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For a long time, Nikhil Mehta was a summertime director in Delhi. He would return from college in the US and, with a group of young actors, present original works as well as adaptations, such as Fasten Your Seatbelts, a Hinglish semi-musical based on a French play called Boeing! Boeing!, in Mandi House. The group went by the name, Crazy Spotlight Productions.
This summer is more challenging for Mehta. He has made his dream Broadway debut, as Assistant Director in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, which is studded with Tony and Oscar winners and nominees, such as Jake Gyllenhaal. Excerpts from an interview with Mehta:
How did you join the team of Sunday in the Park with George?
I had worked with Sarna Lapine on a couple of development workshops for Monsoon Wedding, The Musical. Mira Nair was directing, Sarna was the creative consultant, and, at that time, I was assisting Vishal Bhardwaj, who has composed the score for the play. Sarna and I had a good working relationship during those workshops and, when she was offered to direct Sunday in the Park with George on Broadway, she invited me to join as the Assistant Director.
What were your responsibilities in the play?
An Assistant Director in Broadway spends more time with the company, the ensemble cast and the understudies. We work closely with the Director to ensure smooth running of the production process. Unlike film, theatre works with only one Assistant Director.
From conceptual conversations to designer meetings to character studies, you’re the Director’s right hand through everything. It was a tremendous experience to be in the room with Jake Gyllenhaal, though. He’s smart, passionate, hardworking and his attention to detail is remarkable. I have never been in a room with such a wildly talented cast.
How did you get interested in theatre?
I would try and watch every show I could when I was growing up in Delhi. I used to be excited about the National School of Drama theatre festival and was a big fan of the Shri Ram Bhartiya Kala Kendra Ram Lila. I moved to New York in 2006 for my undergraduate studies where I got my BA in Dramatic Literature and Economics. My undergraduate studies greatly broadened my idea of what live performance could be.
However, it was during my MFA in Theatre Directing at Columbia University when I was really given a blank canvas to begin experimenting with, and, exploring my own craft. As a student in New York, I was watching almost four shows a week. I really believe that watching everything is the best way to learn and develop your own style. I still haven’t seen Hamilton, though.
What are the prospects for an Indian artist on Broadway?
There are few artists of Indian origin working on Broadway because, traditionally, there haven’t been many roles for South Asian actors in mainstream musical theatre. For many years, Bombay Dreams has been our only cultural mark in this genre.
Added to that, for decades we’ve been fighting against the Apu from The Simpson’s stereotype in all mainstream entertainment.
Personally, for many years, I was only offered work on shows about South Asians or terrorists. But things are fast changing and for the better. Monsoon Wedding, the Musical premieres in May, which I’m very excited about and it is bound to be a game-changer.
Will you continue to create theatre in Delhi?
I am looking forward to balancing my time working between India and New York for the next couple of years. My next production in India is Shakuntala, one of the oldest Indian dramatic texts, which felt like the appropriate place to begin a cultural conversation about past, present and future India.
I have been working on a black box in Okhla, which is a laboratory for explorations where the resident company spends time developing and creating work in conjunction with its factory space.