Backstage is where the real lessons are learnt

Time passes, never to return. How precious time is has been the subject of so many songs and scripts and has inspired many great love stories. And legendary poems and lyrics that remain in our memory for a long, long time. Parents always tell us to make the most of the present moment because once gone, it will never return. Yet as an actor (on stage, television or film) experiences are relived, memory is revisited and often the past comes back totally unbidden. Especially when the experience is one that turned you inside out! I had once read: Experience is a great teacher, she puts you to the test first and the lesson is learnt later.

Most professions demand hard work , long hours and a pushing need to perform. Think of a doctor, lawyer, pilot, corporate boss — it is the same when you are an actor. A career that looks very glamourous on the outside is actually very gruelling on the inside. I know a young doctor pursuing an internship, who works a 14 hour day starting at 3 p.m. The same goes for actors. One can arrive for a rehearsal at noon, but if the scene is going off, then it will be close to midnight before pack up is announced. Let me share some experiences that every actor knows only too well. Because at all times a stage actor will want to try his hand at television or film. When shooting for a film, all lead and sub-lead actors are given a vanity van for dress/ make up/ changes/ downtime...(when I say sub-lead I mean the heroine’s mother or sister or aunt). Typically this is an elongated van, the travelling recreational vehicle type, with an attached toilet that is the size of a postage stamp. It also contains a tiny built-in bed, a few chairs and a mirror. Electricity is supplied by a generator parked outside. The amusing thing is that your hierarchy is known by the number of people crammed into the van — the spot boy positioned outside, the number of stage hands or production crew who dance attendance around you. The amount of attention given to the lead actor/ supporting actor/ chorus group actors can be nerve wracking your ego.

Let me give you an example. When I was playing a supporting role in No One Killed Jessica, I was sharing a van with a young actor who was someone who had been directed by me onstage. But the moment we met inside the van, she became a prima donna. She demanded two hours of the make up crew’s attention and appropriated the main mirror. So naturally I got the mirror outside the toilet door, the one which got in the way of everyone! Every few minutes the door was opened in my face, when someone needed to use the toilet. Also all the outside production crew on the film set also needed to use the loo and would use ours! It was a great learning experience. I am fortunate in that I have never wanted to prove I am “numero uno”, nor did the urge to “shut” others come easy to me. I could laugh and say , “toll tax will need be paid by all those that go past me! A smile in my direction.” One day I left a bowl of sweets outside the door and said, this is “payment to those that leave smiling!” All I remember is I made many friends with the production crew, and the day I left Mumbai they presented me with a huge box of sweets!

Let me tell you hanging around a vanity van for hours, all made up and ready is a tiring business. If the shot demands morning light then everyone better be ready and waiting before dawn... if there is a technical glitch then even the most famous actor will have to wait it out. Then they must switch on the energy before camera even if it be 2 am in the morning.

Another great backstage lesson is throwing ego out of the window. Most times the people who matter most are your make up crew, your light crew, your production crew. They should have your back! I know one stage actor who called a light technician a four letter word offstage, during an argument. His next performance was pretty much in shadows! The actor had to apologise later, knowing the production crew are integral, a good team makes a good show. No one is SO big, they can shine on their own! Inter dependence is the name of the game!

One young actor who played the Beast in the musical, Beauty & The Beast was wearing so much make up, he was almost unrecognizable as himself. Also at one time, the poor fellow due to the heavy layers of make up had broken out into a bad attack of acne.  When a young fan in the audience was told, ' look there goes the Beast!". This was backdoor post performance and the little fellow burst out, “Him?! He’s so tiny... where is the Beast’s head?”. Often the persona onstage gets mixed up with our real life, it can be confusing! Can you imagine what happens to the man who plays Lord Ram onstage! He must be plagued by people’s prayers ( joking!).

That aura around famous actors is built out of hard work, sweat and tears and just got polished as it went through fire! Like ordinary metal turns into a diamond.  Onstage. On film, is what the audience sees. Backstage is where the real lessons are learnt and here a mere man morphs into an actor!

Sabharwal is a theatredirector& novelist

Bubbles Sabharwal