In the summer of 2008, I was selected to play the role of Bottom in British theatre director Tim Supple's touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. A multilingual interpretation of the Shakespearean classic, it featured performers from all over the Indian subcontinent: urban intellectual theatre artists, theatre academicians and translators, designers and choreographers, folk artists, street contortionists, dancers, martial artists, singers, musicians and acrobats. The tour was a heady affair. Full of experiment and ecstatic abandon, much like the play itself. I count myself as fortunate to have been asked to play one of the theatre's best written characters in a play written by one of the theatre's greats, directed by one world theatre's most important directors. At that time, just before the global financial crash of late 2008, it would not have been incorrect to say that the Dream Tour, as it had begun being called, was one of the most important cultural events occurring in the world.
Everyone in my city wanted to part of it. Whether they admitted it or not, anybody with any connection to a stage silently longed and aspired to be a part of that tour. It paid well, it took you places around the world, and it taught you things about the craft and art of theatre that no domestic experience or theatre school could have taught you. For me, it catapulted me into the theatre big time even before I realised what was happening. Till then, I was sitting around in my small town doing the odd play and the odd job, albeit with the best there was to be found in that town. Then suddenly, I was working closely and intensively with some of the best theatre artists from the land, living with them, and learning from and with them. Tim Supple was an accomplished steward of a complex project; a man with a wealth of knowledge and experience and a manner that belied it all. Something that, as I later realised, is a trait shared by the big names. They don't make a big noise. It's the work that matters to them. Not their role in it. Like Stanislavski said, they love the art in themselves, not themselves in the art.
The process of selection for the Dream Tour was long and arduous. To begin with, Tim Supple travelled across India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan for varying lengths of time, getting a feel for the staggering variety of theatre and performing arts in the subcontinent, some right there in the open for all to see, some tucked away in remote corners, known only to the informed and the curious. And he was both. He deeply wanted to know about you and what you did, while being possessed of a deep knowledge about theatre, as a primordial and essential human activity. His vision was as broad as it was particular and minute; and he took his time assembling his motley cast and crew for a unique project. I had already participated in a week-long residential workshop-audition and a shorter day-long audition, before being called again after a break of a year to replace the actor playing Bottom, who was leaving the tour. I was determined to make it this time, and I did. The secret was not to try too hard. I let it happen " the character " and before I was even through with the audition, both Tim and I knew that I was the new Bottom, if you will.
Next came the part where I told people that I was selected. I was the only actor from my city, Bangalore, if you didn't count the wonderful acrobat-actor from Hassan district who also got picked to play the role of Mustardseed. People who were close to me rejoiced. People who weren't had a bit of a time concealing their obvious envy, and said things like, 'Oh well, I was asked too, but I refused', or 'Oh it's not art, it's just a spectacle', or even, 'Wow! That's a big score for you, have to say'. Theatre actors and practitioners are not devoid of egoism. And a lot of the time, they forget to be in the moment, and just congratulate a person and move on. They must make it all about themselves.
Be that as it may, I didn't spend a lot of time after that lingering and looking for praise or validation; I already had the highest form attainable for an artist in the theatre, in a way, and I took off to Delhi for rehearsals soon after getting all my travel documents ready and my lines learned. Yes, being a professional actor in a professional theatre production means having your lines learned before you show up for the first day of rehearsals. Something that rarely, if ever, happens these days.
Delhi was the real beginning of the experience. We were housed in a farmhouse retreat on the outskirts that was run by an art aficionado. For the next month, every day began with tea and the usual tea time banter after which we showed up for yoga. Classes were conducted by one of Delhi's many yoga instructors " a fair, flexible lady who obviously hadn't encountered a class as varied as this. There were middle-aged men from middle India who drank till late in the night and were not exactly up for yoga at the crack of dawn. There were already very flexible martial artists who found the yoga too easy. Yet, because of the director's dictates, they showed up and did the best they could. Slowly, the effects began to show. Yoga set the tone for our work. And our days.
Tim wanted it that way. He later said that the integration and union that yoga produces in one's body should permeate the group and its work.
We worked until dinner time every day except on Sundays, when we were let off after yoga class to go explore Delhi or sleep. Most chose the latter. A typical rehearsal day consisted of singing and music practice after breakfast, followed by intensive scene work in an outdoor stage arena, erected for the purpose of rehearsals, or in one of the retreat's many halls, if the outdoors was too hot. Then came dance, martial art and movement practice. Lunch was followed by a bit of rest and then came more movement work " in the form of high energy group games. We then did more scene work and later, when it was cooler, went to the outdoor stage to enact the play from start to finish, as best as possible. It was gruelling work, mentally and physically, and I started getting leaner in frame and sharper of mind.
Tim's style of working was of a kind I had never experienced before. He did not control your movements on stage; he helped you identify the pulsing engine at the heart of every character and scene, and allow that engine of energy and truth to drive the reality on stage. We were urged to ground the character as deep as possible in ourselves and embody it. In a month, we were ready to travel, after doing a test performance for a select Delhi audience in the retreat that was raucously applauded. The play, as Tim Supple had conceived of it, was an intense, funny, emotional and spiritual roller coaster, full of every conceivable performance form possible. It contained solemn ritual, soulful song, ethereal dance, mind boggling acrobatics, intense dialogue, bawdy lyrics, and sets and costumes that defied style or period. It definitely was a new way of looking at A Midsummer Night's Dream.
When we got on the Delta flight headed to New York was when the real deal started for me. I had never been to America; or on a long haul flight even. I was on seat 52D toward the rear of the plane, seated next to man who had obviously done this many times before, judging by his practised and impersonal manner. He slept, ate and slept again. The flight staff were polite, and it was a little odd at first to be served by Americans. And because of the time differences, we ended up getting two breakfasts and meals at really odd times. I remember eating a dinner right after I had just eaten a breakfast. I wasn't complaining. At least eating was something to do. Also it soothed the nervousness and anxiety a little.
We got off after 16 hours at the JFK airport and entered a lounge where a woman was asking us to see if we could give her a nice, neat little line now. We did our best to comply. After immigrating and getting our bags, the smokers among us rushed out of the terminal to huddle around a bin to smoke the last of our Indian cigarettes. It was freezing cold, the kind I had never experienced, and I knew right away that one of the first things I would have to do was get a warmer coat.
Aporup Acharya and Tim Supple at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, December 2008. Image courtesy the writer
The tour bus arrived silently at the terminal door and the driver helped us get our bags into the bowels of the heaving, sighing, humming big bus. The insides were plush and comfortable and we settled down for the drive to New Haven, which was our first performance stop. I drank in the sights of the tall buildings and the vehicles and every detail that I could devour. We made a stop at a coffee place and I encountered my first instance of American cheeriness, when the girl at the counter asked me how I was and I answered the question and got no real response. Quickly realising that this was the way things were here, I ordered a coffee that was way too large for one person. We reached New Haven in record time, thanks to the driver's "heavy foot", as he called it. I loved American phraseology!
One of the things I had begun noticing in America in the winter (it was October), was the lack of people on the streets. Our home in New Haven was the Premier Inn Suites in the quiet town, which I was told was full of white retirees. The nearest supermarket was a mile or so away and we had to take a taxi on the first day to get there. The supermarket was a mind boggling experience " aisles and aisles of greens, vegetables, packed and tinned food, refrigerated foodstuffs, meats, many types of milk, cheese, cold cuts and what have you. It was a nerve racking experience, despite the fact that the place was empty of customers, barring a few of us from the group. I remember buying some meat and a few TV dinners, on the advice of a friendly retiree. I also bought just one onion. It equalled in volume three of ours at home. We had to do our own cooking, you see, so it was important to stock up just enough to last the duration of that particular stay. New Haven was a week. And the sizes of everything in that market were huge. Since I hate to waste, I settled for TV dinners. What a concept!
The first week of performances went well. We were getting used to the cold, the physical changes brought on by it, and the sheer scale and professionalism of American theatre. From my first show, an American stage hand, who was a member of a guild, knew exactly when I had to change into what costume and go on with what prop. It was amazing. She hadn't even met me. They, the stage hands, backstage crew, set constructors, wardrobe mistresses, make up people, study the script of the play that is showing at any time and handle everything perfectly. Not a lapse! I knew for sure that when I would come off stage in the dark and had to change into a different coat, a pair of hands would be waiting for me at the same spot at the same moment, with the coat open, ready to just be slipped into. I can understand this level of precision if they rehearsed with us, but to do this without even meeting us! It was true professional theatre.
The show was still being fine tuned. An already running show, it had to accommodate the entry of new actors into it, so we would fix and tweak and perfect stuff on tour, after shows, on off days... I was beginning to get the feel of the character and what it would take to make Bottom come alive on stage. With every passing showing, he was getting bigger and more real. The director and I were working hard on it, and it pleased me no end to hear him praise me after the very first show on US soil by saying that I was a consummate actor and it was no mean feat pulling off the role of Bottom the way I had with just a few weeks of rehearsal. It inspired me to work harder and submit myself more to the director's vision and the experience of interpreting and being Bottom. Tim Supple sure new how to get the best out of an actor through praise and commendation rather than by berating.
By this time, I had also started noticing one other thing. We had a large cast; and the people who had been part of the show since the beginning were obviously bonded in a way that the new entrants found a little excluding. We were often called "the new people", and that, even though it was true, did not do much for our sense of togetherness and cohesion as a cast. However, we soldiered on, old and new alike, and in time the number of times we got called "the new people" lessened. I mentioned this to the director and he graciously admitted to a certain lethargy in including us faster into the fold. For it is important for an actor to feel a part of the group and family, if he or she is do a good job, especially so far away from home.
Another notable, and important, feature of working on this project for me was being on stage with the highly skilled and experienced actors. Actors like the wizened Jitu Shastri from Ujjain, who would effortlessly captivate as Smug the Joiner; the super-flexible Charan, from Karnataka, who seemed like he hadn't a bone in his body; Joyraj Bhattacharya, a comic of impeccable timing; the intellectual Vivek Mishra, who brought a gravitas to every scene he was in; Umesh Jagtap, the effusive and earthy Marathi actor; Thrissur Gopalji, a great comedic actor from Kerala's rich commercial theatre; Ram Pawar from the streets of Pune, who could jump through rings of fire and hoops with knives; the ruddy and sinewy Tapan Das from rural Bengal, who sold fish by day and did theatre at night; Gagan Bais, the wonderful dhol player from Bhopal " these were the veritable theatre treasures I enjoyed working with. Tim allowed each actor to speak and sing in his or her mother tongue. The end result was a dazzling pastiche that the world in time accepted as a radical way of looking at Shakespeare.
It almost seemed like they did not have to do anything to perform. They just let things happen. But behind it all, there was a wealth of theatre experience. These were actors from Habib Tanvir's Naya Theatre, Bhopal's Bharat Bhavan, National School of Drama, Alternative Living Theatre, Kharda, Ninasam, Koothu-Pattarai, Ratan Thiyam's Chorus Repertory, Mallika Sarabhai's Darpana Academy, and other prestigious institutions from the Marathi and Malayalam theatres. All these performers were alive on stage and ever alert to the extraordinary or the unplanned. And it wasn't long before I got with the programme and began imbibing this ability. I allowed Bottom to come to me, rather than going in search of him. And that worked wonders, for it made me more receptive to the stimuli around me and something special started coming alive on stage.
The trick was to draw the contours of the character somewhere in my subconscious, with the lines and all, and then just go out there and be it. Full of life and energy and emotion. I started having special shows, some moments of magic, and the audiences and the director had felt it too, judging by their reactions. The favourable press mentions made it even more special. In effect, the more I softened, the more the character took shape inside of me. Being Bottom was beginning to be fun, and true. Tim kept pushing me toward places within me that I didn't want to go into, but knew I had to explore in order to have a richer, more nuanced and more powerful performance. Ignore nothing. Bring everything you experience on stage into the service of the role. That was the name of the game.
As the tour went on, Tim continued to get me to free myself more and more. I had to keep shedding all my baggage, all that I thought I knew, all my plans, devices, conceits, and allow the character to inhabit me. The idea being that at the moment one steps onto the stage, all technique must disappear. The moment must take over. And if the training and rehearsing was sincere, it would show itself automatically. Some say that it's about letting the actor and the character meet inside, and then express that union. I agree with that, for that is what happened. I played Bottom differently than another actor would, and that can only mean that the actor's personality and the character's must merge at some point. And when I did strike that balance in space and time, when I did find the throbbing heart of the character, something that I had gotten a flash of when I first encountered the character in Shakespeare's inimitable lines, and spent the whole rehearsal process in embodying, both Tim and I knew it, and we silently acknowledged the magic. It was the rare product of all the process, all the practise...There is no better feeling for an actor than truly being someone else on stage.
Off stage, life was just as interesting. America was new to me; and I walked around as much as I could, looking up at the tall buildings. I noticed the clean streets, the lack of people and eating options. Since we were given a per diem in addition to our salaries, we were quite solvent. Most of the actors in the group, hailing as they were from small towns and villages, spent their money on electronics and suchlike; I spent it on Blues bars, shows, restaurants, and one expensive Kenneth Cole coat and shoes to match. Sometimes it's good to give in to the urge. It came in handy too, as I strutted around the streets of Chicago in early December with hardly a care for the cold, or the wind chill. Otherwise, it was sourcing out the nearest Vietnamese or Chinese takeaway next to our hotel in each town " and meals were taken care of if I wasn't in the mood to cook. If we had morning shows as well as the evening shows, we ate at the subsidised theatre cafeteria. A lot of the time we were taken out for dinner or ate at an after show party or were invited to people's houses.
Like this one time in Columbus Ohio, when we were driven en masse to a rich Bangladeshi doctor's large white mansion with statues of Venus and Aphrodite, and little marble boys peeing into the garden, and golden taps and white kitchen counters. The cast emptied the doctor's expensive bar, lounged around in his living room, took turns on his state of the art massaging recliner, and humoured his wife by visiting her basement dance studio. It was a glimpse into a cliche I had only heard of. The food was barely edible, but the couple were warm and generous, and that was what counted.
That said, people in America as a whole, including in Canada, were warm, friendly and very appreciative of what we were doing; and for us to be playing at prestigious theatrical venues at the peak of the theatre season with high ticket prices and all the accolades and respect afforded us, was a great feeling. A lot of us really understood the magnitude of the project we were part of, and did our best to be the best artists and people we could. That became obvious to us when the theatre director of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa wept as our bus pulled out for the final time. In other places, people met us in foyers and poured out effusive praise for the play. That just made us enjoy performing more, all the way up till the last show in the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. For performers from rural and mofussil India, who sold fish, farmed fields, did street acrobatics, to artists from towns and cities who scraped together a living doing theatre and sometimes teaching, this was a big deal. This was indeed, the big time. And the big stage. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Most of us sensed that on returning to India after an intense 52-show run in multiple cities and in some of the better known theatres of the western world, we would have to look at our lives back home differently " our perspectives had changed, our vision was broader, and our art had evolved. Although we wished that the tour would go on endlessly, and we would live and work as a large and diverse family, and keep bettering this unique show, the hard fact was that it was an expensive production to keep running, and with the recession coming on, most countries we had planned to travel to after North America deemed it an unnecessary luxury, at least for the present. And so we had to return home.
Once home, another hard fact became obvious to us: We had breathed a different air, stepped onto a world stage, and worked with a world-class director with a special style. We just could not go back to working with a lot of the directors we had previously worked with back home. It just would not work. An actor from the hallowed Habib Tanveer's Naya Theatre group had once echoed this very idea, when contemplating his future after Habib Sahib's departure, and I paraphrase, "How will we work with any other director after working with Habib Sahib? Other directors want to control the amount we smile, how we move, where we place our hands...how is it possible? Is that any way to direct?" Most of us of the Dream Tour asked ourselves the same question.
The only way forward was upward. Or way back inward. Into the essences of our arts. Which is why, a lot of the actors from the Dream have come back home and gone onto work that's more experimental, introspective, and essential " like teaching children, exploring yoga and spiritual practices, and very select film and stage work. Some have gone back to the village square, mentoring younger performers, or selling fish, tilling the fields...happy in obscurity and anonymity, but very aware of their newfound value as artists. If we were to do any sort of work now, it would either have be of high artistic integrity, pay very well, or be of our own creation. It's a great place to be for now " until the next big thing comes along.
Aporup Acharya is an actor and writer based out of Bengaluru, India. He played Nick Bottom, the Weaver, in the North America tour of Tim Supple's multi-lingual production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The play was performed during the theatre season in 2008 at the Schubert Centre, New Haven, Connecticut and Columbus, Ohio, the National Arts Center, Ottawa, Canada, and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on the Navy Pier, Chicago.
" Featured image: Still from A Midsummer Night's Dream, courtesy Dash Arts