Stagecraft revolution: An insider account of the growth of drama and theatre in Chennai
In a city that has a rich culture of performing arts, breaking the mould in a field like theatre is a task of uncertain yet exciting proportions. During the past decade, theatre artistes in the city have undoubtedly raised the bar for drama and have offered us a compelling gamut of work on stage, while touching upon a variety of themes ranging from mythological and biographical, to societal and metaphorical.
Also, with the advent of the Short+Sweet festival, a new dimension has been added into the mix, one that throws in even more challenges to directors and actors, but exciting all the same. Furthermore, the music performed on stage has gone beyond Carnatic and Western classical, with directors employing sounds ranging from a variety of genres like folk, instrumental and even rap.
As we usher in the new decade, we speak with reigning theatre professionals in the city to find out how much they have evolved over the years, not only as an artiste but also with their respective groups, while they share their vision for 2020 and beyond. Excerpts:
What are the most significant trends that you have observed in Chennai’s theatre scene during the past decade?
Aysha Rau, Little Theatre: Since my focus has been on theatre for a young audience for the last 28 years, I can say that it has become a fantastic way for our children to understand other people and foreign cultures and appreciate their differences. Appreciating foreign theatre specially created for them is definitely a growing trend in the area of theatre for youngsters in Chennai.
Little Theatre has taken this opportunity to create original work by professional actors. And I find that our audiences love the new work, which is mostly physical theatre with music, dance and comedy. Our shows have travelled to Iran and Malaysia, and are slated to travel to other countries in 2020.
Looking at the growing numbers at our annual Christmas Pantomime shows in December over the last 25 years, I would say that Chennai audiences have increased interest in live theatre. They are especially fond of physical theatre with music, dance and comedy. This genre sits in well with both adults and the youth.
Venkataraman Balakrishnan, Theatre Nisha: I would say that the Short+Sweet festival saw new young players entering the arena, who came with a thirst to experiment and explore uncharted territories. We saw theatre become more inclusive and witnessed stand-up comedy mushroom as a genre, while the concept of alternative space took strong roots with storytelling receiving a lot of
Rajiv Krishnan, Perch: We have completed almost 12 years as a group, during which time we have become much more collaborative in our working style. The director’s role has evolved to be that of a catalyst to bring people together, encourage and provoke debate, and keep the process on track. We have also started reaching out to other artistes, not only in theatre but also in other disciplines, through our initiative called Take Flight, which just completed its second year. We provide a grant of `30,000 to seven artists to take an idea and ‘fly’ with it, without the pressure of a finished product — with a showing of works in progress at the end of a certain time period.
Shaan Katari Libby, A to Zee Creativity: Short+Sweet is a welcome addition. It was an Australian festival brought in by Ranvir Shah and was responsible for a lot of small groups getting a platform on which to perform. Then, several of those groups like Stray Factory became more serious and got opportunities.
B Charles, Chennai Art Theatre: Festivals like Short+Sweet brought in a new wave of theatre in Chennai, which was all about 10-minute short plays. It was a motivating platform for aspiring directors, writers and actors who want to do professional theatre but without worrying about logistics. As a result of that, short plays still continue to be a part of the current theatre scene in the city. Also, full-length plays in the genre of comedy are also one of the growing trends in Chennai.
Krishna Kumar, Masquerade: A significant trend in the city’s theatre scene — hoping it is a trend — is that of shorter performance time. And that of indigenous scripts dealing with indigenous issues.
In what other ways has the process of scriptwriting evolved in the city?
AR: Little Theatre writes original scripts and creates work that speaks to Chennai audiences. Our artistic director, Krishnakumar Balasubramanian aka KK has been scripting and directing most of our productions over the last ten years. He has a very keen handle on the pulse of Chennai. He uses technology effectively to bring his stories alive. The whole production is very visual and he uses a lot of physical theatre.
I have noticed that his method of scripting is predominantly in English but allowing Tamil to blend naturally into the dialogues makes the script very natural and relatable. This goes down very well with Chennai audiences. Also, the use of Indian/Tamil music along with Western sounds is another way of connecting with the city.
In the last five years with serious training in clowning skills, KK and his team effectively use these skill sets wherever it lends itself into the storyline. And these clowning skills definitely help their script to up the comedy quotient in the productions. And, they use interesting techniques to interact and connect with audiences and shatter that fourth wall, cases in point being Garage Gang and Floose Boots, two of our clown-based shows that are slated to travel abroad in 2020.
VB: Writing and making plays became more accessible to everyone. Adapting, revisiting or reinterpreting stories from myths and folk tales seem to have had the favour of many writers.
SKL: I think people have become more adventurous with writing scripts these days. For instance, converting some books from Indian regional languages into English and converting novels into plays. One sees this happen more and more which is a good thing because it brings to life stories that exist in the vernacular languages and opens up a whole new audience for them.
BC: Scriptwriting nowadays is starting to take into account more and more of the current socio-political environment, which is interesting. There are good political satires and other plays questioning human rights. Recent scripts have also seen women’s voices as more pronounced with various outstanding monologues being performed by women in the city.
Besides scripts, body movement too has become as important an element like any other. Why do you think more and more artistes are laying emphasis on it now? How can one prepare to be physically and mentally fit to prepare for a movement-based show?
AR: How you move on stage has always been an integral part of the language of theatre. After all, what is theatre? It is a way to communicate what you feel in your body, heart, soul and mind. With every performance, you are sharing the very essence of your self with your audience. Movement is a very integral part of the language used by your body. I don’t think it is only now that they are paying more attention to physical and mental fitness. Serious actors have always worked on keeping themselves physically and mentally fit in order to give better performances.
It’s always a great idea to learn music, various dance forms, mixed martial arts, yoga and even gymnastics from a young age. Years of training will allow an actor to have more control over his or her movements. This is the best way to prepare for physical theatre.
VB: The physical idiom has always been an integral aspect of Indian theatre. There has been no time in our theatre history when it has not been emphasised, but the marriage of dance and drama into one integral whole has received more power with more need to create universal theatre. The preparation of an actor stays the same — daily practise and arduously working to keep the body and mind prepared. The readiness has to be there for each day, irrespective of shows.
Gowri Ramnarayan, JustUs Repertory: Dancers and actors (theatre/film) have realised the importance of keeping the body lithe, strong and flexible. As theatre has and is evolving into a new form and identity that is totally distinct from cinema and television, stylisation becomes a crucial tool for the director and actor, and the human body has started playing a pivotal role in their visualisations. Also, theatre expresses through images. Actors and directors have recognised the power of the body in
making images, and in evolving a meta-language of its own. This language communicates meanings to support the word and goes beyond the word. Every actor has to find his/her path to achieve physical and mental fitness. Yoga, physiotherapy, martial arts, dance and meditation have become a part of a theatre actor’s preparations.
BC: Movement has always been an integral part of theatre, even in verbal plays. Without understanding or researching the body movement in-depth, the characters will fall short. However, in a non-verbal play or otherwise called a physical theatre performance, body movement is the language itself and hence the artist needs to be thoroughly aware of the training that they need to go through to convey the performance effectively.
Language of movement is universal and can reach more people without the barrier of understanding a particular language of text, probably the reason more artistes are exploring it. It also challenges them to express in a more abstract way.
KK: A greater emphasis on a self-regulated and disciplined daily training approach in order to process a focussed evolution of artistes is a requisite. And a longer production span of 12 to 15 weeks, before one can even project a performance schedule, is essential. If one’s mind is consumed with a performance date even before rehearsals begin, then there cannot be any room for physical and movement exploration. Mental discipline is a vital part of physical discipline.
What are the other new elements, other than movement, that directors have been employing in this decade?
AR: Directors continue to incorporate technology into their productions. Computer graphics, mapping, use of UV lights and black theatre have become popular. With more and more interesting advances in technology, directors are definitely experimenting.
VB: The exploration into multi-media and the use of art installations have been few elements that have been explored deeper.
SKL: I have noticed that we tend to be moving away from having multiple sets and set changes as these tend to take time and while that is happening, the play sometimes slows down, which is difficult to recover from. So, to keep the tempo, sets are often elegant but multi-purpose and are seldom changed during the course of the play.
BC: New elements like platform theatre, that is about working within a restricted space, are being used to explore possibilities. Some of the directors have also very effectively used elements like fire and water as an interactive part of their productions.
What’s your view about the kind of themes and subjects that Chennai plays have touched upon?
AR: I’ve noticed that Shakespeare and even Agatha Christie’ works, along with Indian mythology, Tamil folklore and even modern themes like Harry Potter, Star Wars and Walt Disney, all appeal to a Chennai audience.
VB: I think each director works with what moves them. With their comprehension of the need of the hour, sometimes they resonate with the general consensus, and in other times they don’t. And Chennai
plays have always had their honest moments with their audience, irrespective of whether they toe the line or challenge existing norms.
SKL: I believe that theatre is entertainment so a play that is all heavy and full of messages with no respite is not entertainment. Having said that, it is worth having some sort of a message that is packaged in an entertaining manner. It’s nice to be able to go home discussing a play rather than forgetting about it the minute you step out. Plays that are pure farce mean very little to me.
I enjoy doing plays that have a more solid thought-provoking storyline.
BC: Chennai theatre mostly has seen some good plays from the genre of mythology, classics and epic sagas. However, subjects that are considered taboo are not touched upon frequently. For the same reason, I curated Erotica in March 2019, the second edition of which will be coming soon. The idea was to create a platform for scripts focusing on all aspects of human desires, sensuality and sexuality. I hope to see more new things in Chennai theatre that would surprise the audience or open up new avenues for them.
Speaking of surprising audiences, what has been the most informative and useful feedback that you have received from them over the years? Can you offer a definitive answer to the question of what they wish to see on stage?
AR: The fact that the audience at the last show every year at the Christmas Pantomime doesn’t move until I tell them what panto we are going to play the following year, is the most powerful feedback that we are doing something right! And the fact that people actually fly from out of town to watch our show every year is validation enough. This year, we had people flying in from Germany, Malaysia, Kolkata, Kochi, Mumbai and Bengaluru to see Popaii in Hawaii!
Physical theatre with music and dance and a lot of audience interactions is definitely a winning formula! Chennai loves to watch original scripts because it’s very difficult to put up a Broadway show as we don’t have theatres with proper infrastructure.
VB: The audience is never singular in its feedback. I recall being told that my plays are not comprehensible. It made me understand that I am there to tell a story and not challenge anyone’s intellect. So, I worked upon that feedback. The city’s audience wants to watch honest plays, and not be manipulated or treated to pseudo-intellectualism.
SKL: I like hearing that a play kept the audience gripped from start to finish. Being able to edit a play such that you don’t lose out on the plot, but you don’t let anything sag either is an art form that one strives to achieve. The audiences vary by the type of play on offer.
This year, I directed Julius Caesar with proper Shakespearean text and togas. Sam said that this high level of English would not appeal to the Chennai audience. But they were wrong. Once again we had three absolutely packed houses with excellent feedback. Equally, other plays by The Madras Players and other groups too, which are translations from vernacular languages, have been popular with a more traditional audience. So depending on the play, the audience that would be most interested tends to attend, which is excellent. It brings in more people to watch live theatre.
BC: The most important feedback was that the audience would like the plays to be of higher production value and not be very casual when it comes to costumes, sets, etc. Chennai’s theatre audience wants to see more plays based on original scripts.
That brings us to our final question. What are the changes that you wish to see in the city’s theatre scene, and what areas need improvement and support?
AR: I hope that they will continue to grow in the next ten years. We have the talent. What we are sadly lacking is infrastructure. We need state-of-the-art theatres that will allow directors to experiment and go to the next level. For the last 25 years
I have been trying to get the Government to give us a city-centric space to build a performing arts centre. That’s my dream and my vision — I want Chennai to have the best space for theatre in India.
VB: Theatre in Chennai is growing, both in terms of audience and theatre-makers. I’d wish for all theatre-makers to take their craft seriously and invest in training and preparation, for a long life in the field. Theatre has to be self-reliant; that is the only way it will sustain itself.
GR: I think young people are going to find theatre the most satisfactory medium for reflecting their angst, discuss contemporary issues that trouble them, to find clarity through plural interpretations (instead of a meaningless singular black and white) and a platform for revaluations of ethical dilemmas. It’s a sophisticated art form to analyse our complex age.
We have talent, no question. But, we need more long-term commitment from theatre people, which they can give only if the climate becomes more favourable. For starters, we need better, more affordable performance spaces with good tech facilities, including acoustics, to generate better performance quality and therefore draw more audiences. If audiences support theatre, everything else follows. We desperately need good sound reviews and good critics. Unless theatre is taken seriously and discussed and analysed seriously, it is going to have a hard time in growing and evolving to be what it can best be — a custodian of our human values and human culture.
RK: I think it’s healthy if more young people get involved in theatre. If they can find it possible to work full-time like we do, so much the better. In doing so, the role of observation and training is vital and they must seize all opportunities that they get to expose themselves to all forms of art — not just theatre, but also debate what they see, and learn and grow the skills that go into making theatre, whether as an actor, designer, backstage person, front stage person or director. It is not an easy route to take, but the sheer joy of creating work, and the camaraderie that goes with it, more than compensates. As far as creating work is concerned, the world is their oyster — theatre is the most democratic and multi-disciplinary of art forms and one can draw from a multitude of sources and influences. Nothing beats a good story — well told, with all the rigour and hard work made invisible. I honestly think that gone are the days when the director ruled the roost and his/her word was law — collaborative, multi-disciplinary work is the only way to push your boundaries and challenge yourself and find new ways of engaging with audiences who are spoilt for choice.
SKL: It would be great if people could make an actual living doing theatre. Right now some groups are successful at making a living because they are also teaching. The same goes for my group A to Zee Creativity. We teach drama and debate to students at schools and this allows us to sustain ourselves,
and stage plays. It would be great if one could just be a stage actor and make good money — in Chennai.
KK: We need established groups to step up their contribution in setting up a theatre ecology. Artistes and groups must nurture upcoming aspirants with responsibility than use them for commercial ends. Boasting an English stage culture of 70 years, we must look to establishing learning and curating centres.
BC: There are many youngsters starting their own theatre groups and creating plays in spite of minimal support, which shows their passion for theatre. Theatre festivals in the city are also growing and have helped in giving them a platform.
As a community, we need at least one exclusive theatre auditorium, that supports performances of plays, like Rangashankara does in Bangalore. Apart from that, finding ways of developing ties with the corporate sector, for funding and sponsorship is definitely a key aspect to consider, in order for theatre to flourish in Chennai.
(You can contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @karan_pillai)