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First person: Mad(e) for stage

November 04, 2012

Everything from the chairs strewn about, ushers looking around for things and a buzz permeating the Mad (Music, Acting, Dance) School suggested that another performance was going to take place later that evening. But in the back room on a couch, Nida Butt sat with her legs folded, puffing away as she talked about her life, the theatre business and would-be thespians, in a conversation that was punctuated only by my questions and the pauses as she dictated her opinions.

Being opinionated was fitting for a person that trained to be a lawyer while attending Warwick until 2003. When she came back to Pakistan, she worked for the social sector in what would turn out to be her longest taste of the 9 to 5 grind. After two years in the gig, Nida decided to take the plunge into theatre.

To her credit, Nida has produced/directed a number of successful plays — The Producers (2005), Chicago, Mama Mia, Karachi: The Musical; throw in the productions that were performed for Lahore and Islamabad and she’s averaging about a play a year. A remarkable achievement for a person working in what she describes as “awful times” for the theatre industry.

Why so awful? Because there is no support and hardly any reward, she says. “When I was training to be an art manager at the Kennedy Art Centre in Washington DC, I was the only person there out of 38 managers from 28 countries that couldn’t claim any government support, funding, or even a policy that I could say helped sustain art in the country.”

From booking a date at a venue, to that famously incomplete building next to the Karachi Arts Council which reminds us of the lack of devotion to the arts in Pakistan, Nida has a whole list of grievances to voice against the forces holding theatre back here. It’s not hard to imagine that these complaints would be met with apathy, even disdain from the corners that speak out in defense of the government and how much it is supposed to do in these times. But fortunately for theatre, Nida will tell you that the general population at least is sympathetic towards the industry, largely because the industry persists despite the odds. “It’s why they come to watch our plays,” she points out.

Sponsorship too she says, can’t be counted on. “I don’t have any links to the corporate world because sponsorship isn’t based on talent here, it’s based on connections and who you know. I think there’s a good chance you will fail if you do things pro bono here.”

Which brings us to the Magnum launch event. There, Nida and crew were invited to put together A Royal Remedy, a play that followed the theme of the frozen dessert ad campaign. According to Nida, that was a heartening attempt at seeing how big corporations were seeing the value in theatre. “And we brought value to the product as well. We created a spectacle which tied their theme together; it was like watching a live commercial.” For those on whom the point of the play was lost because they felt that the production lacked a deeper storyline, Nida Butt had this to say, “It was for a product, it’s supposed to be shallow!”

It’s hard not to enjoy talking to an opinionated artisan, so I revelled at asking Nida about her competition. That was when the lawyer in Nida strode out and answered, “I don’t think about them.” That was just after I named the Shah Sharabeels, Usama Qazis, etc, in response to her initial question, “What competition?”

When I pressed, Nida refrained from speaking about any one particular producer or director. Instead she talked about the industry as a whole and how the quality of plays was seriously lacking. “Equis was the best play I’ve seen done by somebody else. Otherwise, good quality theatre is hard to find. You can use hijras but, really, that’s toilet humour, like the Alhamra shows with screaming and shouting. Where is the class?” Or take the sets, she says, “Our set was in Karachi: The Musical was three dimensional. You could climb up the stairs, and there were three different shops where there was activity going on. All I’ve seen otherwise is chamkeeli lights.”

Quality in theatre might certainly fluctuate, but there is one thing that keeps bothering me about the industry: the lack of plays in Urdu. All our plays, at least the ones advertised on hoardings, seem to be adapted from the West, and besides Karachi: The Musical and Pawnay 14 August, there were few other plays I can think of that were promoted and were in Urdu. It is also interesting, if not disconcerting, to note that the audience and cast at most of these plays tend to thrive ‘this side of the Clifton Bridge’. Without making much of an argument for or against the phenomenon, I asked Nida why this was so. It was a question we both tried to answer with wavering success.

One reason we both agreed upon was that there was a serious dearth of scriptwriters. Or, as she puts it, “They all died.” When Anwar Maqsood finally penned a script, it completely took over and was a roaring success. According to Nida, there are two distinct demographics in the population now, the young and the old. The younger generation at least “doesn’t seem to have very many Urdu scriptwriters anymore. Maybe it’s because we never saw any plays in Urdu growing up. In fact it’s not even about Urdu, we don’t have any original scripts or scriptwriters period.”

Still Nida is hopeful about the resurgence of theatre. “We’re starting anew, she says, “and it’s unfortunate that we aren’t able to produce enough quality, but its okay. We’ll get there. I myself make a list of things I could have done better with each play. And there are always things you can do better, from the lights to the sound, sets, etc.”

What peeves her though is that some times people review plays in the industry in ways that she describes as unfair. Last month, after reviews of The Pillowman came out, Nida Butt published an ‘open letter to the editor’ on Facebook. When I spoke to her, Nida talked about how it irks her that some of the people that review plays are unqualified. “How can you expect a 19-year-old to seriously critique a play?” It’s not about the age she says, it’s about the exposure, the number of plays the person has seen and how qualified they are to publish their opinions on theatre. “There is a lot of money that goes in to this, this is our livelihood, and often times our work is reviewed by people who really have no business doing so.”

After a while, I also couldn’t help but ask her how she would answer critics who would say that Nida Butt went to law school, she didn’t study theatre. With a curl of her mouth, Nida answered, “Education or knowledge doesn’t come from school; it’s your experience that brings you the ability to do this. Paul McCartney can’t read music. You don’t get experience from watching, you get it by doing. Copying a synopsis from Wikipedia is not a review. I’m not saying you have to be an expert, but to come from a place of complete darkness is not acceptable.”

I asked Nida to grade herself and she felt averse to doing so. It was only after much prodding (and my repeated confirmations that she wouldn’t seem like a horrible person) that she said that she feels her plays are at par with the best in the country; maybe not internationally but she’s gunning for it. “I think B+ and A- is what we’re straddling right now.”

With The Pillowman, Nida tried something new with her plays, what she calls “the impact of intimate audiences.” Performed in what I have been calling the Mad Room, thanks to the murals and mirrors, the play is performed with minimal props, but with the audience up close and on either side of the actors. In a setting so close, where the stage and the floor share the same space, the gore of The Pillowman becomes even more disturbing.

Did it work? “Absolutely,” says Nida. “If the actor is close enough for you to touch, but he’s disconnected, immersed and you can see the spit flying from their mouth, you feel like you’re there. Everyone loved that about The Pillowman. It only took a month to pull it off and we sold 1,900 tickets.”

Nida gave me a glimpse into the future by talking about her next venture, God of Carnage. So, is dark comic horror the new direction for her? Although she didn’t confirm it, I for one am glad that we are beginning to see less of the typical happy dance-filled plays.

In all, it would be safe to say that Nida Butt and her school are past the topic of ‘what they are trying to do for theatre in the country’. They’re here to stay if anything. And for those who wanted to get a glimpse into the new emerging world of Nida Butt, The Pillowman had a special performance on Halloween.