24 hours in conversation: global theatre community gets ready to voice out their Covid-19 experiences
By Reema Gowalla
“That the pandemic saw theatre slow down is only a part of the story that many people did not look beyond. While the auditoriums and addas were shut, theatre practitioners were actively involved in relief work amid a raging virus. At the same time, they were also raising important political and ethical questions — a key tenet of the theatre. Now, we want to pause for a moment and reflect on our experiences and the challenges we faced; and express our solidarities and alliances as theatre-makers with the global community,” says Bengaluru-based playwright-director-pedagogue Abhishek Majumdar, who together with Frank Hentschker — Director of the City University of New York (CUNY’s) Martin E Segal Theatre Center — and director-dramaturg Tanvi Shah from Mumbai, is producing and organising a unique initiative that brings over 100 artistes from more than 30 countries to a common virtual platform.
Scheduled to take place on July 20 and 21, ‘A HowlRound For India: a 24-hour marathon of Covid-19 talks with the global theatre community’ aims at celebrating the existing solidarities among the global theatre community and have an open discourse on Coronavirus and the scale of its impact in India. It’s a call for India and the rest of the world to find better political solutions to prevent such disasters in the future.
What has now taken the shape of a worldwide event had began as a conversation series called ‘Segal Talks’. Abhishek and Anurupa Roy were part of these talk sessions last year, with Shahid Nadeem joining from Pakistan and Frank as the moderator.
In the upcoming virtual event that will run for 24 hours at a stretch, theatre-makers will be given a 20-minute slot each to articulate their responses to Covid-19 as artistes, relief workers, dissenters and survivors through speech and a piece of art. Taking the dialogue past redundancies, income loss, inventiveness and digitality, art creators will share their personal and political experiences and their accounts of speaking truth to power, in a bid to raise awareness given that India’s condition isn’t a mere domestic crisis but a global concern.
Tanvi, who has also co-curated the list of the participating theatre practitioners from India, believes that this conversation holds a deeply significant place in the context of theatre-making in India and around the world in the aftermath of the pandemic. “The idea is to talk about the efforts we made and the resilience we showed during a crisis, and consolidate our thoughts and responses as the way forward. It is to reinstate that just because we haven’t been making theatre doesn’t mean we haven’t been asking the questions that often inform our theatre,” she says.
“Although it’s a global initiative, the intention is also to strengthen these discourses at a local level. The idea of internationalism has existed in India for a long time. In recent times, however, the globalising concept has relied more on presenting how great we are as a nation. It’s time to reclaim that idea and show our solidarity with the community of theatre-makers around the world and reflect on what we and our families have been witnessing and going through over the past months,” explains Abhishek, who has tirelessly run relief drives across the country with volunteers during the pandemic.
Around the same time, he had also written a play titled ‘Salt’ that centered on the plight of migrant workers and their struggle for food and dignity. “Being in the theatre has taught us to work as a team. We function with limited resources and along the way learn to optimise the algorithms. During the Covid-19 crisis, this directly translated to our relief work. But there were times when after distributing food and other essentials among workers at neighbourhood settlements, I struggled to sleep at night.”
Talking of the impact that this nuanced dialogue among artistes is likely to make, he says, “The Covid-19 situation in India, particularly during the second wave, was unique and severe in many ways. With the media being so scattered in the country, it would not be wrong to say that there’s more to this than meets the eye. That theatre-makers are now coming together to speak and hear each other’s stories of loneliness, death and distress is in itself a huge impact.”
Maintaining diversity has been the prime focus while deciding on the speakers for the conversation series, according to Tanvi. “Diversity — in terms of language, geography, types of work and visibility — has largely influenced our thought process while getting the theatre-makers onboard. Artistes will not be talking about their theatrical prowess and instead speak about the other roles they have occupied, and how their theatre background has given them a space for inquisitiveness, dissent and curiosity in understanding what the crisis meant to them. It’s about how they have nurtured their artistic response outside the rehearsal rooms; to say the unspeakable and lend an ear to what’s been deliberately unheard,” elaborates Tanvi, who has also been the mainstay of her father, Dr Tushar Shah’s, crowdfunding initiative to support Covid-19 relief work across India, and recently also organised a virtual fundraising gig, called ‘Concerts for Covid Relief’, featuring indie musicians.
Some of the prominent international names joining the online marathon of readings and talks in honour of the Indian theatre community’s efforts in fighting the virus are Anne Bogart, Richard Schechner, Carol Martin, Daniel Wetzel, Basil Jones, Anne Cattaneo, Guillermo Calderón, Sahar Assaf, Iman Aoun, the Pina Bausch Company and Paper Moon.
Joining from the home turf alongside Abhishek and Tanvi will be Sunil Shanbag, MD Pallavi, Anurupa, Vivek Vijayakumaran, Ajithlal Sivalal, Moloyashree Hashmi, Komita Dhanda, Sreeja KV, Deepa VM, Puja Sarup, Nuhar Bansal, Nisha Abdulla, Diya Naidu, Onaiza Drabu, Dakxinkumar Bajrange, Kaustubh Naik, Titas Dutta, Sajal Mondal, Madhusree Mukherjee, Hanne M De Bruin, Dhammrakshit Randive, Perungattur P Rajagopal, Mumal Tanwar, Sapan Saran, Rupali Bhave, Pradeep Vaiddya, Gunduraju, Sambhaji Bhagat, Surjit Nongmeikapam, Nicky Chandam, Manzoor Ahmad Mir, Shakuntala Nagarkar, Savitri Medhatul, P Pavana, N Venugopal, A Mangai, Ponni Arasu, Krishna J Nair and Sadhashi Bhaskar.
The non-stop, 24-hour-long conversation starts at 6.30pm IST/9am ET on Tuesday and ends at 6.30pm IST/9am ET on Wednesday. The talks will be hosted by HowlRound. It’s a free virtual event that will be livestreamed on the HowlRound Theatre Commons website, where you can also find the full schedule of the event.