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SANKAR VENKATESWARAN――Gazing Upon the World from Kerala, India

Interview / Asia Hundreds

TTRP in Singapore

Sankar: After that, I tried to work in Kerala for a year and a half but no, it was a miserable failure because I could direct and work with my actor colleagues of my classroom. But, when I was starting to work with professional actors I realized I do not have a first-person understanding of how the actor works. So then, I thought like I wanted to go and understand the process of acting, which took me to the TTRP*2 (Theatre Training & Reesearch Programme) in Singapore.

*2 TTRP (Theatre Training & Research Programme) was founded with the purpose of training actors in 2000 jointly by Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002) and T. Sasitharan (year of birth withheld), two of Singapore's most renowned theater artists. Renamed to ITI (Intercultural Theatre Institute), it still exists. Since its inauguration, it has been offering a rigorous three-year training program for actors, featuring special opportunities for students to study traditional performance techniques from various Asian countries.

Uchino: There are professional actors in Kerala?

Sankar: Yes. People who make a living out of theater, not the film or TV.

Uchino: So what kind – is there a repertoire? Is that the theater company or they work freelance?

Sankar: There are commercial touring companies. They usually have contracts for 1 year for a season with one group. There are also actors working in more experimental kind of theatres. They work freelance.

Uchino: It's English again?

Sankar: Malayalam.

Uchino: It's in Malayalam and so they play within Kerala, mainly?

Sankar: Yes.

Uchino: How did you find about TTRP the same school in Singapore?

Sankar: That school really opened up a very wide spectrum of practices.

Uchino: Yeah but where did the information come from? People talked about it? It opened in 2000, I remember.

Sankar: The year before they opened, Kuo Pao Kun*3 and Sasi*4 , they had gone around the world promoting the school.

*3 Kuo Pao Kun, a leading playwright of Chinese origin in Singapore, is known not only to have published numerous plays full of rebellious spirit in both Chinese and English, but also to have directed them himself. As a pioneer in theater education in Singapore, he founded an independent school of theater and was an influential figure in this field. In his later years, while he made a great effort to fuse Asian traditional performance and contemporary theater, he launched TTRP (note 2) in 2000. Soon afterwards, much to the people's regret, he passed away young. His representative work has also been published in Japanese as "Kuo Pao Kun's Drama Anthology – When petals fall like snow" (Rengashobo Shinsha, 2000).

*4 T. Sasitharan (year of birth withheld) is an Indian-Singaporean director and theater educator. A close friend of Kuo Pao Kun (note 3), he made a major contribution to the establishment of TTRP (note 2). After Pao Kun’s death, he worked hard to keep TTRP in existence, renamed it to ITI (Intercultural Theatre Institute) and made efforts to further develop the former TTRP. He is now the director of ITI.

Uchino: Yes, I met Pao Kun in Tokyo at the time.

Sankar: And, I was also looking at other possibilities of higher education in the UK and was getting the prospectus and looking at different schools.

Uchino: I am just wondering if the UK is usually one of the very possible options for the artists in India.

Sankar: Yeah. Especially in colonial countries like India, people want to always go to the UK and get a degree and come back. So I was trying that and then I happened to find this bundle of brochures left in the school. So then, I thought it might be interesting to look eastwards and TTRP offers diverse range of traditional theaters set alongside with contemporary practices, which I thought was what I wanted.

Uchino: And again, combining with your idea of trying to know how actors work.

Sankar: Yes.

Uchino: How were your days in Singapore? I mean environment is very different. Singapore is kind of very...

Sankar: Manufactured.

Uchino: Manufactured, artificial, very capitalist atmosphere. TTRP at the beginning was situated within IT complex.

Sankar: It felt like going to bank not to a drama school. My first 1 year was great. The next 1 year was very frustrating.

Uchino: Why?

Sankar: Every 3 months, we used to have a different acting teacher and a new provost from all different places from South America, from East Asia. They had this kind of very diverse – but then after a year and a half, a permanent head of acting from Australia came on board.

Uchino: That's after Pao Kun was gone?

Sankar: Yes.

Uchino: When you attended the school, Pao Kun was not there anymore?

Sankar: No.

A photo of Mr. Sankar Venkateswaran during the interview

Uchino: What is the idea behind the change? I mean, Australia and its actor training method seems to be – it always happens in the colonial countries like Singapore or elsewhere that they invite Australians, who are very good at teaching Shakespeare – kind of a business there. I know that, but I didn't really know that was happening at TTRP.

Sankar: I think they were trying different models, experimenting to find out alternatives. It was also like there was one teacher from South America coming and teaching you one thing. At the same time you're learning Beijing opera in the evening. So, it all starts to conflict in the body. I think they were trying to address this.

Uchino: It sure is very confusing. I mean not intellectually but physically.

Sankar: Definitely Physically. Also a bit intellectually.

Uchino: Yes. Okay.

Sankar: So, you have one thing, one body for one discipline, then another body for another class – each demands a different sort of approach. Maybe they felt the need for one faculty to link things through. But then for me, to have one central approach and assimilating everything else into that was frustrating. But then things changed, school shifted campus to Emily Hill, in the midst of nature. It was not the IT campus anymore, and we started going into production work. The last 1 year was very good.

Uchino: What did you get from that experience? Intellectually or artistically what that experience at TTRP taught you? Or thinking back that what you're directing right now, right? And what was the most precious thing about being at TTRP?

Sankar: Now when I look back, I think TTRP has given me some tools to make theatre in an autonomous, self sufficient manner. The school has shaped my understanding of space, body and action like how these are understood in different cultures. Like what are the possibilities of how you look at action and how action is the building block of a piece. So, how to go into these very detailed minute aspects of theatre was something which I think I took from that school.

Uchino: Okay. There was modern acting like Stanislavski as well?

Sankar: There was Stanislavski. There was a Michael Chekhov teacher there. There was a Laban teacher there.

Uchino: Who was the Noh master?

Sankar: Kanze Hideo*5 sensei was teaching Noh for the first year of the school.

*5 Hideo Kanze (1927-2007) was a Noh actor of the Kanze school shite-kata (lead actors). He is also known to have once left the Noh performance world (1958–1979) to become active in contemporary theater as well as in films and TV dramas. After returning to his Noh actor career, he continued his activities in various fields and became known internationally.

Uchino: Yes, I remember as I was there with him for the first year. I was lecturing alongside with Kanze Hideo.

Sankar: And Kanze Yoshimasa*6 and Kuwata Takashi-sensei*7 they taught the Noh for our cohort.

*6 Yoshimasa Kanze (1970- ) is a Noh actor of the Kanze school shite-kata. Born as the eldest son of Yoshiyuki Kanze who was the third generation master of the Kanze family, he graduated from Keio University's Faculty of Law. He is also active in promoting the art of Nohgaku through TV programs.

*7 Takashi Kuwata (1971- ) from Fukuyama City, Hiroshima graduated from Meiji University's School of Political Science and Economics and trained as a private pupil in the house of Master Yoshiyuki Kanze of the Kanze Kyukokai group. In 2001, he received his diploma and became independent from the Kanze Soke family to become a Noh actor. While performing on stage, he also works actively to promote Nohgaku.

Uchino: But you really have to come out of these different kinds of acting styles. You have to choose your own. As a director, do you apply different kinds of ideas about acting to whatever project you're working on?

Sankar: When you are in the program, you want to try all these things but then when you try you realize it's not what you want. So, you finish this Noh theater training and then there is a post-modular period where you have to use that vocabulary of Noh to create something new. The moment you do that then you're done with it. Then, there is something else that stays in your body, not the techniques.

Uchino: That's a kind of unconscious memory within your body as an actor.

Sankar: Yes. But not like specific skills or set of skills.

Uchino: Because you're not going to be a Noh actor.

Sankar: Exactly.