As dramaturg (a German concept that I wish Indian theatre adopted) for A Midsummer Night's Dream, my contribution involved offering solicited advice to Tim Supple during auditions and rehearsals, and writing the programme note afterwards. Tim needs no advice, really, but in these contentious times of globalisation, everyone is rightly sensitive to the troublesome aspects of intercultural theatre. Peter Brook's Mahabharata had proved it to Indians. Tim, a Brook disciple in many ways (even a simple thing as the doubling of Theseus and Hippolyta with Oberon and Titania, first introduced by Brook, now a stage staple in Britain), understood the problem.
A scene from Supple’s Dream
The immediate inclination of a Western intercultural director who views the stunning traditional abilities of an Asian cast member is to showcase that talent, interpolating its exotic colour out of context for the sake of novelty. Here, however, Tim treated the unit just like any group of theatre workers, not as Asian theatricians, as one of the actresses told me of her own accord. As corroborated by the other performers, many of whom have trained extensively in Indian skills, no appropriation occurred. Wherever these talents do get manifested on stage, they emerged finally out of numerous options offered in rehearsal, after having undergone thorough internalization into the meaning of the text. One actor even raised an unexpected point in praise of the ready accessibility to various Indian forms in the process of this production: it allowed for long-term exposure to many traditions that would have been impossible to gain elsewhere, because this kind of experience generally takes place in India only in short-term, single-form workshops.
Long-term is a key phrase. Very few intercultural projects in India have permitted the director to invest so much time. Beginning with a month's auditions of about 300 artists without linguistic discrimination in cities across the country and Sri Lanka in April-May 2005, Tim realized that his shortlist of sixty-odd required another round. Originally not on the cards, the intensive week-long recall session took the shape of a workshop in Mumbai in July, which bonded the large group closely, though everyone knew that only one in five would make the final grade. Design and production plans continued after Tim returned to London. The full team came together for nearly seven weeks of rehearsals in January-February 2006 at Adishakti outside Pondicherry. Choreographer Veenapani Chawla's idyllic, sylvan campus with its elegant Kerala-style auditorium surrounded by cashew-nut groves served as the ideal location. All reassembled for a fortnight of technical fine-tuning in Delhi preceding the premiere on 1 April.
The daily schedule at Adishakti left the whole unit blissfully exhausted. Over the entire period, setting aside Sundays as the weekly holiday, they gathered at 9 a.m. and practised till 9 p.m. Warm-up exercises, dance and music sessions occupied the mornings. After lunch the scenes were rehearsed with just a tea break in the middle until dinner was served. Tim spared Saturday and Sunday nights for letting hair down in much-deserved party time. I mention the routine because it is so rare in south Asian theatre, long divorced from its professional system barring a handful of exceptional companies. But even in England, Tim commonly rehearses between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. The India experience was a luxury even by his standards. Yet I noticed that his intensity never flagged. Everyone else could manage an hour's respite or more during the course of the day, but he stayed in charge for twelve hours at a stretch, save for meals. An object lesson for directors.
Most directors are dictators. Not Tim. He does not distance himself from the ensemble, considers himself one of them and, after hours, shakes a leg with the best of them. He deals with each individual on equal, personal terms (I was amazed that he knew everybody's names in Mumbai before I, an Indian, did) and has a separate relationship with each one. His hands-on approach to dance (coaching difficult movements himself), music (frequently breaking into percussive sounds to guide the accompanists) and sets (exhaustive one-on-one discussions with the designer) inspired those performers who themselves lead their own groups. A few confided to me that they would try to adopt his directorial methods. If so, his influence on Indian theatre seems assured.
His directing also taught many the techniques that they had only read in theory. One of the actors told me that this was the first time he had encountered the grammar of Shakespearean performance. Others must have registered that Tim's psychological archaeology of characterization, his emphasis on what a character does in a scene, crystallize the Stanislavskian principles of the through line, units and objectives. Yet, much as he relies on the introspective realistic school of acting, he has a sharp eye for the openly extroverted, presentational and theatrical; and this combination creates his original stamp. Additionally, his insistence on stripping the performers of superfluous emotions and getting to the truth, paring from excess to essence, made them aware of the overblown style of mainstream proscenium and screen acting in Asia.
Should you think that the portraits you see are Tim's impositions, perish the thought. The cast will correct you that no characterization was fixed beforehand; everyone underwent a continuous search and exploration of his or her part that perhaps has still not ended. Constantly challenged and pushed to look within, all agree that without the dangerous edge to which Tim led them, the new possibilities that ultimately appear on stage could not have grown. Not forcibly, but subtly, he got what he wanted out of them, not just from them. Much of this dimension involved depths of nonverbal communication; and to counter those who believe in the sanctity of one language, the actors never felt that their communication suffered on account of linguistic barriers.
Centre for Advanced Studies in English
Jadavpur University, Kolkata