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Tara Arts’ Jatinder Verma: ‘I was desperate to tell stories that reflected me’

Jatinder Verma. Photo: Talulah Sheppard

My first job was fetching egg curry for a bank manager in Sloane Square every lunchtime, which proved sound training for directing. I learned how to stroke an ego, be organised and punctual, and when to keep my mouth shut. I created my own first theatrical job.

The schoolteacher who introduced me to theatre, Terry Furlong, suggested I join the National Youth Theatre. I followed his advice, but left after half a day feeling uncomfortable as the only non-white actor. I was desperate to tell stories that reflected me. After watching an embarrassingly kitsch performance at the Royal Albert Hall, which was supposedly representing Asian culture, I convinced some friends we could do better.

We were excited to be creating our own theatre (in the mid-1970s most Asians on stage were non-speaking spear-carriers). The project developed out of lots of late-night chats over dodgy kebabs. One such late-night drinking session led to the name Tara Theatre [1] and I found a script by Rabindranath Tagore – the first non-white Nobel Prize winner – to launch the company. Even today, I still value the community of a rehearsal room – writers, actors, designers, choreographers, musicians, technicians. Getting the right mix is luck.

Looking back, I feel I could have repeated myself more as the company progressed and found a ‘method’. But, then, what ‘method’ can there be in an art form that reflects the unpredictability of life? I feel fortunate to create my own work for my company. If that’s what moves you, I would encourage you to go for it and pass on two lessons I’ve learned: “Don’t let the *****s [whoever they may be] get you down” and always have the attitude: “On to the next.”

CV: Jatinder Verma

Age: 64
Training: The Royal Court’s Young People’s Theatre; National School of Drama in Delhi
Theatre includes: Directing Tartuffe at the National Theatre in 1989; Tewodros for Black Theatre Co-operative; Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album for NT; Journey to the West; The Tempest; Macbeth; Nigel Planer’s The Game of Love and Chai; Bollywood Cindrella and various other Tara Theatre pantos
TV includes: The Story of India (as an actor); Shape of the Heart for the Open University (as a presenter)
Other credits: The Mahabharata, a three-part serialisation with Claudia Mayer for BBC Radio 4; The Story of Diwali (children’s book)
Agent: none

Jatinder Verma is artistic director of Tara Theatre Company [2]. He was talking to John Byrne.