In Conversation with Chandan Roy Sanyal, Film and Theater Actor, Director

03Jun09


Chandan Roy Sanyal, 27, is a theatre director, as well as one the main supporting actors in the upcoming Vishal Bharadwaj starrer ‘Kaminey.’ Known for his productions with Q Theater Productions, he is currently involved in directing the Bertolt Brecht play, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. It begins its run from July 2009.

What are you currently working on?

I am directing a Bertolt Brecht play called ‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.’ It’s about this imaginary place where the characters want to drink away their days and have sex all year round. I have adapted it to the Indian stage by including songs in English, Gujarati, and Hindi. The themes running across the plot are extremely relevant in today’s rock and roll times, and there is this constant reminder of being true to yourself.

How did you choose this play?

Last November, when I was performing in Midsummer’s Night Dream at the National Center for Arts in Ottowa, I attended a lecture at the Brecht Symposium and that’s where I learnt about the play. ‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’ was written by Brecht and the music was composed by Kurt Weill. What drew me to the play were its themes about breaking from the system and about mocking people who weren’t being true to themselves.

I returned to Mumbai in December and searched for copies of the play everywhere. Apparently, it isn’t as well known as I had thought. Finally, after months of searching, Vishal (Bharadwaj) asked me what I was planning to do after Kaminey wrapped up. When he heard my plans about directing, he said he had a copy of the play and I could not believe my luck! After reading the script, I decided that the play would have greater impact if it was translated into Hindi and Gujarati. I got in touch with a NSD professor, Vivek Mishra and finalized the adaptation.

Looking back, I think it was a good idea to translate the play into various Indian languages. It messes up (in a fun way) the audience’s involvement with the theatrical process when suddenly they are assaulted by crude Hindi right after a line of beautiful English poetry.

Do you have any suggestions to new directors on selecting a play?

First, I’d say read many books, and not just a Brecht or a Gulzar. Immerse yourself in popular fiction, watch many movies, don’t be a cultural snob and absorb the world around you. Be open to things and this will help you in getting rid of stereotypes. Identify whether you want to work with an original piece (written by you or a friend) or use one of the many plays that exist. Finally, read it at least twice, the first time, as a story, and the second time, imagining how your characters will be presented, what color schemes you’d want to use, how the lighting and set will be designed. And make notes!

Once you are comfortable with your play selection, get your production team in place. Yes, even before your leading man has been cast. Your production team is your backbone, it will keep things together when you are ready to tear up your script and rip up the backdrop. I scout around for a production manager, a set designer (who usually doubles up as a costume designer), a light designer and a sound engineer, if your play has sound effects. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, back in 2002, there were at least 5 different musical tracks for a party scene. Romeo flirting, Juliet dancing with uncle, Juliet and Romeo dancing, extras looking shocked, and romantic music when Romeo sees Juliet for the first time.

Sound: However, my play does not require any specific sound design since most of our songs will be a capella and we are using bottles filled with rice grains, and shoes to create beats.

Set Design: I met my set designer through a common friend. She’s an architect and I have had a lot of fun jamming with her on the set plans. Our set will be built out of packaging boxes and each side of the box will be painted with different motifs for a 3-D effect. For each scene, the boxes will rotate to represent a different room. I believe in sets being visually enriching and yet not overly done. The theater is all about imagination, and pinching pennies. There’s no need to spend 2 crores on a set. Extensive does not always mean successful. Directors should think out of the box and go beyond minimalism.

Costumes: I told my actors to think about their characters and the five different things their characters are likely to wear in real life. Then our costume designer and I sat together discussing each look, highlighting the actors’ profiles and what colors would suit them. I need to also make sure that while the character comes through; my actors should also look good. Presentation is key.

Light Design: When you read the script, you should imagine how you want specific images to look like. For example, at a Birthday party scene, would you focus on the birthday candles flickering in the inky darkness of the theater, or do you want bright glaring strobe lights to signify day time. Always talk to your light designer and get his feedback on how he wants an actor positioned, or whether the stage needs to be lowered.

Casting: Quasar (Thakore) and Toral (Shah) my friends from QTP helped me look for actors. We called and emailed people, and finally, I got my cast of 22 actors. I then conducted workshops since they are a mixed bunch of people, and I wanted to make sure that an actor with absolutely no theater experience does not look foolish standing next to a theater veteran. The workshops helped us all get to know each other, our characters, and how to best position ourselves to attract lighting and audience interest. Since the play is a musical, I also arranged for a vocals coach to come in and work with my cast members. Singing classes are about an hour everyday and my actors practice while traveling in autos, riding their bikes, cooking dinner etc. They also have line rehearsals where they practice dialogues with a family member. That’s how involved an actor should be.

Staging: We aim to open in the third week of July. Currently, I am in talks with the NCPA and Prithvi theater to see which dates are available. We pay them a booking amount, and then split the profits from the ticket sales.

How tough was it to get started?

Theater cannot always pay your rent, that’s a fact. I have had to do other things, like conduct workshops for corporates, do some film acting. However, it’s like any other profession. If you keep at it, you are sure to find a place for yourself. I remember how I used to be an extra with the one line dialogue and today…it’s so much more. [laughs]

What’s the most memorable moment in your theater career?

Once after handing out water bottles to theater directors at Thespo, (Q Theater Production’s annual theater festival) I sat on a stone bench outside and told myself I would be back and not just hand out bottles. The next year, I sat on that same bench, and heard my name being called out for the Best Actor and Best Play award. That was a surreal moment. Everything was slow motion.

Do you have any advice for first time theater enthusiasts?

Well, I am still learning myself. But I can say keep your mind open. Do everything, pour water for the resident diva, photocopy scripts, label costumes, hammer set pieces in place, meet a lot of people. You never know from where you will get your inspiration from. If you are really interested, you can always come volunteer for us as a production assistant and see if this is what you want to do.

Takeaways – How to become a theater director

  1. Read and identify the play you want to direct. Talk to people; get their ideas on the plot.
  2. Scout for a production team, always get expert opinion on lighting, set, sound, and props – the four production fundamentals.
  3. Volunteer as a production assistant in festivals such as Thespo and Writers Bloc and network.
  4. A good director is familiar with set, lighting and sound techniques. Familiar, not expert. The theater community in India is close knit, you can always get help.
  5. As a starting point, log on to the Thespo website and register as a director. The Thespo team helps you in putting together a production.

Useful Links:

Thespo: http://www.thespo.org/
Email: thespo@gmail.com

Chandan: chandanroysanyal@hotmail.com

Q Theater Productions: qtp@vsnl.com
The Script: http://qtpthescript.blogspot.com/

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One Response to “In Conversation with Chandan Roy Sanyal, Film and Theater Actor, Director”

  1. 1 Anubhav Ghosh

    Koooool….
    We need such "thinking" actors..
    Thanks for the post…


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