of activities connected with the arts in the school.''

She returned to the U.K. for her high school and then graduated with joint honours in marine and microbiology from Portsmouth. An accomplished musician and singer, she has performed at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

`Beauty and the beast' ... performed by The Little Theatre.

Aysha decided to join advertising on her return to India. Her choice brought romance as well for she met and married Jayraj Rau while working in a well known company.

After attending a workshop on using theatre as a tool for violence prevention conducted by Stacey Cootes in the U.S. Consulate, Aysha is very keen on starting a similar project here.

``It is about doing scripts in the classroom to sensitise children and prevent violence (such as bullying) in schools. I want to obtain a month's training in the US and then set it up in the city schools by training trainers with the help of the Koothu-p-pattarai.

``Another project I am passionately interested in is the establishing of a performing arts centre in Kotturpuram with a 700-seater proscenium. We need a world-class theatre, which is disabled-friendly in the city. I have identified 28 collaborators from the best theatre institutions in the UK and U.S. But I need the land from the government.''

A look at the `Hercules' logo brings us back to the pantomime.

``Even the aisles were full last year,'' says Aysha with a smile. Seems as if even Hercules will have quite a task of catering to the demand as the grounds of the Museum Theatre promise to overflow next week for an entertainment that cuts across cultures and age groups.


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