The first time I saw Yuki Ellias I was terrified but also somewhat in awe. It was the first day at the Drama School in Mumbai (DSM), and it was just our second class of the day. Yuki walked in with a brown stick in her hand, a commanding daunting presence- ironic when you think of it, because she's only five feet tall. But that's who Yuki is - a bundle of contradictions, always challenging perceptions, even her own.
Gaurangi Dang (GD): So tell us about yourself. Who are you? Yuki Ellias (YE):Oh Baap re! That's a big question, no? Who you are and all...
GD: Where were you born? YE: I was born at Breach Candy, right here in Mumbai.
GD: What was home like? YE: Home was... So I come from a creative family. My father is a photographer, and my mother, a publisher and a poet, so we always grew up around film, theatre and music. We were encouraged to go and watch a lot of work, and mum was the one who sent me for a lot of classes. We were always into the arts.
GD: Do you have any siblings? YE: I have a brother.
GD: Older or younger? YE: Older.
GD: Nice. What does he do? YE: I think he does software coding.
GD: So how did you get involved with theatre? YE: When we were in college, there was 'Ithaka'. I think it's the theatre festival organised by the English Literature department at St. Xaviers College. A lot of us at that time...Quasar (Thakore Padamsee), Nadir Khan and I, we started doing theatre together during that period. I used to just act in those days. So we started, and then everyone left college and started their own theatre companies, like Quasar started QTP. You can say the first big push was St. Xaviers. The first year I worked with Rehaan Engineer in a school project and in the second and third year, it was with Quasar.
GD: They've all become big directors in their own right. YE: Yeah, I think they have, and they're still pulling people out of Xaviers every now and then.
GD: So what happened after college? YE: After Xaviers I got a job, working at the radio station and after that I quit and went to Drama school. By quit I mean, the radio station changed from English to Hindi, and all our jobs became kind of redundant. So I decided to go to Drama school.
GD: Drama school was where? YE: At the Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. After Paris, I toured with Tim Supple on his production of A MIDSUMMER'S NIGHT DREAM and also on an opera with him in the U.K. After that I went to do my pedagogical training at LISPA (London International School of Performing Arts).
GD: And then you decided to come back to Bombay? YE: Yeah. Getting a visa there was very hard and I don't think that I was a strong enough person to stay in the U.K. and to try to get work there as an actor. So I decided to come back and work in Bombay.
GD: What happened when you got to Bombay? YE: So Bombay was...Well, I came back and made a film with my dad called LOVE YOU TO DEATH. I learnt a lot about making a film, right from writing the story till post-production and then trying to sell it to production companies. I think the biggest thing I learnt was the editing table. A film makes or breaks at the editing table and I think that's what I take to my theatre now, especially when devising work. A scene can move from here to later, or be told in a different way, and your pace and timing can really determine your show. So that's one of the biggest things that I took back from the film: the editing table.
GD: What did you work on after the film? YE: The first play I directed was CHARGE by Eric Kaiser, which is a science fiction kind of a play. It's set in the future where the elite have gone underground and everyone is connected/ addicted to virtual reality, but now the lines between the virtual and the real have blurred. No one can any longer differentiate between a real emotion and a virtual one.
GD: So what made you pick the play? YE: I had wanted to investigate directing for quite some time, but I didn't have the confidence to make something based on things that I had already read, and I wasn't fully interested in what I had read till then. I came across CHARGE when I was looking for monologues for the DSM (Drama School Mumbai), and then I found a monologue that I really liked. I went back and I read the whole play and I really liked it. At the end of the online version of the text, there was an email address that you could write to, so I wrote to it, asking the man at the other end, if I could do the play, because I couldn't afford the copyright, etc. and he said, ''Sure, go ahead.'' And we've been friends since...so that's how I did CHARGE.
CHARGE was the first script that I think really excited me. It seemed very relevant to me and I could visualise the characters. I knew it gave me enough to play with; that I could create more than just putting the text on stage in terms of how the actors spoke. I wanted to create the virtual reality. I came up with a whole visual design for the virtual reality. A lot of video work and video art- that's what excited me about that play. It was a good playground to play on.
GD: Was it hard to make the shift from acting to directing and getting all the people together? YE: No, because I think that the foundation of the script was so strong and the visuals that came to me at that point were also very strong. There was a very clear voice in my head, right from the first time I read the script about how I wanted the play to be. I had never asked people to act for me before, because I'd never been a director but I asked people that I didn't know too well, and they jumped on board. So, that was fun.
Encouragement can come from anywhere. I remember Samriddhi (Dewan) was living with me at that time, and she was so encouraging about the entire project. So I asked Samriddhi, Asif (Ali Beg) and Padma (Damodaran) if they'd like to act in it and they all came on board with their 100 percent and said, yeah let's try it out. They didn't have to. They didn't know me as a director but I think the script is what interested them.
GD: Was it complicated to get the production going in terms of finances and venues? Was it easy to get people on board to produce it? YE: When you're doing a first project, I don't think you care so much in that sense. I mean I didn't care so much; I just put my own money into it. My dad â€“ I mean, I'm a privileged person. I have space in my house to rehearse, and my dad has a spare studio, which I worked in. I only started directing when that studio became available to us to work in. We used to rent it out, and suddenly we didn't have those tenants anymore, and it became accessible space. Space allows you to dream. So I was able to make that shift; to experiment and make some work. Actually I had no angst whatsoever.
So I had no angst, good space, great people to work with, and because it was my first experiment, I could really have a lot of fun with it. I opened the show at Sitara Studio. Sitara is one of the most open hosts in Mumbai. They were like, ''Come! Let's make it possible for you to do this play. Let's find a way for you to do it.'' I asked Prithvi for dates, and they were kind enough to give them to me. So we started at Sitara, did a few festivals, and then ended at Prithvi. We did about ten shows and then I shut shop.
GD: So what came after CHARGE? YE: After CHARGE was YATAGARASU and now we're reworking the show and calling it KEEP CALM AND DANCE. Before CHARGE I knew that I wanted to work with dancers, so I'd met a whole bunch of hip-hop dancers, and we'd done a workshop together. It was collaboration between physical actors and dancers. I just wanted the actors to jam and see how dancers could enter a physical theatre space and move us into theirs. The jam was great. I found the dancers were so much fun, and they were so good at improvising and creating characters with a strong physicality, playing to beats and rhythms and that made me realise that I'd like to work with dancers at some point of time. It took me many years, and eventually I found a crew and a story that I wanted to tell. So I finally started working on it last year. It took me three years to come up with an idea.
Summertime festival was coming up at Prithvi and with YATAGARATSU I thought I could create something for a new audience. I thought maybe it's time to get the dancers back in and start working on the piece because hip-hop and contemporary are fun languages for children to respond to. So I clubbed the two when I made that piece.
GD: I think it's a fun piece.
YE: Well, we have had good shows and bad shows.
GD: What came after YATAGARATSU? YE: ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. It's something I had wanted to make for as long as four years as I remember. I had the story in my head for a while and I always imagined it to be a piece that I would direct with many actors. The Prakriti Foundation commissioned it, and told to me that it had to be a solo piece. So my boyfriend said, '' Forget trying to manage so many actors. You make it and play all the characters,'' and that changed the piece. It sped up the entire process, because my format for writing changed to storytelling. I found a really good writer called Sneh Sapru, and she took all the ideas and helped mould them into one coherent narrative. A lot of it is in verse and is very poetic and well written.
GD: How'd you come up with the idea of the ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM? YE: It's too long winded to describe. I mean there were inspirations that were something else, but I just wanted to find another side to the story, which is what must have happened to the elephant that got beheaded for Ganpati's sake? And what's the forest's version of the story? I wanted to explore what happened when the God came down and beheaded the elephant for the head of Ganpati. What if Ganpati wants to find his old head? I wanted to find another perspective to the myth. It's a little investigation in time, from the time you get your head to how you eventually begin to accept it.
GD:How has the experience been? YE: It's been a dream experience. It's been an amazing collaboration. I got funding for it from the Prakriti Foundation, who were very generous. I had a great writer and great musicians to score the entire piece. I had great lighting, costume and set designers - all of whom managed to execute what I had in mind. The gap between what I had in mind, and what I saw on stage with ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM closed down pretty fast. With CHARGE, it took me ten shows to close that gap. And I know with most theatre, it takes that long, if not longer, because a show is constantly evolving. With ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, I think I had a strong writer and collaborators. Maybe I was probably more mature, that I hit closer to closing the gap, more than I had ever before.
GD:How was it to write, act, and direct a play - all at the same time?
YE: I think I shifted to directing because I knew that I wasn't just interested in playing parts that other people had picked for me in their plays. I wanted more. For example I have never actually worked with a female director before, and I find that strange. I've only worked with male directors, so it's also their vision and their choice of a play. I think I'd gotten a little bored of that lately, so I wanted to look for something else. I wanted a different kind of story. That's why I love CHARGE, because the female characters in CHARGE are insane. As a director I gravitated towards that story because I found the characters superbly strong. My vanity as an actor completely disappeared because it was no longer about me playing the part. I just wanted the characters to exist. I wanted to get actors who could deliver the characters and have fun with them. That way we could together make that character live robustly, and that was what became important to me. That was the shift for me from an actor to a director.
With ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, I play Ganpati. For me gender doesn't matter, whether it's a boy, a woman, an elephant...it just doesn't matter and I feel that as an actress, I don't want to merely play a woman in a man's world. When I look back at the work I've done in the past, I'm happy but I know that it is not the kind of stuff I want to do now. Now the search is for a different kind of a story. With ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, I collaborated with a female writer and I think that she could really plug into how I wanted to play Ganpati and with my idea of the male character and what other male/female characters spoke. She could plug into both genders really well. I think I like to plug into both genders, till the gender ceases to matter, and it becomes about the characters and their wants. Sometimes when you try and plug into characters through writers, you realise that they have more affiliation towards a certain gender that they are writing for. I think here, there is an equal search for the things that the characters are looking for.
With ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, it is the story that I am fundamentally interested in. I was interested in creating the story of Ganpati looking for his old head - who does he meet when he goes into the forest and what can happen subsequently?
When you're living so close to the writing process and when you're creating the characters along with the writer, then you're already begun to live the characters. You're already playing with them. So the acting part comes quite naturally later. It was the creating part of it, which was the most exciting. When you're directing a solo, it's hard, but I try to find who my co-actors will be in the performance. So a good script is a good co-actor, and when you're directing, then also you need to have a good script at hand. I didn't want to be directing, and then improvising, and then create the script by myself. So my collaborations became very important. I got a good writer, and a good music design
GD: But is it still not a devised piece at the end of the day? YE: True. A lot of it is devised but you can get good people who give you good structures. That is important. Good people come in and help take the piece to a whole new level. For instance, with ELEPHANT...I knew that the writing was not to be colloquial and that I wanted it to be poetic. I knew that there were sections that would be in verse so I wanted the writer to follow a certain style. I think that through the devising process, I knew the style that I was looking for. The music took on a definite tone and hence the acting fell so naturally into place with all the other aspects.
GD: Speaking of collaborations, let's go back to some of your earlier collaborations. You've worked with Quasar, Atul Kumar, Nadir?
YE: I've not worked with Nadir as a director. I've worked with Quasar, Atul Kumar, Rehaan Engineer, Vikram Kapadia and Tim Supple. I think that these are the only directors I've worked with.
GD: How different has the process been with each director? YE: I think it was equal bits from each, but I've learnt the most from Tim Supple because he's extremely rigorous and very collaborative in the way he works with an actor. He has very strong visions of what he wants to do with the text. Also, he makes you love the text. I learnt so much about Shakespeare from him while doing the show. I learnt from him about discipline as an actor, and he gave me a box full of techniques and tips in the time that I worked with him. I think for me he has been one of the biggest influences.
Atul Kumar has been a big influence on me as a performer, because I didn't know that I could perform in a certain way. For instance I didn't know that comedy was something that I could do, because I was so used to doing drama and realism, that I didn't know that stylised comedy was something I had in me. His imagination is so different from the kind of theatre that I had seen before and it was that possibility that made the entire process so exciting for me.
Tim was great for learning how to take a script apart, how to go about a scene, how to approach text, and speak, while Atul was great at being more playful, how to find new ways to do a scene and with comedy. So yeah, these two were very different influences...
GD: How do you work with yourself as a director?
YE: To direct myself? I like directing other people. It's much more fun than directing yourself, but I like to direct my project. So I like to take control of my project. I like to have a vision for it because I love the sense of design that you can work on, the text and all of those things, but to direct myself is very hard. It was not easy.
GD: What is next for you? YE: Now? I think I'll hold off for a while because ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM needs to be performed and I need to get KEEP CALM AND DANCE going too. There is a lot of work to be done. The shows can grow exponentially, for which I need to work very hard. So I'm not going to make anything new till I'm convinced that I have a good story that I really want to explore. Last year we did three productions. There was also DYING TO SUCCEED, which is a Shakespearean interactive comedy. So, these three plays have knocked me out.
GD: DYING TO SUCCEED was written by Saudamini Kalra, another female collaborator, right? YE: True. Not to say that I don't work with any men. I work with a lot of men- like the musicians that I worked with in ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. In CHARGE, there was Viraj Singh, with whom I worked very well, and did the video work.
GD: It's nice for women to creatively collaborate with other women. It doesn't happen often enough but then the voices and perspectives are different. YE: The producer of KEEP CALM AND DANCE is a woman. She's a powerhouse and I think that we just connect really well. When I am initiating the creation process I do like the fact that I can bring people that I like together and collaborate with them. Obviously one does not have that kind of control as an actor. So I enjoy this, because here the team, and the culture of the team, is so robust and positive. A lot of people that I work with have a lot more experience than I do, but they are very open to coming along for the ride. I think every person that I have collaborated with, is a person who doesn't take his or her own self very seriously, but a person who takes the work damn seriously. And that's what I like most about being a director - the fact that I can work with these kind of people. That's what makes it fun.
*Yuki Ellias' new play KEEP CALM AND DANCE opens at St. Andrews Auditorium, Bandra West, on 4th March 2017 at 7 pm.
*Gaurangi Dang is an English Literature graduate from the University of Delhi and a student of The Drama School (DSM), Mumbai. She likes to tell stories :)