The drama of growing old, youthfully

Youth theatre movement Thespo turns 25 this year. Alumna Ishani Chatterji, who played her part in its preteen years, relives the magic

Thespo 25: the core team and crew (Photo: Minal Porwal)
Thespo 25: the core team and crew (Photo: Minal Porwal)

Ishani Chatterji

I walk in during a meeting. Quasar Padamsee (or Q as he is better known) signals me to sit down, and briefly introduces me to the team with, “This is Ishani Glitter Gal Chatterji, she was at Thespo… 11 and 12?”

“12 and 13,” I correct him, and am immediately transported back to those days of working out of Q’s living room. His apartment was the very picture of chaos, with over 20 people claiming corners to work on their different departments.

There were paper trails of handmade flyers and brochures, boxes filled with décor from earlier productions and a big whiteboard that had a hand-drawn, colour-coded Excel sheet with names, dates and a whole bunch of abbreviations that would make no sense to a non-Thespo person. Those were Thespo’s adolescent years, back in 2010.

Today, at 25, Thespo is all adult. I can see that the festival is unlike anything I’d experienced back in the day. I watch the 20-somethings, huddled together in the Andheri office, taking Toral Shah, Vivek Rao and Q through the posters designed for this year’s plays.

Q and Toral are the founding members of Thespo, while Vivek has been associated with the festival for almost two decades. Collectively and individually, they possess the wealth of knowledge required to curate and run a successful theatre festival. Yet, I see nothing condescending about them. They give their rapt attention to the younglings, and soon, both old and new are discussing and debating colour, design and perspective.

I’ve seen this before, I probably had similar conversations, yet something felt different. A little later Q told me, “I was the one being briefed about what is happening at the festival!”

Most theatrewalas know Thespo–A Youth Theatre Movement. The festival has been around since 1999, creating and nurturing young theatre professionals, under the age of 25. Now that they are 25, do they cease to be ‘young’? That’s a question that animates my mind.

The active founder-members have now turned into mentors for the young teams and volunteers that ultimately run the show, a theatre extravaganza ranging from fringe performances to plays and workshops that takes over Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre every December.

Even the pandemic years (2021–22) couldn’t stop them. With editions 22 and 23, Thespo became India’s first international digital youth theatre festival with live performances designed for the digital medium. The show must, and did, go on.

But as the outer world alters, so do Thespo’s inner workings. When I ask how their roles have changed, Vivek says, “There has been a conscious effort by the three of us to move away from day-to-day details; it’s mostly mentoring and supervising now.”

This mentorship involves a passing on of the triad’s love for ‘glow tapes’ and drama to the new teams. Srishti Ray, a former beneficiary of the Thespo Fellowship programme, and now a mentor, tells me stories of how Toral, who otherwise ran the backstage, was ushered into Prithvi.

Q wasn’t allowed to sit for a fringe performance because the space was full up. “And that’s as it should be!” Q exclaims, as he goes on to tell me about how the festival is by the young, for the young and hence must develop independent young managers.

As a former Thespo-ite from almost a decade ago, these conversations about change are refreshing, but I can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy! All the work that seems like play. I miss it.

Thespo 25’s powerhouse team, Aliza Kathawala, Arun Gupta, Ayesha Kundra, and Mandar Neve, exude confidence. And while they do have Q, Toral and Vivek to help them along the way and “provide them with the right kind of tools and information to take Thespo forward”, they are clearly the ones calling the shots and stealing the spotlight, along with a whole bunch of volunteers, most of them theatre enthusiasts.

The theme for the 25th edition is ‘Har Rang Ka Manch’ (a stage for every shade). A total of 148 registrations came in from across the country. The screening panel travelled to 20 cities to watch plays in 17 languages.

Four plays were finally selected from three different cities—Glitch in the Myth and A Study of Fear from Mumbai; What’s there, yet not there from Lucknow; and Shim Cheong from Bengaluru.

For the first time ever, the festival features a Korean play, which will have English surtitles.

Interestingly enough, three of the four directors are women, with women-led teams. “We have four diverse stories, three originally written, one adapted from a Korean folktale,” Arun tells me. “This is the trend now,” Srishti chimes in. “Three out of the four plays have been devised end-to-end, created from scratch in a rehearsal room.”

When I think about it, devised theatre is collaboration at its peak. “Devising has become the go-to system for a lot of young people, over time. Young people, when they want to tell their stories, come together to develop a piece,” says Q.

I take one last look around the room, oscillating with my final question, as I try and understand how I truly feel about Thespo turning 25.

I am hit by a wave of nostalgia. My first Thespo, where I managed to do a little bit of everything—from putting together décor to writing press releases and making multiple Excel sheets. It was tough but I loved every minute of it. So much so that Thespo was one of the many reasons why I decided to study arts journalism and find ways of writing about the arts.

Thespo introduced me to a world of madness, chaos and theatrewalas; it taught me to collaborate and create but, above all, it showed me that if you take a group of 20-somethings who love theatre and put them in a room, the result is going to be unforgettable.

“It does feel like Thespo will be a part of history! After all, it’s a quarter of a century of being in existence,” says Toral. She goes on to say how some things at the festival remain the same: the energy of first-timers on the Prithvi stage, the first curtain-call and the first time people discover glow tapes. I remember my first time with glow tapes.

I was told (more than once) how expensive they were, how carefully they must be used, how they helped mark the stage for props and player positions with just a little piece of glow-in-the-dark magic.

Toral’s voice pulls me out of my reverie. “You don’t feel like you are that far away from where it all started, but then there are moments of not knowing everyone at the festival, and being ushered in—it’s a mixed bag of feelings!”

Vivek has a different take. “What is the new era of Thespo? How do we engage with young people now, and how can this legacy continue year after year? For me, 25 is the start of something new.”

(Thespo 25 is on at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, December 4–9 )

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