Passion at play: Avant-garde theatre in Chennai

Celebrating the progressive and the contemporary in English theatre in the city, we explore what it takes  to stage the avant-garde

author_img Sabrina Rajan Published :  13th October 2017 02:50 PM   |   Published :   |  13th October 2017 02:50 PM

Chennai has always been big on English theatre. From the oldest group The Madras Players to popular ones like Boardwalkers and Evam besides others, we’ve had a strong and delightful introduction to the arts in this city. “The sign of good theatre is something that is intelligent, that moves you, perturbs you and you come away thinking,” says Ranvir Shah, Founder, Prakriti Foundation. In fact, Ranvir tells us how the popular festival, Short + Sweet, is all about providing a platform for the cross dissemination of ideas, actors and talent — to create a community of established and budding artistes. Having taken theatre festivals across six metros in the country, he declares that the Chennai audience is the most discerning.

Ranvir Shah

“If you want to keep the integrity of your inner soul, you have to do what you believe in and not pander to populists,” adds Ranvir about the motivation for staying on the path less trodden. Here, we dig deeper to explore how the city has fostered the avant-garde with some fascinating, progressive expressions on stage.


Rajiv Krishnan, Perch

Rajiv Krishnan

Celebrating their 10th anniversary this year, theatre group Perch has always had our attention for their compelling plays. One of the fascinating aspects is the longevity of their shows — for instance, their play Moonshine and Skytoffee, which debuted in 2004 and was performed recently in Chennai. Rajiv shares, “We keep going back to the drawing board — reflecting on previous shows — on what worked and what didn’t, changing things if need be. This also keeps the actors fresh and motivated. However, we only continue to perform the same play if it continues to excite and challenge us.” Talking about choosing scripts, he tells us that increasingly they are more inclined towards writing their own scripts. “Earlier, even when we used a script/play as a starting point, we usually mutilated the original beyond recognition. In fact, what attracts us to scripts is the multiple ways in which they can be re-imagined,” says the man who spearheaded the formation of Perch, but insists that they are a collective with no designations. 

Bala, Theatre Nisha


When we ask V Balakrishnan aka Bala about non-commercial theatre, he is quick to correct us, saying, 
“I have never seen my theatre as non-commercial. Yes, I have refused to cater to the least common denominator, or to put up anything on stage I do not organically believe in, but I have at the same time never tried to be abstruse.” The artistic director of Theatre Nisha, which was started in 2000, agrees that he believes in being honest to the craft. “I have never started a show late, and have tried to give back to the community by doing many shows without admission tickets. I think the scripts we believe in have always resonated well with the audience. How does one not love a good story?” However, it is not always that simple. Bala talks about his latest play, Dwijottama, based on the Quest of Drona (Mahabharata) — “I am planning to shoot arrows at a target in the play. And to do it without causing any danger or damage while maintaining the illusion is quite an arduous task,” says the artiste,  ensuring our heightened sense of anticipation. Bala is currently in the US on a Fulbright DAT Fellowship and is working on a script on Rasputin.

Gowri Ramnarayan, JustUs Repertory 

Gowri Ramnarayan

Dr Gowri Ramnarayan believes that art has a responsibility. “Especially today, when we are forced to address issues like violence in our daily lives,” says the playwright, who started the theatre group JustUs Repertory in 2006, and has travelled across the world with her shows, with a mainstream British theatre inviting them to stage a show for them next. The artistic director of the group, who writes, directs and produces her own plays, tells us, “My plays are my reaction to my times.” What sets her work apart could be the factor that she feels that there is a marked difference in the treatment of a subject when the purpose is art as apposed to when it is entertainment. Gowri, who is also a musician, says, “I think theatre is the most contemporary idiom. There are no rules — unlike classical arts,” and adds how it is the process — the rehearsals — where a play evolves and not on stage on show day. Up next is the launch of her book Dark Horse & Other Plays, on October 14.

Heads up!
Block November 5 on your calendars as Chennai Art Theatre (CAT) brings you four full-length plays in a single day. Expect one show each by theatre groups — Perch, Theatre Nisha, JustUs Repertory and Boardwalkers. At Alliance Française. Tickets at `400 for all the four plays. Details: 9841495497