Theatre staves off boredom
Michael Muthu tells Preeti Zachariah what it means to have spent a lifetime in theatre as his Boardwalkers turns 25
On stage, time acquires another dimension. You leave behind the familiar and slip into that parallel universe unfurling in front of you. You wear the skins of other people, you see the world through their eyes, and you live their lives, for a little while. It is almost like a time-machine that catapults you into different worlds, over and over again.
Over the last 25 years, Michael Muthu (“call me Mike”), of the Boardwalkers (“because actors walk the boards”), has explored many of those worlds. He has wandered through the ancient city of Jerusalem with a new age Jesus Christ, his eclectic bunch of disciples and the woman who does not know how to love him, yet simply does (Jesus Christ Superstar). He has snuck into four different hotel rooms, with Quentin Tarantino (Four Rooms) and observed the rather atypical behaviour of its occupants. He has watched William Shakespeare (Shakespeare in Love) fall in love; shuddered with Edgar Allan Poe’s protagonists and slipped into a murky French brothel (Moulin Rouge) to tell the story of a doomed love that once blossomed there.
“It staves off boredom,” says Mike, nonchalantly, “That is how I got through the last 25 years. If you don’t have a play, what else is there?”
It began, he says, while he was still a student at the Loyola College, Chennai, “I acted for a couple of years and then the directing bug bit me,” he laughs. “The idea to start a theatre group was in college and when we passed out it was the first thing we did. Our first production was Jesus Christ Superstar. The choice was obvious to me — I am a big Jesus freak and I love rock music, this had both those elements. Besides, it is a beautiful piece that can’t go wrong,” he says.
True enough. The Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic which was first performed in the city in 1991 and was repeated in 1995, 1998, 2006 and 2010, will again be performed this year as part of the Boardwalkers’ 25th anniversary celebration. The celebration, sponsored by the Alpha Group of Institutions, will see Boardwalkers coming up with a new production, every month of the year and will kick off with a tribute concert to The Doors.
“The Doors is one of my favourite bands, actually is a lot of people’s favourite bands. These guys are iconic,” he says.
Music has always been an important part of Mike’s life since he picked up his guitar and started strumming. Which is perhaps why, so many of the shows he has directed are musicals.
“I love musicals. Of course, they are challenging in more ways than one. You need to find someone who can both dance and sing and that is difficult — you either have to find an actor and teach him to sing or a singer and teach him to emote. But I think standards have improved and if you have enough money and are well-rehearsed you can do it well,” he says.
Not that challenges faze Mike, he seems incredibly laid-back. “Look, if I’m going to invest time and money in something, it has to really excite me. I like Pulitzer-winning scripts, the best plays of the year. I also tend to gravitate towards Broadway and Westend scripts. I’ve also started off on movies. When I like a movie, I figure out how to put it on stage,” he says, candidly, adding, “The one criteria I have for a script is seeing how long it takes me to read it. If I can finish it without putting it down, it is worth my effort. If I have to constantly pick it up and put it down, it doesn’t work for me and I’m sure it won’t work for my audience either.”
And that is perhaps why, he says that he is not a fan of Indian playwrights, “Except Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder, I haven’t really used too many Indian scripts. This was the only one I could finish at one sitting. I find that with most Indian plays, the themes are too cosmetic, the logic isn’t right, the dialogue is too long and rambling.”
Another thing he seems to dislike, so-called experimental theatre. “The theatre scene in Chennai is growing — some of it is good, a lot is not. I think it’s a good thing that young actors are experimenting so much but you have to quality control, else you will end up losing your audience. You can’t give your audience half- baked stuff, you have to realise that if it wasn’t for them, you would not exist. If you’re doing a show, make sure that it is well rehearsed,” he says.
On future plans, “I’m planning to cut down the amount of theatre I do and get into films. I’ve been wanting to make movies ever since I was a kid,” says Mike, who acted in Manoj Night Shyamalan’s debut film, Praying With Anger and has also directed a film in 2002 called The Girl, “It wasn’t a bad flick, by half,” he smiles. “But I didn’t get the price I wanted for it so I put it away and never sold it.”
Surprisingly, unlike most actors and directors who straddle both celluloid and stage, Mike believes that there is no difference between the two. “Sure you have location instead of sets but the lights, sounds, costumes, make-up, props are the same. You have a camera instead of a live audience and the nice thing is you can take that audience, anywhere you go. The technique is different but the core is the same. Another thing, with film, if you do a piece of work that works, it is there for eternity and millions of people will see it. That appeals to me a lot,” he says.