Thom Pain (based on nothing): Preetam Koilpillai and Rebecca Spurgeon bring Will Eno’s Pulitzer Prize finalist back on stage

The one-man act is opening at Jagriti Theatre this Friday. Here’s an exclusive interview with the director…

9 min readAug 17, 2023
Rebecca Spurgeon and Preetam Koilpillai

By Reema Gowalla

Back in 2017 when Bengaluru’s theatre notables Preetam Koilpillai and Rebecca Spurgeon came together for the play Oleanna, it emerged as one of the most talked shows of the time. Years later, the duo is collaborating again — this time, as a director and an actor. Jagriti Theatre’s latest production — American playwright Will Eno’s 2004 solo act Thom Pain (based on nothing) is helmed by Rebecca, with Preetam as the performer.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist, this one-man show is often referred to as a ‘rambling monologue’, in which the troubled protagonist travels back and forth in time as he speaks about ‘a bee sting, a boy with a dog that died and his experience with a woman’.

Ahead of Thom Pain (based on nothing)’s premiere show on August 18, the director of the play indulged in a candid conversation with TheatreRoom, where she spoke about why she wanted only Preetam to take up this project with her, why working on a text-based solo performance is tougher than it seems, the 70-minute play’s relevant subtext and more. Excerpts:

Q. What led you to picking this play?

A. Personally speaking, I have an attraction toward solos, mainly because I’m very interested in what that means in the rehearsal space. Directing and producing a solo is a distinctly different experience from working on any other kind of show. The process is very intense, and it’s really like everything that you know and everything that you have to do gets crystallised, because there’s just only that to work with. There’s one actor and limited space, so it becomes a very intense process and very challenging, creatively.

Thom Pain (based on nothing) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2005. It’s been performed by some really amazing actors in its previous productions. I came to it when Preetam and I were having a conversation. We collaborated on the play Oleanna a few years ago and I’ve always enjoyed working with him. So, we were chatting one day, and this came up and I said, “There’s this play, tell me if you want to do it, because I would not have made the show with anybody else.” It was not one of those situations where you want to direct a play and you know what it is, and then you try and find the right actor for it. When I read the piece, I saw only Preetam in it and so it came down to whether he was going to be able to do it or not. If he had not been able to do it for whatever reason, I wouldn’t have picked it up to do. It may sound a bit silly, but my approach to work has always been like that — I believe that things work out in a particular way for a particular reason. I’m a big believer in the concept that ‘in the right time and right place, synergies come together’. I don’t force anything. All the best stuff that I’ve been a part of, personally and creatively, are all things that have just sort of happened.

But Preetam now lives in Pondicherry, and it was like a real shot in the dark. Because to make it to the rehearsals, he had to come back to Bengaluru and live in the city for a few months. It’s such a big upheaval, but he was willing to do it and that’s how it all began. It’s a commitment, because it wasn’t something like ‘let’s try and begin work on it and see’.

Preetam on stage

Q. Why did you think that Preetam is best suited for this one-man show?

A. There is an interesting backstory about why I saw only Preetam in this play, which even he didn’t know until recently. When I was about 17 years old, I happened to watch a play that he had directed, called Filth, under Black Coffee Productions. At that time, this group was quite popular in Bengaluru. They had made such a mark on the direction that theatre was going, because every production of theirs was like guts and glory. If I had to define their work, I would say that they really brought a different level of commitment and truth to their work. And so whatever else the production may have been, you couldn’t question that the people involved in it — the director, the actors — were giving it 1000%. And that’s like a distinct physical quality that I can actually recall to this day from watching their plays.

At that age, I had no idea that I wanted to do theatre. Didn’t think about it at all. I was going in a very different path. I was a science student, and I happened to watch Filth at Alliance française de Bangalore. And to say that it altered my career path would not be untrue. Because it really did, like whatever I saw on stage that evening. I had no understanding of theatre at that time. I was just a young person watching a play. But there was something that happened in the room that night — that a story was being told with immense truth. And I decided at that point that ‘Oh, my god, I would want a piece of this. I would want to do this experience that I’m having. I want to have it again and again and again’. And from then, it’s been go, go. Everything has happened one after the other. It’s been so many years now. But I feel that he was very instrumental in this decision of mine to even take this on.

So, when I read this play, the reason I could see only him do it was because it demands truth in every single second of the 75 minutes that the monologue runs. It demands the truth in terms of a performer being a character and telling their story, which is not about it’s not a thriller, it’s not this sort of plotline that’s about what happens next. It’s a person talking about everything that life is about — love and loss and joy and sadness and small moments and big moments.

If you know what is being said to be true. In order for you to believe that and resonate with it and feel emotional and go on this journey with this character, you cannot doubt their truth. You cannot doubt that they’re being real with you. And that, I think, is one of the toughest things to do on stage, because you have to ask and go inwards into your own self and say, “If I have to talk about loss, what do I think about loss myself? And how has loss mattered to me in my own life?” So that, when I construct this performance and this moment about loss, I can be so real with it because it has moved me first.

You have to construct from yourself. So, it demands great vulnerability and introspection, and a very difficult emotional journey for an actor. Because there’s no place for pretence and for creating it from a space of fiction. That’s the reason I thought and I felt, and I still think I got it right when I thought that only he could do it, because he has that ability to tell the truth and do everything that it takes to tell the truth. Also, I think this was also very important to him, just as it is for me, that we work in a space where there is great creative synergy; that there’s safety in knowing that two people want to go in the same direction. Because otherwise a lot of the rehearsal is spent sort of like trying to figure where to place yourself. Thom Pain (based on nothing) is also a very text-based show. There’s an actor and a very precise design, in terms of light. Everything has been minimal.

Q. Thom Pain (based on nothing) is a 2004 play written by an American playwright. Have you in any way tried to adapt the script to the present day or to an Indian context?

A. I didn’t feel like there was anything that I needed to adapt to a local audience, in terms of references, because it doesn’t have specific references that place it in a particular culture. And the reason it doesn’t need this updating is because ultimately, the things that the play’s talking about are all things that are universal human experiences. It talks about the things that we all know about, like relationships, love and loss and making the journey from one’s birth to one’s midlife.

It’s like We understand Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet because it is about love, and it’s classic because of that. The idea of love transcends time, centuries and geographic locations. But in this particular play, it’s a man on a stage telling a story. It’s not written for the American experience only, even though Will is an American playwright. It’s written as a human experience.

That said, it was very important for us to pay a lot of attention to what the words were doing. They carry a sound and a movement. There are silences that build a certain tempo and create a certain rhythm in the piece. So we’ve really gone in depth into what are the words doing? Because if you think about text as just being words, we lose some of the depth of what the sound of the language itself can do. So, we’ve talked about why some sentences are shorter than the others.

The director at work

Q. The play is sort of an anthology of subtext and experiences. Can you briefly tell us about it?

A. Basically, the play revolves around three stories that come in and out through the show. It is a story of the dog, the story of a bee sting and the story of a woman. In the course of the performance, we see their interconnectedness — how these stories are connected or how the feelings that have emerged from these stories are connected. In order to tell these stories and for us to understand them, he has to reference other parts of his life. But these are the three main stories that the play is about. The play is about a person having a soul, a human experience, and it’s also the story of a dog in a bee sting and of a woman without.

Q. Now that the play is about to take off, how anxious are you about the audience’s response?

A. Absolutely. In fact, I’m in a constant state of heightened anxiety. Of course, the pressure is much greater in directing a solo. But I feel that directing such a story also hinges upon telling it in a meaningful manner, especially in the world we live in today.

Art is about allowing yourself to have parts of your life leak into the other. Like, art doesn’t exist without the experience of life. So, the experience of art is the experience of life. And why some work better than others is because they have tapped into something in you, the viewer, and brought you closer to the work. Like, that’s why we can stand in front of a particular painting and be moved to tears and listen to a piece of music and feel joy or watch a play and feel like we’re going to carry this story with us forever.

Catch shows of Thom Pain (based on nothing) at Jagriti Theatre on August 18 (at 3.30pm), on August 19 and August 20 (at 3.30pm and 7.30pm). You can book your tickets here.

A still from the show