The hot favourite of the Intensive Drama Program (IDP), Sankar Venkateswaran left no stone unturned in having fun. All he needed was a small trigger, like someone humming a tune he had taught in class. A hearty young man whose mere presence brings in a wave of energy, Sankar graduated from the Calicut University School of Drama and Fine Arts with a first rank in Theatre Direction in 2002. He then successfully completed his three years training at the Theatre Training and Research Programme (TTRP), Singapore where he undertook intensive practical immersions in four major traditional theatre forms from Asia. He also trained in Stanislavskian and post Stanislavskian methodologies of Acting, in voice/speech/singing movement training, para-theatre training and came in close contact with the theatre making approaches of eminent theatre scholars and teachers such as Philip Zarilli, T. Sasitharan, Kanze Yoshimasa, Richard Emmert, G. Venu and others.Sankar has acted with various theatre companies and has performed in India and abroad. His work includes SAKETAM (2001, Tokyo, Fukuoka, dir. Abhilash Pillai), THE BECKETT PROJECT (2006, Singapore, dir. Phillip Zarilli) and PERFORMING WOMEN (2006- 2008, New Delhi, Tokyo, Seoul, dir. Abhilash Pillai). Over time Sankar has developed a unique approach to acting and training that more specifically address the post Beckettian dramaturgies. He is also a trained South Indian percussionist and a music composer. He has composed music for PERFORMING WOMEN, and CENTAURS (2007, Nairobi, dir. Anuradha Kapur). His recent directorial work is QUICK DEATH, an acclaimed play written by Australian playwright Richard Murphet, which premiered in New Delhi in 2007. He is currently working on a project with renowned Japanese actress Micari.A rigorous day at IDP had just ended and I was talking to a couple of friends. Sankar walked past briskly motioning me to follow him for the interview. I rushed to the guest house and found him all ready, amidst puffs of smoke. He was settled on the bed and asked me to shoot. I only followed him.
Over the years how have you arrived at the training methodologies that you use in class? Actor training has been a serious subject for me. I had faced a lot of difficulties as a student. So I took up Direction as a specialization to try and see if I could contribute in any way to the process of actor training. I realized it was very difficult to get work out of an actor. As an actor one needs to be artistically autonomous, socially engaged, critically aware and technically skilled.
However in contemporary theatre practice in India I haven’t been able to identify a coherent, apposite and systematic training methodology. We don’t seem to address some fundamental questions before we structure a programme for training the actor.
Given the diversity of the practices and the various demands that the actor has to meet while working in a contemporary situation, do you think that our actors are capable of working across styles, genres, and the various modes of performances that exist? What kind of actors have we been training in the past? For what kind of theatre are we training them for? And what kind of theatres are they equipped to work in? How would you map acting in the contemporary Indian context? A concept of training, with a beginning, a middle and an end; a concept of training as a series of structures starting at a rudimentary level and then progressing towards achieving a definite end is virtually absent when it comes to actor training in India. Look at training in singing. The student starts at a very basic level of singing 7 notes. Then she gradually progresses through a predetermined trajectory to achieve proficiency.
Now look at acting. Where do we begin? How do we proceed? Where do we arrive? Do we have a concept of training as a series of structures, each one addressing a different faculty of the actor’s instrument?
In traditional theatres we can see such profound structures. In Kudiyattam or Japnese Noh for instance, we can see how an actor is trained over her life time; we can see how the actor’s career is meticulously shaped with the guidance of master teachers, who themselves have gone through the journey.
As teachers we are responsible for the careers of our students. The real world can be very harsh for actors. Yet they need to survive it and come home intact with doves fluttering in their hearts, and not with a sense of shame and remorse. My methodologies are informed by such careful considerations.
I have been very fortunate to learn at one of the greatest institutions for Acting- the TTRP in Singapore. It is a 1000 day course where we trained from 7 am to 8pm everyday and were also expected to do certain homework. We had no exams, no certification. The real and only test was in front of the audience. I have also been lucky to work with some of the greatest acting teachers in the world. Their approaches have informed me. I am able to think as an actor, so I know what is going on with my actors.
Most of the exercises and the training sequences that I have done with Theatre Professionals in Mumbai were created by me in 2007 with support from the India Foundation for the Arts. The idea is to develop a methodology for training actors to approach physical texts.
Who have your mentors been? I am mostly self-made. Four of my teachers have however played major roles in shaping my thoughts and actions in the theatre. Dr. Vayala Vasudevan Pillai, T Sasitharan, Anmol Vellani and Abhilash Pillai. Also I have been influenced by Japanese director, Satoshi Miyagi who once did a play with two actors playing the same character. One spoke while the other moved. The two performers were split in form and they created magic. That affected my methodology of working. It helped me analyse body, voice and movement separately.
Are there any kind of specific exercises that you always do or are your training modules completely dependent on the program for the workshop? Certain things are important for an actor. No matter what format the workshop is, we always need to start with the rudimentary. A carefully thought out structure is necessary since it takes an actor to some level of watchability, where he can trigger the imagination of the audience. Thus, there are some fundamental signature exercises that I do in my classes aimed towards cultivating the seminal concepts of acting, but the overall structure depends on (1) the agenda of the workshop and (2) the actors with whom I work with. In short, the trajectory is decided by the workshop but the starting point always remains the same.
In a scenario where theatre is rarely practiced full-time and where most actors work from production to production, at times infrequently how is it possible to achieve the fine balance between training and practice? Are you talking about amateur theatre? This ‘rarely practiced’ is an oxymoron! Besides can training and practice be separate from each other? For me practice implies a certain regularity and the idea of training contains the idea of practice. Actor training is close to the idea of ‘tapasya’, ‘shugyo’- a means of self-cultivation and self-refinement. As I have mentioned earlier, the actor needs to vow to herself to stake her life for her art and never abandon it. Should any actor give up at any point, her skill can never be bettered.
Not amateur theatre necessarily but take a scenario like Mumbai, where theatre is practiced in terms of productions, where an actor needs to shuffle between Theatre and Television and Films if she has to survive. Well then it depends on what one wants to do. It’s got nothing to do with the scenario if one is determined to do it.
Some characteristics that define your style of training... Particular emphasis on the informed and connected psycho-physicality of the actor amongst the diverse elements that constitute theatre, the pursuit of excellence, monastic dedication to one’s work, the sensation of mutuality, the idea of not ‘doing’ but ‘being done to’, the less done the better, 10 is felt in the heart, 7 is shown in the body and so on. See, I connect with people. I understand the actor and acting. I have been through the ways. So I know not only the destination but the route as well.
Just as training helps an actor hone and develop his/her skills, is there ever the danger of 'being trapped' in a particular style or school of acting? Depends on how training is conceived and practiced.
What are the key words that you'd like your participant-actors to particularly bear in mind after they have been through the process? Wouldn’t that be a reductive exercise? Vocabulary is relevant but only in context. Things are used to convey specific things in specific contexts. Acting speaks in metaphors. The idea of ‘reducing’ practice to words is limited.
In your experience as trainer-practitioner, can you recall one fulfilling experience of having observed your student-actor internalized your training? When one sees a proper sequence with a beginning, middle and an end there is a sensation of novelty. The word fulfillment itself suggests a process that involves completion. From the chirp of the birds, the waves in the ocean, the experience of an orgasm or coming down to a workshop, a class- all are according to an appointed order and this order consists of a beginning, middle and an end. When this order becomes apparent in a play, an act, a scene, a unit, a beat, an action, a movement, then one feels fulfilled.
It also happens while performing exercises. The entire class walks out with something within them. That’s the power of exercises. They are designed to achieve change on a psycho-physical and at a visceral level. So it keeps happening. You see, experience is non-paraphrasable and acting is all about experience.
*This interview is third in the series of exclusive interviews with the workshop conductors of the Intensive Drama Program (IDP), which took place at the NCPA from 4th-16th May 2009. The IDP was one of its kind of theatre workshops organized by Theatre Professionals in collaboration with the NCPA. The interviewer, Asmit Pathare is a young theatre enthusiast. His theatre experience dates back to his college days in Sangli. He has actively participated and assisted in various theatre productions in Mumbai. He is interested in films, writes poetry and has his own blog.
Click below to read the other interviews by the workshop conductors of the intensive drama programme.