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Negotiating a new normal as crowds return to watch plays

The pandemic has cast the theatre audiences in a new role. The tension is palpable, and the focus is as much on safety measures as on the stage

‘Piya Behrupiya’ by Mumbai-based Company Theatre
‘Piya Behrupiya’ by Mumbai-based Company Theatre

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Piya Behrupiya, a popular play by the Mumbai-based Company Theatre, first opened nine years ago. Dances, original music and humour formed the backbone of this interpretation of Twelfth Night. The first time I watched it, in 2013, at Ranga Shankara, Bengaluru, as part of their festival, the house was brimming with people. Viewers sang along, clapped and sighed with the actors. It was a successful show, marking the beginning of the international acclaim that was to follow.

I was back again, for a third watch, only this time during the pandemic at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre. This was just before the recent relaxation of protocols to allow 100 per cent occupancy in auditoriums. At that time, theatres could only operate at 50 percent capacity. Like several others, I had avoided the auditoriums for nearly two years and it took long to summon the courage to return. I was assured of social distancing, thermal screening, and all other standard operating procedures. Yet, there remained a ball of anxiety until I stepped in. The familiar stage, seating, and the vibe of the theatre transported me to simpler times. So what if I was flanked by iron separators that looked like they belonged in Tetris to keep my neighbours at a safe social distance?

Everyone was masked up and the ones who left their noses exposed quickly earned the ire of the ushers. The entry to the theatre in a single queue was a sombre affair too. The air inside was a palpable mix of anticipation and anxiety.

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The most important difference between watching a film and live performance, especially a play, has always been the community experience. The audience laughs together, and glances are exchanged frequently. You are in a single room going through the same emotions for a fixed period. And unlike cinema, the performers share your experience.

“That has changed to some extent. The social distancing and the masks make it feel like you are the sole viewer of the performance. You are often far away from your neighbour and you don’t know if they are laughing or crying,” says Sahil Ahuja, a Mumbai-based actor who has been a regular attendee at performances in the last few months. He adds that it isn’t a temporary inconvenience but a new normal that is here to stay.

Even as theatres are now filling up in various parts of the country, one is often left reminiscing about what an actual pre-pandemic full house in a boisterous play felt like. “When I see a play or a performance that is enhanced with audience participation, I can’t help but imagine how much more electric and fantastic it would have been with a packed house,” says Abbas Momin, a Mumbai-based stand-up comedian, who is also a regular at plays.

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He speaks of how audience members have started paying as much attention to safety measures as to the performance itself. During my return to the theatre during the pandemic, I too found myself gently surveying the audience for social distancing and masks. A pulled-down mask caused a strange discomfort that remained even when the performance began. Ahuja reports a similar discomfort. “It has made vigilantes out of all of us,” he says.

Muffled as it may be, laughter unites the audience quickly, even when it comes from a place of discomfort. It is the other emotions that are difficult to gauge while socially distant and in masks. “Earlier when there was an emotional scene, you could feel the heaviness in the auditorium, both as a member of the audience, and a performer. Now, there are fewer ways to express how immersed you are in a play,” Ahuja explains.

One of the greatest impacts of the pandemic can be seen in interactive performances. In one of the plays I watched earlier this year from the third row, an actor as a means of hiding in a chase sequence landed up in the seat next to mine. The theatrical moment was quickly disrupted by the anxiety that comes with an unmasked person sitting next to you in a closed room. Similar discomfort was visible every time a viewer was called on stage or physical contact with the audience was established. The proscenium is where the performance now begins and ends.

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Calling an audience member up on stage is no longer the exciting event it used to be. It’s met by a collective sigh followed by audience members stirring in their seats. “Earlier, people would jump up and get on stage. Now, if I want to do that, I’m always wondering, what if no one agrees?” says Priyanka Charan, a Mumbai-based actor-director, who performed a physically intensive play at Mumbai’s Veda Factory in December 2021. “A friend I was taking with me to attend a play double checked to make sure it wasn’t an interactive one,” she adds.

Yet, at larger venues like Prithvi Theatre and Ranga Shankara, people are turning up in numbers. “People do want to watch something real, especially during a period that questions the reality around us. Despite the inherent physical discomfort of travelling and masking, it brings a certain comfort,” Ahuja explains.

For an industry that has been struggling to survive during the pandemic and for theatre-starved audiences, this is a slight sliver of hope.

Prachi Sibal is a Mumbai-based culture writer

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