Photographs by Sarang Gupta
Arts 29 May 2024 4 MIN

Behind the mask with Yuki Ellias

Packed with movement, spare in dialogue, the theatre actor’s upcoming Mumbai show promises a unique experience

For a seasoned actor, Yuki Ellias can't hold a straight face. One evening, at her Bandra apartment, when The Nod’s photo editor, Sarang Gupta, nudges her to give a “serious look” for a portrait, she breaks into a giggling fit. She is no stranger to performing for a camera, but her instincts are still those of a theatre artist—she doesn’t just perform for, she performs with.  
Whether you’re a co-actor, an audience member, or a random visitor at her curio-strewn Bandra home, she won’t allow to you to sit and bear witness to her spotlight—she will draw you right in. Theatre artists tend to have that effect, to make you feel like simply existing as a body in a space is art.

“I always start from a performance body,” she tells me when I ask about her creative process. Over 20-odd years as a theatre-maker, Ellias has made a name for herself as one of the most cutting-edge performers in the country. At 22, she started her career as an actor, but after training at the Jacques Lecoq International School of Theatre in Paris, realised that the boundaries of creativity didn’t have to be so rigid after all. “I think that’s the first time I was given tools and vocabulary to start creating. You no longer have to be just an actor; you can be a performer-creator, and that really changed the dynamic for me.”   
She devised her critically acclaimed solo performance, Elephant in the Room (2016), as a way of challenging the limits of her performing voice and body. The narrative, brilliantly constructed by playwright Sneh Sapru, follows a bewildered young boy with an elephant head as he navigates a dark and dangerous forest. Sapru’s language is haunting and lyrical—more prose poetry than play—and Ellias matches it with mesmerising, shape-shifting energy. In the years since, the play has travelled to Edinburgh, Australia, and Hong Kong, and remains a fan favourite. But Ellias is always looking for ways to break new ground.

What would it be like to perform without dialogue altogether? Without facial expressions, even? What strange new characters and stories and worlds emerge then?

Her newest production, The Far Post is a mask theatre show that coalesces these questions into an 80-minute theatrical production. It's packed with movement and music, spare in dialogue, and features seven masks and two puppets. 
“I don’t think I saw myself as somebody who spent a lot of time on my riyaaz, but after Elephant, I worked so much more on my body,” Ellias shares. “Even though I do physical theatre, I am very bad at dance, and have very bad coordination, so I started doing more classes in movement.” During the pandemic, she came across a particularly endearing mask created by Swiss theatre artist and mask-maker Pierre Filliez. She ordered it immediately, and spent a year improvising with it on her own at home. “I love putting on a mask, because it allows you to be another body, another energy," she shares about the experience. "It opens up so many possibilities other than realism—it really signals to the audience that they're coming on a journey of absurdity."

As Ellias grew familiar with her prized mask, she slowly pieced together a new protagonist. And thus came Postman Aunty, a diligent postal worker in a mountainous war zone. Her friend, choreographer Tapas Boro, whom she had brought in to train her in movement, spent some time improvising with the mask as well. “He is really good at mask work, and naturally beautiful, because he is a mover,” Ellias enthuses. “So I was like, let’s both of us play the same character!”

This weekend, audiences in Mumbai will have a chance to meet Postman Aunty in the flesh, as The Far Post returns to stage after 10 shows, at the NCPA. When two soldiers are killed in conflict, it falls to Postman Aunty to deliver them safely to the afterlife, battling all manner of otherworldly demons along the way. In the show, Ellias and Boro play all the characters in alternation, deftly circling through the masks, exchanging them, and sometimes treating them as puppets as well.

The masks, created by Mumbai-based theatre artist Mati Rajput, are complemented with quirky costumes by Sumaiya Merchant (who also designed the dress Ellias is wearing in our shoot). The play is magical, and musical, and full of choreography that feels beyond the league of human possibilities. And Ellias, a performer of astonishing power and vitality, eats up the stage.

Set in a war zone and ripe with questions about identity-based conflict, The Far Post feels especially relevant today, but it is also heartwarming and rooted in emotion and empathy. “I think the world just became a nice place where I can do the ‘hope’ part of living,” Ellias says, “a place where I can hope that people come together, that we can put our stupidity aside.”    

Typically, the actors are joined on stage by Sofiyum, a Lepcha folk-western fusion band that Ellias encountered in Gangtok. In a matter of weeks, Sofiyum composed seven original songs for the play, each one hauntingly beautiful, which helps guide the audience through the play in lieu of dialogue. Though audiences will hear the music, the band will not be performing at NCPA this week. 

Up next, Ellias hopes to take the play to Sikkim, the land that Postman Aunty’s world is loosely based in. “Being a producer is very hard, I am not good at that so far!” she says, “I have to figure out funding, how to get everybody there, but that’s my dream for the show.” I’d strongly advise you to keep an eye out for The Far Post floats through your city—Postman Aunty will be waiting for you like an old friend.

The Far Post will be staged at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai on June 1 and 2, 2024 at 6 pm. Get your tickets here.