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Upstage: Trilegal’s Arnav Joshi on being At Rise in his dual-life

Curtain call: Joshi
Curtain call: Joshi
“When you quit a job like a job at a law firm and when you go to do only theatre, is when you realise that it’s a whole different ballgame,” warns Arnav Joshi, presently a second-year corporate associate at Trilegal Delhi and partner in five-year-and-ten plays-old theatre production group At Rise Productions.

Even on the days when Joshi manages to scuttle out of the law firm before 8pm, he keeps the transactional lawyer’s drill of nit-picking on imperfections going – donning the creative director’s hat at At Rise.

Joshi adds: “There’s a crazy amount of struggling [in theatre] which you have to do to make any sort of dent on the overall scheme of things whether that’s financially, or whether as an actor. And for most actors getting into theatre professionally it just becomes about somehow making it to Bollywood, because that’s where they know they’d be able to make a decent living. This is not what I want myself to be or my theatre to become.”

Towards the end of second-year at Amity Law School Delhi Joshi and two classmates channelled their experience from school-level drama competitions and Joshi’s direction of a university level play, and put up the At Rise banner. Two non-lawyers have now replaced Joshi’s classmates.

“The company’s growth came more from a take-it-as-it-comes situation. When we did one play we wanted to do more and then we did the second. And then you catch the public’s eye, more and more people get involved and you get more and more positive feedback from people who come to watch your plays. We took it as it came - and found five years down the line that we’re on our way to our eleventh production.”

At Rise is where he claims the “work-life balance” is restored for him and his troupe – anchors, advertisers, automotive engineers, consultants, economics graduates – for each of whom theatre is their night job. While all of them strive to pursue this “passionate hobby” in a “professional style”, it is “not a professional commitment” for them and this aspect is what keeps the group fresh and ticking, vouches Joshi.

“It is strenuous basically but at the end of the day you really don’t feel the stress merely because when you’re doing it it’s a lot of fun and you have your friends around you and you’re kicked about getting something on stage. It’s a different kind of a rush!”


Joshi did not have a formal theatrical training stopover between going from school performances to running his own production group in law school.

Running his own productions requires a mix of of law and non-law, including handling regulatory compliances – a licence from the Delhi police stating that the content of the play is legal - to going through tax hurdles, and marketing the productions enough to ensure sustainable online and offline ticket sales.

But being a creative director in those productions also requires an understanding of the fine art of working with the auditorium, and of dealing with the production from the actor’s view on the one hand and the audience’s perspective on the other.

“The most important element of it is, one, having a strong vision which is not only cohesive with yourself but also with your actors and then the audience to whom you’re going to be performing. So when that disconnect [from the audience] happens there are performances which the [theatre] group might think are great but the public does not end up responding to.

“Then there’s translating your vision onto the stage using the crew and the team that you have. A lot of it is being able to work with your actors, your other directors and your crew. How we work is that we tell our team that we’re taking them on a journey. There is a starting point of that journey and then there are different steps in that journey and eventually it’ll reach a stage where they’ll be able to deliver their best performance. So being able to take that journey, being a director, is the biggest challenge.”

That each enthusiast can do theatre in their own customised style is what Joshi says allowed him to do all this without formal training. “The first one or two plays that I did involved a crazy amount of research and reading by myself, and speaking to people and learning their way. But at some level it takes a great deal of confidence in yourself to be able to lead people and to be able to – I wouldn’t say a director teaches – but working with them to realise their potential.”

Joshi is currently influenced by German-born American actress and theatre teacher Uta Hagen but says that “the interesting thing about her work is also that at the end of the day they tell you to do your own thing!”

The cost of a hobby

At Rise presently operates out of and stages shows only in Delhi. “I don’t think Delhi has a concept of going to watch theatre” he says. At two annual productions costing from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1.5 lakh each – including lights and sound, 13 per cent entertainment tax, buying royalties (typically around Rs 5000), advertising, and covering performers’ basic expenses - how did the banner find its sustainability?

Corporate sponsors view funding theatre more as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) than as a publicity generator such as a cricket match, he says. They cover only around 50 or 60 per cent of the costs. Ticket sales have to make up for the rest. An At Rise show’s ticket costs more than Rs 200 per head whereas in the movie-savvy Delhi NCR region there are quite a few multiplexes where movies can be watched for less than that amount.

“I would tell my team that the point of doing this for you in terms of attracting people should be to get this crowd away from going for a movie on a Saturday evening and willing to watch a play instead.”

Staging comedies (8 out of 10 productions at At Rise) and involving the young age group of 14 – 30 years in staging them were Joshi’s weapons of destruction of movie-going tastes.

“As and when more and more people get involved with theatre they realise what a huge rush it is to actually go up on stage and perform. Thanks to our group and lots of other groups that have come up over the past couple of years […] there are quite a few plays happening in the city now they all have a regular crowd which would like to go and watch theatre.”

…And its worth

Typically 25 people work on one production at At Rise, which usually involves staging four shows in Delhi. Out of these 25, eight to 10 actors, Joshi, and an executive director devote around 50 weekday evenings (6pm to 10pm) and weekends over three months to an activity that does not earn them a salary or the banner any profits, though it admittedly gets them a fair bit of media attention. What fuels their performances?

“We don’t take a very mainstream approach,” explains Joshi, “so for us what is most important at the end of the day is that people working with us should have a great time doing it.”

The group splits its production schedule between skill development of the performers up till half time, and working on “run of the mill” things such as blocking, working with the script and the like for the remaining period.

“It doesn’t feel like a chore because [the actors are] doing a new thing every day. So we take it as a process where we say that [the actors] have to reach step 20, and we’ll take you from the one to the second to the third to the fourth,” he says adding that the first half of production is sprinkled with impromptu theatre exercises that are fun to do and help the performers develop as actors. Day zero of each production is actually a professional theatre workshop for the directors and actors involved.

The Subplot

“A lot of who I am as a lawyer has to do with how I have grown in theatre. Before I got around to doing theatre I was a very quiet and reserved person and didn’t really speak my mind and didn’t know how to network well with people.

“And as I started doing theatre I found that it has added a load of skills to my character which enabled me to be a good lawyer. In my personal life theatre has been able to give back to my being a lawyer,” confesses Joshi.

He finds himself lucky to stumble upon “lean periods” in his corporate law firm job which have often provided him two days in the five-day working week to push to rehearsals. He also gushes about a rather supportive Trilegal comradeship – colleagues showing up for plays in “huge numbers”, or offering to buy entire shows.

These bonuses coupled with his belief that law as a career has given him “more room to grow as a person as opposed to a lot of other professions” keeps his appetite satiated with two plays a year and international acclaim – the group was recently invited to stage their last play – A Gourmet Affair at the UK’s Fringe festival, but did not make it to the festival due to logistical hang ups.

“There cannot be a compromise on either side. You cannot compromise your job for your theatre, and you cannot compromise your theatre at the end of the day because you have a job. So as long as you find that formula and it works for you, I think both can be easily accomplished,” he notes.

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