‘Although we are physically isolated, the pandemic has brought us closer together’ — Shaan Libby, A To Zee Creativity, Chennai

With two YouTube channels and an annual production coming up in December, the students at A to Zee Creativity have been quite busy with online projects
A still from James and the Giant Peach
A still from James and the Giant Peach

With productions like The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr Fox, and others under their belt, A To Zee Creativity enjoys quite a following among young theatre fans of Chennai. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has enabled the group to shift their focus on their two YouTube channels, even as they wait for things to get back to normal so that they can start preparing for their annual Christmas production. 

Shaan Katari Libby takes us through the ways and means in which the group’s students have been occupied during the lockdown, while also sharing her adventures at home, that include cooking with her children, philanthropic activities, and innumerable Zoom calls with friends and family. Excerpts:

Theatre organisations around the world are releasing their content online and making them available to the public. From your point of view, how much digital access does Chennai's audience have to your content, and what more can be done from your side to broaden the scope, with regards to both quantity of your body of work online and its reach among the masses?

We have most of our A to Zee Creativity plays online but spread over two YouTube channels. We need to consolidate this. Our students are doing a lot of interesting things online which is being shared too via Instagram and Facebook. The Madras Players too have many of our works online. 

In what ways and how much can this pandemic and the lockdown affect the theatre industry?

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 they missed it. The event offered thanks to health workers and to the WHO, had stay-inside advisories, testimonials, and extolled palliative efforts by corporations. It also urged viewers to pressure governments to provide far more extensive testing.

<em><strong>Dial M For Murder</strong></em>
Dial M For Murder

What are the major changes that you are anticipating in Chennai's theatre scene, once things get better? Will there be a change in approach towards the medium of showcasing your work? Can we expect to see more innovative ways in which you can reach your audience (virtual and augmented reality for example)? 

I'm not sure. 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.

Do you have any new productions in the pipeline? And, what will be the first play from your stable once the ball gets rolling again?

This year, we have to shift our annual A to Zee production to Christmas time probably as we have no time to practice. We would have done it around August or October otherwise. We have shortlisted a few plays but yet to finalize. 

Lastly, how have you been spending your lockdown time at home? Could you share some interesting anecdotes? 

I have learnt to use the Zoom app (as has the rest of the world)! Many of our classes have shifted online, and on the law side too client meetings, inquiries and law tutorials are all online now! I have found this a relief else earning an income would have been stressful and I am aware that I am one of the lucky ones in this respect.

My son Adam Libby and his friend Raghav Agarwal (both from Sishya) have been busy with a mask initiative started a few weeks back. They have called it CoverUp and my parents' factory in Thoraipakkam is making masks which they distribute to the vulnerable poorer communities for free. Of course, they do this via the Corporation workers and others who do the distribution. Also, all the building workers or watchmen who are frontline have received them and are distributing in their neighbourhoods. This is good to watch as at least one feels like one is doing something to help. So far they have hit around 1,500 masks distributed. Tia Thadani (also Sishya) has offered them a further 1,000 masks, so these too will make a difference.

Our daughter Zai has been attending online classes conducted by her school as all the Sishya teachers have been keeping them mentally engaged with academics and homework so they don't have too much time to mope about or get stressed/depressed. She also has her piano classes online with her teacher over Facetime.

<em><strong>Julius Caesar</strong></em>
Julius Caesar

Cooking with the children is something that I have not had a chance to do in a long time, but now we are doing a bit of baking every weekend. Zai has been producing banana cake, apple crumble, sorbets and various other treats. Adam and Zai even made some delicious chocolate ice cream. We make sure that any fruit that is ripe gets used. We are trying not to let anything go to waste as we don't know when a food shortage might arise, so trying to be responsible with how much we eat and not waste anything.

Both the children help with the cleaning now as there is no maid. Adam is now an expert with the mop, and Zai does all the dusting. This pitching in is needed and can't hurt for them to learn as in the future who knows where they will be.

My husband Jim and I are suddenly back in touch with our University friends on a regular basis as a trip to England is unlikely in the near future. Jim does weekly Zoom calls with his friends and their families. They take turns setting quizzes and our children enjoy this banter. I am back in touch with many of my friends spread across Australia, Holland, the UK and the US (school crowd, University crowd, and Mum friends) so we have had Zoom calls.

I have a constant fear in the pit of my stomach that my parents or someone we love will get this disease, but we are doing our best with masks, sanitizers and washing hands. I think this whole thing will bring a change in our hygiene habits as a society and will make us more aware of how very precious each day and each life really is. I think although we are physically isolated, this has brought us more together.

You can contact the writer at karan.pillai@newindianexpress.com or follow him on Twitter @karan_pillai

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