An interview with Quasar Thakore Padamsee, in which the director talks about his latest – a production of Duncan MacMillan’s Every Brilliant Thing featuring Vivek Madan
Every Brilliant Thing is a play on depression, among other things. Are you and Vivek Madan staging it in the way it has been performed internationally?
To be honest, I have even abstained from watching the UK trailer, so I am basically only responding to the text. I’ve been wanting to do the play since reading it around two years ago. Beyond that I had no idea about what form it might take on stage. I did hear a podcast by Jonny Donahoe, who performed it for many years. That’s the only thing, so I can’t even tell you if it’s being done like it’s been done elsewhere but we are relatively faithful to the material and to the idea that the audience’s presence is huge constantly. I think I might even be using them a little more. It’s also just one actor in the round — we’ve stuck to that format. I believe there’s a version that takes place in a proscenium.
Because of the interactiveness, will it be different each time it’s performed?
Well, we adhere to how the play has been constructed. Yes, there’s an incredible amount of participation and sharing with the audience, and that almost creates the piece as we go along. It would be hard if we didn’t do it that way — the way it’s written. It’s one of those things where playwrights are, more and more, loading their work so that it is performed in the way they had imagined it.
You must have worked with a lot of test audiences.
One of the things the play demands is that you localise it. It has to be the story of the person performing it. Not via personal details necessarily, but the locale and milieu of whichever country it’s performing in. So first up, we did a lot of script airings. We did the first one in Bombay, and after the first run of rehearsals in Bengaluru, we came back here. In Bengaluru we did one script airing and one work-in-progress performance. An airing, a word we’ve coined, is like reading through a script, with a bit of the movement, and the idea is that people pay very close attention to the text. Today, we did a preview with an audience. Right through this week I’ve kept calling people in, sometimes very randomly. And that’s the whole point, since it’s an incredibly interactive show.
To crack this form, did your experience with Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit help?
I had actually discovered this play along with Nassim’s play, and we (at QTP) felt that it would be silly to do both plays in the same year, since they were so similar. In one, the audience interaction is by design, and in the other, the actor himself doesn’t know what’s happening. I guess the experience with White Rabbit Red Rabbit must have helped, because we were constantly working with audiences, but I think there’s also the influence of makers like Daniel Bye or Tim Crouch.
In the shows that they do, they know what’s happening and the audience doesn’t — that kind of table tennis is very exciting for me. Daniel had come to India with a show called Going Viral. Basically, he’s in the round and he talks to the audience. The way he tells the story, it’s a sharing in which the narrative constantly shifts. It’s very personal and intimate. His other show, The Price of Everything, was much more participatory. So, their general kind of work, Nassim’s work, my conversations with Nassim, even a play like Mike Bartlett’s Cock —
So there’s a lot that may have prepared you for this outing.
As a company we are very excited with the way stories are told, and the new ways in which they can be recounted. Which is why I have been drawn to a Nassim Soleimanpour or a Daniel Bye. Every Brilliant Thing seems like a natural progression to all that in terms of staging it.
However, for us it’s much more than just that. It’s the actual topic we’re dealing with that is so much more compelling. Depression is something that, bloody hell, nobody even wants to talk about. In our many readings, people who we know have been coming and listening, and we’ve discovered that almost a quarter of them have had mental health issues or know people going through something similar. These are people I have known my whole life, and I had no idea. So, it’s such an important show because you’ve got to talk about it.
How does the play deal with such a subject?
I think it’s a remarkable piece of writing because it’s not a play about depression, it’s a play about life, it’s about everything that is good about the world, it’s about family. Depression is a theme, it’s not the play. It’s almost like people labelling or pigeon-holing a play featuring gay characters as a ‘gay play’, rather than a real human story. We gain much more insight about an issue or a struggle, when it’s seen in a larger everyday context, rather than when it is highlighted or underlined.
Did you find parallels with Arghya Lahiri’s Wildtrack, which was about the slow ebbing of a man’s faculties?
Well, the forms are very different. For us, Wildtrack is very much the story of a love affair. In the scrambled manner it unfolds, you only actually realise there’s a problem in the last two scenes. That’s when you get very conscious about the onset of dementia. But it’s a much heavier piece. Every Brilliant Thing is lighter, much more uplifting.
How did the rehearsals pan out?
Even during rehearsals, we’ve had to adhere to the performative format, and it gets really complicated. We spent a lot of time fixing the different trajectories the play could travel along, with each path having its own consequences. It could be set off just by Vivek taking a line in a different manner, and how he decides to moves ahead.
It’s unpredictable in that sense, so he has to think on his feet as well.
Incredibly, a lot. The one thing that I have really benefited from is that Vivek is also a director, he has the ability to respond while he’s acting. He can take a call in-performance, making a value judgement about what could be dramatically better or not, not in terms of an actor’s impulse alone, but from understanding the graph of the play. To be honest, I didn’t realise that until this week.
How did you go about casting Mr Madan in this part?
A year ago, at World Theatre Day, Abhishek Majumdar and I had a conversation about how actors are no longer bound by cities, and where they could work. Mohit Takalkar was working with actors from Jaipur, and Abhishek frequently collaborates with actors from Mumbai. This constant cross pollination had begun to happen and it was fantastic.
That conversation contributed to the thought that we should look outside the regular pool of actors that we work with. It was a one-man show, so it wasn’t like we were looking to cast twenty people from another city. I had also worked with Arundhati Nag in Mother Courage, so I had the first-hand experience of the very different dynamic that comes in with actors from another city with its own theatre culture. I quite enjoyed that. I was looking for another such experience. The other stipulation was that I wanted someone who understood the text. The big thing about Duncan’s writing is his language, which I really enjoy. Sometimes even actors fluent in English might not grasp the idiom of a particular piece of writing. I did not want to disturb the rhythm of the language, so I wanted someone who got it instinctively. Which Vivek does.
I’ve known Vivek my entire professional life. I first met him in 2001, that’s a really really long time. I’ve always liked him on stage, and I’ve always liked him telling stories, even casually, like when we are at a bar or some place. He and I started chatting about the play, and he seemed kind of interested. I don’t think it was an audition, because honestly, I wouldn’t know what to audition for a play like this. I knew he could read text well, I had seen him do that. By his own admission he’s a rather laid-back actor, but when we stepped out of the rehearsal room he turned around and said, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for, for so long.’
A show like this has to be built, you know, by everyone. The trust between collaborators has to be huge. I had thought, that I have known him for so long, would he take me for granted? But he’s jumped into the play, and he loves doing it. The first ten days when I was in Bangalore was great because I got to work outside my comfort zone, and all I was doing was the play. There was no other engagements that I was involved with. It’s quite exciting, it’s a completely different way of working. The sessions, with their own audiences, have each been different in the most diverse of ways. ✑