World Theatre Day: Theatre was. Is. And, always will be!

Ahead of World Theatre Day on March 27, we discuss how theatre has survived the test of time, the changing trends, the difficulty and beauty that it encapsulates and what makes it addictive
Michael Muthu, Akhila Ramnarayan and Freddy Koikaran (Pic: R Satish Babu) 
Michael Muthu, Akhila Ramnarayan and Freddy Koikaran (Pic: R Satish Babu) 

All the world’s a stage, and all men and women merely players, but not all of us are artistes belonging to theatre. Perhaps, that’s why we are in awe and admiration of those who have been able to keep theatre alive. Well, it’s not an art form that can die, for it is hungry, persuasive and unabashedly relentless.

While the medium remains the stage, the theatre of yore has changed. Like every art form, theatre has also evolved with time, be it in its presentation, technicalities, changing plotlines, adapting newer stories, fresh formats, musicals, monologues, interaction with the audience or embracing fresh talent, thereby helping in not just bridging the gap between the old and the contemporary; the specialised and the traditional, but also helping it to expand and reach out to a much wider audience.

Change is the only constant

The pool of talent in theatre is significantly larger than it was in the mid 1980s. A lot more people are doing plays nowadays and there are a lot more theatre groups today. The growth, in that sense, has been significant, opines Michael Muthu, actor and founder of theatre group Boardwalkers. However, what he has noticed is, “a steady decline in the quality of the productions.”

“I think, the main reason is, everything is so prohibitively expensive. Many theatrical productions I go to and see are very minimalistic, with minimal props, minimal lighting, no set, just a black curtain which serves as the backdrop and so the ‘magic’ of a theatrical production is often lost and the play never reaches its full potential. The play is not presented as it really should be,” Michael says.

Yet, theatre has not just survived, it has evolved and continues to do so, points out theatre veteran and founder of Perch, Rajiv Krishnan, who believes if there is one thing that has changed, it is the choice of stories. “You have to tell stories that can hold people’s interest in some way. You can’t be completely divorced from what the audience likes to watch. The stories we present have to be relevant to them; and that I think has always been a challenge,” he explains.

Rajiv Krishnan
Rajiv Krishnan

True, especially in the times we live in where our attention span has shrunk. “I read somewhere that our attention span has come down to about 6 seconds!” says Freddy Koikaran, a theatre practitioner, actor, singer, live show host and voiceover artiste, who is also a trainer and facilitator and currently a senior audio producer with Tag worldwide. He continues, “I think that’s why short plays have become very popular now. So, within 10 minutes, you have the entire story – start to finish.” This, Freddy says is unlike how theatre functioned earlier. “When we would work on our show, there was an unofficial understanding that ‘okay we are committed to this show, and we are going to work on this for two months, going for rehearsals twice/thrice a week, for couple of hours; and everyone was either studying or working full time. That has changed, because now you have people who will jump from one rehearsal to another. The same person is doing multiple shows at the same time, going for multiple rehearsals on the same day! And that I think has an impact on the quality of acting; it has an impact on people’s commitment levels. Having said that, there are more opportunities for people to take part in, today,” he explains.

Professor and Dean of Arts and Sciences at Sai University, Akhila Ramnarayan, who is also a theatre artiste and musician, couldn’t agree more. “I teach young adults and interact with them on a daily basis, and I think, especially after the pandemic, there is a serious problem with attention — all of us struggle with this. And I think it does affect performing art,” she says.

A sense of community

According to Rajiv, the pandemic has greatly contributed to the change in discourse. “Who thought we would go through such a historical event? Could we even imagine that we’d be back to normal when all kinds of entertainment or public activity came to a standstill? But now that we can, I think people kind of realise how precious that community activity is; and theatre in its true essence is a community activity. I say this because when you go watch a film, it is a private experience. But with theatre, your screen is the stage in front of you where you can watch people performing live and you react to it and that lends it a sense of community, which is what sustains theatre in the first place,” he says.

It’s imperative to bring in regional theatre or theatre in other languages into the discussion here, and Kunal Kapoor, trustee, Prithvi Theatre, Shri Prithviraj Kapoor Memorial Trust and Research Foundation, tells us that there is so much happening in regional languages — from the north, south, east and west! “English will only have a slight edge contrary to some beliefs.” And, Michael says that plays in English can come nowhere close to plays in regional languages. “The odds against English plays are as high as it can get, the reason perhaps being maybe we aren’t producing the quality that regional plays do.”

Socially relevant

Theatre as an art form has been considered one of the greatest of all, for it has the ability to not just entertain and make you contemplate, but more importantly, to feel an immediate connection. On the same lines, Rajiv tells us, “Theatre has always been about the imagination, as well as reality. Whether it is a film, or performance, a work of art must resonate with the times we live in, because even though it may take you into a world of fantasy, it must connect with our own lives. The themes thus must be universal, and be able to touch you in some concrete way. Even fantasies or mythical stories are about characters, which have very human-like qualities. And it’s the humaneness in such stories which makes them interesting.”

Agreeing with him is Michael, who says, “Theatre has always been used to highlight social issues from time immemorial. To draw attention to certain topics and incidents which shape society, to serve as the moral conscience to civilization, to guide and illuminate. Every play communicates something, a human experience, a different perspective, a slice of history, hoping to provoke from the audience a reaction, hoping to change the way people think and act. Briefly put, art imitates life, and life many times imitates art.”

“I think all you can do is provide a window into an experience, through your play,” says Akhila. Explaining with an example, she further says, “There is a play by a trans theatre group in Chennai, where they actually make some biryani in the course of the play which kind of depicts a slice of their (a transperson’s/trans community's) life; and they then serve that biryani to the audience, which is a fantastic theatrical innovation. That’s how you do it! When you speak from your lived and felt experience, it allows you access to diverse experiences.”

What’s new?

A lot of new theatre groups and platforms have emerged, formats have been experimented with: musicals, improv, musical monologues, short plays, and of course, theatre festivals and competitions. “The country, of late, is seeing a refreshing change with a lot of new, contemporary writers and young thespians producing relevant work. Across the country, at least in major metros, several studio-theatre venues have mushroomed giving impetus to raw, amateur theatre. And that’s where the growth of any country’s theatre is — in its new, amateur work,” says theatre revivalist Padmasri Mohammad Ali Baig, who has been taking the legacy of his father forward, with the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival in Hyderabad every year, hosting some of the biggest names and plays from the world of theatre.

Mohammad Ali Baig
Mohammad Ali Baig

Against the odds

In an age of digitalisation, and many modes of entertainment, how and why theatre has been able to hold on its own, we wonder, to which Mohammad Ali Baig points out that when black and white cinema started in the country, it was said that it was the end of theatre. Similarly, when television, video and YouTube came in, the end of theatre was consistently presumed. “With the recent rise of OTT and web series, especially post-pandemic, the same apprehensions are seen. Audiences who want the experience of theatre would watch theatre irrespective of ‘digitalisation.’ It’s like gourmet cuisine; despite the availability of instant foods and door-to-door delivery apps in minutes, gourmands would want their real spread, and wouldn’t want to lose out on the real dining experience,” he says. 

We ask theatre person V Balakrishnan from Theatre Nisha, about stage performances coming back in a big way and stand-up being further celebrated on OTT platforms and whether we can expect to see a similar movement in theatre too? “Stand-up is about creating a direct relationship with your audience; theatre is the craft of facilitating the illusion of the character in the minds of the audience. There is no comparison,” he tells us.

V Balakrishnan
V Balakrishnan

“Simply put, theatre is ancient and is the window to society; it’s the place where we congregate to better ourselves. If theatre starts getting low turnouts, it just means society is beginning to fall apart,” he says.

“I agree that the ‘live’ aspect of theatre cannot be replicated by anything else, but I do think theatre has picked up with formats like Short & Sweet, making theatre more accessible,” adds Akhila.

More accessible

Theatre, usually considered a niche art form, could reach only a few who were really interested in theatre, while the majority only looked at it as something very beautiful but beyond their understanding. “It’s a stigma I would say — the belief that only certain people can understand, write and perform when it comes to theatre. And yes, it is because theatre is niche. So, between theatre and a musical concert or a stand-up show, people will usually choose to go to the latter,” says B Charles, founder of Medai-The Stage.

B Charles
B Charles

For people to enjoy the stories we want them to enjoy, they have to be stories relevant to them, in the first place, points out Charles. “If we want to break the barrier between artistes and the audience, the audience can’t be made to feel alienated,” he says, which further explains why Medai is welcoming of traditional theatre groups as well as the contemporary. “We have had plays on the subjects of LGBTQAI+ as we want to be inclusive of all communities,” he shares, adding, “Medai has been trying to bridge the gap between veterans and young theatre enthusiasts. We do a lot of workshops where youngsters get a chance to learn the art from veterans, who they would otherwise never have the courage to approach. And we also encourage local talent.”

To conclude, theatre is not an easy kind of space, says Rajiv. “And I am not talking about finances. Of course, there are no rewards, and no money, and that’s difficult. But theatre is something that you keep coming back to. The point is, it’s a space that offers you a lot. It’s a space where people can meet and express their views and be heard, and be vulnerable. It’s addictive, but it is also very much a healing space.”

Freddy, Akhila and Michael (Pic: R Satish Babu) 
Freddy, Akhila and Michael (Pic: R Satish Babu) 

Catch Michael Muthu, Akhila Ramnarayan and Freddy Koikaran on our special episode of the Indulge Podcast, ahead of World Theatre Day


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