Ten days before Short + Sweet (S + S) Festival opened at the Alliance Francaise of Madras (AFM) on July 4, Nikita Vaitheeswaran, a Class XI student of PSBB (Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan) in Nungambakkam, began getting used to the idea of making her debut on stage. Over four days of intense rehearsal, she managed to get into the skin of her character—an ABCD (American Born Confused Desi), who returns to Chennai with her mother who is keen for her to learn Tamil. Speaking through the play, in an affected American accent and attempting to spout local Tamil words —also with an accent—Vaitheeswaran admits, over a phone call, after school, that the role in what was her debut play, Slowly Tamizh Will Grow, directed by G Prasanna, was “perfect” for her. The play didn’t make it to the finals, but Vaitheeswaran, youngest in this edition of S + S, says she “liked the entire experience. It was very encouraging”.
In south Chennai, in her apartment, Pooja Balu and her three-member cast, are keeping their fingers crossed; their play, Maya from Madurai, written by Naren Weiss, and which marks Balu’s debut as a director, was pitted against nine other acts that have passed both the jury and the audience’s test, and were among the chosen plays that concluded the third week of S + S, 2013, in Chennai on Saturday.
From a theatre person’s point of view, being in the finals may well be a big deal. After all, this edition showcased 39 ten-minute acts—there were 33 last year, and 20 in the first edition—and for three weeks the AFM became an adda for anyone and everyone already connected or making connections with the world of theatre or aspiring to make connections, in some way or the other—actors, writers, directors. And that, Ranvir Shah of the Prakriti Foundation that is presenting the Festival, observes, may be S + S’ most significant contribution, “It has created a sense of community,” he says, “There are so many people, who have, so far, been working in isolation without understanding so many aspects of how they can come together and create a sense of discipline, generosity, creativity, sharing. S + S is bringing them all together.”
If numbers are indicators, Shah is probably right. This edition, in addition to the number of acts, also witnessed some interesting trends; the number of first-time directors was 10. The festival featured nearly 43 women actors. Interestingly, as a spokesperson from the Prakriti Foundation says, there were also three couples who were involved in the festival—not in the same play, though. As many as 13 women donned the director’s cap this edition. Some planned, many spontaneous. “In April, this year,” writes Akhila Ramnarayan, over email, “I decided to throw my hat in the ring for S + S.” A theatre “worker” since 2007, “watching her mother (acclaimed theatre director, Gowri Ramnarayan) direct an entire range of multi-genre productions, many of which I’ve participated in”, Akhila has worked in various capacities with top-of-the-line artistes. A ten-minute play, she avers, “seemed a good place to start in terms of figuring out my own artistic vision, based on what I’ve learnt so far.”
Her play, based on Alex Broun’s play, The Voice Behind the Fence, and that unfolds the testimony of one refugee, Masooma, and attempts to re-tell that story and bears witness to her pain, didn’t qualify to the finals but Akhila believes Masooma’s story “spoke to everyone who came to the play; it was a deeply felt performance and its actor, Murielle Lapinsonniere, a dancer from Reunion Island and Paris, won a Jury award for the Best Actor (Female) for Week One”.
Even though competition is at the core of the Festival, theatre, Balu believes, “isn’t like a competitive sport. Plus, everyone has their own style of telling a story.” And there are stories, aplenty. “It’s a platform,” Venkatraman Balakrishnan, director and founder of Theatre Nisha, who directed Cocktail this edition, says, “to show human endeavour in limited time.” Take for instance, Murali Satagopan’s script, about a transistor and the many memories associated with it called The Broken Transistor that was the opening act on Week Two. An actor and an engineer by qualification, Satagopan says the play wasn’t written with the festival in mind. “When my grandmother passed away, I wrote a post about it on my blog and Dushyanth Gunashekar of Creashakti Productions wanted to adapt it for S + S; it is really his subtle touches to the script that made it work on stage.”
The other exciting trend is the mixing and mingling of veteran theatre directors and actors with those aspiring to make it there. Yog Japee, actor, director and founder of Theatre Y, who directed a brilliant act in mime and gibberish called Paapa, says, the rigour and intensity “remain the same. The approach and methods are different, no doubt”. Full-length, Balakrishnan says, “is lots of 10 minutes put together. Longer journey but equally arduous.”
As a platform, and one that allows, like S + S’s Festival Director, Rajiv Rajendra says, “allows the fraternity an opportunity to network amongst each other and therefore cross-pollinate and also bring in a new audience”, S + S is also, a great equaliser, like Mathivannan Rajendran, actor, director and founding member of Strayfactory says. “It does something nothing else can,” he says, “Get ‘Peter’ boys to watch Sabha theatre and Mylapore Maamis to watch scandalous content.”
You bet! And some of it, is most certainly a little over-the-top and below-the-line. In terms of quality and content. But the Festival marks the opening up of a creative space and like Venkat Nilakantan, a designer and one of the 11 members of the Jury says, “cannot lead to anything but good as it involves new thought.” Sure. It does. It’s short; it’s sweet; it allows audiences to be judges; it’s entertaining; it’s exciting; it’s fun. And Cordis Paldano, a talented actor from Pondicherry, acknowledges all that. Except there’s one point he makes that may well make us all think: “I don’t have a problem with the platform,” he says, “But unfortunately, it’s also reflective of a very consumerist world we live in. Use and throw.” You know what he means, right?