Theatre – A Perspective

By Milind Gandhi, based on Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards

“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms. The most immediate way in which a human can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

– Oscar Wilde

Human fallibility is so fascinating. There is a certain sense of completeness in being broken. It is a seed that transforms into fruits of contentment. I feel any form of art or expression is a result of an imperfection. It is in this frailty that we often find our calling. And more often than not, it shapes into something beautiful. In this article, I have curiously put my thoughts together to explore all that theatre as an art form includes and how it helps achieve a greater purpose – both for the individual and the society at large.

Theatre is perhaps the only form of art that is a combination of many art forms. But when you look at theatre in its completeness, it is actually greater than the sum of its parts. It involves acting, direction, story writing, stage design, musicians – all varied forms of art packaged together. It is this collaborative nature of theatre that makes it difficult to evaluate its contribution alone. We can perhaps look at the theatre in two different ways – as an art and as an instrument of change. Technically, theatre is a form of fine art that uses live performers to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience. In actuality, theatre is too deep a subject to define.

Artists in a theatre are pretentious. They have to pretend to be someone they may or may not endorse themselves and that is where skill of an actor is put to test. That is also where the skill of a director, the one who will bring out the best from actors, is judged. An actor as accomplished and celebrated as Charlie Chaplin was in reality a serious person but delivered comic timing, that, to date, remains unmatched.

In some theories, there is sense of expectation from actors that they need to change themselves to be the person they are going to perform. This ‘confusion’ has always been a point of debate and emerged itself from time to time. Whether to mould oneself to be the character or to have distinct identities with it, is an art in itself. An introvert playing an extrovert, for example, can bring about a sea change in the life of the actor, if he or she chooses to. On the flip side, it can also jeopardies the play since the character will never portray its true self.

It is important for the actor to become the character on stage and to be themselves off it. However, at the same time there is always a bit of actor that rubs off in the character. Casting though, is not as easy as it sounds. This is the precise reason why theatre as an art form is considered more difficult than many others. Consider this – a millionaire actor playing the role of a daily wage earner. He has got to step into the shoes of a peasant and see how far he can come to understand them. He has to get down to walking a mile with them so as to make himself feel the way they do. There is a certain empathy in this kind of acting which is really likeable.

Scriptwriters have their own battle to win. What makes a great play great? Although all aspects of theatre are equally important, a loose story can break it. Everything from characterization, plot, setting, the ‘conflict’ –  is important to come up with a bestseller. Many successful writers have a passionate desire to write, and they have been writing for years, with great discipline. While most writers do so for the love of it, for several others it is their primary way of expressing themselves, an outlet for their imaginations or frustrations.

Most writers, if not all, have openly given references of their personal lives in the stories they write. Their stories tend to get influenced by their own ability to handle situations in life, or the lack of it. More often than not, what is not makes for a better story than what is. The single most important element in a story that audience easily connects with is emotions. It is an art to come up with words that reveal emotions and feelings, one which holds the audience attention and moves them along every twist in the story. An instant connect with the audience is a key measure for a successful play.

The captain of the ship in a play is the director, but the job does not come with its share of perks all the time. It is common perception that they have the vision and authority over everything, where they choose the story, the actors and the staff. The entire creative process of a play revolves around them but they never have to write the screenplay, act a part or design a costume; they have the perfect job. Think again. The problem (read: opportunity) of being a director is that it you can’t perfect it from the outside. It is an art that will only develop once you do it. It requires skill, creativity, drive to be a director but it’s a gradual process. It can take years to get there, and each year could feel like a decade when you do it. A good director will picture the play in his or her head and take decisions accordingly. It helps decode the writers vision of the story thereby shaping every other aspect of production.

Another element of theatre as an art form that is talked about is its role in bringing a social change. Theatre has traditionally been associated with performance for the affluent with larger than life stages and expensive viewing. However, there is this other form of theatre which has been used for purposes beyond mere entertainment, such as to convey social messages. Such plays have been gaining popularity not just with the audiences but also with the participants. In India, street theatre has been quite popular in this segment. Not only does the audience go back home with a changed mind-set, even the actors feel overwhelmed and content as drivers of this change.

We live in a world where the ‘common man’ has little power to implement changes in society. However, they do possess an innate ability to influence feelings and beliefs. This is only possible through a medium that is not only imaginative but also collaborative in its process. Theatre is one such art form where the ordinary people can act as activists through their stories and can potentially have a profound impact on people’s attitude. Looking back at history there is enough evidence of theatre generating long lasting social effects.

Shakespeare has very aptly put – “Theatre is a mirror for highlighting man’s humanity and also a tool for understanding why man also finds it so easy to transgress that same humanity.” It is a mirror that not only reflects the veracity but also shows how much we deviate from a place we like to call an ideal society. As they say, a great social play is a lesson in life and the greatest playwrights are moralists.

There is a certain sense of realism in theatre. Actors, although playing fictional characters, truly resemble a living and relatable person. The story, although made up, makes itself noticed and forces us to think. The audience takes it all in thereby turning into potential creators or resolvers of their own personal conflicts or that of the entire society. It is a world within a world, one we call the stage. A beautiful stage.

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