A look at how theatre groups are keeping the drama alive during the pandemic

Owing to the lockdown restrictions, performing arts have permeated into different mediums as the city's theatre groups produced new work in the past few months
A scene from Theatre NIsha's Crossing To Talikota
A scene from Theatre NIsha's Crossing To Talikota

The pandemic may have changed the backdrop for performing arts across the world, and yet, Chennai and Auroville’s theatre fraternity have devised ways and means to channel the spirit of their trade and keep their creative juices flowing in the past few months. It has been a challenging period, yes, but a fairly fulfilling one, considering that many of them have managed to keep themselves busy during the lockdown.

Take, for example, Nilakantan N of Dramact, who presented a 90-minute jury drama live on YouTube, with 12 actors over a Zoom session from their respective homes across the world. Meanwhile, Michael Muthu of Boardwalkers is working on an interesting project that he says “straddles the process of theatre and filmmaking”. Set in 1949, the working title, for now, is Bina Rai.  

There’s also B Krishnakumar of The Little Theatre, who — besides shooting for his latest movie, the Suriya-starrer Soorarai Pottru — conducted virtual summer camps and workshops on acting and hospital clowning. Likewise, others too have shown that with the right mix of creativity and determination, one can achieve anything in the most trying times. 

This week, in a series of conversations with Indulge, the city’s leading theatre personalities talk about ways in which they followed social distancing norms while working on their latest productions in the past few months while negotiating other obstacles that came their way. Plus, we get a peek into their upcoming projects and their vision for the immediate future. Excerpts:

What are the projects you completed during the lockdown?

V Balakrishnan, Theatre Nisha: We created a recorded performance of Girish Karnad’s Crossing to Talikota. With the support of Alliance Française of Madras and Nilekani Philanthropies, we were able to release the performance on YouTube; so far, it has garnered over 25,000 views. Besides that, we conducted two workshops on Stage Direction and Screen Acting for adults, and one workshop on creativity and imagination for children over Google Meet. We also organised a workshop on Basics of Lighting with Victor Paulraj, which had participants from across the world. There were also, and sessions on playwriting.

B Charles, Chennai Art Theatre: We have been preparing an award-winning play by David Hansen, directed by Denver Nicholas. It has a monologue delivered by TM Karthik. We also plan to revive the play titled Tape in January, that is, if things look up by then. We have also collaborated with a couple of theatre companies from the north of the country during the lockdown for workshops related to acting and scriptwriting.  

Jill Navarre, The Auroville Theatre Group: We completed two play-readings — Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. We are also working on the Zoom version of our A Place Called Home, written by me.

Gowri Ramnarayan, JustUs Repertory: I was commissioned to do dramatic storytelling for a summer camp in Chicago during the lockdown, where I wondered how to introduce India’s plural cultures in a way that would interest a group of multi-racial children? I thought changes in perspectives might work, so I scripted 30 stories from different regions and recorded them as monodramas. 
Such as Alexander’s campaign analysed by his horse Bucephalus and Paurava’s elephant, a sculptor narrating the Jataka fable to his kids as he carves it in Amaravati, Tenali Raman sharing a Birbal story with Krishnadevaraya, endangered animals becoming characters in the Himalayan kingdoms, and Bon Bibi coming across the seas from Arabia to be worshipped by Hindus and Muslims in the Sunderbans.
Among the workshops/lecture demonstrations that I did, the one about applying techniques and devices of theatre in classical dance made me see, in a new way, what I take for granted in theatre. For example, how a simple prop like a scarf, or a single gesture, can be repeatedly used in differing contexts to add depth, diversities and non-verbal dimensions. Sort like howon  Japanese director Satoshi Miyagi built a whole network of meanings with recurrent sighs!

Shaan Katari Libby, A to Zee Creativity and The Madras Players: At The Madras Players, we have done three virtual shows so far, and have been showing previous plays on YouTube every weekend. A few of us have also formed a poetry group called Voices, with friends from all over the world. Consisting of women at present, the group conducted a poetry reading session called Voices of Women, a few months ago while this week we are doing Voices of Cats. As the name suggests, we are raising money for a cat charity named Cattitude. As for A To Zee Creativity, our students have showcased their multiple talents through plays, debates and so much more, on the Zoom platform. We have several rehearsals before every show to decide on the movements, positions, visual backdrops and so on.  

What were the situational challenges you faced? How did you overcome them?

Krishna Kumar, Masquerade: Real-time rehearsal meets were problematic initially due to movement restrictions even within the city. Later, even with reduced restrictions and improved mobility, colleagues were hesitant to travel. So, work was happening online. Over the last couple of months, we’ve been meeting in small numbers. Of course, we’re unable to use our studio space since the government has not lifted guideline restrictions for entertainment spaces.

VB: Working with the SOPs was a challenge. Conducting workshops in-person is a different ball game altogether. But, the pandemic has brought together the community of artistes in various ways and opened new and innovative avenues for communion. For us, raising finances for the paradigm shift in our work was a major challenge, especially considering how all sectors have been hit hard by the pandemic. The creative challenges included acting for the camera, and not an audience. While the recording of the play was conducted in the manner of a stage performance, for the actors it was a new experience to not have an audience in front of them and be conscious of the positions of the camera. All the pre-production and post-production were conducted online and not on a meeting table, which was an investment of time and effort on another level. The physical rehearsals for the play were also conducted wearing masks.

JN: The biggest obstacle, I suppose, is our own mindset, which longs to get back on the stage! So there is a resistance to doing it online as if we have suddenly been thrust from the comfort of our home into a makeshift temporary shelter for the homeless, which lacks basic amenities — in our case like the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental connections that can be made so strongly when we are all in the same room.

<em>True West by Masquerade</em>
True West by Masquerade

Do you have any upcoming projects that you are working on at the moment?

VB: We are currently working on creating a recording of our latest play — The Death of Jayadratha. Based on a well-known episode from the Mahabharata, it is a one-person play written and directed by me and has Uma Sathyanarayan as the actor.  The short of the long is — Arjuna swears vengeance on Jayadhratha for the death of Abhimanyu and with divine intervention causes his defeat and death. But a conundrum posed itself — why Jayadhratha? This play is an attempt to seek resolution for this mysterious happening on the night of the 13th day of the Kurukshetra war — the misplaced oath of Arjuna.

KK: We’ve been working on an adaptation of a play by Sam Shephard. Directed by Vino Anand, it primarily features Shrivatz and Shubh Mukherjee. We’ll premiere it soon. Hope the way we showcase would help identify a way forward for other groups to follow and to work around the current problem of having a real-time audience.

JN: At the moment, we want to finish our filmed version of Red Bike, a play by Caridad Svich, to be released in December. Directed by me, it has Umair Ahrar, who played Nick Bottom in our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I chose a one-man show for the obvious reason that we were not allowed to work with more than five people in our rehearsal hall! It’s a beautiful story of a young boy growing up in the mid-West of the US and his keen observations of life and its challenges, his hopes and dreams (like competing in the Tour de France) and the obstacles that he and his friends face as they try to navigate towards adulthood. It is an adolescent-eyed view of life in small-town America. Furthermore, we have already started casting for the reading of Equus, by British playwright Peter Shaffer.

BC: Since the last few months saw a surge in the digital space, CAT is preparing to launch its own YouTube channel. We hope to be able to span a range of socially-relevant topics from theatre and music to dance and cinema and more. Needless to say, theatre will enjoy a huge chunk of this platform and we hope to draw in new audiences to live theatre productions in this manner.

GR: My new play Enchantment, based on the colourful and charismatic sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, had its US tour cancelled due to the pandemic. I hope it will be possible to stage it soon. I’m also using the lockdown period for translating two massive books. The first being Kalki Krishnamurthy’s biography that goes far beyond personal life to chronicle the socio-political-reformist renaissance movements, and the evolution of modern Tamil writing and journalism between 1900-1954. The second is Kalki’s last novel Alai Osai, a fervid account of the Indian freedom movement with a pan-Indian sweep, moving from Thanjavur to Bombay, Delhi, Agra, Kolkata, Lahore, Karachi and Panipat. I also plan to write and direct little playlets and put them up on YouTube from January next year to familiarise people with drama from that crucial era.

SKL: The Madras Players have Comic Verses coming up on Zoom on November 22. Directed by my mother Tehzeeb Katari, it features some well-known names like Anu Menon, Indrani Krishnaiyer, Sarvesh Sridhar, Nilu, Ameera D’Costa and others. Viewers can follow the group’s Instagram page to get login details.

<em>Red Bike by The Auroville Theatre Group</em>
Red Bike by The Auroville Theatre Group

It’s been a while since the last time we talked about the effects of the pandemic. In your view, on a personal front, what are the various ways in which your artistic necessities and preferences have transitioned during these tumultuous months? Furthermore,  how do you intend to shape your course of action with regards to your role in the future of the theatre scene?

VB: Artistic possibilities can be compared to a free-flowing river that’s attempting to meander through all obstacles while allowing the conduit of culture to engage in positive transformation. We, at Theatre Nisha, intend to continue working on the new fronts, spaces, and stages that we have created and allow the progress of our work in theatre arts and theatre education to proceed unhindered.  

BC: CAT had managed its events quite successfully, running to full houses. But due to the pandemic and restrictions on the number of people gathering, ticket sales have been impacted and such activities are no longer practical or viable for us. Sponsorships also have been affected due to the global economic fall-out. Although many of the restrictions have been lifted, it is too early to say how many people will actually turn up for shows or concerts in the coming months, especially in the absence of a
Moreover, many people have also been hit by job loss and reduced or no income-situations, plus other such issues. I wonder if this will affect their ticket-buying capacity or if cultural events will continue to get their patronage in this situation. We can only manage small scale shows with a minimum margin for everybody so that things will start to roll once again. Hopefully, the situation will improve by early 2021 and we can resume our activities.

JN: We go on. It’s so simple yet difficult. We create because we have to. We share because art is for free, not for sale. I am keeping our little boat — The Auroville Theatre Group — afloat somehow. It hit a huge reef in March and almost sunk, but it wobbled a bit and then righted itself. We are undeterred, always learning from every experience.

SKL: Theatre groups will almost certainly continue to have a few virtual rehearsals and a few physical ones. Playreading practice will happen remotely now, thus enabling us to do readings or plays with friends and colleagues from all over the world. QTP Productions in Bombay has started Theatre Adda — linking up theatre professionals from all over India virtually, on the first Monday of every month. And I think that option of staying connected with the larger world is here to stay. So long as people have the taste to tune in and watch, it will continue. I personally believe that the concept of a livestream or webcast will continue long after physical theatres reopen. We will (and should) have physical spaces used again, but we will also livestream events is my belief. This includes all events — plays, weddings, blessings, funerals — you name it; the world will be able to tune in if they care to. Also, invitation cards can have the link of the event on it too.

KK: With regards to my role in the future of Chennai’s theatre scene, I’ve been sounding out a couple of city-based artistes and theatre producers to meet up and explore the idea of setting up an organised guild of sorts for theatre artists and groups in Chennai that could help those in need sustain themselves in the future, in case similar trying situations were to arise. I guess it’s time for artistes to really come together to create a safety net that could, in time, help artistes keep creating works, without having to fear crises. I hope we come together, this time around, for the sake of smaller groups and independent as well as unaffiliated artistes.

As we approach the end of the year, what are you hoping for during the remaining few months, as well as 2021?

VB: On one hand, the fear factor has been alleviated by understanding the efficacy of following the rules of protection and thus allowing us to have a partial semblance of our regular lives, but it is still a compromise. One hopes to return to interact in real space and time, as soon as possible. It is disheartening to see how the pandemic has also become a new source of exploitation and corruption, while the indomitable human spirit reaching out to reiterate our oneness gives hope that we shall prevail.  

GR: If 2020 has taught us anything it is that predictions are futile in the pandemic era. The struggles I see among theatre artists everywhere are heartrending. Especially as we know that the arts are the last to get aid, support or notice in times like these. People so easily forget that the arts are indispensable for healing and peace of mind, and shape visions for the future. Theatre workers in Chennai have been doing their best to stay in touch with their craft and with their audiences, putting up past work on YouTube and trying to create ‘Zoom-dramas’. Since we don’t have or can’t afford the sophisticated technological equipment essential for these ventures, we have to find our answers through good old austerity and simplicity. But how to make that bareness attractive? How do we create our own Godot(s)? I tell myself that if (Samuel) Beckett can shape a classic out of boredom, chaos and suffering, we too can try to make sense of boredom, chaos and suffering in these times — as only artistes can. All we need is persistence and out-of-the-box daring.

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