Flaunt The Rules Onstage

Nowhere else would I say this with such candour... but to a stage actor. Or any actor for that matter. The very fact you are a stage actor means you are a risk taker, someone who craves adventure. Never mind you are shy in company, or an introvert, the very fact another “You” wants to break out of the shell, is proof enough that you want to act. You want to stand under the spotlight! You want to be noticed onstage! Normally if taking a class on etiquette and value creation, I would say work on the right side of rules. Never pull down anyone to get to the top. But onstage one has all the liberty to flaunt the rules!

For example, let's look at those with the “LAM” syndrome, as I call it. LAM being Look-At-Me syndrome in my vocabulary. In a drawing room I would avoid such a person, but an actor needs to be an attention seeker. Needs to want the audience to look at him, he/she needs to be the centre of attention. Needs to hold an audience’s attention span, and journey with him through the story. Now imagine this scenario: you are sitting in a coffee shop and a bunch of people are staring hard at you. It’s decidedly uncomfortable in real life, but onstage it is the very thing to want! Their staring at you is they are focused on you...  nothing is as disappointing as an audience that yawns and turns away from you.

Now here’s the rub! There can be an actor who “sensationalises” just to grab eyeballs. Let’s think of Charlie Chaplin. When he acts his co-actors fade into the background (at least for me!). In the Movie Mask, Jim Carey is so “actively sensational”, he IS the limelight! Good or bad I cannot comment, but it works for the movie. It works for the audience, it works for the director. It’s completely another matter if the actor cannot differentiate between “real” life and “reel” life... and expects the same treatment, say at the doctor’s clinic! Most Indian actors are “seen” as larger than life, merely because their roles played are so king size. Celluloid and cricket seem to make Gods out of mere mortals, but here the fault lies equally with the audience and with the common man who wants to put that huge mantle on the shoulders of a competent actor who did a great job. Nothing more. Who never grew wings, just went home satisfied and exhausted.

Another rule easily flaunted onstage is jaywalking. On a road it would be so dangerous...onstage it helps you map out your space. It helps you create another reality in space and time. For example, an actor may think the street is downstage where he finds a dead body and upstage is where a balcony exists, where a lady in a pink kurta is on a phone. The imagination of the actor, changes an empty stage into a dynamic new one. Into carrying the story forward. An empty stage to an untrained eye is an empty space... to me it’s riddled with possibilities!

Another rule to flaunt is: look like much more is happening  than meets the eye. This is the essence of suspense and of build up. Let’s take the example of an actor running in backwards from the wings with a hand clamped on his mouth and fear in his eyes, like he is being chased. Building drama, pushing the pace upwards, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats is truly the mark of a good actor. Let’s think of a play, a set of monologues that set the stage on fire such as The Vagina Monologues. The script so flaunted everyday rules. There was no regular plot in two acts. No running storyline with a beginning middle and end. Just a series of characters bringing alive their life at a particular point in time! Where comedy and tragedy sit closely together hand in hand. No boundaries, no borders, just life recreated in all its vibrant colours. One of the monologues, is about a middle-aged Parsi woman, a spinster, who recounts a car ride with a former boyfriend. Which started off sweet and romantic, but became raunchy with the man trying to overpower her and have sex with her. Her copious tears scared him away and she remained a spinster forever... and marriage a fading memory! Scripts like these are so fresh and out of the box. Flaunting age old rules of how a script should be written.

The stage is where it’s great to be out of the box! Find new spaces... dance to the tune in your head, be different!

One can use a mat with hand painted symbols, footprints, handprints, a compass, tribal jewellery — all these symbols onstage just come alive in the hands of the actor. One has the licence to be bizarre, outlandish but also “real” to the character.

The success of an actor depends on how he bends the rules to recreate whole new worlds!

Sabharwal is a theatre director & novelist

Columnist: 
Bubbles Sabharwal