I served as guest faculty for the National School of Drama, Theatre-in-Education wing, Tripura. Their first Fulbright-Nehru fellow. During my fellowship, an accomplished actor (Vijay) visited to teach Voice and Speech in between stints on a national TV program. One evening, he presented a one man show, which he’d been performing for 25 years with over 800 performances.
We found ourselves in a small studio space, a combination of current students, past students and a few visiting faculty. Fifty people maybe? Vijay sat in a corner, on a little back cube perched on a platform, a few rickety lights pointed his way. He waited patiently for the audience to assemble, encouraging where each attendee might wish to sit. Outside the room, some students created a paper hat for him. It didn’t fit well, but Vijay seemed to make the best of it.
With little fanfare, he began. As it was in Hindi, I understood very little, but the audience were deeply engaged. Vijay moved very little, but action seemed unnecessary given the power of his presence and relaxed, yet intense performance. During the show one person stood to adjust the air conditioning, and Vijay spontaneously engaged her in a short dialogue. Someone else had to leave and he noted that as well. He included several guest faculty (including me) in a toast that, apparently, his character delivered as a part of the story. At one point two drummers who accompanied him got off tempo and Vijay stopped, joking with them and restarting a couple of times to get back in rhythm.
What struck me most was the informality and complete involvement of both performer and audience. Here was a well-respected actor presenting his one man show, for free, for a small audience in a small studio space. Yet that didn’t affect the caliber of his performance or his deep engagement. His genuine, deep-felt generosity in sharing this with us was affecting. I mean, what could this TV actor gain other than a handful of appreciative young people? The second thing that struck me was how relaxed the audience was about that very thing. They simply enjoyed the moment. And Vijay took that in stride.
The event rank highs in my experience as audience. It’s hard for me to capture how genuine the whole evening felt. Too often, theatre productions feel slick, showing off rather than immersing performer and audience in the sincerity of the moment. Too often, artists try too hard to impress.
I do not mean to sound judgmental. Rather, I pine for the type of high artistry in an informal setting that this show captured. There was a kind of trust that evening, that together, artist and audience were diving into a creative journey that would be a unique experience for both. Although it was supposed to last 45 minutes, it took over an hour. Vijay must have loved playing with our small, inviting audience. Maybe that’s the key to understanding why he performed for us that evening.
Daniel A. Kelin, II – Fulbright to India 2019