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Now an interactive digital stage for theatre

A new medium designed by an alternative performance studio in Mumbai hopes to cater to the needs of virtual performances.

Karan Suri Talwar and Michaela Talwar, co-founders, Harkat Studios
Karan Suri Talwar and Michaela Talwar, co-founders, Harkat Studios

Karan Suri Talwar, founder, Harkat Studios, a cosy alternative space for theatre and films, in the bylanes of Mumbai’s Aram Nagar, spent the first few months of the lockdown watching all kinds of online performances. Physical theatres had closed their doors and artists were experimenting with the virtual medium in all its forms. There were recorded plays being released on YouTube, live shows over Zoom and other such experiments. With a foot in theatre and film each (Harkat also runs a film studio), he realised that attempting to replicate live theatre shows was a pointless exercise. And yet, virtual performances were unlike the film medium.

There was a need for a new medium altogether, neither film nor physical theatre. It became the genesis of the newly launched, Harkat Virtual Interactive stage. “We didn’t want to do something in the interim. This is a culmination of slow deliberation and tinkering with film equipment since the month of July,” he tells during a telephonic interview.

Supported by Goethe Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan, the initiative was launched over a Zoom session earlier this month. Suri Talwar and co-founder Michaela Talwar, partner, along with a technical team, unveiled the full potential of their new medium to a bunch of theatre makers and audience members. The physical space had been replicated in a three-dimensional virtual form. You could navigate the entire space, as one would while walking through it. Lights and sound could be controlled remotely and performers could participate from all over the world. The team was greeted with a volley of questions: ‘Can different rooms be created within the space?’, ‘How many performers can be pulled in?’, ‘What about the internet connection?’, and many more.

So, this is how the process works. On ground is a three-camera setup, expandable to four professional cameras and infinite phone cameras. Audience reactions can be enabled in the form of polls/ chat, audio and video. “It is a way for performers and audience to feel that they are part of the same show through real-time feedback. For now, the audio button triggers claps but can be customised to the needs of the production,” says Suri Talwar, adding that none of the functions are set in stone and are available for artists to use in different ways based on the needs of the show.

Besides real-time interaction, the Harkat Virtual Interactive Stage attempts to address the basic shortfalls of other platforms, like video quality, control of audio and lights. “The production quality that we saw online remained hugely compromised. And in a day and age where you are exposed to Netflix and Amazon Prime, everyone can tell a good visual apart from a bad one,” he explains.

As they invite proposals, the studio has also announced three grants, of 75,000 each exclusively catering to performances on the virtual stage. Along with the studio space, comes a technical team that will help creators navigate the medium. “Ultimately, we want performance artistes to come with their skills and not have to worry about the technical details,” he says. The first of the grant recipients will perform at Harkat Studios in December end.

We took a tour through the space, in the absence of a performance, and you can, too. While it gives you an insight into what the new, in-between medium has in store, it can also effectively trigger nostalgia of the pre-pandemic days; of the cups of tea and chatter before a performance and the anticipation of the stage lights coming on. In its own small way, the medium attempts to address these, too. “The biggest thing that was not working in the online shows was, for lack of a better word, the non-decorum. When you decide to watch a performance, from the time you buy the tickets, to you travel and arrival at the space, you are preparing to watch something,” Suri Talwar explains.

The new medium enables a pre and post-show chat window that allows the audience and artistes to interact. It may not be a patch on the real-world experience, but until we can return to theatres safely again, it will have to do.

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