World Theatre Day special: 'I think the live aspect can never be replaced,' says Bruce Guthrie of NCPA, Mumbai

The Head of Theatre and Film at NCPA shares his observations on how theatre has evolved in the last one year

Ayesha Tabassum Published :  26th March 2021 03:20 PM   |   Published :   |  26th March 2021 03:20 PM

Bruce Guthrie, Head of Theatre, The_National Centre for the Performing Arts

This World Theatre Day (March 27), we get Bruce Guthrie, Head of Theatre and Film at NCPA to share his observations on how theatre has evolved in the last one year. As a theatre practitioner, Bruce, who has directed productions such as Sea Wall, Constellations, Man To Man by Manfred Karge, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Twelfth Night and other such remarkable plays, throws light on how the theatre community lived up to the challenges of performing digitally, and what the future holds for them.

How has the digital medium changed the approach of traditional theatre practitioners?
The change has been significant. So many people have had to rethink and retrain over the past 12 months to survive. Groups have been meeting and discussing wider issues in the theatre community. How do we collaborate in more meaningful ways? How do we connect with and grow online audiences? At the beginning of the lockdown, there was the initial reaction of doing plays on Zoom or keeping audiences engaged with pre-recorded archive material (which was well received). As the lockdown has gone on, practitioners have had to innovate beyond standard presentation online. We also need to continue to rethink how we create revenue streams for online work. Television and film work very differently from live performance - our unique selling point is that you are in the place where the event is happening, and it is happening in real time. Our USP needs to be augmented to fit the new digital stage we are plying our trade on.      

Do you think practitioners must look at more innovative ways of marrying proscenium theatre and the virtual medium? Will this convergence of medium be treated as an opportunity or threat?
That's the beauty of innovation, we don't know yet. Some of the most exciting days in a rehearsal room are when a company starts rehearsal and the director says "I don't know what this is yet." If you have a room full of imaginations, you must use that resource. The best idea in the room wins. It might be from the most unlikely of places. The skill is spotting the best idea and shaping it. There will be leaps and plateau's (as with all development). We have identified several challenges and now we must figure out not only how to rise to them, but how to create solutions that offer long-term value to the medium going forward. 

Which plays did you watch online during the lockdown period? What were your impressions of the plays you watched?
I watched and continue to watch a lot of pieces. The quality has improved drastically in such a short space of time. I just watched a production of the musical The Colour Purple by Leicester Curve, a new musical called BKLYN (both of which have been excellent). I have enjoyed the pieces done by RAGE and Aadyam. Motley's reading of Godot was also good fun. Lots of National Theatre Live (when it was playing on Youtube) and of course our own NCPA at home series. We also create a new version of Sea Wall by Simon Stephens, starring Jim Sarbh. We will be bringing that back online in May. The audience response has been terrific so far. We are optimistic about creating shows that can play to live audiences while developing a global digital audience also. 

Do you think the paradigm shift in theatre practice - real to virtual - is going to be the future?
No. I think the live aspect can never be replaced. It speaks to us as a species. If there is one overwhelming lesson that lockdown has taught me, it's that we need to be around others. It's unhealthy to be isolated for such long periods of time. I can't wait to be back in our glorious theatres with artistes and audiences again. It's good for the soul. 

What is the way forward for NCPA?
We need investment in the arts. The entertainment eco-system generates huge amounts of money for the economy and is critical to the well-being and social development of any society. We as a community must band together and support each other while placing excellence of the work we create at the centre of everything we do. It has been a challenging year. There are more challenges to come. But I have faith that creative people will rise to the occasion and continue to innovate our way through this and into a new era of post-covid live performance.