In 1968, 22-year-old Barry John from central England’s Black Country, an area cloaked in soot and smoke from factories and mines, arrived in India and began to create theatre that would free the minds of children. “People were not used to the idea that children have voices and opinions. I was working from my heart, rather than my head, in fighting for the right of children to make their own choices instead of being told what to do, when to do or how to do,” he says over phone from Dharamshala, where he has been living in retirement since 2015.
John has turned several generations of teenagers into theatre practitioners and his once-unorthodox methods have been adopted by the Theatre in Education programme at the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi. In August, he was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards. “The entire space prepared us, though we did not realise it at the time, to look at life differently. It made us understand that if you have an idea or a passion you should pursue it because that is what gives you happiness,” says Vidyun Singh, choreographer and director, programmes, India Habitat Centre in Delhi at a panel discussion during the online META awards ceremony.
Theatre is ruled by strict hierarchies, with the director usually at the top. John preferred to let children and young adults create plays on their own without instructions from him. This had interesting results, like when a bike roared down the hallowed halls of Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College as part of the 1972 student production of The Disorderly Women (1969), which John had been invited to direct. A few of the performers from this play, including television producer Siddhartha Basu, joined him the next year to form the Theatre Action Group (TAG). They dismantled William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and gave it an occult interpretation, with chanting and movements. “This was a departure from what was being done at that time. We were experimenting with form, improvising, thinking and learning about the voice and body that went beyond speech in a way that was new,” said Basu during the panel discussion.
Born in 1946 in Coventry, John began performing early. He enjoyed school, where he sang in a choir, learnt to play musical instruments and acted in plays. His parents had no interest in art and never attended a single performance, he says. From the age of 13, he worked multiple jobs, including delivering newspapers. “I never asked my parents for pocket money but bought all my clothes and paid for all my expenses to learn to be independent and to qualify to do what I wanted with my life,” he says.
John’s approach to theatre was influenced by John Hodgson, one of the pioneers of theatre education in UK, whom he met as a student of drama, English literature and art at the now-closed Bretton Hall College in Yorkshire. “He would never answer our questions but say, ‘Just find out’. What is important is the homework you do to bring out a character who is not you. This is difficult to explain to people who cannot imagine anything other than a traditional approach,” says John.
This would also become John’s approach when he worked with children in India. For instance, at NSD, where he taught from 1977 to 1980, students would be working on scenes through the day, saying their lines or arranging the lights but John would give no instructions. “Barry could get you thinking and let you arrive at solutions on your own. The first play I did with him was Toba Tek Singh. He would give us a free hand and wait for us to arrive at the play with our own ideas instead of making it easy for us,” says Roysten Abel, among the pathbreaking directors of India, who joined NSD as a student in 1980.
What brought John to India was a newspaper advertisement looking for instructors to train teachers. It had been put out by the governments of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, who had pooled their resources to create a project to improve the quality of English language teaching in 1968. John, who was teaching at a college in a coal-mining village in Yorkshire, where neither teachers nor students understood his style of teaching, jumped at the chance. “I am very conscious that my life is the work of chance. You cannot plan to end up on the other side of the world to do theatre. It was insane but I have zero regrets,” he says.
The first couple of years in India — when he was teaching English in Coimbatore, Mysuru and Bengaluru — brought him in contact with folk theatre and local groups. “The roots of theatre in India are in the folk forms of the rural areas. It concerns me that this form is languishing, if not dying during the pandemic,” he says.
In 1970, John came to Delhi to join Yatrik, a group that included formidable performers such as Joy Michael. At the time, the city was active in experimental Hindi and English language productions and welcomed John’s pioneering technique. He was soon teaching drama at Jesus and Mary College, and directing student productions at St Stephen’s, Hindu College, Miranda House and Lady Shri Ram College, among others. Ebrahim Alkazi, the visionary director of NSD, called him to conduct a workshop with the students and BV Karanth, who succeeded Alkazi as director, NSD, made him a member of the faculty in 1977. Along the way, John learned Hindi. After Mira Nair’s film Salaam Bombay! (1988), for which he he held workshops for the actors, he directed a group of children from the New Delhi railway station in a play based on their lives, titled Jeevan ki Gadi. The play was staged at Triveni Kala Sangam on a foggy December evening so that “audience could feel as cold as the kids do during the winter days when they have to sleep outside”.
Today, an older generation knows John as a legendary director and teacher of theatre but for the new crop, he is the man behind the Barry John Acting Studio in Mumbai, which primes hopefuls for Bollywood. “What most actors want is to join films or TV. To get to do a play takes time. You have to lay the foundation for children to have confidence and acquire performance skills to some level. You don’t rush into acting in theatre,” he says.
John bowed out of theatre when he turned 70. Dharamshala is his home now, where, in a house overlooking the hills, he sits at his desk every day and writes a few pages of his autobiography. The bulk of it will chart the evolution of children’s theatre in India since the 1970s. “They say of Socrates, what did he teach? Nothing. He just asked questions. We need to stop lecturing our young people and allow them to think so that they can work out a better world,” he says.
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