An evening of relentless self-expression

December 1, 2019

Standalone 2.0: An Actor’s Showcase lived up to its name by staging self-contained performances that ranged from monologues to song-and-dance, while also breaking the proverbial fourth wall for the audience

The choice of scenes was left to the performers, who chose material that played up their strengths and interests, rather than adhering to a unifying theme. (Seen here are Omar Cheema and Shah Fahad, the man behind the show) — Photos by the author

In Lahore, art — at least in the wider public sphere — is rarely seen beyond esoteric. What was once a metropolitan city bristling with culture now seldom affords people an opportunity for a night out that doesn’t involve eating. It, then, comes as a pleasant surprise that a growing number of young people are looking to sink their teeth into something more than just paratha rolls, hungry as they are to explore creative avenues that offer immediacy, inclusivity, and relentless self-expression at the very core. This was evident at an event, titled Standalone 2.0: An Actors’ Showcase, which was held last weekend.

Organised by the Lahore Actors’ Fellowship (LAF), the event was the second episode in an ongoing series of showcases aimed at giving actors — both new and veterans — a platform to stage singular, self-contained performances that ranged from monologues to song-and-dance. A novel concept, certainly for a Pakistani audience, but no less exciting.

The event was promoted primarily via social media platforms where those in attendance had to register in advance; the venue, a renovated 1930s’ movie theatre called The Colony.

Tucked away on Queen’s Road, just off Charing Cross, one would be forgiven for mistaking The Colony for an unassuming, albeit chic space in a forgotten part of Lahore. However, the place is far from being novel. Repurposing the building that housed the (formerly) Plaza Cinema, The Colony was reopened earlier this year as a “performative art house and cultural hub” that offers arts trainings, and also hosts various events and exhibitions. A fitting choice of venue for a city looking to resuscitate its artistic soul!

As the doors opened, the audience were greeted to a loft-like space on the building’s second floor, clearly fit for a dance studio — a somewhat oblong room with a wooden floor, high ceilings and mirrors across an entire side. All around the space was a smattering of set pieces: a lone chair; a table, and some pieces of plywood; a bench and stool; a couch; a mattress, and a thick white rope. It was clear that these would be props during the performance. Their positioning around the room, however, did not make clear where the audience was supposed to sit. This, as it would be revealed later, was deliberate. Before long, the host and the mastermind behind the evening’s activities, Shah Fahad, came out and introduced himself.

One of the most prominent names in the performing arts scene in Lahore today, and the co-founder of DramaEd PK, Fahad explained that the idea of Standalone was born out of various limitations that plague theatre productions. Hence, the event sought to help actors display their talent independent of full-length productions and with a large degree of artistic license. Many of the performances drew scenes from established works, but built on them with improvisation wherever the actors felt it was required.

The choice of scenes, therefore, was left to the performers, who chose material that played up their strengths and interests, rather than adhering to a unifying theme. The performances were largely vehicles for each actor, with Fahad often joining scenes in a supporting role.

At this point, Fahad drew the crowd’s attention to the room, explaining that there was no fixed fourth wall: each performance was held in a different part of the room, and the audience was asked to move every time. This made the experience refreshing and stimulating, invoking a sense of emotional exploration transposed onto a physical space. It also elicited its fair share of bemused looks from the audience.

The performances were diverse and bookended by musical numbers. The evening started strong with an impressive rendition of “I dreamed a dream” from Les Misérables by Mahnoor Yawar, and a mesmerising dance piece about unrequited love by Sway Dance Project, set to Sharon Van Etten’s “Love more,” ending the evening.

There was no fixed fourth wall: each performance was held in a different part of the room, and the audience was asked to move every time. This made the experience refreshing and stimulating.

In between these two were scenes performed by Hashim Imran from the play, Fences; Noor Nabi Noor Mir, performing an excerpt from The Pillowman; Omar Cheema, rivetingly improvising a scene from Topdog/Underdog; an Urdu monologue from Shatranj Kay Khilari expertly delivered by Usman Zia, decidedly a standout performance of the night.

Syed Murtaza and Rameen Rizvi acted out the secret-rendezvous scene from Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Sultan Shabbir presented a Punjabi monologue from the radio play, Uparli Manzil; while a scene from the Stephen King novel Misery was brilliantly adapted in Urdu by Hasan Raza and performed by Raza with Eshah Shakeel; and a scene from Night, Mother enacted by Sherbano Rehmani and Tooba tul Muntaha, condensed for the purpose of the showcase and, thus, all the more jarring.

All the performances were eclectic and heartfelt. It was impossible to look at the work put in by these actors — many of them very young — through the unimaginative binary lens of good or bad. There was an earnestness and a sincere passion in each performance, and it was evident that the actors thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Their energy came through loud and clear, and was utterly contagious, as the crowd’s raucous applause showed throughout the evening.

The setting also played a huge role in the experience — from the sparse stage scenery stripping each performance to its very fundamental core, to The Colony’s own immediate surroundings (cars, rickshaws and motorbikes roaring past on the busy road outside) — lending, for instance, Shabbir’s Punjabi monologue an immersive, visceral feel. The performance space was self-contained and intimate, with the audience’s constant movement around the room adding to the immersion.

As the night came to a close, the room was abuzz with excitement. Everyone, it seemed, felt included in the proceedings of the evening. Fahad announced Standalone’s return next month, with the hope that performances will be staged at the The Colony’s premises.

As an evening with excellent talent on display, a mere Rs 500 as entry fee and no membership required, it’s certain that Standalone is poised to become a permanent feature of Lahore’s artistic landscape.

Abdul Mueed is a Lahore-based researcher, photographer and culture enthusiast. He can be reached on Instagram @ab.mueed

An evening in Lahore of relentless self-expression