Joy Fernandes Interview with Deepa Punjani
Joy has had nearly three decades of experience on stage, nationally and internationally. His international work includes playing the comic lead 'Nick Bottom' in the internationally acclaimed version of Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM directed by Tim Supple which ran for over 250 successful shows in India, US, UK, Canada, Europe and Australia. He also played the principal character of 'Shantilal' in the commercial hit MERCHANTS OF BOLLYWOOD directed by Toby Gough and was part of their successful tours in UK, China, Australia & Singapore.

Joy has also acted for, worked and workshopped with theatre stalwarts like Dame Cicely Berry, Irshad Panjatan, Catherine Dubois, Naseerudin Shah, Rajat Kapoor, Ramu Ramanathan, Danish Hussain and others. He has acted in, written, directed and produced several successful plays over the years. He has acted in several feature films (Jajantaram Mamantaram, Paanch, Dasvidanya, etc), and directed, scripted and acted for several TV shows, ads, web-series, stand-up gigs, conceived and hosted events etc.

He has trained every age and personality profile in voice and drama and is a member of the Guest Faculty for Comedy and Improvisation, at the prestigious Films and Television Training Institute in Pune. He conducts theatre therapy for corporates under his brand, “EnterTrainment”. Humour, comedy, wit and satire are an integral part of Joy's work. Recently, he co-wrote with Apeksha Harsh, and directed a youth theatre production titled TALES FROM THE OTHER SIDE: UNTOLD HISTORIES AND HIDDEN TRUTHS for The Pomegranate Workshop, which is an Arts Education company.

 By Deepa Punjani

Deepa Punjani (DP): The Pomegranate Workshop got you on board for their recent production. It was received well. What are your own reflections about it?

Joy Fernandes (JF): I have been working with the Pomegranate Workshop for the last few years. Each year we try to facilitate a production that the young participants feel they own and hence, enjoy. So we usually try to come up with an adaptation or a performance piece that is devised with the inputs of the participants themselves. This production too followed the same path. Tales and fables that are timeless must reconnect with each generation to keep them relevant and more accessible. So it was an exciting journey for me to help the young minds adapt and revisit these famous and well-loved tales of yore and perform them with renewed vigour. The issues too that were dealt with are relatable today and had the desired impact on the young actors and their young audiences too.

DP: You have worked a lot with children and young adults and you have worked in children's theatre too. From your close involvement with young participants in theatre, what have been your biggest takeaways?

JF: Children, I believe, are evolved to be better than us. That is the most evident truth of evolution, isn't it? Each generation takes us ahead. So if we enter into our interactions with children with an air of learning, instead of feeling superior to them and 'teaching' them, then I think we can share a much more mutually beneficial relationship with them. For example, someone has rightly quoted, that children know how to sing before they can speak, dance before they can walk, draw before they can write... that is their natural instinct. And then, we as adults curb or structure these instincts to whatever societal or cultural limits we want them to stay within. I feel, I have learnt so much from my work with children because I go in with an attitude of 'let's learn together'. They love being treated as actors or professionals instead of as children. They bloom under the respect accorded and accept discipline as a necessary part of proficiency, just like learning and following the rules of their favourite games. In return I am able to hone my own craft as they come up with some of the most exciting and new expressions and lines each time. I stay young and my craft stays relevant. My work with children and young adults is no longer a passion. It's a full-blown addiction!

DP: Is there any particular methodology or pedagogy that you use when you work with children and young adults or are the processes more fluid? How would you describe a day in one of your workshops?

JF: As mentioned above, my relationships with all my young participants, regardless of their age group, hinges on mutual trust, respect and empowerment. Whatever we do together, we all must feel greatly enthused by it, whether it is an exercise or a game, or script-reading or rehearsal, or performance. Also, regardless of the choice or nature of the themes explored in the play, the process should always be cathartic and fun. It should be great fun. So, no script will be without some elements of humour. Also, since I am a clown at heart and probably at a mental age much below my participants', I am able to get them to laugh a lot and enjoy the process. That is vital. Once in agreement with the process, they are able to come up with performances that are memorable. Especially, as I keep reminding them, it is always the benefits of the well-enjoyed process that will stay with us, much beyond the memories of a well-performed show. We work on breath, voice, basic phonetics, improv, scene-work and every aspect of theatre, just as it would be for a proper full-fledged theatre production. But we try to enjoy and learn every step along the way, as a team together and as equals.

DP: How do you encourage an adolescent for instance to get and stay focused?

JF: It always helps to gain their trust and earn their confidence. And for that, you must give them logic. Most adolescents are always in 'rebel' mode. That's not because they want to be difficult; it's because they find it difficult to accept the existing modes of existence without logic or rationale. That's exactly what every generation does (we did it too), and yet we look askance when adolescents display this completely normal behaviour. They are then served an unpalatable mix of 'logic-less discipline' and repeated 'because I told you so's. What I have learnt, is that young minds need a clear logic as to why they need to do what they do. That allows they to take ownership, believe completely and focus better on whatever it is they choose to do. It is their decision and hence they feel a sense of responsibility. That works well. Really well.

DP: For someone who has spent several years working with children and young participants, what are the crucial changes and challenges you have dealt with over periods of time?

JF: I have been working for children and with children from the mid-nineties. Long enough for me to realise, that it is as important for us to understand and adapt to these young minds as it is for us to guide and inspire them. Each generation is now technologically more well-endowed than the previous one. More advancement does offer more power, but inevitably, also more challenge and confusion. We have the benefit of experience, if we can guide these bright minds through their moments of confusion by offering them a clear logic and reasoning for why and how they could choose a path. We can help them overcome some of the challenges they face. Also, lateral thinking helps. And humour, lots of it. My sessions usually have moments when my young participants are rolling their eyes despairing at the antics of the loon that is guiding them... lucking they are soon rolling on the floor too, unable to control their laughter. Soon they and I, sufficiently amused, move on to our theatrical duties, happily.

DP: What kind of conversation do you have with the child/youngster's parent these days as they check on how their child is doing?

JF: Usually, I request them to work on themselves more than on their children. It is our responsibility as adults to inspire and reflect a behaviour that we want from our children. We can't be eating tons of junk food and expect our children to eat healthy. We can't be losing our temper at the drop of a hat and expect well-adjusted children. We can't be stuck to every screen we possess and expect our children to crave an 'outdoorsy' life. We shouldn't expect anything from them that we don't intend to do ourselves. So I do not ask for focus and commitment from my participants if I can't match them. Young minds reflect, they imitate, they are influenced... We as adults must accept our responsibility and live better. After all, we do need our children to create a world that is much better than the one we are offering them.
DP: If a teenager tells you that they want to choose acting as a profession, what do you tell them?

JF: I never dissuade or discourage them. I try to offer them as much information of the field as possible. Both for stage and screen. I apprise them of the challenges and try to understand why they want to pursue acting. I honestly tell them of their strengths and challenges. Usually information, honesty and logic help towards pursuing acting, or not.

DP: What are the three top skills anyone interested in working in children's theatre must have?

JF: The ability to learn from children. The ability to respect children. The ability to amuse children. The rest will follow.

DP: Where do you think we are with our children's theatre in Mumbai?

JF: We could be much better placed. We need far more theatre of the children, for the children and by the children which happens throughout the year. The Pomegranate Workshop and I have been working hard trying to create a repertory for young adults who can come together to put up plays for young audiences. The play we just did is a step towards that endeavour. As of now, our city is dependent on theatre groups putting up plays during vacations. That's not enough. We need children's theatre running through the year. It must be mandatory for all educational institutions to ensure that all children get access to good theatre. Even parents must ensure that children see plays. For that we need to have more plays for children. And that can happen only when governments or corporates support this endeavour more whole-heartedly. Aadyam, for example, has been supporting theatre every year in the city. It could support at least one play for children, can it not? These are things to be thought about.

DP: If you were to change things about the way theatre is for children in the city, what would those be?

JF: Just like going for a movie or going for a holiday is an event much looked forward to by every child, we must inspire a theatregoing culture in children and their parents and guardians. That can only happen when adults are enthused by theatre for children. Children can do marvellous things, but need the opportunity to do so. And that can only be provided by adults. We want children off screens, don't we? We want them to interface more with each other rather than virtually, don't we? We want them to be more creative, don't we? Theatre does all that and more. More productions, venues, workshops involving children, will solve a lot of the issues we face. The question is, are we ready to back this very obvious and enjoyable solution?

DP: How has your personal journey as an actor been in these last few years?

JF: I am always grateful for whatever work comes my way. Theatre has been my guiding light since my young days. It has saved me and it has shaped me. It has held me and loved me. That's why, I have been working with young minds for so many years and will continue to do so. Theatre has been therapy for me, hence I humbly try to impart some of its powerful healing to the young. Yes, I would love to act on stage, every day of my life... that is my passion, my all-consuming need. But when I am in front of my young minds guiding them, exciting them, amusing them, moving them... am I not on stage? Enjoying every rewarding, resplendent moment?!

*Deepa Punjani has been writing on theatre and performance for close to two decades. She represents the Indian National Section of Theatre Critics, which is part of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) that has over 50 participating countries.

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