05 May

Naatak Theatre

I have had fun “discovering” Naatak Theatre, the campy, energetic, East Indian-American community theatre group centered in Santa Clara and Palo Alto.  They have done so many things right that if you’re a theatre person, you really need to check them out.  (Or if you’re not, check them out, too.)

Of course when I say “discovered”, I don’t mean the Christopher Columbus version of thinking I was the first one in empty territory.  I realized before I attended anything that Naatak was in its twentieth (now twenty-first year) of operations, having produced 57 shows with a total of 850 volunteers—the group is 100% volunteer-run—and having had a total audience of over 60,000.  But as with a lot of community theatres, they don’t get the press that lets people outside their sphere know what’s going on.  (Plus many years I’m so busy with my own work I hardly see any else’s.  Or at least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.)

The Bay Area has probably 100 community theatre groups, so why do I want you to know about this one?  Because through a combination of terrifically sound attitudes about what theatre is and can do; and through years of dedication; and through some good fortune, Sujit Saraf and Harish Agastya, the founders, have built an amazing contribution to Bay Area theatre.  I would like to see some of their ideas get around to other theatre groups or people wanting to form them.

Saraf and Agastya are the two people in the currently thirteen-member “officers’ team” who, with another friend, Sanjay Rajagopalan, had the “let’s do a play” moment in 1995 that started Naatak.  The three young men, attending Stanford and UCB, had had a number of conversations about the lack of arts in the East Asian Community.  Although this large group of immigrants and second and third generation Americans in the South Bay/Silicon Valley has prospered and enjoys comfortable homes, decent cars, and education for their children, Sujit, Harish and Sanjay felt that life could be richer, more connected and more fun if there were more arts.  Since they had all had some theatre experience in India, they started thinking maybe they could introduce something here.

By the next year, they had a play up for two nights, with a total audience of 200.  That doesn’t sound like much in the web world, but any theatre person can tell you that that is a very respectable first play, especially if you start off without much experience.  In any case, they decided there was enough enthusiasm to try one more.  By the end of 1996, and another play, they felt the venture “had legs”, said Harish when I interviewed him in May in a Santa Clara bakery/coffee house over lattes.  They were in it for the long haul, whatever it might be. At that point, Sanjay had felt compelled by a nascent startup he had created to drop out of Naatak, but two other college friends, Rajiv Nema and Manish Saber, had joined the management team.

The young men didn’t want to do just any plays.  They enjoyed the American theatre they had seen but found that often the plays didn’t speak to the issues or background of their community.  And certainly East Asian actors in existing theatres were extremely rare.

According to Harish, the Indian tradition of theatre is quite different.  “Theatre” in India, especially rural India, is a street operation, with no lights, scenery, and few props, and it is performed in a loud, posturing manner, enabling the actors to be understood over the street noise.  It has a definite “educational” component, partly because many people in East Asia don’t get formal education and can’t read.  Also, interestingly for us Americanos who are familiar with Bollywood, music isn’t a part of these productions.   Live music in East Asia is performed in the theatres—by itself, or as part of a dance program.

Therefore, when Naatak started, almost everyone had to learn by doing about the tech side of what we consider “typical” theatre—lighting, staging, makeup, and music, which Naatak uses in many productions. The tradition of “everyone helping with everything”—so familiar in mainstream American community theatre—was adopted out of need but never changed.  You might see an actor painting scenery or a director of one show at the ticket booth for the next one.

Of course members have developed interests, and skills.  Harish got into the directing side, and both from doing and from attending the non-Asian theatres, has trained himself.  Sujit meanwhile went in the playwriting direction, and a number of the pieces Naatak has performed have been his.  In fact his work has now traveled and he is known for it in the larger Indian community.

The first Naatak show I saw, MR. INDIA, had everything you would expect of an “American musical”:  a five-piece instrumental group, a “Bollywood-style dance troupe, and about 30 actors on a beautifully constructed and appointed “street scene” where the character of “Mr. India” sat selling his tea.  In the play he becomes Prime Minister, so the piece had the sardonic humor I’m sure the audience expected—swipes at Indian politics, no doubt—but also it gave people like me a little taste of Indian commercial and political life.  The show was in Hindi, with opera-style supertitles, so following the story was easy.

During intermission, tea and samosas were available.  Many in the audience wore gorgeous saris and other East Asian garb, so I was able to enjoy going to “another country” for a couple of hours.  For only $25!

In other words, some of Naatak’s shows are a kind of mix of the educational component of Indian theatre, the music of Bollywood, and the presentation techniques of European-American theatre.

But while Naatak does want to represent and comment on the culture from which they and most of its audience derive, that isn’t really their driving concept.  What they want is to represent and comment on the life of the people who are here, in the South Bay, including the influence of their culture of birth.  There are all the issues of adjusting to a new culture, both for people not born here, and those that are.  And there are also all the issues we all are dealing with:  politics, sexual politics, economic stresses, etc.  Harish and Sujit, and the others who make central decisions as a team, want theatre to really offer some understanding to their audience, give them something to help them carry on, give their own cultural perspective perhaps, and not just “entertain”, frighten, or amaze them.  Bring in some fun, but also leave them with something to think about.  They don’t do the nudity, the one-person monologues, the endless miserable families with skeletons in their closets: traits now endemic in “mainstream theatre”.

It is this aspect of Naatak that I find such a relief, and which I think has been fostered so much by their attitude of inclusion and equality.  As I mentioned, the group is 100% volunteer, and many volunteers move from acting to back stage to front of house.  You have a situation where everyone’s contribution is really valued, so you don’t have “stars” and “drudges”.  It’s just my opinion, but I’m fairly sure that this has led to all sorts of people contributing good ideas and also more energy and time than they expected.  Judging by their web site, people are free to help with as many productions as they can manage, but drop back for a new job or a new kid.

To give you an idea of their work, I’ll mention the last two plays.  AIRPORT INSECURITY is a timely, full-length, non-musical, about a man on a business trip who loses his wallet and passport in the Frankfort airport.  He ends up stuck 48 hours, not knowing how to get out, and worried about his wife at home about to go into labor.  This is probably the nightmare of about half the Naatak audience every night, in fact of about everyone with brown skin in America.   This play was done in English.

MELA was their second production of five one acts, each in a different native Indian language, and each written by a classic playwright.  The supertitles were English, which essentially their whole audience speaks.

The company has also included some “Western” plays.  These have included TAMING OF THE SHREW—in Hindi; and  NOISES OFF and  AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, in English.  They hope to both extend their audience and train their company with these pieces.  But most of their work will remain South Asian culturally:  “creating a culture of active theatre-going in the South Asian-American community, and bridging the boundary between it and the mainstream community”, in Harish’s words.

One thing I asked Harish about was their philosophy about women in theatre.  (Mainstream American theatre still runs only about 10% plays written by women.  Parts for men in the mainstream vastly outnumber parts for women, especially anyone not pretty and not 20-30 years old.)  He seemed surprised and had to think about my question, but said that they had women in all the production positions, five of the management team are women, and that parts for women in the plays to him seemed to be included in the same amounts that they are in real life.   I certainly am in no position to comment with the small number of plays I have seen.  It will be interesting to see if any of the women associated with Naatak have a reaction.

In our talk, I asked Harish about future plans for Naatak.  He said they wanted to continue extending their audience, and have started something called Naatak Up Close, small, minimal production shows which can travel outside the South Bay.  My husband and I saw one of these in San Ramon not long ago, and found it well done, with excellent acting and pacing and fun use of props.  Ironically, you could say they were back to the original “Indian theatre”, but  the acting was realistic and the themes quintessentially American.  They weren’t out on a street, shouting against the street hulabaloo, but in a community center.

But Naatak’s biggest hurdle, Harish said, is the lack of their own theatre space.   The theatre season right now, he said, is based on random availability of performing spaces.  They often have to sign for the space before they have even decided the show.  90% of their budget going for rent, they think they can do better.  They would no longer have limited rehearsal and set-building time.  They have looked at commercial, warehouse and any other spaces that might serve their needs;  however, with real estate at such a premium right now, it may be a while before a place can be found.

The Naatak website,,  has blurbs and trailers for all their previous plays, and some fun videos showing numerous members of the company.  Here their wealth of experience with all things techie shines:  beautifully designed posters, intriguing trailers, user-friendly ticketing information.  The Silicon Valley in spades. Check it out;  just seeing all the beautiful, smiling faces on people building sets, practicing lines, and running music will give you a lift.  Here is theatre doing what it was really meant to do. Then make a reservation for “India South Bay.”