The first-floor corridor of Little Angels Modern High School in Bengaluru's Sadananda Nagar may not seem like an ideal location for a flash mob. Nonetheless, just as the teachers and trainers wrap up lunch, Divya, Ramya, Sushmita and Prem take positions. What follows is a foot-tapping rap number about a panda who likes bonda!
Somewhere in a corner, Anita Mithra can't stop smiling. As part of TFAI's (Teaching For Artistic Innovation) pilot programme - an initiative by Sublime - to equip full-time arts teachers with an intensive curriculum in theatre, dance, music, and visual arts, Anita is gung-ho about the prospects. "To bring about a change in the education system, we have to start with the teachers. We help them explore different methods of teaching and facilitation techniques in the classroom. How can we engage children and get them interested in subjects like math and science? How can lessons be taught through storytelling technique? Our end result is not a stage production, but learning through play," says the veteran theatre actor and trainer.
Paving new paths
Anita's earliest theatre memory is of her four-year-old self dressed as Red Riding Hood for a costume competition. Amidst the many elocutions, debates and theatre activities at school, what fascinated little Anita was the "smell of the stage." Later, even as she jumped jobs across marketing, sales, advertising and journalism, her passion for plays ensured that there was always time to work with stalwarts and mentors like Mahesh Dattani, Prakash Belawadi, Arundhati and Jagdish Raja.
The recession in 2009 turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Having quit her corporate job, Anita was planning to move abroad. However, that didn't pan out and she started devoting more time to theatre. "I wasn't really thinking about a career in theatre. It was just an opportunity to do something I love till things worked out," she confides.
Things did work out, albeit in a beautiful, unexpected sort of way. The actor expanded her horizons to become an entrepreneur (The Tortilla Entertainment Company) and organiser of popular theatre festivals like Short+Sweet Festival (featuring ten-minute plays), BOAT (short play festival for 14 to 19-year-old performers) and Zip Zap Pow (all women's one-minute theatre festival).
The idea was, basically, to reach out to more people. Busy folks with shorter attention spans and reservations about booking tickets for a conventional play. "If they can't come to Ranga Shankara (one of Bengaluru's renowned theatres), we'll come to BFlat (a popular pub and restaurant in the city)," was Anita's mould-breaking rationale.
"To be an actor, you need to know yourself well. Only then can you portray other characters," believes the thespian. So, 'who am I?' is at the crux of all her theatre workshops. "I have been doing so much on the entertainment side that I wanted to explore other dimensions. That's how I got into corporate training," she says.
The idea, Anita insists, is not to make everyone an actor, but to use theatre as a transformative tool for holistic personality development. "Applied theatre can be used for self-improvement as well as a therapeutic tool. It helps real-time tweaking of personality," expounds the artiste, enchanted by the "processes" and "craft" involved in theatre.
It's not surprising that many IT folks in Bengaluru are turning to the stage for solace. "They are looking for a creative outlet and like-minded companionships. But, unlike children, who come with a clean slate, adults have so much to unlearn€¦we have forgotten to have fun!" rues Anita. Her biggest challenge, working with adults, is to get them to switch off from the outside world and actually engage, instead of merely mouthing their lines.
Psychodrama - bringing together the potent forces of theatre and psychology - could be the game changer, predicts the trainer. The key is to get "non-flaky people" who understand that theatre may lack the thrills and spills of the movies, yet can offer so much more.
Chatting in a nondescript room of a little-known school, we discuss how the 'h' in her surname makes her a Kannadiga and not a Bengali; how she was pleasantly surprised with the encouraging response for a monologue marathon recently; how she is keen to do a theatre class for young children and their mothers, especially now that she has a charming house in Koramangala - with drumstick trees, mango trees, a beautiful terrace, et al - as her workspace. Curiously, even after all these years, Anita hasn't directed a play. "I don't know enough to be a director. I'm very audience-centric. People have to get their money's worth," she retorts. However, there are certain things she knows only too well. For instance, how to keep her actors happy. "The first thing they all look for is food," she quips.