By Sonya Rehman
“The ethos that I’ve extracted out of theater is to try and observe a bit more in life, to develop the witness culture within you.” – Ian Eldred
In the 90s, the theater culture in Lahore was very consistent. Schools, colleges and even a few private theater companies would host theatrical productions at Alhamra. It was fun and vibrant – everyone knew each other, or, had heard of each other and collaborated on plays together. It was much like the underground music scene in Lahore back then. Pure and unadulterated, amateur and exciting. A tight circle of young people, all of whom shared a passion for the stage. And everything that was done was done by trial and error – from directing, to producing, to begging corporations for sponsorships to break-even.
No one really gave a damn about pocketing profits. Making money from a play wasn’t even a consideration back then.
But today, the face of theater in Lahore has undergone quite a make-over if compared with its standing in the yesteryears.
Now, the promotion and marketing of a play is calculated, and this is linked to bagging well-known sponsors to fund the play. Young Lahoris are sick of associating a good time with jumping from a new restaurant to a new café to a new coffee shop.
The market for theater has developed considerably, the profitability has increased two-fold, and the audience’s appetite has been titillated – wanting more.
Over the years the political disequilibrium within the country has also defined the regularity of plays being held in the city. As of late, the consistency of theatrical productions in Lahore has long gone – replaced by small and big bursts of creativity (depending on the budgets of the productions) every now and then at Alhamra and auditoriums elsewhere in the city.
But what has owed to this explosion of theater – from small-time, one-off productions, to full-fledged, sensational events? Shah Sharabeel, a middle-aged director and producer has a lot to do with this newly conceived movement of theater in the current day.
Now the debate of whether or not these glitzy, big-budget productions are shallow or tacky, too westernized and so on, is a discussion for another day.
Besides, should we even be complaining? What else is there for our entertainment purposes anyway? Those idiots, who blew up a couple of bombs at Alhamra during the World Performing Arts Festival (WPAF) in 2008, ruined everything. But it wasn’t just that event alone, for the past few years everything in Pakistan is under threat, and/or we’re now psychologically re-conditioned to believe that anything can happen at any given point. The worst part is, it’s true.
But coming back to theater in Lahore, I recently met with a young thespian, who’s no stranger to the field. I first saw Ian Eldred on stage in ‘Moulin Rogue’ (a play directed by Sharabeel), wearing lime green tights. Eldred was hilarious. I remember thinking back then, this guy’s a natural.
Ever since Eldred moved to Lahore in ’96, over the years, the young Irish-Canadian has grown up to become much more of an authentic Lahori than most of the youngsters one encounters.
His Urdu accent for one – Eldred has it nailed to a T, although during my interview with him he breaks out into Urdu in bits and pieces, never full sentences.
But Eldred is earnest, and innocent, incredibly well-read and eloquent (which perhaps owes to his avid reading interests). More than anything, he looks Pathan, with his fine features, and light brown/blonde hair. Dressed in a black button down shirt and jeans, Eldred’s disposition is humble, well-mannered and genteel.
After completing his schooling in Lahore, Eldred decided to study Law. Currently, he’s enrolled in a program at the Pakistan College of Law in the city.
Eldred’s debut as a stage actor came about eight or nine years ago when he was cast as one of the lead actors in Sharabeel’s enormously successful, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. “It was almost fortuitous,” Eldred says. He’s seated across from me on a sofa at a rather deserted Gloria Jean’s in Gulberg.
“Because someone who’s like an older brother to me was doing the music and sound for the play and told me to come along. I remember when I auditioned, my hands were trembling.”
After his “first taste of the ocean”, Eldred acted in an assortment of plays such as ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Moulin Rogue’, ‘You Only Marry Twice’, and others along with the more recent, ‘Noises Off’ which was recently held in Lahore.
Of late, Islamabad’s theater scene has been far more consistent than Lahore’s. What does Eldred make of this?
“They’re taking risks that’s why,” he states matter-of-factly, “And I’m the first one to admit it. Even Nida Butt in Karachi? She’s taking risks.”
Nida Butt created waves in Karachi and Lahore after directing, producing and choreographing ‘Chicago’ in 2009. The play got mixed reactions, but for the most part, it was a huge success.
“If you’ve noticed, when Sharabeel came out with his ‘Center Stage Productions’, everyone said that his plays were tacky, gaudy, too loud and not meaningful theater (even though I don’t know what ‘meaningful theater’ even means!).”
Eldred when on to say that people thought Sharabeel’s plays were being “lionized too much”. “But at the very least, he created a market for it right? Sponsors had more proclivity towards lending money to small production houses, so he created that culture and everyone said, well, he’s not doing meaningful theater – so you think, that by virtue of them saying that, though they would deride him, they weren’t taking risks themselves!”
Eldred’s take on the lack of risk-taking is attributed to too much self-assurance and indolence on the part of directors and producers in Lahore. “And also,” he adds, “There’s a big problem here. A lot of the producers that I’ve worked with have a very hubristic attitude: they say that the audience is fickle and that the audience is one dimensional. They say well, farce kay ilawa they won’t get it, and I’m like, that’s such a pompous thing to say, because you never know. It’s a very snobbish attitude.”
Eldred believes that in Pakistan, admixtures of plays are required. He gives the example of when he was doing a short acting course in London two years ago. During that time, Eldred saw Tony Kushner’s gay fantasia, ‘Angels in America’ as well as the hilarious Monty Phyton.
“When I went to see Monty Python I didn’t expect to derive some sort of grand existentialist philosophical experience, I mean it was over the top, cut-up slapstick humour…and I got what I expected you know? And when I went to see ‘Angels in America’ it was a profound experience. So you see they have that whole admixture – you can go see Monty Python or you can go and see Shakespeare…they have these plays staged simultaneously.”
Regarding the kind of roles he’s done, Eldred’s mainly been given quirky roles, characters “with a lot of eccentricities.”
The kind of characters that “move their hands a lot,” Eldred says as he waves and flaps his hands about for emphasis. After being given a role of a “rambunctious guy” in ‘You Only Marry Twice’, Eldred remembers when he walked on stage during his appearance in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ on the first day, “people started laughing because they were like, yeh wohi hay! He’s gonna start doing something weird!”
For the future of theater in Pakistan, Eldred says that he sees it “brim with potentiality, because the talent here is magnanimous. But we don’t have the substrate to be able to foster, utilize and channel all that talent. There are no acting schools here so it’s a shot in the dark way of learning, trial and error…”
Concerning acting Eldred says; “The ethos that I’ve extracted out of theater, is to try and observe a bit more in life, to develop the witness culture within you.”
The Friday Times