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Incredible passion for theatre

Nelia Veksel, who directs plays and teaches drama in Europe, was in Chennai recently. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM meets the experienced play enthusiast.

Nelia Veksel... complete professional.

WHAT STRIKES you most on meeting director Nelia Veksel at the venue of the play ``Nallaval'' is her complete professionalism. All her senses are geared to the production on hand,the Tamil translation of Bertolt Brecht's ``The Good Woman of Setzuan" ``Just a moment please,'' she breaks off in the middle of the conversation and instructs a repertory member on how the chairs should be placed in the auditorium — diagonally — to enable the audience to get the best view. During the performance, when you happen to glance back, she is totally absorbed in the performance, watching the actors gimlet-eyed.

Nelia Veksel, based in Germany, has lived and breathed theatre for the past three decades and more. Educated, in Leningrad, she studied all aspects of theatre for 11 years — acting, directing, theory and criticism — and has a Masters in the subject. In 1973, she migrated to Israel from Russia with her family and from 1982 Nelia has been working in Europe, teaching theatre and directing plays in Sweden, Austria, Spain and Germany.

From the way she talks, weighing the question carefully and measuring each word, you get an idea of how meticulously she works. ``I don't throw words unthinkingly. I like silence. Usually, I don't talk much at all,'' she says.

Nelia has conducted more than 60 theatre workshops in various countries over the years and interacted with nearly 2,000 artistes belonging to different nationalities.

That must be a lovely experience?

She considers and pronounces, ``It is difficult. Some kind of transformation is needed. You have to go about it carefully. I know my texts so well that language is not a problem. I also understand the play even if it is in Tamil not because of the words but because of the emotional message and the place where the particular conversation occurs. It is always a question of concentration.''

Nelia has previously not done a full-fledged production of ``The Good Woman...'' I performed it long ago in Russia when I was very young. But it was not a mature work.''

She believes that Brecht's play has a particular relevance to India. ``The play is about poverty, women's rights and about the Gods and this is a religious country. The play is about social agitation but I have undertaken a special version. I didn't want it to be too long so I maintained a metaphor form, a plastic form that brings out the extract. I have edited portions that seem repetitive, such as the epilogue, which is not important, for the basic theme that the world is not good is present throughout.''

Nelia feels the focus should be on telling the story and in ``The Good woman'' it is vital to maintain the balance between the two characters — Shen Teh and Shui Ta. One should not become more dominant than the other.

Chekhov, says Nelia, did not get involved in political engagement. He was a singer of life and the human being while Brecht organises life to prove a theory and his dialectic was social orientation.

The problem of communication and the question of a language barrier do not worry her. ``In whichever language a play is staged, if the work is good and is done honestly, it will go home for art is universal.''

Nelia's connection with India stretches back to many years. Right from the time she experienced a vision in a small synagogue in Ukraine as a child of five. This vision "of a man in a white satin kurta and bejewelled turban bathed in a terrible white light,'' brought her many years later to the Aurobindo Ashram, in Pondicherry. Since that visit six years ago, Nelia has been coming to India annually.

``I conducted two plays for Koothu-p-pattarai in 1999 and 2000. I met Muthuswamy at a festival at Max Mueller Bhavan and was very impressed with his commitment to theatre.'' Their mutual admiration and shared love for theatre led to this collaborative venture. They initially thought of presenting Gogol's play but decided on Brecht instead as the Max Mueller Bhavan offered financial support.

Nelia compares her passion for theatre as a sickness, an obsession to serve art. She works hard to bring a play to a certain form so that all the elements in it are matched. Perfectly? ``Perfect is a difficult word... artistically would be more like it. Everything should be done artistically, not chaotically,'' she says.

How does she find the experience of working with Indian actors? Her reply is honest as expected. "It is like the story of the giraffe which was the last to laugh as it has a very long neck. Everything takes a long time in India. The actors work hard and have the patience to go on but the energy level is low and it takes quite sometime to get what you want from them.''

``I feel a close contact with India,'' adds Nelia. ``Life is not a facade here. Every human being experiences a gap between his inner space and the space where he is living. For me, the gap between my inner space and the outer is the least in India, which is why every year I spend four months here.

Germany is one of the few countries in the world where the Government supports theatre. In India, though troupes like Koothu-p-pattarai are enthusiastic and have the desire `to make theatre', they don't have the money,'' she says with a great deal of sympathy.

Nelia who teaches acting and directing at a leading private school in Uhlm, Germany, feels professional theatre is now ``boring'' all over the world. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, tensions have decreased and there is no stimulus for new ideas.

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