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Tuesday, 7 February 2012

When The Stage Became My World


This is about my stage d├ębut in a high school musical. It is said that When Al Pacino auditioned for Lee Strasberg and was subsequently accepted into the Actor's Studio, he knew that he was on the brink of something monumental. It was exactly like that for me...... well, it was almost like that........ at least there were some similarities..... Who am I kidding? It was nothing like that at all. Time to get back to my story.

The year was 1998. The Principal of our school, Fr. P.D.John announced to everyone in the school assembly that we were going to stage a musical- "Roots". Apparently in the past it was something of a school tradition to stage an annual play and it was his venture to revive it. Our school already had a students club, " Leadership Training Service" (LTS) the members of which would naturally form the core of the cast. But the sheer scale of the project conceptualised, was such that we would need a far bigger pool of resources. In my school, if you weren't the sports jock types, then you were expected to chip in for such activities. And since my talent in chess didn't qualify me to seek an exemption, I found myself reluctantly auditioning for the play.

The first stage in any play is naturally the casting. Now being a part of an exclusive boy's school presented with unique problems, not the smallest of which was to get actors to play female roles. There was some talk that reinforcement would be had form one of the nearby girls schools.  Our joie de vivre was short-lived when that turned out to be just a rumour. Moments of crisis demand supreme self sacrifice and I found myself to be the proverbial sacrificial goat. I fumbled in every line they gave me, my acting was pedestrian and I (for the lack of a better word) sucked in every way possible. In the end, I was convinced that no one in their right minds would even consider me. But as it turned out, I was considered fit enough to play a minor role. In the first Indian feature film, Raja Harishchandra, the role of Taramati was played by a male, Salunkhe. However, I was not the least excited that I would be in the league of the pioneers of Indian cinema. In a school where one would be ripped apart for the most trivial of flaws, I was staring at a torrid future ahead of me. Begrudgingly, I resigned myself to my fate.

The rehearsals began in full earnest. It became apparent to us in a few days that the task at hand was, if not Herculean then at least Schwarzeneggerian. It would be no mean feat to even stage a show of some worth. The script was simple and the crux of it was this. A village boy goes to the city for education. He is however, ashamed of his roots and when some of his city friends come to his village, he has to confront his insecurities. You could say that the plot was not very different from a Bollywood movie. The promotional for the play could have easily been, "is me drama hai, emotion hai, action hai, superhit gaane hai". But it had some smart dialogues and some really funny parts, interspersed with songs, sung by the school choir. My part was one of the protagonist's friends from the city. In all, I had three scenes and I was not required to utter a single word. It actually turned out to be fun. While the rest of the students toiled in the class, we were free to skip them. And that was a luxury that we could enjoy not so often. And for those of us, who did not have major roles, it was even better as we had little responsibility. We just had to finish our parts which hardly took any time and then we would be off gallivanting. We could eat the metaphorical cake and have it too. The rehearsals on the weekends were more like a picnic when we were treated to cheese sandwiches and a game of cricket thereafter.

As the day of the performance drew nearer, the intensity also increased. We started with full dress rehearsals. We started to get a glimpse of how the play would take shape. I remember being decked in full female attire adorned with make-up and jewellery. I took to the stage, red-faced with a feeling of abject humiliation. In the middle, I received the heartening news that my mannerisms were not "feminine enough". I was instead asked to play my part, but this time as a male. I wasn't complaining. Yes, it called into question, my acting skills. But if my masculinity was to be the cause of it, then so be it.

"Chaos" - the one word that I would use among several others to describe the backstage . The changeover of costumes; the shifting of equipment; actors poring over their lines; teachers trying to do the impossible task of maintaining some semblance of decorum. Yet for me, the backstage is one of the most fun filled places to be in. Even in the midst of the busy schedule we would find some time to goof around. A peek into the backstage would often greet you with the most astonishing and comical of sights. The village headman gyrating to the music of Ricky Martin with one of the city girls. The old father demonstrating the highly acrobatic and somewhat objectionable moves of a certain WWF wrestler. The village boy in a duet with the the school teacher. My love for the backstage was born out of the many wonderful experiences I shared there.

D-day. The day of the performance. In all we would stage it for three days, the first day for the school students, the next for the parents and the third day for the general public. We arrived at the auditorium early and were greeted by the sight of the stage, decked up with floral decorations. A local theatre group had been assigned the task of rigging the sound and light arrangements and stage set-up. A podium was constructed below the main stage to accommodate the choir. Painted wooden boards depicting scenes from a village life set the scene for the play.

The usual demeanour was replaced by a sense of sobriety. We were called for the inspection of our costumes. Since it was a village setting, costume requirements were going to be minimum. Or so I thought. The villagers' attire was basically the most tattered clothes that they could lay their hands on. Apparently even those clothes weren't considered ragged enough. So with a pair of scissors they went about tearing their clothes with a vigour bordering on violence. One guy decided to take it to an extreme by smudging shoe polish all over his face. Soon others followed suit. Some junior school students were brought to fill in as kids . They were handed out ragged dolls which had several missing body parts and seemed more like objects of witchcraft than playthings. At the end it is fair to say that they ended up looking like a sorry, poverty stricken bunch of villagers somewhere in the coal belt of Meghalaya. Next came the turn of the city folk. Like me, the guys playing male parts were just given some touch ups but those playing the female parts were actually given a pair of "female parts". A whole lot of "stuffing" went into making sure that the girls could be easily identified from amongst the boys. So much for authenticity. I thanked my stars that I was spared from this ignominy. The seats were filling in and after a brief opening address, we were given the cue to start.

It was with a sense of gratification that we saw the play unfold before our eyes. "Roots" was the culmination of several weeks of painstaking effort both by the teachers and the students. Every peal of laughter and every round of applause that burst forth evoked a feeling of pride within us. When it was time, I went in for my bit. All I had to do was sit there in the middle of the forest pretending to have a nice time, gorging on snacks and chugging beer (well actually soda water). There is something liberating about sitting in front of your teachers and pretending to drink beer. There were a few minor hiccups too. The old father was in the middle of some heavy duty dialogues like " ...your thoughts and actions have become so poignant that they have pierced the heart of your old father."  But it so happened that the glue holding his moustache gave way and it hung precariously from his upper lip. So what was supposed to be a very emotional moment instead evoked a roar of laughter. The one thing that they teach you in drama school is improvisation and so he did. He buried his face in his palms, in an act of grief and took the opportunity of taking the moustache off. When he resurfaced without the moustache, the pitch of laughter rose even higher. Then he turned his face away and put the moustache back but now the moustache was upside down. Even in the backstage, we could not control ourselves and we laughed so hard that our tummies hurt.

The three days passed by like a dream and in the end, by the turnout and response it was evident that our play was a major success. "Roots" was no Broadway play, but it will always be special in our hearts and minds. For about two months we lived a dream, the enormity of which would strike us when we went back to the routine and humdrum of classes. For all those who participated and even those who just witnessed it, it was an experience to be cherished forever.

Before I conclude, I would like to make a few points.

1. It has been almost 14 years since it was staged and the details have become foggy. For one, I cannot remember who played the role of the protagonist. I would be glad if somebody could share with me their recollections of it.
2. Next year I was selected for a one act play without auditioning, this time for the role of a drug addict. Maybe the teachers noticed some negative shades in my acting. Who knows I could have been the next Al Pacino.
3. The play wouldn't have been the same without the superb performance of the school choir. The rendition of Bill Withers' "Lean On Me" and Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love Of All" deserve special mention.
4. Amongst all the good performances there were some that were brilliant. Amin as the old father, Sameer as the school teacher and my very good friend, Joy as the village headman were a class apart.
5. Five years later, the school staged a theatrical adaptation of "The Sound of Music". In many ways, it was a much more professional attempt. But somehow I was happier to have been a part of "Roots". There is no way that they could have had more fun than us.
6. Everyone should take part in a play at least once in their lifetime, even if it only means sipping soda water. Your life will be richer for it. If nothing, you can make a blog out of it.