Nearly 32 plays were staged at the second edition of Chennai's Short + Sweet Festival (S + S) at the Alliance Francaise of Madras in July (11th-22nd). There are two plays in particular that stand out. Chennai-based theatre person, Mathivanan Rajendran had two important roles to play in both productions. He is the director of MY NAME IS CINE-MA that won the Best Play (Joint) and his performance in THE FLOWERS won him a runner-up for the Best Actor. Straddling both worlds - "and quite terribly", by his own admission - Mathivanan is at the helm of Stray Factory, a Chennai-based entertainment collaborative that has, in a short span, since its inception in 2010, worked with nearly 100 artistes from across the world. An automobile engineer with a Master's degree in Design Psychology, Mathivanan is now a full-time performing artist. As we speak, Stray Factory has a lot going on. MY NAME IS CINE-MA has been shortlisted for the Mumbai edition of the Short + Sweet Festival (the play takes place on August 31st and September 1st at the NCPA Experimental) and GANGA AT RISHIKESH, the collective's new creation was featured at The Hindu Metro Plus Theatre Festival in Chennai this month. Akhila Krishnamurthy meets the man of the moment.
Akhila Krishnamurthy (AK): Congratulations on your play MY NAME IS CINE-MA. What was the inspiration for it?
Mathivanan Rajendran (MR): I've been fascinated by cinema ever since I was a child. I was at a workshop recently and they asked us to sketch out how we look at ourselves. I could only see a little kid and his face fixed to the screen with his back to the viewer. I think there's some innocence there that I found really interesting. The play is a fictional account of a young girl called Cine-ma, who never went to school but learnt life and its lessons through the movies. A few friends of mine work in the film industry and their day-to-day anecdotes were used to punctuate the storyline.
AK: There must have been many anecdotes. How did you cram them all into ten minutes? What were the challenges?
MR: Well, I put down the structure of the play and then worked out where to fit in the anecdotes. In the process, some of the interesting ones took a hit. But then in the interest of keeping it tight for a ten-minute festival, we had to edit them out. You get emotionally invested with the text often and that is dangerous. The real challenge was more about keeping myself at check to ensure I edit the right parts.
AK: How long did it take you to envision it?
MR: I was mulling over various ideas for months but every idea seemed unoriginal or cliche. We, at Stray Factory had a three-day retreat to help each other with our respective stories; most of the play emerged there. Even though it was a ten-minute act, nearly two months of work went into it. In fact, Pooja Balu, the female lead even learnt Silambattam (martial arts) for the part.
AK: It's an English play but also uses Tamil. Is it, in that sense, set in a particular milieu?
MR: The play moves rapidly between several spaces.
MY NAME IS CINE-MA
AK: Do you like directing and crafting a play that is set in a milieu you are familiar with? If yes, why?
MR: I love it. I think it's important as young directors to find a sense of identity when we work on a piece. Especially if we are planning on showcasing it to a larger audience, and possibly an international audience. It's great to create a play that is rooted in a specific culture.
AK: The play has been selected for the Mumbai edition of S + S. Are you making changes? Do you feel the script allows for experimentation, and do you like to do that?
MR: The play could work as it is but where's the fun in that?! We probably will make changes and knowing my cast they probably will make the changes on stage. Venkatesh Harinathan, the male lead, improvises heavily based on the audience he is interacting with, making it exciting every time.
AK: Even though it appears to be set in a particular culture, do you feel CINE-MA'S script has a universal appeal?
MR: Absolutely. Everyone loves celluloid. South Indian cinema is the inspiration and it does have a different flavour, which I think is an interesting showcase.
AK: You are also an actor and your performance at S + S in The Flowers won you the runner-up for the Best Actor. How do you straddle these two worlds of acting and directing?
MR: I don't straddle well. Honestly, I do a terrible job of it! I've had great directors and co-actors who've been very understanding. THE FLOWERS won me the runner-up for the Best Actor at the festival. Both the plays went head-to-head every day of the festival. I was just happy to see both of them do well!
AK: You are an industrial engineer turned full-time theatre professional. Did your educational training help in your understanding of theatre?
S+S THE FLOWERS
MR: My bachelors' degree in Automobile Engineering was really a crash course in letting me realize what I did not want to do with my life! I spent most of my time working with different theatre groups during that period.
AK: Your Master's degree was in Design Psychology. How has that training enriched your understanding of theatre?
MR: I worked in the space of Persuasive Design and User Experience. It helped me a great deal in understanding human emotions. Also, being surrounded by designers really improves your aesthetic sensibilities.
AK: Why and when did you quit your full-time job?
MR: I paid off my student loans in 2010, and felt like I needed to give my passion for performance a fair shot. Sometimes, you just feel it in your soul. I worked at a great place with great people but I just couldn't bring myself to work every day on something I was less interested in.
AK: How would you define your collective, Stray Factory? When did you create it?
MR: Stray Factory is an entertainment collaborative. Our number one mission is to work with as many artistes as possible. It is a place for people who believe in the idea of a collaborative and in devised performances. I co-founded it in 2010. In the last two years we've worked with over 100 people from across the globe.
AK: The collective's biggest creation was BLOG-0-LOGUES. Can you tell us about it?
MR: I read an article where a famous theatre personality said there is no original writing in India with regards to English theatre. I was quite irked by it. Honestly, I felt it was a question of exposure. Bloggers, for example, blog because they want to be heard, and any text with an intent to speak to its audience, is bound to make for good performance pieces. So, for the first time in the Googleable world, we took up this task of working with 11 bloggers, and adapting their work to stage.
GANGA AT RISHIKESH
AK: For theatre to appeal, do you think familiarity is imperative?
MR: I think we all draw from our personal experiences to relate to the world around us. If what is showcased to us is done honestly, there is a good chance the audience will pick it up. However, some familiarity either in design, language or setting is very much required to get the audience's attention.
AK: What do you enjoy better? Acting, directing or organizing?
MR: I enjoy all of it, but not at the same time! Deep inside, I know my love for acting is above all else.
AK: Is theatre lucrative?
MR: It is if you want it to be. If you have a good product, you really need to put it out there and package it well. It's a competitive world. We've had encouraging progress with Stray Factory and I only see it getting better for us and others in the fraternity.
AK: You've recently started working in the broader entertainment space, right?
MR: I recently took up the role of a researcher with a not-for-profit organization called The Institute of Customer Experience. The project I'm working on relates to forecasting the future of entertainment. The mediums may change but the root of storytelling will always be the same and that needs to be nurtured.
AK: You have also acted in cinema. Will stage sustain against the lure of cinema?
MR: Well, both the mediums are fascinating and they appeal to me in different ways. The beauty of a live performance and to talk to a live audience is unparalleled and I don't think that will ever leave me. At the end of the day, I still see myself as a little kid that stares at a screen or the stage in absolute awe.
*Akhila Krishnamurthy is a freelance writer based in Chennai. She writes extensively on the arts - music, dance, theatre, in that order - and the people who make the arts happen.