Vivek Mansukhani is learning the joys of folding paper. “It boggles me that one can do so much from a simple sheet of paper. What we begin with and what we end with are completely different. It makes one think that one’s creativity is more important than the resources one has at one’s disposal,” he says. What brought Mansukhani, the former Director Arts India at the British Council, into shaping stuff out of paper, is a much-lauded play called Animals Out of Paper. Mansukhani plays an eccentric math teacher, Andy, whose high-school student is an origami prodigy. The play, by Pulitzer Prize-nominated Rajiv Joseph, also marks Mansukhani’s return to the stage as an actor after seven years.
“Over the last few years, my time and energies were focused on facilitating and promoting the work of UK and Indian artists in both performing, visual and other creative arts. This is why my own theatre work took a back seat. I’ve been watching theatre in India and abroad whenever I travel. I’ve been reading scripts and also helping others with their productions and ideas. This has kept me energised and inspired,” he says, insisting that he didn’t quite go away anywhere.
Mansukhani has known Joseph for several years but he read Animals Out Of Paper when a friend recommended it after watching a show in New York. The story revolves around Nina, an internationally renowned origami artist with a creative block, who takes a life-changing decision to open her studio door to Andy and his teenage student. “I was hooked to the script. It is a play about three mismatched people, who are experiencing loss and grief in their own ways and are addicted to origami. Each views life through a completely different prism. In the process, they hurt, love and heal one another and their lives are changed,” says Mansukhani.
In Joseph’s script, Andy emerges as a man who has experienced several ups and downs in life but decides to be happy and look at the bright side of things. He is not a super achiever, rather he would gladly sacrifice his own identity and position to enable others to shine. The text contains enough material on the character as well as space for the actor to flesh it out for himself. Mansukhani has drawn upon his life experiences over the last few years for the role, losing both his parents, moving a couple of high-profile jobs and dealing with daily challenges, friendships, and relationships.
The actor has been on stage most of his life. Scene Stealers, the group that is presenting Animals Out of Paper, was started by him and a few friends in Kolkata in the ’80s. Mansukhani moved to Delhi in the ’90s. Scene Stealers has created fun productions such as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), Rumours, Strictly Dandiya, No Room for Love and Much Ado About Nautanki.
“Theatre is in my blood. It’s my true passion. I enjoy directing, producing and writing too. But being on stage is an altogether different high. It is quite magical and richly satisfying,” says Mansukhani. His talents have been honed by some of the most prominent names in the country’s theatre world — Zarin Chaudhuri and Phyllis Bose in Kolkata and Joy Michael, Kusum Haider, Barry John, Roysten Abel and Valerie Thomas in Delhi. He was a part of Othello: A Play in Black and White, directed by Abel, which won the Edinburgh Fringe First in 1999. “I have learned that there is no shortcut to creating anything memorable in the theatre space. I have learned discipline, dedication, and attention to detail — how a very small role or a gesture or prop contributes to making the jigsaw that is the play. And above all that nothing is more important than teamwork and trusting your cast and crew,” he says.
In Animals Out of Paper, Mansukhani is working with another strong director, Aditee Biswas, who creates interdisciplinary and intercultural dance/movement-based work. “I had been wanting to work with Aditee for the longest so when this opportunity came up and she liked the script as much as I did, there was no looking back. What sets her apart is her compassion with which she nurtures every actor to step into their roles, find their feet and then fly,” he says, returning to his pile of origami.
Animals Out Of Paper will be performed on June 8 and 9 at Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, 7.30 pm. Tickets on BookMyShow and at India Habitat Centre