META Creators Jay Shah And Sanjoy Roy Discuss The Theatre Awards And Its Journey

The duo also spoke about why theatre is still relevant in today's changing times


Sara Siddiqui

In this candid conversation with BW Applause and Everything Experiential, Jay Shah, Vice President, and Head – Cultural Outreach, Mahindra Group and Sanjoy K. Roy, Managing Director, Teamwork Arts, share the journey of Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) and what it brings to culture, business, and society.  Here are edited excerpts from the interview.

What was the concept behind starting META initially?

Jay Shah: Mr. Anand Mahindra has a liberal arts background and as a business leader, he was very keen on ensuring that a rational left-brain organization like the Mahindra Group has an influence of creativity and liberal arts in it. In this pursuit of a whole-brained approach at living and experiencing business, he wanted to participate in the arts in some way as a corporate. Personally, of course, he pursues a lot of interests, including architecture. 

Sanjoy K. Roy: He studied film at Harvard. His mother was a theatre person, steeped in the art. I think it was pretty much organic, it was not a constructed thing.

Shah: The key here is the recognition that even businesses would benefit from the creative fields. 

Roy: Because it is thinking outside of the box, right? Any solution that you have, if you have theatre or the arts applied to the process, you can think more creatively. And you can create a new paradigm, which for any business today, it’s about innovation. If you’re not going to innovate, you’re going to be dead. And therefore, if you see the Facebooks and the Googles of the world, that have taken over from conventional built industry, it’s totally different and it is primarily about innovation. 

Shah: And that was sort of the impetus figuring out a way in which we can include the arts in our corporate mind scale. We started with theatre and theatre was not an accident. We researched what could be done and it was an attempt to do many things. One was to, of course, bring the creative arts to the corporate brand but we also wanted to support something that really needed support. We didn’t just want to do, let’s say Bollywood which already gets a lot of corporate and other kinds of help. So, we decided theatre which is the font of all other art forms. Whether it is music or writing or acting, theatre is like the crucible of art and so we decided to support it. 

You started META 18 years ago. Since then, how do you think the industry of theatre and art and incorporating that into the corporate world has changed?

Roy: We have seen dramatic change. When we started, the kind of productions that used to come to us was pretty much only from places like Bangalore or Bombay or Delhi. It was very conventional theatre. In today’s day, theatre companies across the country try and make sure that the productions that they have created are created in a way that they could find place at META. Whether it is production values, the kind of production that they do, the choreography, the process of creating theatre has changed completely over these 18 odd years and we are seeing it. You can measure the number of people who have taken to creating newer things. Earlier, a lot of the stuff used to be existing scripts or adaptations of Western scripts and Shakespeare or Ibsen. In today’s time, the majority plays that we get are new, original writing. This is also serving our purpose on how we can focus on new, original writing. And one of the things we are doing is that, like every year, the production that gets the award for the best original script, we have now started publishing that and after 5 years, we will do an anthology. Showing that in these five years, these are the best. Then you are leaving something as a legacy and not just for 10, 20 or 100 people but for the universe. 

This is the first fully offline edition of META after the pandemic, so what is different this year?

Roy: The plays are different! 

Shah: The format remains the same. We are very mindful of the fact that the process that we have set should not be tinkered with. 

Roy: And it works.

Shah: It works really well. It is a tough process because a group of people have to see 400 plays in a span of a week. I suppose that is the best one can do to do justice to the selection process. The selection process has been going on for the past 18 years and we have perfected it to a point where we do not want to mess with it. So, everything remains the same. The beauty of META and the way it is constructed is that no META is similar to the other because all 10 productions are different every single year. 

During the selection process, what stands out in a submission that it makes it to the list of the 10 coveted winners? 

Roy: Every year even that changes. Because as the selection committee changes, everybody comes with a different perception to the table. And because we keep changing, there is a new selection committee. There is not one template for selection, it keeps changing. Like this year, 2-3 big productions got knocked out because of this. Because according to the selection committee’s perception, it was much more important to look at the root of where that theatre emerged from. And through that process, they nominated this year’s productions. 

How important do you think it is to acknowledge and appreciate the backstage and technical team?

Roy: It is exactly why we are doing this! Because they do not get the recognition. Now most artists say thank you to the light design or the sound. Therefore, it shows you how important it is. Different lighting creates a different experience. It creates the atmosphere so it is very important.

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