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How the covid-19 pandemic scripted Indian theatre's second act

Theatre, which had earlier viewed the digital medium with some amount of disdain, has been forced to embrace it in order to survive. In the coming months, one will see a sort of hybrid model emerge, with digital and live performances coexisting

'I Don't Like It As You Like It' from Aadyam's digital edition

Isolation has been one of the themes of this year, almost like the signature tune of a beautifully produced stage show, but it has still come as a bit of a surprise to Pune-based actor-director Virajas Kulkarni that he has read more scripts for solo plays than large, grand productions over the last eight months. It’s a departure from the norm for an industry that’s used to massive productions, live audiences, changing sets and lighting, backstage antics and rehearsals over endless cups of tea—all familiar props that have been lost to the pandemic.

Kulkarni, whose one-person performance play, Bhanwar—in Hindi—was a huge success four years ago, says the number of scripts for solo performances coming to him for guidance or opinion have increased manifold this year. “Even with a return to the physical space, one is seeing a lot more solo pieces come up instead of mammoth productions.”

It’s just one of the many changes the world of theatre has had to deal with this year. As the months of lockdown and fear of covid-19 kept people at home, stage actors and directors had to find new ways to engage an audience that was already a select one pre-pandemic. Theatre, which had earlier viewed the digital medium with some amount of disdain, was forced to embrace it in order to survive.

It’s not just the space and the medium but the stories too that have changed. Some troupes have reimagined their performances for digital platforms, others have experimented and retold stories, many have taken to writing new material to suit the times. Called “digital live performances”, these are adapted for audiences at home, in front of a screen, who are most likely watching alone. The shows are streamed on platforms such as Zoom, YouTube, Twitch, Insider, Instagram and Facebook. And very often, the pandemic, screens and technology are written into the story, new protagonists in the play.

However, as Quasar Thakore Padamsee of the Mumbai-based theatre group QTP, made clear in an earlier interview to Lounge, these are not “plays online”, as plays need a live audience, but instead “re-imaginations of the play into an online story-sharing experience”.

What works during these difficult times is that the production costs are not as high as a regular theatre performance—no venues to be booked for performance and rehearsals, minimal props, no sets. Newer platforms, such as Paytm Insider Front & Centre, showcase these theatre experiences digitally. “We are hoping to provide a home for theatre practitioners to continue doing just that (telling stories), albeit online for now. It’s a new medium, really, and the challenges that come with that are both exciting and daunting,” said Nadir Khan, creative consultant, Front & Centre, in a media interview in July.

Mohit Takalkar, the 42-year-old director of Pune’s Aasakta theatre company debuted his first digital performance on 2 October, writing the story and visualising it for a laptop screen rather than a stage. The Colour of Loss was adapted from Booker prize-winner Han Kang’s The White Book, in which the author and her sister reminisce about all things white, from sugar cubes to breast milk. Performed by Mrinmayee Godbole, Ipshita, Manasi Bhawalkar and Dipti Mahadev, the play looked at objects such as tubelights, whipped cream, toothpaste, radish and paper as portals to memories and experiences. With the background shrouded in black, what stood out was the haunting music and the inflections in the actors’ voices. The digital frame allowed mostly for closeups, and hence the performance almost felt like a deep, intimate conversation with the characters from the story.

A solo act, 'Bhanvar', co-written and directed by Virajas Kulkarni, starring Shivraj Waichal. Kulkarni is noticing a lot more solo shows coming up during the pandemic
A solo act, 'Bhanvar', co-written and directed by Virajas Kulkarni, starring Shivraj Waichal. Kulkarni is noticing a lot more solo shows coming up during the pandemic

Online video conferencing, particularly Zoom, has emerged as a central character in the plays as a facilitator of conversations. Take for instance, Vikram Phukan’s Haiku In A Bun, a tale of three siblings, separated by continents, who log on to Zoom to support each other through a recent bereavement. The performance, directed by Lakshvir Singh Saran, very cleverly uses the computer screen as a prop, with the opening sequence showing a character navigating her desktop to log onto Zoom. In the ensuing sequences, it feels as if the viewer is a fly on the screen, watching actors move rapidly from general chitchat to intense subjects about organising funerals during the lockdown. There is this particular relatable moment when two siblings are having a heated conversation, when a third one joins in. He seems to be talking but nothing can be heard, and suddenly one of them shouts “you’ve got to unmute yourself. It’s not rocket science”.

The shift to digital has happened organically. But the challenges lie in coordinating with various members of the troupe, who might have gone back to their hometowns during the pandemic. So, rehearsals have been taking place with the director in Mumbai, actors in Delhi or Bengaluru, a rehearsal assistant in Lucknow, part of the production team in Jaipur, so on and so forth.

Though writers and directors are making the shift, actor-producer Shernaz Patel, the artistic director of Aadyam and a partner at the Mumbai-based Rage Productions, says that this new form of theatre is not the same as streaming content or cinema. “We are not doing the constant cuts or editing. We are staying as true to the theatre medium as possible.”

The past nine months have seen much trial and error, with digital experiments allowing the show to somehow hobble on. It started with the streaming of archival filmed footage of staged plays. Sitting in one’s living room, one could enjoy rare gems, such as This House, Coriolanus and Les Blancs, from the National Theatre at Home created by one of London’s most famous performing arts venue during the lockdown. Indian theatre, however, didn’t see this kind of success. “Most of our plays are recorded in single camera for documentation purposes, and are not meant to be showcased. UK’s National Theatre has huge resources at its disposal to create rich recordings,” says Mumbai-based theatre director Sunil Shanbag.

But things have changed since.

Actors of the Purba Paschim theatre group use face masks during the final dress rehearsal of 'Jwarasur Badh Pala' in Kolkata. Photo: SAMIR JANA/HINDUSTAN TIMES
Actors of the Purba Paschim theatre group use face masks during the final dress rehearsal of 'Jwarasur Badh Pala' in Kolkata. Photo: SAMIR JANA/HINDUSTAN TIMES

The Reopening

After eight months of closure, cultural organisations are opening up again, and they are looking forward to a return to the stage. Auditoriums are allowed to function at half the capacity, so audience members can occupy every alternate seat. “The world is suffering. It is in such times that human beings need entertainment to escape the horrors of reality, even if for an hour or two. One must tighten one’s belt and work with realistic reduced resources, but one must work,” says Kunal Kapoor, trustee of the Mumbai-based Prithvi Theatre, which was closed for nine months, for the first time in its 42-year-long history.

Bruce Guthrie, head of theatre and film for the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, concurs that people are yearning to socialise. While the organisation stayed in touch with its audiences during the lockdown by streaming archival recordings and Winter Fiesta digital workshops, it is now looking at live programming with smaller casts. “Things that don’t need massive moving sets and too many people. We are going to do this while following government safety regulations,” says Guthrie. The NCPA has no confirmed date for opening up just yet.

But Khushroo N. Suntook, NCPA chairman, says they have tied up with a sanitisation firm. “When our new air-conditioning system was designed, which was before the outbreak of the pandemic, UV sanitisation was built into the system,” he says.

So does this reopening of physical spaces mean a step back from the move to embrace technology and draw in newer audiences? “Not really,” says Shanbag, “this is not a question of ‘either or’ but ‘as well’. One will see both being straddled in a hybrid model for the foreseeable future.”

Toral Shah, a key member of QTP, says both have their rightful place in theatre’s evolutionary process. “There is a magic in sharing a live performance space, which is missing in the digital. But some interesting innovation is taking place in the latter. Never before have theatre practitioners been faced with such a blank canvas before,” she adds.

Writing for the times

It’s no wonder then that 2020 is being hailed as a watershed moment for Indian theatre, one that will set the template for the art form for years to come. Takalkar urges practitioners to take the time to introspect about the kind of theatre they want to make, and not take the process of playmaking for granted. During major disruptions, such as the world wars or Partition, two things happened: People created a spectacle to attract, entertain and soothe audiences, or used the stage to raise uncomfortable questions.

“For the first time, because of the pandemic, we are all united in our suffering. The world has shrunk and our problems have become one. I can tell stories set in Korea, Egyptians can tell stories set in Japan. Let’s tell these stories of loss, suffering and divides,” says Takalkar. He warns against complacency and a return to time-tested classics. For this is a time when great collaborative writing can emerge. Instead of a playwright working on a script alone, actors, directors and writers can write fresh new stories, set in the present context, together. “People have so many options today—Netflix, Amazon. What is it they are going to see in a theatre, sitting in a dark space, next to a stranger, risking their safety? (If we do not change) then it won’t be the pandemic but theatre practitioners who would have killed theatre. We need to experiment and tell new stories differently.”

There is hope that artists will respond to these difficult times in their own unique ways. The Motley team, led by actors Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah, describes the pandemic as “our first national trauma since the Partition, in the wake of which great writing emerged”. So, it’s not too farfetched to hope that these traumatic months will result in a major release of creative juices.

Mohit Takalkar's 'The Colour of Loss' was adapted from Booker prize-winner Han Kang’s 'The White Book'. Photo courtesy: Mohit Takalkar/Aasakta
Mohit Takalkar's 'The Colour of Loss' was adapted from Booker prize-winner Han Kang’s 'The White Book'. Photo courtesy: Mohit Takalkar/Aasakta

A return to audio

There are certain clear trends in this new age of theatre. For one, the youth is harking back to the era of radio plays. “Audio as a form has become immensely popular. Our ‘New Writings’ programme has been converted into podcasts. It’s like radio, allowing you to do other tasks while listening,” says Shanbag.

Patel is surprised, since spoken word had not really attracted the younger generation till now. As part of the selection committee on a project titled “Audiotorium” at QTP’s ongoing annual theatre festival, Thespo, she has seen a number of proposals from young participants who are exploring audio as a medium.

Kulkarni says he’s seeing a shift from the proscenium to alternative theatre spaces that might be in the open. “Or people might do private plays for small groups of people. My group Theatron Entertainment is planning something like the murder mystery theatre in the US, where a group of people invite you to create an interactive experience just for them in different venues,” he adds.

A hybrid existence

Theatre practitioners are now consciously thinking of demarcated content for digital and physical theatre. Shanbag, for instance, has come up with a new form for the online space called TheatreNama, which allows you to talk about things that the usual physical space might not. “How a production was created, the first 100 years of Mumbai’s theatre, ideas of censorship, and more—these are some of the kinds of things we talk about and the response has been great,” he says.

Mumbai-based Akvarious Productions, led by Akarsh Khurana, has not just created digital plays on Zoom and Insider but also curated live performances on its Instagram channel, AkvariousLive. And a lot of new topical writing has emerged from it. While most of the content has been new, they have also done a reimagining of Shakespeare through Aseem Hattangady’s Quaran-time Shakespeare, which looked at what the bard would have to say about the pandemic. A lot of the content on the Instagram channel was by the Akvarious fraternity, many of whom were first-time writers. While the group hoped to entertain audiences through this global crisis, it did not want to ignore the issues that plague us. “Some of our most successful pieces spoke about religion, caste, class, mental health. We put a few of these pieces together into a performance called Covid or Without You that premiered at Prithvi Theatre on 10 December as part of our 20 years celebrations,” says Khurana.

Rage has tied up with a US-based company, Enacte, and put out a call for one-act plays, specifically for Zoom. The team has shortlisted scripts from India and the US; some of these are at the “table-read stage”.

Given that the digital medium has made geographical boundaries irrelevant, there have been interesting collaborations between young artists from different countries at the ongoing Thespo festival, which has the tag line “Young. Live. Digital”. The play Under Attack is an example of the kind of collaboration across geographies that has been enabled by technology. Under Attack explores freedom of speech, using Hindi, English, Sinhala, Tamil and Portuguese. It is directed by Renato Rocha from Brazil and is performed by under-25 artists from Colombo, Mangaluru, Lucknow, Kolkata and Rio de Janeiro. It was created in the past month over virtual workshops.

'Main Beedi Pikar Jhuth Ni Bolta', a comedy in Rajasthani and Hindi streamed live on Insider as part of Thespo 22 on 16 October. Photo: ROHIT JAIN PARAS
'Main Beedi Pikar Jhuth Ni Bolta', a comedy in Rajasthani and Hindi streamed live on Insider as part of Thespo 22 on 16 October. Photo: ROHIT JAIN PARAS

Also at Thespo is The Ministry Of Mundane Mysteries, a unique experience designed by Sébastien Heins from Canada and performed by emerging artists from Delhi, Coimbatore, Kolkata and Bengaluru. This novel show takes place between six actors and one audience member over a phone call. You, as an audience member, pick a time slot, and a character will call you. The mystery unfurls over six nights during a daily 10-minute call. "There is innovation right there. How do you connect with a human being and make them feel what you want them to feel? This is participatory and quite exciting,” says Shah.

Phukan, who is currently in Guwahati, hopes that this will give rise to some cutting-edge mixed-media work, as it has in the West. He is seeing a unique hybrid model in Guwahati, where a group is performing to an audience in a physical space, but is also live-streaming it. Social distancing at auditoriums means a limited number of tickets. But the same piece can now be retrofitted using streaming technology and a two-three camera setup. "This will make the streamed version different from a live one. Maybe this way one can be true to each medium,” he says.

But both audiences and actors miss the warmth and camaraderie of live shows. “Watching a play is a social act. You get a lot of pleasure in commenting and seeing who is watching with you. While it’s fun to watch a play online, the minute it is over, you feel alone,” says Shanbag. His troupe has tried to counter this with the “backstage concept” on Zoom, where viewers can chat after the show. “I think there is a lot more to explore in the digital domain and we won’t be giving up on it, but the magic of a live show is incomparable!”

The world is a moveable stage

In a vast field in Hatilung village in Assam’s Lakhimpur district, Ashim Sharma of the award-winning theatre group Akhora Ghar, based out of Dibrugarh in upper Assam, are currently practising with a group of young boys and girls. The barren field is the stage for their latest production, Muktangan, being organised by Asom Natya Parishad, which will be staged on 18 December. Earlier, Akhora Ghar used to stage plays in auditoriums in Dibrugarh and Guwahati, but the pandemic put an end to that. “Theatre needs human to human interaction. We just couldn’t do digital media or perform to the camera. Now that things are improving a little bit, we thought of starting again, but away from the proscenium and in the villages,” says Sharma.

Grassroots theatre has spawned trends of its own during the pandemic, which are very unlike those witnessed in urban centres. The Akhora Ghar team has decided to rely less on a vast crew and more on its imagination. “If a play requires more characters, we use dolls and puppets,” says Sharma. By bringing the theatre to the villages, the groups are involving the local community and empowering them with a skill. “Even if we leave tomorrow, theatre will continue here. We are also working with around 57 chlidren, who will be putting up their own production. To do a play you don’t need a stage, only teamwork and imagination,” he adds.

In Manipur, theatre veteran and author N. Jadumani Singh is hoping to stage his play Sambal in a field about 30km from Imphal. “The audience can sit anywhere. The location is amidst nature, which is perfect for my play. This way, I will neither compromise on production, nor on social distancing,” he says.

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