Indulge 14th Anniversary Special: Movie sets to virtual rehearsals, Chennai’s theatre groups breathe fresh life into stage performances

Pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns! The scenario forced theatre artistes to reinvent themselves and adapt to the new normal
Staging a comeback (Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha)
Staging a comeback (Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha)

The stage is set. No, make that ‘a television or computer screen is set’. The scene is — an affluent Indian family raising a toast over dinner for their daughter’s engagement to another rich industrialist’s son in the Coonoor of 1949. The celebration is interrupted with a knock on the door and you see an inspector appearing to change the tone of the play from a 19th-century romantic drama to a crime thriller as the situations unfold. This is JB Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls which has been adapted by veteran director Michael Muthu of Boardwalkers in Chennai and made into a movie. The reason? Pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns! The scenario forced theatre artistes to reinvent themselves and adapt to the new normal. “There was no performance space available and I watched a few online plays but I found something lacking and there was no theatrical experience at all, neither was it a movie experience. It was a strange format. So I thought, either I do a regular theatre play or break it down to a movie. The latter worked well for me,” explains Mike (as he is fondly called), who with the cast of six actors rehearsed for a month and shot the film in 15 days. “We shot from six in the evening to eight in the morning as the play is set at night,” says the director, who shifted the entire plot from 1946 London to India post-independence. “We have finished the movie and the post-production and planning a premiere by the end of this year.”

All the world’s a stage

The pandemic has beaten the living daylights out of Chennai’s theatre fraternity. With all physical shows cancelled indefinitely, performances had to go online. While Mike turned his play into a movie, others simply shot the live performances and made them available for audiences on streaming platforms. And there was a third category, that opted for live performances on Zoom to keep their audiences engaged. Veteran theatre personality PC Ramakrishna (of India’s oldest English theatre group The Madras Players) and his crew of 20 had to cancel their trip to Toronto and Houston (owing to the lockdown)where they were to stage their musical Trinity.

“We had 13 sold out shows in different parts of the US. The makers suggested we can have online shows so we shot the play in Kalakshetra auditorium with four cameras and it went remotely to 14 cities in the US and Australia. We are happy with this experiment,” says PC Ram, who for the first time in English theatre incorporated Carnatic music sung and performed live on stage. Written by Tamil writer Seetha Ravi, Trinity is based on three short stories about the Carnatic legends Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri. In addition to this, they recently concluded shooting for the play Chudamani (2016) at Alliance Française. The play is an amalgamation of seven stories by celebrated Tamil writer R Chudamani.

Scene from TMP’s Chudamani
Scene from TMP’s Chudamani

“I chose seven stories and directed them for stage and emboldened by the success of the play we thought of shooting Chudamani. We ensured that it was shot on high-definition cameras but we kept the feel of the stage and kept it as a play that one could see online. We are trying to reach out to our audience and it’s also an experience for theatre actors. I think we have discovered a new normal in theatre,” says the director. This apart, Nikhila Kesavan, who adapted the stories of Chudamani and has been a part of The Madras Players for many years tells us that they also put out their archived plays, done over the last one decade, online. “We would put up one play every week over the last one year on our YouTube channel. It was well-received,” she adds.

On the other hand, Shaan Katari of AtoZee Creativity chose to go online and did plays like Julia Donaldson and Sherlock Holmes on Zoom. In their children’s series, Shaan chose inspirational speeches by Martin Luther King, Jawaharlal Nehru, Emma Watson and Malala Yousafzai. “Every performer was dressed up in character and we rehearsed for the performances online. We raised funds for the charity to help those in need during these difficult times,” says Shaan. 

Zoom performances by AtoZee Creativity
Zoom performances by AtoZee Creativity

Login for rehearsal

Even as the lockdown gets partially lifted, due to uncertainties of the Coronavirus and protocols of social distancing, resuming regular theatre seems like a distant dream for many ‘realists’. While actors and directors have kept the show going virtually, many of them reduced the cast of their plays or have chosen to do solo performances as spaces reopen. Rajiv Krishnan of the theatre collective, Perch, in Chennai started working on a solo performance in Tamil by Anandsami titled Ungala Neenga Yeppadi Paakka Virumbareenga. For Rajiv it seemed prudent to work with one actor, with whom he rehearsed in Chennai and Bengaluru and also collaborated with a dancer and a dialect coach from Chennai.

“We also worked with a music composer, but most of these discussions happened online except for one live recording session. We have staged 20 shows of the play since, mostly in homes in Chennai and Bengaluru for very small audiences of around 15 people. We also did a show in a co-working space in Bengaluru and two shows for comparatively bigger audiences of 50-75 people in Indianostrum Theatre and Kalarigram in Puducherry. We had very lively feedback sessions after each show, which helped the performance grow and evolve,” expresses Rajiv, who tried doing their existing plays online, however, missed the energy of the live audience. “All of us felt that the energy present in a live interaction and rehearsal was missing, and our hearts were not in it, so all the ideas folded up one by one,” confesses the director.

<em>Ungala Neenga Yeppadi Paakka Virumbareenga </em>by Perch
Ungala Neenga Yeppadi Paakka Virumbareenga by Perch

Another theatre director Denver Anthony Nicholas recently staged a musical Ramses —   A fall of a Pharaoh and Coffee at Alliance Française — for Chennai Art Theatre (CAT). The latter was an anthology comprising six short stories that deal with matters of the heart, first dates, love languages, heartbreak, marriage and rekindled romance. Denver tells us that his musicals are usually planned on a grand scale but as the big auditoriums are shut, he visualised shows with smaller spaces in mind. “We also had to cut the costs. We have used our existing costumes and saved as much money as we could,” Denver says.  Budgets are also planned keeping in mind audience numbers. B Charles, the founder of CAT tells us that people are skeptical about coming to live shows.  “It’s very difficult to have 50 per cent of your usual audience on the same production cost. Usually a musical costs about eight to 10 lakh but Ramses was staged with just three lakh,” shares Charles. 

Chennai Art Theatre's <em>Coffee</em>
Chennai Art Theatre's Coffee

Oh shoot!

V Balakrishnan of Chennai’s TheatreNisha, like many, found expression for his creativity online. The director even participated in an online theatre festival last year, Jairangam Jaipur with his play Death of Jayadratha and Jai Mahakaal at Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Azadi Ka Amrit Amhotsav online festival this year and Pasalai in Tamil for Kavimaalai, Singapore. Crossing to Talikota by Girish Karnad, Margazhi, Famous Last Words and The Dhobi’s Wife by Manjula Padmanabhan are some of the other plays that Bala (as he is fondly called) presented online. However, as performance spaces opened he staged self-written plays Arundhati and Sordid at Allia-nce Française. “There was no cost-cutting but added costs of shooting with three cameras, cinematographer and an editor. And shooting plays and putting them online wasn’t remarkably different from a play performance. We are used to shooting our plays for documentation purposes so we knew that we were not making a movie but shooting a performance,” says Bala.

Scene from Crossing to Talikota
Scene from Crossing to Talikota

Gowri Ramnarayan of JustUs Repertory in Chennai shot two plays When Things Fall Apart — based on Drona, a legend of the Mahabharata and his nuclear family facing the dissolution of the cosmos, and What She Said — three solo performances by women artistes. “We shot these two plays for online festivals and they were well received. But as a theatre director, it was not satisfactory. I felt you have to be a film director even if you have to shoot a play,” confesses Gowri and points out that lighting for shooting a play is also a challenge. “But in the entire process, acting became so important. While overall design was difficult, actors had to push their limits and visualising the play for the camera was completely different. I know a little more about shooting plays than I knew before. This came through with a new power in the pandemic,” she expresses.

JustUs Repertory's <em>When Things Fall Apar</em>
JustUs Repertory's When Things Fall Apar

Stagefright Productions too chose to perform online and Freddy Koikaran, the founder of the group says it was worth the experiment. Freddy came up with two editions of monologue performances and play readings including Killer Joe, which he shares had global audiences witnessing the performance in real-time. “Theatre is usually for the local audience as it is a local art form but we had people across the world joining us. I wanted to work on some scripts for a long time and lockdown gave me that opportunity. I visualised every performance online and tried using suggestions like turning off the lamp instead of signing off on screen. We utilised every available property in the house and used the same wallpapers for all our computers, so it felt like we were in the same space,” elucidates the director and actor. Freddy also tells us that he never wanted to monetise anything from the performances. “It was about adapting to a different medium. We tried our best and it was worth it,” he muses.

Curtains up, again!

For nearly 200 years, Museum Theatre has remained a landmark for thespians of Chennai. This much sought-after facility for small to big-scale theatre productions in normal times is closed for theatre artistes. Ask any theatre practitioner in the city, their first preference goes to this historical performing space. While the big players wait for its reopening, small democratic spaces like Alliance Française and DakshinaChitra have opened their doors for art and experimental performances. “We have open space, so there are no issues with accommodating the audience and the sitting capacity is 700, so even if it’s 50 percent we have an adequate audience. We have our in-house theatre and other cultural events,” says Parvathi G B. On the other hand, Bruno Plasse of Alliance Française says that they have opened their auditorium at 50 percent capacity.

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