The thirteen-odd steps to the ‘black box’ are steep and narrow so you have to focus on them as you climb to reach it. Symbolically that is the commitment N.K. Sajeev demands of his students at his Act Lab. Once in the ‘black box’ it is a different world, probably the only one, you’d be led to believe.
The ‘black box’ is just one of Sajeev’s experiments at his ‘laboratory’ for actors. The ‘lab’ is in a quiet part of Kakkanad, where “neighbours are sporting enough to live uncomplainingly with the din an acting school can create,” says Sajeev. Among posters and quotes of acting icons are the ‘No Acting Please’ and a poster announcing the place which allows the necessity of failure for an actor. Ironical?
But Sajeev firmly believes acting cannot be taught. “All are born actors. I don’t teach acting, it cannot be nor can it be created artificially. It is every human’s basic instinct, it is what a human being does as he or she grows up, it helps learn social skills and to survive. What else are the children’s games? Playing house, becoming a train engine, or playing teacher – the flexibility and imagination of kids point to that inborn skill. Over time and societal conditioning these are lost.” This is also his answer to the ‘why learn acting’ question. Teaching becomes a tool to help release that skill ‘blocked’ by conformity.
Before the school started formally at Kochi in 2013, Sajeev used to conduct acting workshops first for a TV show and then independently in Thrissur. He then decided to start classes in Kochi as this is the industry hub and it would help students too.
His students in Kerala have essayed roles in films such as ABCD , Charlie , Action Hero Biju, Kali and many others. One of his students is set to make her debut in the Dulquer-starrer Kammattipadam . The Act Lab has emerged as a go-to resource for the film industry and for theatre.
The intense two-month residential course demands the students compulsorily stay at the Lab – eating, sleeping, cooking, cleaning and doing everything else in between. Working together, in such close proximity, brings out certain things about the self and Sajeev wants the student to see that and deal with some of the unpleasant stuff.
“We have the ‘Hot Seat’ when students talk of each other’s negatives. Those sessions are revealing and they see themselves more clearly.” Sajeev is a follower of Stanislavski’s school of method acting, of mining one’s emotions and memories for points of reference. The curriculum places importance on the mind and the self, a kind of looking within.
Physical well-being is important given that the actor’s instrument is his body, which explains the early morning football. He appreciates the fact that despite the notion that acting lessons are unnecessary there are students willing to devote time to it. He conducts weekend classes and three-day workshops too. The workshops, he says, aid potential actors learn if they can act. The ages of his students range from 10 to 65 years old.
He has designed the curriculum so that it incorporates the needs of the present day actor. Stanislavski is a big influence, “but the actor today is different. Hence the processes are different but in keeping within Stanislavski’s framework.” Though most of his students dream films, some have converted as hardcore theatre practitioners.
Among his students are National Award winner Rajkumar Rao, Sudev Nair and Vinay Forrt whom he taught during his stint at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. “My theatre workshop at FTII was part of the orientation in theatre for students of acting. At the end of the workshop students including Rajkumar Rao asked me if I could continue as a guest lecturer. Eventually, in due course, it happened.” Sajeev also taught at Subhash Ghai’s ‘Whistling Woods’ and IFTI (Mumbai).
A well-known name in theatre circles, he was drawn to it as a kid. The son of a toddy tapper and a mother who worked in paddy fields, he remembers his mother reading and reciting Kumaran Asan’s poems. The arts drew him; he was a prize-winner in every category he participated in, including winning the best actor at a district-level drama competition. He was in college when the full impact of drama hit him, the street plays especially. “Those really enthused me…we did up to 20 stages per day in the burning heat. They gave me sustenance.” Theatre continues to be his passion
He trained under the Ford Foundation’s Actors Training Project with Anganam Theatre Group. His stint with Guruvayoor-based group exposed him to the best minds in theatre of the time, he travelled and gathered experiences. It was sometime in between all this that he found his passion in teaching. “When I saw how accepting students were of what I had to share of my experience, I realised I enjoyed teaching.”
His creative release is directing the plays for his classes and also his plays for which he finds time hard to come by.
Compliments have come from many, including prominent film personalities, and he is content.
He’ll continue as long as that fire burns within him. “The day I am bored. I’ll stop.”
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