Gurleen Judge interview by Ayushi Shah
This is the second interview in our series on young, contemporary women theatre practitioners. We speak to Gurleen Judge who juggles between her roles as a light technician, designer, director, writer and a teacher. Having had no formal training in any of these domains, Gurleen Judge takes pride in being self-taught and learning on the field. She opens up about the political nature of art, the importance of design, and her responsibility as a theatre artiste.

 By Ayushi Shah

Ayushi Shah (AS): How did you begin your journey in theatre?
Gurleen Judge (GJ): The only thing I remember doing in school and college is theatre. I think it all began in the 3rd grade when I acted, directed, and wrote a play. I still have memory of running across the school corridor trying to find actors and convincing friends to act in my play. However as an army kid who spent her entire childhood travelling, in my head, the natural progression was always theatre in school, and that I would grow up, and would do films. It was only when I joined St. Xavier's college in Mumbai and met Alyque Padamsee and Quasar Thakore Padamsee that the realisation of doing theatre for a living, struck me. I have never attended a theatre institute and am self-taught. I keep learning. So yes, when I look back, the only thing I have been motivated to do in life, has been theatre.

AS: Which was your first play as a director?
GJ: Well, apart from school, and AMBU AND RAJALAKSHMI, which Ramu (Ramanathan) handed to me very sweetly, I directed a small piece for a festival at Hive with Bhushan Borgaonkar, and also did some work for a couple of youth festivals. I also directed Vikrant Dhote's DEKHO MAGAR PYAAR SE, which explores masculinity and queerness. Although it happened before AMBU AND RAJALAKSHMI, I can't really take credit for the piece, because Vikrant had already set a structure to it. I came to it at a later stage to direct, so it was very much Vikrant's thing.

AS: You wear a lot of hats – director, writer and light designer. How conscious has the transition been between these roles?
GJ: At the beginning of course, it was about whatever department was handed to me, but I've always wanted to direct and write. Light design happened by chance. When I was 18, I was working with Theatre Professionals. I assisted Jehan Manikshaw on lights. I wanted to learn everything I could. But to answer your question, my design work has become very critical to my stage sensibilities and vice versa. They feed off each other. Now, when I direct, I first think of the lights. Light design has not just helped me look at theatre as a visual medium but has also made me more aware of other aspects of design, whether it is costume, set or sound. So design has become a critical part of my imagination now. It's something that I really focus on and care about. I appreciate theatre more because of the opportunities of design. When it comes to playing multiple roles, fortunately or unfortunately, it's like that in the city, I think. I don't know anyone who has ever done just one thing. Everybody cares about everything in theatre and it all circles back in a way. Nobody asks you whether you have designed before. POSTCARDS FROM BARDOLI was the first play I designed and thankfully nobody asked me about my experience and allowed me to do it. You learn from your mistakes and hopefully you can have the discipline to become better and work harder, I guess.

AS: Is there anything that you want to try your hand at, going ahead?
GJ: Unfortunately, I haven't had the time or the opportunity to do production in a while. I think I did not give it enough time to be very good at it but I do find it interesting. At some point I would like to get back to it. You know, do my own stuff, and also be a sort of cog in the wheel instead of just doing lights and design. But there is such a dearth of light technicians and designers in this city that you kind of get pulled into that.

AS: A play that has memorable for you.
GJ: Definitely, POSTCARDS FROM BARDOLI, because it was my first plays and that's where I met Ramu, Jaimini (Pathak) and many other people. It's certainly one of my favourite plays. And Manav Kaul's PEELE SCOOTERWALA AADMI (the second version which was staged in 2014) was such an amazing and educational experience as well. It was my first time working with Manav and he just let me be on the tech day without discussing too much. Just watching him work in the rehearsal room and the kind of access he gave me was quite an exciting experience because I had never seen anyone working like that before. Even though he is a director's director and nothing he does not want ever goes on stage, he gives you a great deal of ownership.

AS: Is this kind of creative freedom liberating or is it overwhelming?
GJ: I think the question is not a question of freedom v/s being told what to do. I think it's about whether your ideas fit into the vision of the director's. A lot of directors don't have that visual thought initially in mind and that is like drawing from a well that has no water. So then you're just stuffing a design onto the piece. I think the dialogue between the director and the light designer is very important. And that's something I really enjoy with Manav. I think the way it worked out for PEELE SCOOTERWALA AADMI for me is not the same way it worked out with CHUHAL, which I also designed for him. Maybe it's because I was present at the readings or that I spent too much time in the rehearsal room. I believe that the light designer should look at the piece afresh for a better perspective. Whatever the reasons I don't think it's there just yet. I still struggle with the play's design every time I want something new, but to return to the question. I think it is most enriching when you can have a conversation with the director that actually builds on the design based on the ideas you come up with. Then everybody comes together for it. The actors contribute immensely as well by being there and taking in the design and using it.

AS: To what extent in your opinion is theatre a political act?
GJ: I think all art is political, and not just theatre. I mean it has to be. I think it's not for the artist to choose. The fact that it exists makes it political already. I mean it is saying or stating something so it already has a political context to it. To elaborate, I don't think a piece of work has to be necessarily feminist or socialist for it to be considered a political piece. It could well be a political piece because it offers a perspective on society or on the human condition, which is what theatre has been doing in different ways.

AS: What is your rehearsal process like?
GJ: It's terrifying (laughs). I don't think I have a specific process but I think it depends on the play. What sort of play it is? The actors in the room, the kind of space we are rehearsing in, does the space have windows? And so forth. I don't think there can be a singular process. I think it is malleable to our needs and the resources and the people we have.

AS: Could you run us through the process behind one of your plays?
GJ: Doing DOHRI ZINDAGI (based on a story by Vijaydan Detha) was interesting. I had read it but had never thought of turning it into a play. Neha Singh wanted to do it and very kindly offered me to direct it. I did not have to cast actors because she had already done that. We went to the village of the writer in Borunda, Rajasthan. The sheer content of the story got us curious as to how this revolutionary story could have come out of this obscure village in Rajasthan. Once we reached the place, we couldn't believe that somebody could have written a story that challenges patriarchy at such an advance level in the midst of all that we saw. Our stay there was very enriching because subconsciously we picked up things that later added flavour to the play, whether it was the local accent, or a song. And that was important for us because we did not want to make a tokenistic play. Doing our research was important. Of course now when I look back, there are definitely things I would do differently, but that's hindsight. I recently read this somewhere, ‘'When you are young, you should have a lot of layers and emotions so as you grow older you have something to tear off.''

AS: What part of the theatre making process you enjoy the most?
GJ: Learning how to identify what I want and what I don't want. It is a feat in itself. You learn from the choices you make. When you are constantly rejecting things, it's because you are clear about what you don't want. But this does not always tell you what you want. So, you take a step back and think. That is a learning as well. The process of travelling with the play is interesting too. We have travelled to the oddest of places to perform. We have got into trouble but have managed to keep our heads above the water.

AS: You are a theatrewallah living in Mumbai. Do you feel like you belong to the theatre scene in this city or do you see yourself as quite independent of any country or region?
GJ: Certainly, Mumbai and Maharashtra, and even India, the country as a whole, influences what I do. The more I work, the more I realise how rooted I need to be. As I mentioned earlier, as an army kid I travelled a lot. So I did not grow up with any one particular culture or tradition. It was all a little bit of a khichdi. Bombay is such a vast city that is full of contradictions. I am obsessed with its mélange of music but I am also obsessed with Kabir. Every place influences you – there's Dharavi, Mira Road (where I live), and there's Versova. I also lived in Versova- Kohliwada for some time and that was a completely different experience. I had never lived as a part of a community but I really felt like I was a part of that community. I still think I am. So definitely I think I am the person I am because I went to Xavier's and I work in theatre. It all influences you one-way or the other.

AS: Your ritual on the day of a big show?
GJ: Well normally I design the plays I work for, so on the show-day, I keep myself busy with the lights. It helps me focus and not worry about too many things. Other than that I think of just trying to be ready before the third bell (laughs). At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the director to make it happen - to start the show on time. I try to be disciplined about those things because at the end of the day the audience has bought a ticket and is spending time on the show. So I try to honour that.

AS: Who are the people you turn to for feedback?
GJ: I don't have a zero show but I have had people come to the rehearsals. However most of the time if I'm struggling with a play I only try to introspect what I want in it or what went wrong with a show? What can I do to make it tighter? Even with the 40th show I'm chipping away – keeping what works and removing what does not. I don't have a specific feedback system, but people give you feedback, and you have long conversations, from which you may find things you want to incorporate into the play.

AS: What do you like doing in your free time?
GJ: I love reading books, listening to music and watching films. I keep myself busy with everything (laughs).

AS: What are you reading currently?
GJ: I'm reading and re-reading ''The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Backett'' because I hope to do something with them at some point. I'm devising a piece and am sort of looking at him as my inspiration.

AS: Your biggest life learnings.
GJ: What I've really learnt and am still learning is to keep my head down and work hard. Another learning has been to develop rigour and discipline. I need to do my own kind of riyaaz everyday and luckily for me, that means looking at the world around me, and participating in it as a citizen, as a human being. It also means to be able to look deep inside and out as widely as well at the world. What I am trying to say is that it is not about the artiste and their individual crisis. The crisis is in the world around and one's own crisis can be absolutely imaginary. Because at the end of the day, who gets to wake up every morning and do what they love more than anything else in the world? We are extremely lucky to do what we are able to. We have a great privilege because we are able to look at the world differently. That privilege is not to be taken lightly. That's what I've learnt.

AS: What's next for you?
GJ: THE HUNGER ARTIST is the next big thing for me. It is inspired by a story by Kafka. Apart from that, I'm also working on a couple of other things, so yes, more work.

Quick Questions:

Mumbai or Delhi?

Ebrahim Alkazi or Habib Tanvir?


Prithvi or NCPA?

Mahabharata or Game of Thrones?

Training or Spontaneous?
Train yourself to be spontaneous.

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