No blanket generalisations about children nor any escapist fare for them. Actor, producer and director Jaimini Pathak who runs Working Title productions and is the man behind The Boy Who Stopped Smiling and Once Upon a…Tiger! among several other children’s plays, tells Harshikaa Udasi the secret to good theatre for children.
The Boy Who Stopped Smiling, Once Upon A…Tiger!, The Day I Met The Prince, Kachra Tales...what keeps you coming back to children's theatre? I ask, especially because you not only engage in theatre for adults, but also work in other media, including films.
Kids energise me, personally and professionally. And when one gets it right, it's such a pleasure to perform for them. Or with them. It's a symbiotic relationship.
It's also about creating a future audience for the theatre. And perhaps future theatre practitioners too. Catch 'em young, I always say!
What kind of stories do you look for while staging a children's play?
Something that's entertaining and at the same time challenging for us as well as the children. A play for me is active communication and communion between audience and performer.
I also prefer plays that deal with real issues, albeit in a non-preachy, entertaining format. No talking at or down to kids. Or escapist fare. Add live songs and a bit of dance, wit and humour.
Children can be brutal when it comes to rejecting what they don't like. How long does it take to shape a play and eventually take it to stage? Does it take longer than a play for adults?
We usually rehearse any play of ours for at least two months. We've rarely experienced their brutal side, touch wood. Unless there is a technical failure like them not being able to hear us because of a bad sound system.
Of the plays, you've acted in/directed/produced, could you share with us some anecdotes that made you immediately realise you were making a difference in their life?
Once Upon A…Tiger! connects the dots between the presence of the tiger being a sign of healthy forest cover and consequently good rainfall and adequate water. And many a time big businesses deplete ground water to make, say, Coca Cola. In fact a Coca Cola factory in Plachimada in Kerala was shut down after locals protested against the ground-water depletion due to the factory.
I remember a birthday party that was to take place at the Prithvi Theatre cafe after one of our shows, was a flop. Why? Because the kids said, “Don't drink it! It will kill the tiger!”
You love to take potshots at 'grown-ups', don't you? They must not particularly love your children's plays!
Well, I'm an adult myself...so it’s also my way of examining my own attitudes towards children. And maintaining, through my art, a lifeline to the little people and their fascinating little world.
That said, adults do enjoy our plays. They may not laugh out loud during the performance, but there's certainly food for thought.
You've been doing children's plays since the 90s. Now children are more digitally inclined. Have you observed any changes in the audience reaction to your plays?
Children still enjoy a good live performance, because there's a certain magic that goes with it. In fact, I feel plays are a great way to wean them away from digital over-dependence, if it exists. Both doing and watching plays. Books serve the same purpose. I still love the smell of the paper when I buy a new book. A Kindle may be more convenient, but it doesn't have that lovely smell...
It may be fashionable to say attention spans are shorter these days. But these blanket generalisations don't really interest me. I'm placed as a theatre person at a certain point in Time, and it's my job to connect with my audience. We all have to move with the times. The good old days are now.
Do you think there is enough being done in the space of children's theatre in India? Do you see the younger entrants into theatre interested in doing children's plays?
I can speak of Bombay, since I'm most familiar with it. Many more young people are interested in doing theatre for and with children than say, 10 years ago. It's a healthy sign.
Regarding your first query, anything we do can never be enough!
We'd like to hear from you about how theatre is a multidisciplinary skill and not just acting as is widely perceived.
A lot of effort goes into making that actor onstage look good. And not everyone wants to be an actor. There is a wide variety of specialisations to choose from - writing, direction, set and stage design, music, choreography and dance, light design, costume design, backstage, production, financial management, publicity. Take your pick.
Wouldn't a child rather be voluntarily involved in any of these, instead of posing mutely as a tree in a corner onstage?
A lot of schools now offer theatre as a subject to their students but it still remains an extra-curricular activity. What is your take on theatre in education?
It is best that it is extra-curricular. Children could really do with a non-competitive element in their lives, where they can just be themselves and explore things without the fear of evaluation or failure.
Come to think of it, so could adults.
What are you working on for children now?
I may do a new play next year. Meanwhile, teaching continues. And The Boy Who Stopped Smiling continues to have regular shows in Bombay and across the country.
Could you give some tips to our young aspiring theatre enthusiasts?
Watch plays. Do plays, in school and college. Theatre is collaborative and multi-disciplinary. It makes you alert, aware and sensitive. It teaches you life skills in the most fun way I can think of. Your involvement with the theatre will always serve you well, irrespective of what profession you eventually choose in life.
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