Has the playwright shifted from being a central part of contemporary Indian theatre to sharing this space with other players, or perhaps shifting off centre all together? This was the question that was begged at a recent public conversation, in Pune, felicitating Shanta Gokhale. Shanta has been a witness to and participant of the theatre life, over the past four decades, in various avatars from playwright, to theatre critic, to arts page editor, to board member of several illustrious arts organisations, to inspiration and gentle provocateur. She has taken her role in the theatre world seriously.
The other speakers were theatre directors Sunil Shanbag and Mohit Takalkar and playwright, actor and director Irawati Karnik. I was given the onerous task (quite terrifying, actually) of moderating this discussion. The background to our discussion was contemporary theatre in urban Maharashtra.
Shanta set the stage by talking about the centrality of the playwright in the 1800s, when theatre groups were run by actor-managers and the audience were of a more literary bend, wanting to purchase play scripts and read them after the show. Over time, the director came into being. And in the 1900s it was the interpretation of texts that was at the fore, very often leaving the playwright in the shadows, as new ways of exploring his or her work were explored.
So, what is the position of the playwright today?
We live in an age of collaborations. Collaboration is part of the culture of our times, and theatre, too, has responded to this way of working. All those part of this discussion had worked collaboratively in some way or another. There have been collaborations between actors and playwrights, as Mohit got his actors to research aspects of his play F1/105 written by Ashutosh Potdar; between musicians and directors, as Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pardhan worked with Sunil Shanbag to breathe life into their research project resulting in Stories in a Song; between director and playwright, as Sunil directed x Mrality & Cens*rshi, which was developed by Shanta and Irawati; and between two playwrights, as Irawati is in the process of writing a play with Neel Chaudhuri.
Interestingly, even though collaboration is a common facet in theatre, the directors held the playwright in differing positions in their process of working on a play.
Sunil, as Shanta suggested, ‘casts’ his playwright. Once the play is written, Sunil does not like the playwright to be involved in the rehearsal, feeling it is an intimate space for the actors and director to explore the text and divulge theatrical life out of it.
Whereas Mohit Takalkar has a diametrically opposite way of working, in which he values the playwright’s presence during the rehearsal process. And he values this collaborative interaction.
Irawati felt the playwright should let go, and need not feel compelled to be part of the process of creating the play beyond writing it, always aware that the life of the play is in the performing of it.
When it came to current trends of devised theatre, Sunil felt that the need for a group of “equals in the room” is most critical to its success. It is only then that one can create a piece of valuable work.
Mohit agreed and added that devised theatre needs a great amount of time, at least eight to ten months. No one has that luxury in India. In western theatre, devised work began 30 years ago, and we are struggling to understand what devised theatre is today. Now it will take us another 20 years to discover immersive theatre!
Clearly, the playwright’s centrality has shifted.… but surely the question to ask is, what about the centrality of the idea?