An eight-year-old stepped on stage, fell in love with the smell of the wooden floor, its lights and costumes.
Over the years, his soul soaked in the spirit of theatre, which stayed and he believes it will last forever.
We interview an eminent theatre personality, the city’s maverick theatre director Mr. Zubin Mehta.
Mehta has been long associated with the theatre scenario in Chandigarh and is known to be one of the best creative minds the city has produced so far. He runs Wings Theatre Academy in St. Kabir Public School and Vivek High School, Chandigarh and regularly holds workshops for children and youth.
Did you always dream of becoming a theatre artist? What drew you towards this form of art?
When I stepped on stage for the first time, I was eight years old and performed in a play based on the Punjab Partition. At that time it was fun, but I vividly remember the smell of the wood, the bright lights on the set, the costumes and I believe my soul absorbed it all.
This was a professional theatre group and they liked my work, so whenever they would need a child actor, I’d perform with them, travel with them and earn a lot of praise. I continued doing various plays and remained associated with the art form, grasping everything I could.
Gradually, like others of my age, I dreamt of becoming a talented and rich actor in Bollywood. In 2003, when I passed class 12, I was asked to give a theatre workshop at Yadavindra Public School and I earned some money and bought myself a pair of sneakers. And I thought that was it.
At the age of 19, I was asked to direct the Annual Play at YPS and hence got the opportunity to create magic with 140 kids on stage. And I was content. Till 2009, 7 years had passed by and I had conducted various workshops and directed many plays, but I was still unsure of Mumbai.
Hence, I set out to give it a try.
I realized Mumbai wasn’t ‘me’ and hence went to attend the Vipassana Meditation course in Dharamshala and that is where I understood that working with kids, organizing plays in Chandigarh and sharing whatever I know about theatre and learning more about it every day, was where I belonged.
Therefore, I chose to stay. But since I had quit YPS, I was jobless and didn’t know what to do. And that’s when Wings Theatre Academy was born and in the very first month it saw a registration of around 65 students.
How has the Wings Academy initiative shaped up and what are your future plans?
The academy presently runs in two schools- Vivek High and Saint Kabir – and successfully stages regular plays round the year. A lot of students from various age groups get enrolled to learn the nuances to act, stage and design a play.
As for our future plans, we aim to train teachers and open more branches in different schools.
You are known to involve a lot of youth, not only as actors, but costume designers, assistant directors, etc. Do you prefer experimenting rather than playing safe with veterans?
Well, as starters, the youth doesn’t ask for money (laughs).
But the best part about getting involved with the youth is that most of them enter as first timers. It’s like welcoming new people to this form of art and watching them evolve into something beautiful. Also, my main motive behind a play is working with great minds, so experience is not an issue.
In a country ruled by mainstream cinema, do you think theatre is meant for everybody? Or are people not aware of its existence? Should it be commercialized to attract a larger audience?
Every art has a different audience. Someone might like paintings, others might not. Even in cinema, there are different sets of movies targeting a different audience. However, people should be made more aware of theatre. Even Wings has created many theatre lovers. Those who were till now ignorant of theatre are regulars at plays.
Instead of commercialization, a better way to attract audience is by producing quality theatre. A lot of plays, even nowadays, lack good direction, costumes and practice, and until that is provided, a play can never engage a considerable audience.
Which is the play closest to your heart, both as a director and viewer?
Toba Tek Singh (he interrupts, before I finish my question). It’s one play where I learned a lot. More than the script, the experience is highly memorable.
As a viewer it has to be Kitchen Katha by Neelam Maan Singh.
And which is the most challenging play you have directed and why?
Tinder Box. I was very young and had no formal training, so it was difficult for me to handle the entire situation.
Which is the one character you have played or directed with whom you identify the most?
Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman.
Is it a misconception or the truth that theatre artists aren’t paid well?
It is true. As actors and directors, it is indeed difficult to earn well. But when you become a teacher, you earn a bit of money.
When we normally finish a book, people like us go crazy because we practically live inside the book. How do you cope with the fact of completing a play and saying goodbye to all the characters you have lived with for so many days?
You pick up another book! That’s the only way! Earlier it was tough for me, because I didn’t do so many plays. Now, I don’t get time to think about it that much. The last play of the year does hit me a little!
We have noticed that in colleges, the competitive spirit in theatre competitions takes a toll on its quality. How fair is it to mingle an art form with so much competition?
I don’t believe in competition. Theatre is expression. How can you compare two expressions? Probably, if you provide the same script to everyone and then judge each performance, that can still be acceptable.
There seems to be a clear conflict as to how a film is permanent while a play is not. Isn’t that a demotivator as a director?
It is sad. I feel the worst after my last play of the year. I get lost as I can’t find anything. Recording of a play doesn’t carry the same effect. Its effect also fades
out. But that’s the challenge of theatre, you just have one chance to startle the audience.
Just one go to create magic.
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