Coming of age



Thespo, the city’s beloved youth theatre festival, turns 18 this year and offers yet another roster of up-and-coming talent

It’s been 18 years and Thespo, the youth theatre extravaganza that lights up December each year, is still going strong.

One way this has hit home for Toral Shah, one of the outfit’s co-founders, is pleasantly discovering how many volunteers in the festival team are actually younger than the festival itself. “It is a whole new generation, and it puts things in perspective about how far we have come,” she says. Quasar Thakore Padamsee, one of the driving forces behind the festival, adds, “As an organisation, turning 18 is just weird. Now, we can actually see an impact on people who have gone through the process.”

The festival has always been transient in nature because of its under-25 stipulation for all volunteers and participants. That meant vast swatches of youngsters ‘passed out’ each year, even if teeming others arrived in their stead. Some may have had an involvement with the festival for several years, others may have just experienced the creative chaos for a single life-altering outing.

The Thespo breed is a community that continues to grow, resulting in new waves of theatre practitioners, some of whom have distinguished themselves on stage, film or television, and yet can still look back at the festival as the ferment that activated their passion for the arc lights.

The itinerary this year stays true to Thespo’s multi-lingual ethos, although it had begun as a festival only for English theatre back in 1998. There is a mix of classic and contemporary fare in the theatrical showcase of five plays selected from over 143 nationwide entries, screened during a month-long jamboree by a two-member team (actor Vivek Madan and playwright Akash Mohimen,) who travelled to 12 cities. This is the kind of extensive outreach, unthinkable when it started, that makes Thespo such a burgeoning movement in its own right.

Making the final cut is the Hindustani play Lihaaf, based on Ismat Chughtai’s 1942 story, which had ignited a firestorm because of its lesbian content, and has been a staple of Indian theatre since.

In Syaahi, characters from Vijay Tendulkar’s plays come eerily alive. The Marathi play, Te Kay Asta, is a comedy dealing with how compulsory sex education turns a rural school inside out. Bhanvar rests upon with the intriguing tag-line, “Who is watching the watch-man?” while The Show, from Bangalore, is a play in English and Kannada asks, “Who are you when no one’s watching?” Fringe performances and workshops are scattered across a packed time-table. The last couple of years had seen some commissioned pieces with international collaborators: most notably, Clerke and Joy’s Falls 2-11, and Daniel Bartolini’s interactive immersive experience, The Stranger. This year, Canadians Noah Beck and Wilf Petherbridge will conduct workshops on movement and music respectively, and perform the platform piece, Wondering, that attempts to bring together the experiences of young people the world over, through poetry, music and dance.

One of the salient aspects of the festival that has played out rather publicly in recent years, has been the simple (but often arduous) matter of its funding. The ‘personal ask’ was always a feature since the earliest editions, via the flagship Friends of Thespo scheme. The team experimented with an online funding platform or two, before settling for Wishberry in 2015.

While that year’s campaign romped home, this year’s target (ramped up 200 per cent to Rs. 10 lakh) hasn’t been met, which certainly casts a cloud of uncertainty on the proceedings, but this is an institution with a surplus of goodwill that sometimes sees it tide through the most trying of times: for instance, being allowed leeway in making payments by venues like Prithvi Theatre, now the festival’s de facto home.

The team has jostled with questions about the festival’s financial sustainability, but a project of this scale is simply not possibly without largesse or subsidy. “Even in ancient Greece, when thousands watched theatre, it was never financially viable,” says Padamsee. He proceeds to describe revenue systems over the years (among the many things this theatre wunderkind knows almost by rote).

That Thespo (and all kinds of theatre, really) still persists despite the bottom line lurching so dangerously close to annihilation, is a testament to the very resilient artistic temper Thespo continues to engender and nurture.

The theatrical showcase itself is a case in point. Instead of a choc-a-block itinerary, only a single performance is programmed for each day (except Saturdays, which have two). This allows a young crew the time and space to grapple with the arena of performance. “More than getting bums on seats, it is providing that precious experience of being theatre-makers at work that Thespo is really all about,” signs off Padamsee.

The writer is a playwright and stage critic.

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Printable version | Jul 2, 2020 12:52:55 PM |

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