New horizons in performance art: How theatre artistes are preparing for a change of scene post-lockdown
The world has changed as we know it, facing an unpredictable future. But there is hope, as always. And, hope is what we got in abundance when we spoke to leading luminaries in the theatre circuit about the effect of the coronavirus epidemic in the field of theatre.
Despite venues being shut and festivals being cancelled, a lot of them shared the view that though performing arts is primarily a live experience, one cannot ignore its dependence on the internet in the digital age. The world may be a stage, but it can be a screen too!
Take, for example, The Madras Players, which is celebrating its 65th anniversary this month. The theatre group is releasing a few of its past productions on their new YouTube channel, starting this week. Expect plays like Water, Chudamani, Julius Caesar, Midnight Hotel, Out of Order and Doubt in their first batch of online releases for the season.
However, there are others who are defiant, saying that the pandemic will not affect the theatre industry in a big way and that once things get better, actors and directors will get back in action, producing plays just like before. But, in all honesty, things are not likely to be the same. For an industry that relies heavily on rehearsals and audience participation, to suddenly take a forced breather is definitely unfortunate.
But, the experts we spoke to are not keeping idle at all. They are finding ways to keep themselves occupied, even during the lockdown. Some are already prepping for their future productions, others are scouting acting talents within their own families, while others are using social media to present reading sessions and collaborative skits online.
Will this be the new norm in the future? Or will we see them back in action on the stage soon? Leading theatre personalities weigh in with their views, as they speak about ways in which the pandemic has affected the industry as a whole while reflecting on what changes to expect, once things get up and running in the future.
Karthik A | Crea-Shakthi
With live shows being cancelled, online avenues have suddenly opened up overnight in different countries. The truth is, storytelling, be it through theatre, dance or music or through any art form, in the digital format, is here to stay. We’re living in a digital world, and it’s time we embraced every device as a stage, although, with caution and responsibility. But at the core of it all, whether it is online or live on stage, the story being performed doesn’t change. The content can still have a lasting impact on your audiences. It’s just the form that has changed. So, it is the responsibility of us, artistes, to evolve with the times to make this an accessible-for-all craft.
Creation has to happen irrespective of the lockdown. Some of the creators in the company have been working on some very interesting projects during the lockdown period. Some have opened up story creation to their families, making it an inclusive exercise. A lot of parents and grandparents, who never had the chance to be storytellers, are now acting in our videos, making it a true community-driven exercise.
Also, over the last two years, we have been developing Crea-Play, a story-based learning application, which is now live on Google Play Store and will soon be available for Apple users as well. The app has a repository of close to 800 scripts that we’re making available in video, audio and read-along formats for children across the world. In addition, we’ve now become a publishing house, creating role-play illustrated books for children. These are available for consumption on the app, and once the lockdown is lifted, we’ll be shipping physical copies to our audiences as well. The application will not only have stories to be consumed in a multi-format experience but also activities and classes for children to register for and engage in.
Aysha Rau | The Little Theatre
The pandemic has definitely hit the theatre industry very badly. We have just cancelled our 11th edition of The Little Festival, as the visiting productions would have a hard time getting here. Other festivals, which I was invited to attend, conduct workshops and give talks at, have been postponed to
2021. Shows and training programmes that we were supposed to do in April and May have been suspended; we obviously have to reschedule them. Also, a festival that we are supposed to participate in August is still not confirmed.
The good news is that our Artistic Director Krishnakumar Balasubramanian aka KK and his team are in the process of setting up a YouTube channel. Over the last few productions, we have been shooting with multi-camera setups to edit and upload our shows. Now, with the lockdown in place, I guess KK and his team must be having more time to work on this! They are also working on a couple of small productions that can be mounted easily in different school auditoriums. We are looking at a show to cater to the primary section and one for the middle and senior school children. These are still works-in-progress and we haven’t yet given them a name. Otherwise, we are working towards our annual Christmas Pantomime in December, and also Peter Pan. All these shows will be dedicated to the memory of everyone we have lost their lives to the virus this year. It is a global tragedy, but we need to move on.
As for me, I’ve been keeping myself amused making videos of all my quick recipes and sharing my menus and recipes with everyone. There is this kite who comes every day and sits outside my bedroom window. It gives a distinctive cry when it reaches its perch. As soon as I hear it I try to take a picture. It’s like a game between us!
Shaan Katari Libby | A to Zee Creativity
I feel this has been hugely educative in terms of how much we can actually do online, and I hope that we will remember that there is a world outside our borders for us to interact with — when normalcy returns. But for now, globally, it has been absolutely amazing as all the top plays are now available for free — from operas to Shakespeare at the Globe, to Broadway musicals. The One World Together at Home concert, the brainchild of Lady Gaga, was an amazing coming together of stars and is available for all to watch on YouTube, in case people missed it.
We have most of our plays online, spread over two YouTube channels, but we need to consolidate this. Our students are doing a lot of interesting things online that are being shared too via Instagram and Facebook. As for our annual production, we have shifted it to Christmas time, since we need ample time to practise.
For now, I am at home, baking desserts and other treats with my children and catching up with friends too. Also, my NGO — NUR — has been making masks for the poorer communities, while my son Adam and his friend Raghav distribute them for free with the help of Corporation workers.
V Balakrishnan | Theatre Nisha
It is quite ambitious to call theatre an industry in the Indian context. Theatre at best is patronised, sometimes self-reliant, and mostly sponsored. Artists earning their entire income from theatre are very rare. Yes, the pandemic may have resulted in a few plays not being performed in the months of March-April-May, but in no way is it telling on theatre. Theatre is a live communion, and no amount of virtual and augmented reality or live recordings can come close to the live experience.
Once the lockdown is lifted, and the environment is conducive for gatherings, I believe that we will be doing the exact number of plays that we were doing before the pandemic hit. With regards to upcoming projects, we were to perform Girish Karnad‘s Crossing to Talikota in the month of April. So, that play sits on the benches until we can enter the field once again.
Gowri Ramnarayan | JustUs Repertory
I think theatre may come back with added dynamism. It is likely that people will realise its importance to community bonding because, after all, the screen cannot replace the live medium. This temporary loss may make the world aware of the irreplaceable value of theatre. But there is one thing for sure. We - both artists and audiences - will never take theatre for granted again.
Without adequate financial strength, we won't be able to source technologies that can enable us to entail futuristic concepts like augmented reality. The money is simply not there. Also, to jump into the VR/AR bandwagon requires us to scout for specialised videographers who are aware of the kind of set-up required to shoot a play in a way that is worth being put up online.
Also, the moment you put up a play online, you are directly pitting it against online movies, the latter of which was made specifically for the screen. Watching a play online is only a small percentage of the actual live experience, and I am not sure the theatre-watching audience would be too keen on it.
As for JustUs Repertory, we were supposed to do a six-week tour of the US last month, with our new play on Pandit Ravi Shankar, for which we had prepared for six months. But, now, we don't know if we will be able to perform the play in the way we had intended to before the epidemic happened. It is going to be a drastic transformation of life as we know it, with lockdown measures forcing us to rethink our way of living, I hope and am sure that we will find ways to come strong out of this.
I won't be surprised if anyone in the theatre circuit will come up with revolutionary ideas in the future, that will change the way plays are produced, rethink our approach to scriptwriting, and transform acting techniques. Because the world needs art as it helps us bond and it enables us to imagine a world without brutality, misery, injustice and disease. And most importantly, it promotes wellness of the mind, and also the body.
Jill Navarre | Auroville Theatre Group
As the lockdown went into effect, we were only two weeks from the performance of A Place Called Home. Will we be able to resume once this quarantine is over? A lot depends on the people who have to come back from other places after two months. Can we pick up again where we left off? Do we have to replace some actors who simply can’t come back again? I don’t know. Let’s see...
Maybe I’m in the minority, but I don’t want to put everything online. It’s time-consuming and only approximates the theatrical experience — it doesn’t equal it. Several of the plays that we have done are available on YouTube — A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Streetcar Named Desire, Barabbas, a portion of Twelfth Night, a promo of Brooklyn Quartet, half an hour of King Lear, and full versions of Once Upon a River and Romeo and Juliet, probably more.
But what is theatre for? What magic does it communicate that can’t be obtained by a video? Not just the performance, the whole experience is what theatre is about. A transcendent one, of being transported out of yourself, with others, in a common space. I’m not ready to change that into watching a video while sitting in my living room and having beer, and, as some people do nowadays, looking every ten minutes at my phone. So I am desperately waiting for our theatrical life to begin again. To get into the rehearsal space and to be face-to-face with actors, musicians, in a space where everything is possible.
Krishna Kumar | Masquerade
Till now, as a live medium of communion, theatre has limited itself to considering uploading of content online as an extension of real-time publicity material. So had we. On YouTube, for example, we have a few clips from some of our earlier works that we uploaded, for both public consumption and performers’ nostalgia, as a sort of record. I guess the lockdown has triggered anxiety among artistes seeking more digital presence like people doing panic buys of groceries. It’s unlikely to change our belief about digital repository in the post-lockdown phase. It will and would remain a digital cache, probably more quantitative in the coming days. That said, artistes have found a way to have their motivation sustained through the use of digital social platforms.
Masquerade would not and has never been averse to exploring newer ways of show-casting. I consciously use the word as a coinage, because, now, like screencasting and screen sharing from mobiles to TV, now we are virtualising our content. Who knows, we may even produce exclusive show-casting content.
Since our World Theatre Day celebrations were redirected online, on March 27 we had a seven-phase streamed performed readings on IG Live. We also did seven 25-minute sessions of two-actor short plays, where we aggregated around 1,000-plus views. Since then we’ve been doing storytelling and reading for kids sometimes. Personally, I read and upload a poem a night on IGTV. Also, some of these content has been up on Masquerade’s YouTube channel.
Charles B | Chennai Art Theatre
There are broadly two types of actors — one lot who hold regular jobs and do theatre as a hobby, and the other lot who are full-time actors, teaching and performing throughout the year. The latter are really badly hit. Other people associated with theatre — light and sound technicians, set designers, costume designers, backstage crew — all of whom depend on revenue on a per-project basis, have taken the brunt of this shutdown. Sadly, there is no proper system that can support such people in times of crisis like this.
Venues are vacant and have lost a lot of revenue with no bookings for some months to go. There is no backup revenue model or an organised system to support the industry at such times — no union or organisation for representing our fraternity that can disburse funds and help in other ways. Of course, there is zero support from the Government to performing arts in general, least of all to the theatre. Maybe it’s time to address these concerns seriously.
Theatre is a live experience, so it will be a challenge to take it to the virtual medium, especially competing with other forms like movies and stand-up comedy. Having said that, I’d say necessity is the mother of invention. Maybe this is the time to get our creative ideas rolling on how to get theatre up on the virtual platform — at least as an experiment.
As for CAT, we do have our annual line up ready as always — The Fringe in July, and Theatre Binge in October-November — but we are still not sure of anything, given the uncertainty around us.
We have also been working on staging a play by award-winning actor/director David Hansen, originally planned for June. Directed by Denver Antony Nicholas, rehearsals are currently on virtually. We will wait to stage this after the pandemic is over.
Sandeep Tadi | Storyboard Productions
Three-years and six plays old, Storyboard Productions, founded by Hyderabad-based Sandeep Tadi, Jonas David and Harika Velaga David, had lined up several shows of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire before the pandemic hit. Cancelled after one show, Sandeep — who is also a theatre director — says that although he is a bit unsure if theatre can thrive online, he sees it as a necessity to be prepared for. Sandeep informs, “If we decide to put our performances online, there are two good ways — one is to record a live play performance with the efficient recording gear, and the other is to make a teleplay to ensure an immersive experience.” Further, he suggests putting up a fare or subscription fee to access the plays to sustain the costs of production, actors and crew. He reiterates that the pandemic has been a big blow. “We had worked hard for our latest production, A Streetcar Named Desire, for three months and invested a good amount of money on an elaborate set, but after one show we had to cancel the rest.”
There will be several changes in the post-pandemic era, agrees Sandeep. “The major change will be the seating for any show. Maybe lesser number of people will be allowed to ensure minimum social distancing is maintained. “ says the co-founder of Storyboard, sharing that apart from more shows, they are also in talks for an original Telugu play. “We will start working on that as soon as this pandemic is over,” he assures.
Mohammad Ali Baig | Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation
Eminent Hyderabadi theatre personality Mohammad Ali Baig has directed and performed with the likes of the late Farooq Sheikh and Shabana Azmi and staged several plays nationally and internationally. When we asked the co-founder of the reputed Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation about whether his brand of theatre can go online, he said, “Most of my productions are staged in historical monuments, hence, my design is such that it can’t be compromised on any digital or video format.”
However, for the Padma Shri winner, this time is crucial to effectively rethink and reevaluate his own work. Once the pandemic situation is under control, Baig is determined to take the stage with more gusto. “Our new production, My Father — His Exalted Highness, written by my wife Noor Baig and featuring Mohan Agashe, along with the two of us, was scheduled to have its London premiere in the first week of April. Also, shows of my other productions Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada and Under an Oak Tree were lined up in Russia and Turkey. Its shows in Hyderabad, post its premiere at the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival, too got rescheduled.
“This play, along with our other new production Kasturba, would probably be staged once the nation returns to normalcy,” he says. Ali Baig recounts the fact that after the London premiere got postponed and since his return from Russia, where he was shooting for a Tamil movie, he had to spend the first fortnight in self-quarantine. He is also using this time to reach out and engage in acts of kindness.
“Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation rechanneled its resources from its global tours to reach out to the associates, actors, technicians and vendors in seven states with everyday essentials. We felt duty-bound to be there for them in such critical times and that is the basic premise of theatre as a performing art form that I learnt from my father, Qadir Ali Baig.”
Sridhar Ramanathan | Bangalore Little Theatre
The playwright and trustee of this Bengaluru-based theatre group agrees that the lockdown is going to significantly impact the theatre and live performance industry. “Maybe we will have to get used to smaller audiences across venues, maintaining social distance. Ticket prices will go up and online shows will further eat into the market. This will also be an opportunity for theatre groups to innovate. Maybe auditoriums across the country and world will have airport type screening measures to isolate people coming in with temperature. Or the audience will have to mandatorily wear PPE to protect themselves and the performers. We all are going towards a new normal,” he says.
The group is currently very active on social media, both streaming live shows, as well as playback on already hosted performances. This is their diamond jubilee year, and this is not how they expected to celebrate the anniversary. They had six productions lined up for the year, the first being, The Anklet, based on the Tamil classic Silppadikaram scheduled for a July premiere. However, BLT plans to keep their eyes open to understand the new realities before going full steam ahead. “Understanding the new technologies and presenting it to our audience, as we learn it ourselves, has been fun. Rehearsals have been going on for our productions virtually. Our directors have been using digital tools to plan movements and sharing it with the cast. One thing is for certain — there is no better time for being creative than the present!” he signs off.
Deepika Arwind | Independent artiste
When we asked Deepika Arwind about how much theatre will change due to the pandemic, she had a clear answer. “Considerably!” she says. “It’s going to affect what we understand as ‘normal theatre’ viewing significantly. But in any case, artistes from this industry have always found other means of livelihood, so we’ll pull through. Having said that, I think there will be a re-configuring of the whole industry. Maybe teaching will take centre stage, instead of performances,” she adds. Deepika’s production, No Rest in the Kingdom, was scheduled for staging on March 21 at Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru, which had to be cancelled due to the pandemic.
One big change that Deepika hopes to see in the industry is from a funding point of view, “People are consuming ‘arts’ all the time, and a lot more now. If there’s one thing that’s seen a rise, it’s this, whether it be films, music, books, or poetry. And I hope that people understand the importance of arts, even when it comes to funding.
I hope people realise that we really need to invest in our arts and the artistes if we want it to flourish,” she says. Deepika is splitting her lockdown period between teaching virtual classes, writing some poetry (which you can check out on her Instagram page) and learning more about her craft of devised
theatre through reading.
Sohini Sengupta | Nandikar
Thespian Sohini Sengupta, who has been a part of the 60-year-old Nandikar theatre group since she was just three-years-old, understands the current COVID-19 situation and its effect on theatre at large. However, she is positive that the charm of meticulously scripted plays will bring art enthusiasts back to theatre after the lockdown.
“Theatre is theatre. The live-action on the stage is something that is not easily available or replicable, and will drive people out of home after the situation becomes normal,” states Sengupta, when asked about the digitisation of plays. Sengupta, who picks up Manush and Bappaditya, as her favourite productions, adds further, “Digital technology will never be able to replace theatre. I have been watching some productions on BBC but the entire experience of watching a play on the stage is irreplaceable. You can call it by some other name but not theatre.”
Sengupta, however, is open to discussions about the spectrum of theatre on digital platforms and informs that though recording stage acts is not an option, making a film out of the script can be given a thought in future. Post-lockdown, Sengupta assures that her team will create original and hard-hitting productions.
Vinay Sharma | Padatik Theatre Kolkata
While Padatik Theatre Kolkata’s rich repository of plays is available in the digital format that is often released online as short clips, the suddenness of the lockdown limited the access of the material, informs Vinay Sharma, Artistic Director of the group that was started in 1972. He explains, “While digital video recordings of complete works do exist, the suddenness of the lockdown left us
with no way to access the material at our workspace and so we have not been able to share it.”
According to Sharma, the overall effect of the lockdown on the industry can be ascertained on two factors. He elaborates, “One, the post lockdown risk assessment and advice by official sources and more importantly the risk perception by audiences and theatre workers.” Continuing, he adds, “Lack of work and loss of earnings may force even die-hard theatre workers to move away from theatre and offer their talent to other available opportunities or avenues in or out of the entertainment industry.”
Sharma agrees that innovative ways will have to be devised, but points out that virtual or augmented reality will ultimately exist as a hybrid format in itself and it cannot replace the experience of live performance ever. Currently, team Padatik has been holding e-rehearsals of plays in the making along with e-reading new scripts to explore future possible projects. Post lockdown their first production will be Just Joking, written and directed by Sharma.
(With inputs from Anagha M, Paulami Sen & Farah Khatoon)
You can contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @karan_pillai