Theatre

‘It was a ‘collision’ that became one big family’

On stage: Bruce Guthrie

On stage: Bruce Guthrie   | Photo Credit: Dan Wooller

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NCPA’s theatre head, Bruce Guthrie on maximising the potential of the cultural institution, working in India and tapping into local talent

Last year’s run of Nick Payne’s Constellations at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) was a harbinger of sorts for its director Bruce Guthrie taking over as the head of theatre and film at the premier cultural institution, in what is its fiftieth year of existence. The flurry of activity at the NCPA this season – the frenetic ADD Art festival, another run of Constellations, and prep for a grand upcoming production of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d — can be likened to an accelerated initiation for Guthrie. A Guildford School of Acting alumni, Guthrie has trained as director at the National Theatre’s ‘new work department’ (the NT Studio) in London, before taking up duties as Staff Director there, collaborating with the likes of Howard Davies, Richard Eyre and Deborah Warner.

His credentials include several British and international productions. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival at New York in 2017, he presented Manfred Karge’s Man to Man with co-director Scott Graham, an atmospheric production about a woman who assumes her dead husband’s identity in order to survive in Nazi Germany. With the Singapore Repertory Theatre, Guthrie has mounted three open air productions as part of ‘Shakespeare in the Park’, with over 30,000 people attending Othello at the historic Fort Canning Park in 2013.

Auspicious start

Constellations, Guthrie’s first gig at the NCPA, with Indian actors Mansi Multani and Jim Sarbh, came about on the recommendation of his long-time associate, Pádraig Cusack, an adviser with the NCPA. Initially, he was gingerly mindful of the local processes of an Indian organisation that was taking ‘a risk’ on him. “You get told a lot, ‘that’s not the way things work here’, but that’s the same in Singapore, or outside of London, or New York or Scotland,” he says. Because of typically busy schedules in India, his local design team watched the play for the first time only on the first day of tech rehearsals, which would have been unheard of back home.

However, Guthrie was quick to adjust to the shifts of sensibilities that working in India entailed, and found equivalences to his own practices soon enough. It was a balancing act between working with familiar faces — like set designer Andrzej Goulding (who created Man to Man’s immersive design) with whom he could operate in ‘shorthand’ — and fresh collaborators seemingly at a cultural remove. Yet, as a visiting director, the stint of two-odd months left Guthrie satisfied in ways he hadn’t felt in years. “We developed a distinct warmth and camaraderie within the unit. Ultimately, it was a ‘collision’ that became one big family,” he recalls. So much so that the NCPA wanted him back to take over the reins of its programming division, which had been lying vacant since the departure of the enterprising Deepa Gahlot. Guthrie bought into the prospect almost immediately, because he saw huge potential in the NCPA as an arts organisation with a national and growing international profile, thanks in part to the Symphony Orchestra of India, widely held as one of its unqualified success stories.

Immersed in drama

Over the past month-and-a-half, Guthrie has been a man on the move, his calendar chock-a-block with outreach work — acting workshops, tête-à-têtes with theatrewallahs, script sessions, show trials, and a taste of local culture around Diwali. As he puts it, “Meeting as many different people from as many different backgrounds, makes you better at what you do.” He’s discerned a great appetite for creative enterprise in the local arts community that he is eager to tap into, as he settles into a new role that will see him straddle two continents, spending time in both India — “This is where I live”, he says — and the United Kingdom.

Of course, heading an Indian organisation comes with a “great sense of responsibility” that Guthrie is fully aware of. The optics of a British individual heading the NCPA is an irony not lost to many and has been looked upon with skepticism in some quarters. The NCPA’s selections as part of its last two theatre seasons has only included one fully homegrown affair – Anahita Uberoi’s production of Irawati Karnik’s First to Blink, a translation of her Marathi play, Chhaapa Kaata, which opens next week for a limited run of five shows. The rest have been productions of international plays in English by foreign directors, albeit with Indian actors and technicians in the mix. Guthrie is very clear that, despite the tremendous personal opportunity that his new job represents, he is here to serve Indian interests, albeit within the existing framework of the NCPA. “The goal is to create something that will last after I move on, but isn’t about me. It has to be about the theatre and maximising the potential of the spaces and the creative artistes who are here,” he elaborates.

Rather than the structural architect many people consider a director to be, Guthrie has always regarded himself as a ‘landscape gardener’ who allows ideas to grow organically in their little pockets. The NCPA, despite its fifty years, likely still presents a blank slate in need of an overhaul, and with time, Guthrie’s tour of duty might pay more local dividends than his nay-sayers might foresee.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 1:20:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/it-was-a-collision-that-became-one-big-family/article30118019.ece

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