“Parents should not react with shock and sorrow, when their children express a desire to make theatre their profession.”

The history of theatre in Bengal, before and after the Partition, first of Bengal and then of India in 1947, till today, is legendary and writes its own history. The state of West Bengal, divided or united, has forever seen the domination of Bengali theatre in the city and the state. In this scenario, it is truly an uphill climb for an English theatre group to survive, let alone sustain itself for twenty long years. But Theatrecian, a theatre group that stages theatres only in the English theatre, triumphantly celebrates twenty years of its existence this year. Its founder-director Tathagata Choudhury, talks about its journey to Shoma A. Chatterji.

Let us hear about your beginning with theatre.

Looking back, I think it was theatre that chose me rather than it being the other way round as no one in my family belonged to theatre. While in school, I got the chance of playing one of the blackbirds in the Stagecraft production Sing a Song of Six Pence when I was just seven. I established my connect with Stagecraft after high school and performed with them. A year or two later, still in college, I founded my group Theatrecians in 2000. We premiered out first play under the Theatrecian banner on January 4, 2000. The play was a psychological thriller called There Is Something About Nemo.

Some memories of this first play?

As a producer/ director, There’s Something About Nemo is very special. It was the first Theatrecian play. Dhruv Mookerji was performing in a commercial play for the first time. The founding team of Theatrecian members, Kanak, Dhruv, Prithvi came together, with many others. Every moment of that production is alive in my memory. The response was overwhelming and we had a full house. We got plenty of media support. Some of the founder members are still with Theatrician.

What was your perception of theatre when you began and what is it like today for you?

I wear few hats when it comes to theatre. I am a producer, not by choice but because of circumstances. We need producers. I am a playwright by choice, a light designer by accident, and I enjoy directing but what I love most is something I don’t get a chance to indulge in, as much as I’d have liked, that is, acting – performing live before an audience. As a producer, when I started, I wanted theatre to be a profession for young people. Parents should not react with shock and sorrow, when their children express a desire to make theatre their profession. It may take another couple of decades for this mindset to change.

Describe some of your most favourite plays in terms of the plays themselves and your performance within it – as character, director, writer, whatever.

The Zoo Story is the most favourite. Every production is a challenge and the completion of the play is by itself, an achievement. So, my 141 productions over last 15 years, including more than 1000 shows and more than 100 workshops across the country, are equally precious. Having said that, it happens that a song sequence lingers longer in the mind. Or the intensity of a performance stands out. The Zoo Story is Deborshi Barat’s first play with Theatrecian and he immediately made his presence felt. The 90-minute play has only two actors and two park benches. It’s the first play of ours, which was performed at the coveted Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai.
The Goat Or Who Is Silvia, by Edward Albee is yet another play I am particularly fond of. It’s a play where a man makes love to a goat and justifies his act with elan and offers no apology. The Night Of January 16th, an Ayn Rand play is not just a court room drama. It is immensely philosophical. The Comedy Kitchen is our most commercially viable production. 

You are a part of the English theatre in Kolkata. How do you perceive the competition from other English theatre groups and from the other language groups mainly Bengali?

Competition? I am in a league of my own. (smiles) Today we have few fledgling groups mushrooming here and there. But I am not sure of many groups who have survived, staging plays in English mostly. I try and imbibe from what I see. I try and watch a play once every three days. I am glad I have it in me to appreciate Broadway theatre and Jatra, at the same time. 

Where do you find English theatre today in Kolkata and in India?

In India, Bombay is always the Mecca for performing arts. Many young people embracing the performing arts and theatre give them a sense of belonging, security and purpose. Bangalore again has many young people involved with theatre in English. Kolkata is the most difficult because it is a stubborn city. 

You are both an actor and a director. Which are you happier doing?

I love acting. I truly like to perform before an audience. I am comfortable with direction, but acting is what I prefer.

What drove you to found Theatrecian?

Theatrecian is not a common noun. People, especially in Kolkata often address a thespian as a theatrician. In my limited knowledge, there is no such word. Theatrecian is a word coined by us. T standing for theatre and C for cinema. A theatre workshop is a machine that Theatrecian manufactures with the sole purpose of enhancing confidence. We wanted theatre to be not just a passion or hobby but a possible career option. I wanted actors to earn by doing theatre. I remunerate actors but the amount I can afford is marginally better than peanuts.

Theatrecians Comedy Kitchen

How are your plays funded and do you break even after some shows?

We bank on sponsorship. I am glad we had patrons like Coffee PaiCafe and then VS Finance, who have always encouraged Theatrecian. We also have a faithful database to fall on. These are the people who religiously attend Theatrecian outings. Sometimes we don’t manage to break even.

What criteria do you apply while choosing a play for a performance?

It is important for me to understand the challenges in the script followed by the play’s commercial viability and language. It takes about two to three months for a play to reach the stage from conception to performance.

How do you keep body and soul together with just theatre?

I make just about decent money, to help me sustain myself and Theatrecian. But I also conduct professional theatre workshops in schools on invitation from the institutions. These are five-day production-oriented workshops where I give special attention to original script writing. I also conduct corporate workshops which demand theatre games to meet specific corporate requirements. I get to learn a lot from the participants. These workshops create a lot of positive energy. I now teach Film Studies at an elite school near Delhi and visit Kolkata during vacations, long and short.

What are you doing right now?

At present I am teaching film studies, a paper recognised by the International Baccalaureate (IB) board. I am now in the foothills of Aravali, about an hour away from Gurgaon and am enjoying my stint as a facilitator. This gives me the opportunity to pursue my passion of performing plays and at the Akshara Theatre, we were the first to perform a play in the physical space, post the lockdown.

Any new productions?

The play, The Red Hot Bombay Lovers is being staged with a team from Gurgaon. The story is influenced by a Neil Simon’s script. I am also working on my second monologue. It’s an hour-long performance where I play both genders. A belt is the only prop. The play, The Lockdown Lover, explores the minds of a couple who feel trapped in alternate identities. The impact of the lockdown in the lives of these couples who resolve to sexual escapades is examined in this solo piece.

Name some theatre personalities who have influenced you and your work?

Shyamananda Jalan who taught me the art of tranquility. He taught me to stay calm even in the eye of a storm. The light designing from Tapas Sen has been another learning experience. Then there was Satyadev Dubey and Rebecca Gould who is a writer, translator, and Professor of Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Birmingham.

Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.

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