Divya Palat, founding partner at Balancing Act Productions and Balancing Act Films, is a multi-award winning director of ‘A Personal War – Stories of the Mumbai Terror Attacks’ which was awarded best play, best script, best producer and best director at the Sydney Theatre festival. She was also awarded best director for the same play at the New York International Fringe Festival. Palat also directs and produces on television, digital content and theatre.
The director speaks to Narada News about the YouTheatre festival, merging art with NGO’s, the lack of theatre experience in Mumbai and the intention to expand YouTheare into a fringe theatre experience.
Q. When we speak about Divya Palat, people say she’s a creative person who tries to do something different all the time. What’s your source of inspiration?
A: Honestly, I love doing things differently cause I get bored very quickly so I constantly need to find inspiration. So it’s anybody – from a child to something that looks pretty on the road, anything gives me an idea. I like to try and absorb as much as I can. I think you should be able to find inspiration everywhere and that’s why I enjoy teaching as well. I’m working with a whole bunch of new people who’ve never been on stage before. But with a single person I work with, I always try to get some form of inspiration. Today, we’ve got a brand new set and cast that we work with together as a team and everything that they were doing was giving me forms of inspiration.
Q. How did you think of starting YouTheatre?
A: I’ve always believed that you should use arts to make a change. So every single one of our plays right from when we started the company in 2003, we’ve given a percentage of our profits (about 25-30%) towards a social cause. But after a point, I tried to always link every play to the social cause that we were working with so that it didn’t seem incongruous and made sense. There were many serious plays because the causes were serious. So I decided to start a festival where everything goes to charity. It is a festival that’s for the NGO’s, about the NGO’s and with the NGO’s. So that’s what YouTheatre is about. We keep complaining about the fact that there are not enough theatre artists and people don’t really support theatre, so I thought to create a festival and give new theatre artists a chance.
Q. This year, the festival has tied up with Kamla Mehta School and Dadar School for the Deaf. Will we see any performances by these kids?
A: Yes! You’re going to see them on the last day. In fact, in one of the performances, the blind school actually sings the National Anthem while the deaf school does it in sign language. This is really important because sign language is totally ignored and they, without even getting the National Anthem, know how to do it. I think we should learn a little from them. The audience can sit up and take notice that it’s such a beautiful language. It’s so important to learn to communicate with people who are completely able and can do everything that we can do, except that they can’t hear.
Q. On the website, there is a quote by Pablo Picasso – “Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up…”. How much do you relate to this?
A: Completely. That’s why YouTheatre was formed, not for college groups. YouTheatre was formed for the professionals. What I mean is basically when you get a job, you kind of give up your passion, you give up your art. Life and work takes over. YouTheatre was formed to allow artists a space to reimagine. We provide the hall, advertising, hoardings, etc. free of cost for artists who want to perform. We only require the script. The script passes muster that seems to be written well. I give you a slot to perform at YouTheatre and your proceeds go back to you. We encourage new artists to come onboard and perform. These new artists who work during the day don’t want to spend a lakh and a half on hall and then advertising, costing and sets, not knowing whether you can fill up a hall. So we cover the extra costs. You’re basically putting up a show where you can experience and enjoy your passion.
Q. How do you intend to push these professionals once you’ve seen their talent?
A: We do a lot for them. In the finale, YouTheatre has cash and trophy awards. We’ve also tied up with IIFL (India Info Line) and we’ve worked with their employees over two months. We’ve created two talent shows where the employee is also awarded. I wanted companies like them to realize that it’s about business but people sitting behind computers might actually be fabulous ghazal singers, dancers, theatre artists or fabulous mimickers. I’m excited because companies like IIFL are coming forward and encouraging their employees to participate. You don’t need trophies for football and cricket, which are very important. Now, you can enjoy the fact that your company has talented people who are characteristically and artistically inclined.
Q. This year Aditya (husband) and you have stated an acting course – The Actor. What is the intention behind this?
A: This is part of my Imps (acting) course that started in 2005. After a point of time, students had learnt basic impromptu and gradually moved to the intermediate and professional impromptu and formed groups with me. Then, a lot of them said, “Hey you know what? We also want to learn serious forms of acting.” So we had direction and acting courses. Since Aditya has finished his Trinity college upto teacher level, so I said why didn’t he start a course into much more serious acting for individuals who actually want to understand how to speak, act and perform in the correct manner so we started a course called The Actor. We teach you characterization that I feel sometimes it’s taken for granted. Today’s world is a very presentation-oriented world and theatre artists have a bit of a upper hand. People would also like to have the same amount of comfort on in front of an audience so The Actor helps those who want to be serious actors and others who want to groom their speaking and speech skills to be able to think out of the box when put in a spot.
Q. In a recent conversation, a friend having moved from Delhi to Mumbai said we lack in theatre. Do you agree and what can be done about it?
A: I think the spaces need to be less expensive. In Delhi, the auditoriums are more reasonable in pricing. Mumbai has the highest entertainment taxes. So if i want to bring foreign performers, it’s extremely expensive. I think we’ve made it difficult for ourselves. We have great Marathi and Gujarati theatre, I just think the English theatre is lagging behind because its very expensive and niche. You don’t have the kind of sponsors who are actually willing to spend that kind of money on it. When you don’t have sponsors, you can’t advertise the way you should, hence you don’t fill up the auditorium. It’s a never-ending circle and you need people who come and say, “You know what, we’re going to come and spend on you, we’re going to promote this and we’re going to make this big.” Then you can have a Monday to Sunday theatre in a week. Right now, we barely have a Friday-Saturday-Sunday and Friday only for big groups.
Q. Coming back to YouTheatre, I happened to see two plays – Wizard of Oz, Jack and the Beanstalk as part of the festival shows. How did you think of bringing children stories to the festival?
A: I love Vishal Asrani’s performances. Vaipa is performing these children plays and they do phenomenal jobs that are much larger than life. I think children shows are extremely important to showcase because there are few groups who perform really great children plays. I want this festival to be all-inclusive. It doesn’t mean Hindi, English, dance, Bharatanatyam and western dance, it also means for all age groups. We have adult performers performing but its important that everybody gets a little bit of something.
Q. Last year, the festival had six shows and this year 27. How do you plan to expand the festival in the coming years?
A: I’m planning to expand the number of venues and hopefully the number of dates. Eventually, I’d like to be almost like a fringe theatre. We’ve done fringe theatre across the globe and won across categories at various festivals. Fringe theatre experience is basically any space – whether it’s a restaurant, bar or a traditional acting space, it has performers in it for that period so I’m hoping we can eventually make this more of a fringe theatre experience so for one or two weekends, or an entire week, different venues across the city can host YouTheatre and have multiple performances in each venue. This year, we have three shows from Delhi so I think we’re well on our way to actually getting there. Now, we are attracting people from across the country, which is nice as this isn’t a Government sponsored festival. But the fact that it’s being taken seriously is just amazing. I think that’s the way we want to go so we’re working organically but hopefully we’ll get there soon.
Q. Do you intend on taking some of the shows from YouTheatre to the International platform?
A: Yes definitely. ‘The Butler Did It’ will definitely start service soon. It is Aditya’s play and I’m excited about it as its come out beautifully. Hotels have already approached me for it to travel so I’m just looking at availability of the actors dates. A lot of shows, though they premiere at YouTheatre, we give them a good sounding board so they can start off with their own festivals or their own run of shows. That’s extremely important as I really want to support the artists and want them to feel they are actually good enough to afford another venue, place and other shows.
Q. Apart from all this, what can we see you do next?
A: I’ve already got a television show that’s running. This year, there are two more television shows that I’m going to be directing and producing, which is huge because for the last nine years, I had been directing TV but hadn’t been producing. In the last year, I’ve been directing and producing which is lovely. The Company (Balancing Act Productions) is also expanding quite remarkably. Plus, ‘The Butler Did It’ starts it run from October-November and we start travelling across the country so we’ve locked on November dates. The end of the year looks hectic as we move to the second season of ‘The Great Indian Home Makeover’, which Asian Paints and Pepperfry want to start early because the release has been tremendous. So it looks a packed suitcase for the next six months. I don’t see much breathing time. I’m glad I work with Aditya and see him there.