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In theatre, you can’t cast a spell alone

I’m blindfolded and walking on a rope towards a ‘cliff’. When I reach the edge, someone pats me on the shoulder. I hold the hand extended to me. When I open my eyes, I may or may not recognise this someone. Irrespective, I’ll be safe. That’s theatre for you.

It isn’t for anyone with trust issues. For theatre isn’t just about acting, directing, scripts and lights. It is about strangers, friends, acquaintances, opponents, amateurs, professionals, rivals, and friends of friends trusting one another. Before rehearsals and shows, you play games like Mine Field, Supporting Hands, On One Leg, Fall Back, and Forest Walk. These are the trust exercises, as important as dialogue delivery classes.

My romance with theatre in Dubai is fresh, three years as a playwright and stage director. But I know that this bond will last for a long time. After all, it’s easy to be in a relationship based on trust, right?

The affair began in middle school when I played a tiny role in the play Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth. I wore my sister’s grey skirt and white blouse; mum hemmed it to my size.

We were a bunch of nervous teenagers, fearful of speaking out of turn. And what if we slipped? Seconds before the show, we stood in a circle with our eyes closed and held each other’s hands. We formed the human knot of trust. The butterflies in the tummy vanished.

I don’t act anymore. I am infatuated with words, with the wings, the green room, the light booth, et al. Observing behind-the-scenes elements is my guilty pleasure. I have to confess that it’s the vulnerability of this performing art form that I love the most. Can you put yourself out there, in the hands of the unknown? That’s the risk and madness that drives many to rehearsals.

It starts with an idea. As a playwright, you pen it down and hand it over to actors, trusting them to memorise dialogue. Words have the power, but you lose control over them as soon as the actors accept them. Months of rehearsals later, everyone makes it to the green room. Here we share half-eaten cookies with strangers. One person gets a headache minutes before the show. A Panadol appears. Women competing with one another are quick to help with a safety pin to fix a skirt that ripped. There’s always help at hand, even from the competition.

The next stop is the wings. Before the cast leaves, I check if they have the right individual props, if their hair is fine… I ask them to take a deep breath and remember that it is their stage and they need to own it as they perform. One hug and off they go.

There are no mics. ‘Trust your voice to reach the last row’. I am not a fan of props. ‘Use your bodies as furniture’. They walk on stage, each knowing they’ll fill in for the other if need be. There is no scope for retakes. Sometimes, I make my way to the light booth and watch them perform. They walk on stage confidently.

When the cast walks back into the wings, they’re suddenly nervous again; they want to know how they fared. There’s no waiting for box office returns. The audience passes a verdict right there and then.

Today, many plaques and certificates lie in my home.

They’re ours because in theatre you can’t cast a spell alone. Every contribution is big. The guard at the entrance is important. He ensures nobody walks in and disturbs a performance. The backstage staff doesn’t let the noise from the green room filter on stage. You trust the audience to switch off their mobiles. In this art form, there is no rulebook for success. You don’t lay down a contract and sign on the dotted line. You don’t become the character by just reading the role. You embrace the pauses, fights, pressures, stresses, smiles, and collapses. You learn how to forgive your co-actors when they miss a cue. You’re a unit, falling and rising as one.

Yes, a lot has changed from my days of rehearsing in the school auditorium. Now we rehearse at our homes as our kids play in the garden. They never fail to clap loudly. Music plays from fancy Bluetooth speakers. Scripts are learnt via apps like Rehearse Pro and Scene Partner. What hasn’t changed is the presence of butterflies and trust. We hold each other’s hand before we enter the stage. And then again, for the curtain call — a brilliant or bad show — we stand as one, the human knot. We keep the trust alive, even as the players keep changing.


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