'Theatre is a transcendent experience of being transported out of yourself' — Jill Navarre, The Auroville Theatre Group

The artistic director shares her thoughts about the changes that one can expect in the theatre scene post-lockdown, while also talking about the group's way forward

author_img K Pillai Published :  15th May 2020 06:00 AM   |   Published :   |  15th May 2020 06:00 AM
A still from Obediently Yours, Orson Welles

A still from Obediently Yours, Orson Welles

Jill Navarre of The Auroville Theatre Group is grateful for the fact that Auroville is still safe from the pandemic, having seen no positive cases yet. But she is cautious about the possibilities of change with respect to theatre's dependence on the internet.

Even though many of the group's plays are up online on their YouTube channel, Jill asserts the importance of live shows by stating that online streaming only captures a fraction of the actual theatrical experience. We find out what more she has to say about this, while also talking about about the group's upcoming projects and her Netflix adventures! 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?

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 we have done are available on YouTube, such as 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, full versions of Once Upon a River and Romeo and Juliet, plus probably more.

Brooklyn Quartet

But what is theatre for? What magic does it communicate that can't be obtained by a video? The whole experience is theatre, not just the performance. Going to the theatre requires preparation, planning, transportation, maybe spending money on tickets, (i.e., some sacrifice), waiting patiently in line to get in, finding your seat, your place, the hush of the crowd as the lights go down and then ... if you're lucky, 1, 2, 3 hours of magic. Of transformation. Of a transcendent experience of being transported out of yourself, with others in a common space, outside or inside ... it's a ceremony, an initiation and a ritual. I'm not ready to change that into watching a video while sitting in my living room drinking a 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. To be face to face with actors, musicians, in a dark room where everything is possible.

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

I am already longing for my group. I miss the physical contact, the bonding, the sweat, the laughter and the arguments as well as the fights!

Jill Navarre

I had planned to present three plays this year. 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? I honestly don't know. 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...

And the audience? Will they be there? Will they want to come inside and have this shared experience, or will they be too afraid and disoriented? Will theatre still have meaning to them? Maybe they will be thrilled to regain the communion with creativity and the performing arts. I think every performing artist is wondering how this black hole of time will affect us when we are once again spit out into the world; how will we have changed?

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)? 

The same three necessities will remain, which are, the actors, the story and the audience. I don't care if you use augmented reality as long as there are these three. How you cook them up is up to you, and the story. What does the story need? Will stories still be important? Remember the scene in Shakespeare in Love, where the producer is trying to keep the theatre alive during the plague? With all the frustration of being closed down, and then declaring, "The theatres are open. The theatres are open!" What happy words!! I can almost cry to think of it ...


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?

I do have plays in the pipeline. The first one is the one that we didn't get to perform yet, titled A Place Called Home, written by me, with music by Martin Gluckman. Then, there's Equus by Peter Shaffer, and an opera called Ibsen, with a libretto by Ronald Rand and music by Hartmut von Lieres. And lastly, a one-person play featuring Umair Ahrar, called Red Bike, by award-winning American playwright Caridad Svich. 

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

I have been spending my time reading a book called Performing Inside Out by William Pennell Rock, listening to music (I subscribe to Jango internet radio) and writing (I have a film script meant to be finished 15 years ago that I have dived back into).

Besides this, there's cleaning, shopping, washing dishes, keeping my Facebook fans informed via our Auroville Theatre Group FB page, chatting with old and very old friends, exercising (every morning), walking the dogs (every afternoon), taking a stroll after dinner, staying up way too late, laundry ... what else?! Yes! I am now able to watch Netflix through the kindness of a friend who took pity on us and offered to share his account.

Lastly, I am eternally grateful that I live in Auroville where there is no case of the virus. But, we are still in lockdown, while we try to take care of each other and get through this nightmare together.


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