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. My romance with theatre in Dubai is fresh, four 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?
I don’t act anymore (in school days, I did!). I am infatuated with words, with the wings, the green room, the light booth, et al. 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 pain killer 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. 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.