No curtains for the lionhearted

ARVIND GAUR - founder-director of Asmita - is considered among the more successful theatre personalities, but he says rising auditorium rents and the multiple licensing merry-go-round have made him decide to shift from the mainstream. His adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet in Darkness" was selected as Best Play in Sahitya Kala Parishad's latest competition. But adaptations themselves are a bone of contention.

Rashmi Vajpeyi of Natrang Foundation, a theatre archive and documentation organisation founded by veteran Nemi Chand Jain, feels that while the use of foreign language scripts enriches Indian theatre, it also discourages potential Indian playwrights.

"It is not that plays are not being written, but people don't want to take the risk of trying new scripts." She points out that unless there is demand for indigenous scripts, playwrights will not proliferate, and unless more scripts are written, directors will not take them up.

"I am not interested in doing adaptations at all," stresses Sayeed Alam, director of Pierrot's Troupe who recently scored a coup in the Capital with his solo production of "Maulana Azad" featuring Tom Alter. Though his group is named after a legendary French mime artiste, it prides itself on its original scripts - most written by Sayeed Alam himself. One of Sayeed's ambitions has been to make theatre a viable commercial prospect, one he feels he has realised to some extent.

Actor-director Suneet Tandon feels producers need to understand marketing. While entertaining English comedies may attract corporate sponsorship, the state of serious English theatre is the same as Hindi, he asserts, and to divide the scene according to language is foolish. "If I want to produce a serious theme close to my heart, I will pitch it accordingly and manage with the available funds," says the actor who names Roysten Abel's "Aspects of Anne Frank" and "Love: a Distant Dialogue" among the best productions he has seen this year. As a director "always on the lookout for new Indian playwrights writing in English," he enjoyed directing Nicholas Kharkongor's "Come as You Were".

Delhi's Sahitya Kala Parishad, besides maintaining a repertory company with nearly 30 staff artistes, holds script competitions and youth festivals that have helped new talent in the past, and there are hopes of their revival in the New Year.

But till we have a proper cultural policy, theatre will continue to suffer, feels Arvind Gaur. But is it suffering? Suneet Tandon feels it is "rubbish" to say theatre is dying out.

"There are more plays being produced, more groups and more venues - solidly booked - today."

Who has the accurate bird's-eye view? National School of Drama director Devendra Raj Ankur decries the need for a statement on the year that was while accepting the apex position of the institution he heads. "If you want to know the state of Indian theatre, come to our annual festival from March 20 to April 8."

Till then, exit, stage right... .

Actors as activists

TO SOME, theatre is relevant only if it is `activist theatre' - street plays and proscenium productions dealing with social issues. Sanjay Kumar, who heads Pandies theatre group, whose production "Cleansing" based on the communal riots in Gujarat was shown at the Spirit of Friendship Festival in Manchester this year, is upbeat about his workshops with a spectrum of the population from slums to the highest social rung. On growing social intolerance, he says, "Adults have gone crazy, so we are targeting children in classes six to ten," and plan to stage the productions in a big way in the coming year.

Manohar Khushalani - recently in the limelight for directing "Kurukshetra... and after", a play by Kanthi Tripathi on war and suffering and the strength to transcend it - has for a number of years worked with issues such as bride burning in the past.

Most social development workers realise that theatre is a potent medium to get across ideas. Graduates of the National School of Drama have helped NGOs like Literacy India, Mobile Creches and others in designing and conducting workshops for slum communities and presenting street plays with themes ranging from AIDS to the rights of the girl child.