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All the world’s a virtual stage

How theatre companies are ensuring we don’t miss the drama in our lives

‘Lockdown Love’ is themed on the idea of virtual chats on dating apps
‘Lockdown Love’ is themed on the idea of virtual chats on dating apps (Photo: .Courtesy Kommune)

Who would have thought you could sit in your living room in Delhi and experience a ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. But the historic theatre, founded in 1825, has adapted to changing times by making classics such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Giselle available on its YouTube channel.

Similarly, the National Theatre, UK, has launched a “National Theatre at Home" programme so you can watch its greatest hits being streamed online for a week each, starting Thursdays. Check out Simon Godwin’s 2018 production of Antony And Cleopatra, starring Ralph Fiennes, all set to be streamed on 7 May.

By opening up their rich archives, theatre companies are reaching out to audiences across geographies, offering them something meaningful to engage with during a world in lockdown.

It is not just vintage classics. The virtual platform is also being used to stream new productions in different formats. Pune-based group Theatron Entertainment has been performing its new Marathi show, 5 Cha Chaha, using Facebook Live. Bengaluru-based Ranga Shankara has got more than 20 actors, directors and playwrights to perform monologues from their favourite texts and shared this online.

Kommune, founded by Roshan Abbas, is staging one of the country’s first online plays, performed live every week on the video-calling platform Zoom (tickets are available on Starring Shriya Pilgaonkar, Tanmay Dhanania, Ashwin Mushran and Priyanshu Painyuli, the play, Lockdown Love, takes the audience through a series of online dates in the time of lockdown, with a twist at the end of each date.

It all started when performing artists worried about their future reached out to Abbas. “The lockdown has been a seismic shift. We had all been dipping our feet into the digital pool but now we have suddenly been thrown into the deep end," says Abbas. Instead of taking the usual route of doing a play live on a social media channel, he felt doing something relevant and innovative might engage audiences better. So he started exploring video-calling platforms, usually used for corporate meetings, as a virtual stage for his play.

Together with Sheena Khalid, a well-known theatre director and consultant with Kommune, and casting director Tess Joseph, he brainstormed on what a live online theatre experience should be like. The first step was to adapt the script to the platform. “The live setup should feel like an integral part of the script," says Abbas.

Four years ago, he had done a play about a girl coming to a new city and going on blind dates with people she met through Facebook. When she meets them, some don’t look like their profile pictures, some have put up false information. This seemed like the perfect script to tweak for the online medium and it was readapted into the idea of virtual chats on dating apps during the lockdown.

Next up was the casting. Khalid and Joseph chose actors who had done theatre as well as films because the minute you do a play on the laptop, you need to be adept at both. “You can’t do the kind of projection that theatre normally requires," says Abbas. After four quick rehearsals, followed by tech rehearsals, the play was ready by early April. Its preview was attended by 130 people.

Certain elements are unique to the theatre experience—the curtain going up, the lights dimming between scenes. How has that been replicated online? “We are doing scene changes through slide shows, with funny lines written on it," says Abbas.

The play is a work-in-progress. After each show, a feedback form is sent to members of the audience. “After the preview, one (bit of) feedback was that the viewers wished they could laugh together, hear the other members of the audience react. After all, viewing theatre is full of shared emotions," says Abbas.

So, from the second show, the slides were converted into a technologically-challenged character called Cupid, who needed the audience’s help to set the girl up for dates. The team used the interactivity tools on Insider, which allowed the audience to put in comments, choosing the next date for the girl, eventually bringing the two central characters together. “This has been a huge hit. The shows have gone house full. Now we are putting together a Hindi and English cast for the play and will do two-three shows a week. I think this format is here to stay," says Abbas.

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