With ‘Eklavya’ and improvisation, Manekshaw battles Pandemic for theatre

While the pandemic may have given a huge jolt not just to the art and culture scene but also art training, the Drama School Mumbai has improvised to ensure that its curtains don’t fall, no matter what.

Creating a half-year version of the one-year course to be taught digitally, the school launched a batch for a Foundation Course in Acting and Theatre Making, which was digitally delivered via the online medium. “It’s a full-time program. But the students participate from their homes, from the safety of their homes during the pandemic. We still have a very selective audition process etc. And it is working quite well. We hope it can become our permanent feature to have a distance learning program delivered in this manner, regardless of pandemic or not,” says theatre person Jehan Manekshaw, founder and head of DSM.

The school is also working on another initiative tentatively titled ‘Project Eklavya’ which involves creating bite-sized learning modules that have three hours teaching and six hours participation time. They are pre-recorded and delivered via an online learning platform at an affordable cost, so as to make them accessible to Tier 1-4 cities and rural areas as well.

“Anybody with a smart phone should be able to take a small introductory course to monologue, character, expressive body, expressive speech, storytelling, how to audition and acting for camera etc,” he adds.

Manekshaw, who trained at Wesleyan University in the US and then went on to do an MFA in Theater Direction from Birkbeck admits that it is definitely tough to be an administrator and an artist rolled into one. The artist, who was recently in conversation with Reena Dewan for Kolkata Centre for Creativity’s ‘Artist to Entrepreneur’ says that being a theatre director by training, his favorite place is directing plays, telling stories and working with creative people to do a joint collaborative act of artistry.

“You run a drama school, because you feel the ecosystem is not ready enough. We need more trained individuals, because the environment just does not have enough.”

Adding that he chose to spend his time as an administrator so as to create an environment where creativity could be generated, he admits that the majority of his energy is taken in the day-to-day operations of the organisation and ensuring its financial viability.

“But the other time is about being creative about how you run an organisation and the centre — thinking about the new courses, initiatives and partnerships. But whenever I do get bogged down with the frustrating aspect, I just remember about the aim of this organisation and what it is doing for the community as a whole. And I make my peace with that and happily continue to do the frustrating work,” he smiles.

In a country with limited private funding for theatre and shrinking government grants, Manekshaw feels that independent groups can think of a long-term survival through a hybrid approach.

“They will need to use their art and creativity to both, earn money and to make work. Money will come from the application of the art and creativity in a more commercial enterprise, be it school education, corporate training or writing for advertising agencies. It is also important to ascertain make sure that your work is relevant. You actively cultivate an audience and when that large group watches and engages with your work, private support starts to come. Not only that, income from box office and patronage also commences.”

Preferring scripts that can accommodate large casts as they have batches of 15-20 students, the DSM mostly looks for plays that have historically stood the test of time and produced multiple times.

Although not a native Mumbaikar, Manekshaw, who grew up all over the world and moved to Mumbai after his graduation remembers that when he used to engage in making theatre or working on plays with other teams or understanding how theatre was working, he found that there was a huge lack of resources in the industry.

“One of them was for trained and committed professionals. The others were funding and venues to show the work. The most important aspect that I thought needed immediate addressing was the former — individuals who not only know how to be artists and creators, but also organisers and producers. So the Drama School Mumbai programme is designed around actor-creator-entrepreneur.”

Stressing that every state and every language needs a drama school not necessarily along the lines of the National School of Drama, he says: “They should work towards fostering and finding the best talent and equipping them not just as actors and performers, but people who can make, create, produce and direct work. These institutes should also tap into the roots and the stories of that language and that culture, but at the same time, not to be so culturally or linguistically siloed. Adopting global practices in training and applying it to their local languages and local stories is what is needed.”