Buy your ticket to theatre eternal: Atul Kumar weaves Shakespeare’s era with contemporary threads

An acclaimed actor and director with more than 25 years of stage experience, Atul Kumar is bringing Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to Singapore, but with a twist and a new title, 'Khwab-Sa'. 

Atul Kumar Shakespeare Singapore Kalla Utsavam
Atul Kumar. Photo courtesy: Twitter

The play will be performed during Kalaa Utsavam at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from Nov 17 to 19, at 3pm and 8pm.

Also read: Must watch: 'Khwaab-Sa', the Hindi name for Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

After dabbling with different languages and forms of theatre, Atul has showcased his work all over India and abroad. As the founding member and artistic director of The Company Theatre, he has come a long way since his days as a French literature student at JNU, Delhi. On the way, he trained in Kathakali and Kalaripayattu in Kerala for more than three years and followed it up with a three-year stint in France with the master of visual theatre – Philippe Genty. Atul Kumar has also worked with Sacramento Theatre Company in the USA. He founded The Company Theatre in 1993 but has been directing and acting since the eighties.

Khwab Sa, an adaptation of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’,
Khwaab Sa – an adaptation of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Photo courtesy:

He has been awarded the French Cultural Fellowship, Charles Wallace Scholarship and Chevening Fellowship, among other grants, to develop his theatre pursuits in Europe.

He has served as a steering committee member of the International Network for Cultural Diversity, Canada and often participates in conferences, seminars and forums that are concerned with larger issues of art and culture. Atul also occasionally works in film and television. Connected to India (CtoI) got a chance to rendezvous with Atul about his experience in Kalaa Utsavam and his plans, let’s find out what he has to say.  

CtoI: How and why did you choose Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially when it has already been performed before?

Atul Kumar: The dream has been in my dreams for a long time now. It also was the first Shakespeare story I shared with my young daughter and since then she wanted to see it performed and I promised myself I will create a version, but little did I know that while on the journey I will go the dark and gritty way and the show will turn out to be not for kids! Shakespeare is always performed before, in fact probably the most ‘performed before’ writer ever anywhere in the world. So the question then is why again and again and again. Must be because his writing crosses time, cultures and theatrical development over decades. Truly a fabulous artiste and perhaps a reader of the human condition like no other!

CtoI: Why did you choose the genre of dance theatre to tell the story?

Atul Kumar: Again, this is something I have been wanting to try out within my work. And the dream became the best canvas to draw physically on. I was convinced that my lovers in the forest need not talk and can simply, through gesture and movement, communicate their state of mind and being entire.

CtoI: What are the challenges you faced adapting a Shakespearean play and what drives the audience to watch it?

Atul Kumar: The challenges always are how to squeeze the maximum depth and meaning of any of his texts into your own adaptation without going astray or self-indulgent. Even after months of research and rehearsals and so many artists collaborating with you to interpret a text for a show, one ends up feeling that you have only managed to scratch the surface and there is always so much more one could have done. That’s how I see Shakespeare’s works always and that is why so many artists keep coming back to him because there is just so much to discover.

Audiences get drawn really to his amazing power of depicting human condition that resonates with people across classes, cultures and languages. Also, I think audiences are now interested in engaging with newer experiments with his works where the creators have broken the shackles of classical verbose presentations and have jumped into infinite forms to explore his works.

CtoI: How has your relationship with William Shakespeare’s plays developed over the years?

Atul Kumar: I am still only on the surface I feel, really. Although having said that even that surface has been half of my theatre career and life actually! It started as clown trying to discover Shakespeare – it moved only to a father, but still a clown trying to find parallels between his life and his relationship with his 12 year daughter and his relationship with his own parents through King Lear, then of course as a folk musical comedy on twelfth night and finally with electronic music and contemporary dance and a very, very visual Midsummer Night’s Dream. There also was a very dark and stark version of Richard iii that was inspired by the classical dance theatre of south India and was performed in a single candlelight. So, the journey has been very forming driven. But the most essential connect has been the deep urgent desire to address the human condition in any of his plays – it is hard not to jump into his certain world when a spark flies and then it is all fire!

Atul Kumar Kalaa Utsavam 2017
Photo courtesy: Twitter

CtoI: You were a regular in Rajat Kapoor’s theatre, even playing the solo in Nothing Like Lear. Why did you quit?

Atul Kumar: I have not quit. It is a co-production of Rajat’s and mine. We go back 30 years and still have a lot of theatres together in store for you in future. Only I am a bit bored of playing the clown and wanted to explore music and dance and other forms. I am also wanting to get out of the proscenium and explore spaces. So let’s see where all these new bouts of energy take me.

CtoI: What brought Khwaab Sa to Kalaa Utsavam?

Atul Kumar: We have been performing at Kalaa Utsavam for some time now. Esplanade feels like home and everyone there right up to the director is very warm, personal and wonderful hosts and organisers. They made the effort to come all the way to India to watch the show and then chose to programme it.

CtoI: What other countries have you performed in apart from Singapore and India?

Atul Kumar: If it is Khwaab Sa you are talking about it is a new show – we performed in Taiwan only outside India.

Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay Kalaa Utsavam
Photo courtesy: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

CtoI: What preparations have you done for the workshop you will conduct in the Kalaa Utsavam?

Atul Kumar: I have been devising Shakespeare for more than a decade and I have been developing certain tools and skill sets to be able to use any and every participant personal connects with Shakespeare to develop a theatrical presentation. I am open to what participants will bring to the table and will improvise with that energy and material.

CtoI: With the advent of online streaming and digital technology, do you think stage performances will become less popular?

Atul Kumar: Not at all. In fact, they will flourish and that is happening right now. It is all this technology that is making you and I communicate with each other regarding a theatre production – a couple of decades back this was impossible. Not at this speed. I personally think all media and technology is only helping live arts grow in newer ways. for example, we have stopped putting newspaper ads to promote our theatre productions – social media has saved us millions of dollars.

CtoI: What role do festivals like Kalaa Utsavam play in promoting the arts?

Atul Kumar: I have little idea of what a festival like this does for the local community in Singapore, but I can say one thing – apart from bringing our work and sharing it with the audiences of another culture – the more important thing is that it brings together ‘people’ from different backgrounds together under a single umbrella and creates the opportunity to share our mutual concerns, joys, achievements, and failures. That is more important than anything else or even art for me.