This is a landmark year for the youth festival Thespo—its 20th edition commences on December 17.
Flashback to twenty years ago, Quasar Thakore Padamsee and his buddy Christopher Samuel at St Xavier’s College go to check out the play by rival, Ruia College, at an inter-collegiate drama competition. “And as soon as the curtain opened, we knew we had lost,” Quasar recalled. “It was incredible in every way, and there were just 20 people in the hall. Chris and I had the same thought—if there is such good work out here, why aren’t people seeing it. Why isn’t there a way of feeding it into the mainstream?”
That was one the triggers for Thespo—the annual drama competition and festival for under-25s that Quasar and his theatre-loving friends, Arghya Lahiri, Chris Samuel, Nadir Khan and Toral Shah started on a small scale, to encourage youth theatre. “How do we take these performances to more people? How do we give these plays the right skills to make them better?”
The first Thespo Festival was held in December 1999 at the Sophia Bhabha Hall as a one-act play competition with an awards presentation. By 2003, Thespo had invited plays from New Delhi, while plays from Mumbai travelled to participate in Thespo Bangalore. The festival which had done only English productions, opened its doors to plays from all languages. So Thespo’s fifth year was a three-city and four-language 11-day event. At Thespo 20, 271 groups registered from 13 cities and towns, with plays in several languages and a bewildering variety of subjects and styles; the Thespo selection committee travelled to these places, in order to pick a shortlist for the festival.
Over the years, to make the event more broad-based, a festival magazine was started, the Thespo Poster Design Competition was created and Work It Out programme was initiated– a series of mentoring workshops where the performing groups got to interact with a professional director and writer over two days. To reach out to wider audiences, segments on Radio Plays and Documentary filmmaking on theatre were also started. Now apart from the annual competition and festival, Thespo is a year-long activity with plays being performed at other venues, along with workshops on various aspects of theatre.
“The aim was not just to get audiences interested, but to build strong theatre individuals who would carry on the work later. Over the years we had some very powerful plays…you get that attitude at 30, when you are worried about where the money will come from. At 20, you don’t give a s***,” said Quasar in an earlier interview.
“We also realised that a lot of young people had the love of theatre, but not the means. We provided the means—we said, we are here, come and do it. I realize now that we must have seemed pretty arrogant, just walking in to people’s rehearsals and telling them how to make it better. But we also learnt a lot of stuff as we went along. All the things we started doing, people came to value. Young people connected to each other in amazing ways. We try to be a touchstone for theatre… they may come for whatever reason, but it should be the beginning of a relationship with theatre.” As a result of the Thespo team’s training, exposure, encouragement, many theatre practitioners today, stated their journey with Thespo.
Thespo also started the tradition of honouring theatre veterans, which is a great way of acknowledging their work and reminding others of it. This year columnist, author, playwright, Shanta Gokhale will be given the Lifetime Achievement Award. Volume 1 of the Thespo Writes! compendium will also be launched.
Funding has never been easy since most corporates care more about footfalls and return on investment. Thespo gets some of its funding from crowdsourcing; this year, Godrej Properties came on board as a sponsor.
Before embarking on the 11th edition of Thespo, Quasar and his team had gone through a more severe bout of introspection than usual. “Do we need to do this? Can be just hand it over so someone? When we started, we had no idea it would go on for so long,” says Quasar, “At that time very few young people were writing and directing college plays. The average age of the theatre actor was 30. Then a few new groups brought the age of the theatre actor down. It must us think about whether we needed to be around. Two things came back from the people involved with Thespo. One, that it would be stupid to shut down. Thespo helped so many people to become career actors or theatre practitioners. People who started off with Thespo stayed or came back to perform. Two, watching other college theatre festivals made everyone appreciate Thespo more. Thank God we made the right decision to go on.”
Twenty years on, the same reasons apply!
For Thespo 20, every square foot of Prithvi Theatre will be occupied, with four full-length plays, four fringe performances, for platform performances, seven writing workshops, four participative readings and two international collaborators… and many young people getting their feet wet in the vast ocean of theatre.
Deepa Gahlot is one of India’s seniormost and best known entertainment journalists. A National Awardwinning film critic, Deepa has watched more movies and theatre than most people in the country. An author of several books on film and theatre, she has had an extremely successful run as head of theatre and film at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, during which she helped nurture several original productions. For Xyngr, Deepa Gahlot reviews theatre and cinema.