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July 30, 2019

In conversation with Shernaz Patel, Artistic Director of Aadyam 2019

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

The theatre veteran talks to Verve about the fifth season of Aadyam, life on stage and productions that resonate with her.

Hindi film aficionados are likely to identify Shernaz Patel the most for her roles in Black (2005), Guzaarish (2010) and I Am (2010), to name but three. Lovers of theatre will recognise the daughter of Gujarati theatre veterans Ruby and Burjor Patel for her performances in plays like The Diary of Anne Frank, Love Letters and The Siddhus of Upper Juhu, once again to name but three. And will recall how in the last few years, she has been a pivotal part of the Aadyam theatre initiative.

A few days ago, we interacted with her, after watching the inaugural dramatic offering of Aadyam 2019 A Few Good Men. The experienced theatre personality showed an engaging enthusiasm, and if we can call it, a state of nerves, as she gauged the vibe of the audience. Catching up with her later, we chatted with her about her passion for theatre and how she is doing her bit to keep interest in it alive, in a world that is filled with different forms of entertainment.

Season 5 of Aadyam launched a few days ago with A Few Good Men – what prompted you to select this production to kick-start the 2019 edition of the theatre initiative?
I was immediately drawn to the script, to the world of the play (a military drama is not often staged here) and to the themes of what constitutes honour and code that the play speaks about. The play also has great scope for a director as it moves so rapidly from one location to the next with an almost cinematic quality and I knew Nadir Khan, a supremely talented director with incredible vision, would do an amazing job. Lastly, there are such epic characters in this play and an opportunity to see some fabulous performances.

As artistic director of Aadyam, what would you say drives the choice of the plays for each season?
It is a combination of many factors – the most important being a great story. The script is the backbone of a good play and if that is weak no amount of frills can save it. I’m also conscious of having a mix of different genres, plays in both Hindi and English, a combination of original Indian writing and international plays, plays that lend themselves well to large performance spaces and a skilled team (director, production house, designers and actors). Aadyam’s mandate is also to support and grow the theatre community so we look for projects that can do this. This year, for example, we have a new production house and a director who is doing his first proscenium play.

In a world where a variety of entertainment options vie for audience attention, what sets theatre apart?
I think every art form has its own audience, but the greatness of the theatre is that it’s live. And the audience is very much a part of the full experience. Without them, theatre doesn’t exist. It requires the audience to imagine and go on a collective journey with the actors. And when it works it can be magical.

While growing up what did you love about theatre?
I loved everything about it, because it was a world of make-believe and which child doesn’t enjoy that! I loved the smell of a bare stage, the thrill of audiences walking in, watching my parents perform and listening to the applause. I loved the large theatre family that my parents always had around them and all the eccentric characters that inhabited it. It felt right. It felt like home.

What do you look for when you go to see a play?
I look forward to being lost in the world of the play, so much, that I forget myself. I love it when there is clever production design and the design is as much a character as the actors are. Of course, I am inspired by great performances and directors with a very clear point of view. But again it’s the script that’s king…a well-structured text, great dialogue that makes you think or laugh or cry regardless of which corner of the world it is set in. I enjoy learning something new about our world or seeing a fresh perspective on life.

Is there any one production that left a lasting impact on your mind?
I can’t name only one! There are too many! From my childhood, I remember Pearl Padamsee’s Children Of A Lesser God, Vijay Crishna’s Whose Life Is It Anyway, Alyque Padamsee’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Naseeruddin Shah’s Waiting For Godot, my mum, Ruby Patel in Hello Inspector. Then there was our own production, I’m Not Bajirao. There are also many international plays that I have watched which were incredible. This summer I saw a production of Follies in London that was mesmerising.

Which is the one production that you found challenging to be a part of? And why?
Love Letters. We have been performing this show for 26 years and I’m still nervous before a show. It’s a play told only through letters so Rajit Kapur and myself never look at each other, it requires us to go from age 8 to 65 with no costume or make-up to help us. It’s a joy to perform, but also a delightful challenge.

What is more important – the imparting of a social message or the entertainment value of production?
I don’t think it’s so black and white. A well-written play will have both these elements wonderfully interwoven. Even a raucous comedy can make you think about the world we live in. I am not a fan of plays that have a social message that’s in your face. It needs to emanate from the story being told. That having been said I am not a fan of mindless and cheap entertainment either.

In the Indian context, are contemporary plays giving a strong voice to women’s concerns, especially post the #MeToo movement?
I am not aware. I really can’t speak with the authority of work happening around the country. I do know though that women are at the forefront of our theatre. Some of the leading playwrights, directors, designers, theatre administrators, and teachers are all women.

Considering the changing social ethos in India, do you feel our theatre is keeping pace with the new inclusive dynamics?
Theatre has always been inclusive, at least in my lifetime. Theatre doesn’t differentiate based on class or sex or religion or age or sexual orientation.

What more would you say needs to be done?
The list is too long! We need many more auditoriums especially mid-scale and small spaces that are properly equipped; more theatre education and awareness especially in schools; more professional training for all fields but especially for directors and designers; most importantly we need more financial support from the government and corporate houses so that theatre professionals can live a decent life and make a decent income doing only theatre. Aadyam is one such initiative, but much more needs to be done.

Which are the plays that you would recommend Indian audiences must-see, this year?
I just want people to watch plays. That’s all. There are still so many people who have misconceptions about theatre…that it’s too high brow, that it will be boring or intellectual or expensive. But I have seen so many youngsters change their mind once they have watched one of my plays or one of the Aadyam plays and I just want to see that tribe grow.

The next production, The Kite Runner, opens on August 31st. The details for the last two productions, directed by Mohit Takalkar and Purva Naresh, will be announced soon. Visit the website for more information.

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