Puja Sarup Interview By Ayushi Shah
This is the third interview in our series on young, contemporary women theatre practitioners. We speak to theatre actress and director Puja Sarup who co-founded Patchwork Ensemble along with Sheena Khalid. The group specialises in devised theatre and has done two plays – ILA and THE GENTLEMEN'S CLUB, written by Vikram Phukan. Both plays question gender stereotypes. Puja speaks to Mumbai Theatre Guide about her unexpected foray into theatre, a play that has changed her outlook towards theatre, the importance of using humour and evoking curiosity.

 By Ayushi Shah

Ayushi Shah (AS): How did theatre begin for you?

Puja Sarup (PS): So, since I was in the fifth standard, my plan was to join the World Bank. I went to St Xavier's college for the same. Apart from the few performances in school I had never really done a play before. Even though Quasar (Padamsee), Yuki (Ellias) and others were my seniors, I never had the courage to audition. So in my final year I said to myself, "If I don't do it now, I'm going to be a cranky old woman at 60, looking back at how I should've given it a shot." It was then that I went for Atul Kumar's NOISES OFF audition and got through. I was still skeptical if it was the right decision because it did not feel like 'this is it' when I was rehearsing. But when the shows happened, the feeling changed completely. The rush...I had suddenly found my passion. That discovery was huge.

AS: What followed then?

PS: I knew I did not want to go to the National School of Drama in Delhi and back then Mumbai did not have The Drama School either. Mumbai University had just then announced the MA programme in Theatre Arts. So from 2003-05, I became a part of the programme's first batch. By the end of it I knew that whatever I do in life has to be linked with theatre. I did not know in what shape or form but the clarity was that the World Bank plan was off (laughs).

AS: You did a 3-year theatre course at the Helikos School in Florence in 2011. How has that influenced you?

PS: Everything that I have done has influenced my style. I mean, you can't say that this or that has particularly shaped what I do. Growing up in Delhi, studying in Bombay, what I see around myself, the traffic... that's inspiring enough for movement and music.

AS: Plays on your bookshelf.

PS: Books more than plays although I have a really good collection of plays at home.

AS: When did you decide to direct?

PS: Of course, the reason I went for training in 2011 was because until then I was only acting. I realised that I wanted to make my own work, because as an actor, I did not want to keep waiting around for directors. It was the next step for me in my journey and at that point I needed training. Interestingly because of the years of experience before I had an idea of how I function as a performer and as a creator. Therefore I could actually identify the school I wanted to go to, which was in Florence. It wasn't a school of physical theatre but of movement. Movement does not mean you are prancing around all the time. There is movement in everything, even in how something is placed - the phone, the menu card. The training opens up your vision. I can't get bored now! There's always something happening where ever I am and that is the best thing I've gotten from my training.

AS: A passage or a scene from one of your plays that you'd like to talk about.

PS: I recently worked on RAMANAYA with the German director Felix Ott. It is a production put together by the Bangalore based Sandbox Collective. It's very different from what I've done so far. We're not playing a fixed character or any character as such in the play. As actors we sometimes tend to wing it, but here was a production where there was no way I could 'just wing it'. So it was a really interesting experience.

AS: Any play or performance that has left a significant mark on you.

PS: In 2005 I was a part of Footsbarn, which is a leading travelling theatre company, and I toured with them in France. I was with them for a month and a half. The following year was their 35th Anniversary so I went back as a volunteer. I saw some amazing work from all over the world but there was this one performance - EXIT NAPOLEON PURSUED BY RABBITS by the UK based artiste Nola Ray that really shaped the way I wanted to do theatre. It was a solo piece about a soldier who gets lost and ends up in Napoleon's tent. It was an interactive piece so she asked the audience to do simple things - get up or turn. We all did it joyfully only to realise that it was about dictatorship at the end. It was a punch in the gut when I realized that I willingly did everything she asked me to do. The dichotomy that "I wouldn't do such a thing, they would", was gone. There is no 'Us' and 'Them'. That a show could pass on this subtext, and in the way it did, was phenomenal.

AS: What was the transition from being an actor to a director like?

So, I don't look at it as becoming a director from an actor, but as becoming a creator. I came back from school in 2013 and school was so intense. You create work every week. After that, I felt like I did not want to be on stage for a while. And then of course I met Sheena Khalid and co-directed our first production ILA together. So yes, I don't look at the roles as identities.

AS: How was your first experience as a director?

PS: After I directed ILA I had a lot more appreciation for directors in general. Having seen both sides, you realise how as an actor you are sometimes so self-consumed. So I think it was a part of widening the whole experience and learning from it.

AS: As a director, gender and humour have been recurring themes in your plays. Could you elaborate on that?

PS: When Sheena and I decide on a production or creation we go with what excites us. ILA happened because we found the story exciting and the angle about local trains, intriguing. The ladies compartment in the Mumbai local trains becomes a general one between 11 pm and 5 am. This was a driving factor. It was not because we decided "hey, let's talk about gender". With each play it's been different triggers. We want to have fun in theatre and humour for me is a more approachable, and a more engaging way to talk. It's the kind of people Sheena and I are - we love humour. It makes it easier for people to grasp things and be open to them. In THE GENTLEMEN'S CLUB even though the play is funny overall, there are moments where there is sudden emotion. So yes, humour just helps you talk about things in a more accessible way - in a way people are willing to listen.

AS: What is a typical rehearsal day like?

PS: There is no typical rehearsal day; it keeps changing. But the typical elements of our rehearsal would be a physical warm-up and playing. We hit the floor.

AS: How do you start work on a new play?

PS: We don't have a fixed process. It changes. So with FLY BY NIGHT, Sheena shared an article she read in The Times Magazine with me. Rachael D'Souza, another close collaborator also read it and brought it up a few months later. We had Aakash (Mohimen) help us write alongside Rachael. So there would be days where you'd just get a piece of text and you work with that. On the other hand with ILA, I was still discovering the story and somehow instinctively decided to merge it with the local train compartment. ILA went through a lot of improvisation before we put it together in a structure. There is no fixed process. Every show is a surprise.

AS: How much time do you spend on the rehearsal floor?

PS: Just before the opening it would be one and a half months at a stretch. But even before that we'd do workshops. So over a couple of months I'd say.

AS: When in your opinion is your play a success?

PS: I think it's successful when after the play there is an increase in the curiosity of the audience as well as everybody who is a part of the play. We try not to get preachy. We did THE GENTLEMEN'S CLUB because we were curious about gender. Curious about the fact that there is a spectrum. At the end of the day, who are we to give gyaan, or to say - we've figured it out. It's all about sharing curiosity.

AS: Who are the people you turn to for pre-show feedback?

PS: We keep calling friends to rehearsals just before the opening. But feedback is only useful if it's from those who understand what we're trying to do and can help us get that.

AS: What do you like doing in your free time?

PS: Moving... Watching Netflix. But more than anything else I like taking theatre to non-theatre people through workshops. Both Sheena and I fundamentally believe that everyone is a storyteller. You just have to find your style and the story you want to tell. So we're really happy when non-performers come to our workshop.

AS: Your ritual on the day of a big show?

PS: It's stressful. My co-collaborator Sheena becomes the High Priestess (laughs). We gather around in a circle, we pray, we thank a lot of people – that's the ritual just before the show.

AS: What kind of reception do you anticipate for a premiere show?

PS: Of course there is nervousness before the show. Like for THE GENTLEMEN'S CLUB - we had no idea how it would be received. But we got such an overwhelmingly positive and gorgeous response. With every new play, I say "This is the hardest one we've done so far" and Sheena says "No. We say that for every play."

AS: How important is the audience feedback?

PS: We take audience feedback really seriously. People often come and talk to us backstage. But feedback starts during the show itself. You can sense whether the audience is with you or not, whether they are listening or not. You sense their engagement.

AS: Your biggest life learnings.

PS: Emotions are energy and you got to ride them. That's one. When creating something, pick something you are excited by and curious about - that is crucial. You don't want to be stuck in a process where the material doesn't excite you because it's going to be hard anyway (laughs).

AS: What's next for you?

PS: I recently opened HELLO FARMAISH directed by Yuki Ellias. We've also had a lovely residency at Tamaasha Studio. So that's what cooking. Other than that there will be a new production. One of the themes we are looking at is grief or mourning, but we're taking our time with it.

*Ayushi Shah has a Bachelors Degree in Mass Media with a Major in Journalism. She has worked in various media and in public relations. She enjoys theatre and has acted in and directed inter-college festival plays.

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