Ira Dubey Interview with Manvi Ranghar
Theatre and film actress Ira Dubey has been performing Heather Raffo's award-winning play 9 PARTS OF DESIRE to full houses. Her solo performance in the play explores 9 Iraqi women across age and class, and their response to Saddam Hussain's regime. It is a strong text and the characters are challenging, but as Ira says, quoting Peter Brook, ''for theatre all you need, is an actor, a text, and an audience.'' She is also playing Ibsen's famous heroine Nora in A DOLL'S HOUSE, which is part of Ila Arun's Ibsen Theatre Festival. Ira's candour, confidence, warmth and humour shone through as we delved into her work and life. A DOLL'S HOUSE will be staged on 17th September at G5A, and on 23rd September 2017 at Prithvi Theatre.

 By MTG editorial

Ira Dubey Interview

Manvi Ranghar (MR): You discovered 9 PARTS OF DESIRE when you did a 15 minutes piece for the annual Prithvi Carnival. How has your journey with Heather Raffo's play shaped since?

Ira Dubey (ID): Yes! This was back in 2013. Finding a 15-minute monologue is always tricky, so I started researching online and sort of stumbled on this piece. I didn't have access to the entire script, which was frustrating. With the carnival just three weeks away, I wrote to the agent, on a complete whim. I'd never heard of the guy, he'd never heard of me, so I sent my bio data, padded it up. Then, while I was waiting to hear from him, I picked up the phone and called aunt Lucien in Delhi, and happened to mention this play to her. She was silent, and then said "You know, I saw this piece in Edinburgh. And I actually happen to have the script with me." (Laughing)I read it that day, and my Mum (Lilette Dubey) read it the same night. We both decided that night itself that we were going to do it. It is a piece of art that speaks to you. It's after this that we heard back from Heather and the universe made it all fall into place. We had a few discussions back and forth and then Heather gave us the rights to do it in India.

MR: The play purports to present real stories. As an actor then what was the process you followed to make the stories and the characters relatable?

ID: I think the work is highly relevant and necessary. It is specific to Iraq, a country I had never been to, so there was certainly an initial anxiety and apprehension about picking it. When we think of Iraq and the Middle East we think of its darker, sadder, war-related elements. I wanted to try and understand the people of the place, connect with the man on the street, They happen to live in circumstances surrounded by war and terror, constantly fearing for their lives, yet they are everyday people, falling in love, getting divorced; they are people you would find in any other country. We were in touch with Heather at the beginning of the process and she was very supportive, sweet and helpful.

There were 3 stages for me with the play. The first was working with the text, which we did for a couple of weeks, Mum and I. I think the text work was probably the most exciting; breaking it down, reading it over and over, finding references, nuances, writing love letters to Heather! Asking a million questions and getting sweet, detailed responses each time. It felt like a door was open to me, a resource. The secondpart was Iraq itself, and getting under the skin of the culture and the accent. This was something I put a lot of thought and time into, outside of rehearsals. Mom didn't demand it of me as a director, but I wanted to bring that to the table. I was lucky. 2013 was the 10-year anniversary of Saddam's capture. This had BBC, CNN, and every other news channel feature a10 year retrospective on Iraq, giving me access to on-ground interviews, and the speech of the common man. There are many conflicting viewpoints in the piece and the research helped me understand them. Third was the physical and vocal work. I began using my own body, finding different qualities for each of these characters. The two cornerstones of a great actor are the truth of a performance and of how present you can be.

MR: What did this piece mean to you?

ID: We've done maybe 60 shows to date. I have performed it in South Africa and we are in talks to perform it in London and the US. There is a shining equality that comes through in this piece. They are Iraqi women and Muslim, living in conditions of war, trying to survive, but they could be women anywhere. When I performed this piece in South Africa for instance, I can't tell you how much it resonated. It connects with anyone who has faced any sort of discrimination, and who has been suppressed and ravaged. I don't want to sound like a blazing feminist. Do I think that I'm on a crusade to change the world? No. Do I think that, in my own way, I can do stuff where I speak for women? Absolutely. I'm here to give people insight and perspective - the opportunity to make discoveries and re-think. I certainly don't want to impose anything. As Heather describes it, 9 PARTS OF DESIRE is from a 'feminine point of view', and not 'feminist'. I think as an actor, nothing has challenged me more than 9 PARTS OF DESIRE. These stories were screaming to be told. For the first 20 shows, I would get up on stage at the end, and while everyone was clapping and standing up, the only thought in my head was ''I want to do this about Indian women. I want to make a piece about Indian women.'' If there is anybody out there developing something, I would be thrilled to collaborate with you!

MR: While dealing with very specific socio-cultural contexts, and in this case, political as well, different directors make different choices in terms of what they are going to emphasise while putting the text and the characters out on stage. For instance you have made the choice to speak in an accent in order to make the Iraqi women and girls you play realistic. How and why did you arrive at that choice vis-à-vis just speaking the way you would normally do?

ID: I wanted to break the idea of 'Ira the actor', and really become the character. People know me. I've done a lot of work here, and so I thought the accent was important. That said, I did it with a mere touch. There were characters that lived and studied in England who don't have a strong accent. Then there were characters from the Bedouin tribe, whose speech was rougher. I kept certain words and phrases, a touch of it. Clarity and coherence are the most important things for an actor. It is like they do in the West. It is mostly clean diction with a touch of an accent (as required). It was important for me to differentiate the characters and play them convincingly. The process was my own. In retrospect I should have worked with a voice coach. But who has the resources for that, and finding one in Bombay would have been hard, so I decided to do it on my own.

MR: You've said that your performance, after losing your father, came from a different place altogether. Can you talk about that shift?

ID: My father was someone I was in complete awe of, loved to death, and admired greatly. I remember that when I was first rehearsing 9 PARTS...back in 2013, I called Dad and my sister to watch the first run-through of the play. He was crying! I'd hardly ever seen my father cry. What I would give to have that moment back. I felt so proud. It is ironic because this was the last piece my father saw. A seismic shift happens when you lose somebody very close. My father had cancer and it is deeply painful to watch that disease take hold of somebody. The way that he went, the fact that he went, it hit me hard. I was telling my Mum the other day, "I don't know if it's that I grew up really quickly overnight, or that you just realise what mortality is and you look it in the face for the first time or that I am still grieving, but that carefree, crazy, mast side of me has shifted. You begin to experience life in a fuller way - every moment, every relationship, every tiny failure or tiny joy. Somewhere subconsciously, his passing informed my performance, gave it resurgence and a new life.

MR: You play Nora in IBSEN'S A DOLL'S HOUSE? ID: A DOLL'S HOUSE is a classic in that it has been done to death, even in the West, so you strive for re-interpretation. The title stands for the way the woman, Nora, lives her life. I think it really resonates with Indian society and the way we look at women. Pushan Kripalani, the director, came to me with the play. He is Rehaan Engineer's partner in the Industrial Theatre Company. An interesting choice he made was to have one actor play all three male characters in the play. We have done two plays together before, so this was fun. The play opened in October last year for a few shows, and re-opens on the 17th of September at G5A, and on the 23rd of September at Prithvi.

MR: You've referred to your family as 'the Nautanki family'. What was childhood in their midst like?

ID: They are completely Nautanki! We are all cracked, creative and mad. Mom and Dad fell in love in college in the seventies in Delhi. They were a part of Barry John's Theatre Action Group. My first play was when I was 4 years old. I played the baby elephant in JUNGLE BOOK. I was this scrawny child and had to wear a thick foam body suit and elaborate headgear. Because of the characters we played, we got to explore our creativity with a lot of freedom, which I feel blessed about. I was very attached to Mum at the time; I was her pooch (tail). She started her theatre company when I was around 8. My friend Joy Sengupta - he's in A DOLL'S HOUSE with me, remembers that at age 9, I would write notes, give them to my mom, who would then give them to the actors saying these are Ira's notes (laughing). So embarrassing! That was my world. It was 'osmosis', as Mum calls it, a kid growing up in that environment, nature versus nurture, a little bit of both. My pet peeve is that most of the theatre world believes and reiterates to each other that I only work with my mother. I keep grumbling about this to all my other directors! I do want to work with other people! It is a misconception I'm constantly trying to break. At the moment I'm in five of my Mum's productions.

MR: How was your time studying theatre at Yale?

ID: I was a 95-percentile student, prefect, the house captain; I was a nerd basically. At the age of 12, I decided that I wanted to go to America at 17 to study and that I wanted to study theatre. My Dad was with the Taj group and my Mum, a theatre director and actress. She said to me, ''Listen, we can't afford it. Get aid and apply anywhere you want.'' I applied to 11 colleges and got rejected by 8. Yale gave me 85% scholarship, so there was no question about it. It is a great school. I loved the campus and had a blast. I did a lot of theatre, about 6 plays. But I was also terribly homesick. And New Haven is a small hole in the wall town. It was a mixed experience. In retrospect, I wish I had been in a bigger city like New York. That said, I think I made the most of it.

MR: You now sturdily occupy the film world along with the theatre one and you are exposed to more public scrutiny. How do you view and manage this?

ID: My actor friends would tell me earlier in life, ''You have to make things happen, hustle, get out there.'' (laughs). Even now I am very begrudgingly on social media. That universe, it is a different space. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and social media are spaces where people are creating brands, identities and personas. I'm realising lately that maybe it is important, a part of this world I live in today. It cannot harm you as long as you are not portraying something you are not. There was a film I did that I had a rough experience with. It left a bad taste in my mouth and opened my eyes to how the industry works. Working with my mother for many years has kept me protected in a way. By the end of the year I'm moving out to my own place. I'm working with other people. I feel like I have consciously, in the last 5/6 years, made a decision to move out of my comfort zone. Similarly I am doing something new now, which I haven't mentioned to anybody, in another medium, where I feel I can push myself as a performer. Parts of me I always keep private. There are maybe 4 to 5 people in the world you will be naked with, bare your soul to. With the rest of the world, I am pretty much what I am. I am still private and I'm not a networker. Sometimes though, it is the order of the day, and I think if you are content and satisfied and you are creatively growing, you are able to handle all this. It is part of the game. I think I balance it pretty well.

MR: You were involved with the Short and Sweet theatre festival franchise. What became of that?

ID: It is interesting that you brought that up. I have been thinking of reviving it for the last one year. I did it two years in a row. The format emerged in Sydney, Australia more than 10 years ago. It taps into the SMS generation. As Festival Director, I curated the pieces. It was exciting but I was doing it solo. My mum told me ''this is your baby.'' I found that it was taking up 5 months of my year, which proved difficult. I am looking at doing it again, but doing it right. I need some support, infrastructure and a team. It is very successful as a format. Of course, after that, a lot of theatre groups in Bombay began doing short pieces. I am not saying they were inspired by me, but maybe...

MR: You recently did a Stella Adler acting workshop in New York and a workshop at Adishakti. The two places are very different in terms of their theatre ideology and the work they do. What did you learn at both these places?

ID: With Stella Adler, I needed to invigorate myself as an actor, and also needed to get out on a personal level. I wanted to go to New York. They offered me a Chekov intensive course, and he is an absolute master of the modern play. It was an advanced course, so we did a lot of scene work and it was intense, which helped me with A DOLL'S HOUSE. I did Adishakti because that was the year I lost my dad. He'd passed away that May. It was September and I just booked it at the last minute. I was using this workshop at a personal level to work through something. It was rigorous and intense, with a lot of back-to-back stuff. We had rhythm classes, exercises, dance and bodywork. I loved it and may even do it again. It was what I needed at the time and it let me get in touch with my physical self, and my stamina. I am grateful for it. It made me feel very powerful when I was feeling very vulnerable.

*Manvi Ranghar is an actor, writer and environmentalist from Mumbai. She studied Literature and values freedom.

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