A small teaser for a new play, The 39 Steps, features Sanam Saeed with a purple blazer and a British accent. One wonders what's going on? We decided to speak to the woman behind the production, Nida Butt to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Nida Butt's theater company Made for Stage productions has brought us many musicals like Grease, Chicago and Karachi - The Musical in the past. Now she's producing and directing this play called The 39 Steps — which is not a musical. Our curiosity, as always, is piqued.
Nida was happy to take our questions:
Images: Was putting up a non-musical play a deliberate decision on your part?
Nida Butt: A musical takes six to eight months. Due to time constraints and because I really wanted to do theatre without losing a lot of hair, I chose The 39 Steps. The 39 Steps is challenging in its own way, though; there are four actors who play almost 50 characters. As a director, you have to be really, really creative to pull that off.
Images: What was your first impression of the script when you read it?
Nida: It was really funny. It's based on an Alfred Hitchcock movie; the play is a spoof of that. It's been running in the west for seven or eight years. There is a lot of comedy in it yet it needs to be very tight and precise because there are so many characters. It's set in the 1930s so it's a dated piece. It's comedy start to finish and there's a lot of adventure.
Images: What can your audience expect from The 39 Steps?
Nida: The play is very minimalist. There are no big sets or music. There is no shashka. It's an adventure story and we are taking the audience down that path by using very minimal things like trunks, a couple of doors, a pet here and there.
There are two clowns, which are played by Zeeshan Shah and Ali Hashmi. Both play almost 15 characters each. Sanam Saeed is the only girl and she plays three characters. Faraz Lodhi plays the protagonist and he plays one character because the story is kind of centered around him.
We are using a lot of hats because we obviously can't change the face of the person to show a different character. We are also playing around with body language, speech and things like that.
"[The 39 Steps] will be a different experience for the audience especially if they have seen our earlier productions. They usually have a lot of splendour, glamour and colour. They are very loud and larger than life. This play is the complete opposite of that."
Images: When you read the script, did you feel the need to adapt it for our audience?
Nida: I don't really believe in adapting much. The play is set in the 1930s, England so if you were to adapt it, it will be a colossal mess.
All the jokes, dialect and things that are relevant to the play date back to that time. The kind of audience that I get anyway are exposed to Hollywood movies and English television so it's not something that will go over their heads.
Plus, this is an award-winning script and I'm very reluctant to touch it. There's a reason why it has won an award. Even if you change a line here or there, you are taking away from the essence of it.
Images: Are you at any point afraid of getting negative reactions to the plays that you direct and produce?
Nida: At the end of the day, you do what you love to do. I love theatre. I do it for my own gratification. Usually if you pour your heart and soul into something, it shows and the audience responds favourably to it. We haven't yet had an experience where the audiences have not responded favourably.
However, this play will be a different experience for the audience especially if they have seen our earlier productions. They usually have a lot of splendour, glamour and colour. They are very loud and larger than life. This play is the complete opposite of that.
However, as long as you can produce something that is entertaining and your audiences have a good time with it, whether a production is large or small, doesn't matter.
Images: What are some of the plays that you've personally enjoyed watching in Karachi?
Nida: I usually like what NAPA puts out. They produce a lot of serious, good quality stuff. I don't like to watch slapstick theatre that much.
Images: What do you look for when deciding your next production?
Nida: I need to fall in love with the script honestly. I thought The 39 Steps was really really funny — the idea of four actors playing 50 characters. The challenge aspect needs to be high in order for me to choose a script.
"I stay away from scripts that are heavy on social issues because I want to entertain people. I don't want to preach to people. There's already enough of that everywhere we go."
Images: Do you think having famous names like Sanam Saeed in the cast adds to the pressure of pulling off a successful play?
Nida: I don't really care about using names. 95% of the actors who work with us are amateurs. Even Sanam first got noticed on a large scale when she did Chicago with us. It was a new experience both for me and her. We were friends. Our company has served as a launching pad for new talent so we don't feel it adds to the pressure in any way.
Images: Are there are any particular themes that interest you more than others?
Nida: Well, I stay away from scripts that are heavy on social issues because I want to entertain people. I don't want to preach to people. There's already enough of that everywhere we go. When I watch something, I want to laugh and not watch something that's emotionally draining. I think the theme of lightheartedness is something that has stayed with us throughout.
Images: Describe your perspective of doing theater in Pakistan in three words.
Nida: A hard job.
Images: What makes it a hard job?
Nida: It doesn't pay enough. It's always a challenge. The infrastructure is very bad for theatre. Arts Council is the only semi-decent venue we can do theatre.
We have excise departments that are a lot of nuisance. There are three to four different kinds of NOCs that you need to obtain from them. Every time you go for a NOC, you are asked for a bribe. The third NOC requires you to agree to hand off 25% of your earnings to the excise department which makes it impossible for anyone to do any show. The atmosphere around doing theatre is very stifling.
Images: If you were to pitch The 39 Steps to somebody who doesn't normally watch plays, what would you say?
Nida: It's going to have you on the edge of your seat. It's going to get your imagination flowing. Definitely bring your kids! Anyone over the age of 6 and 7 can come watch it. There's nothing explicit. I'm hoping a lot of parents will bring their children.
Images: Lastly, when is The 39 Steps starting its run?
Nida: It runs from November 24 to December 9 at Karachi Arts Council.
Tickets are available at Agha's Supermarket and MAD School at Zamzama. Tickets can also be bought online.