Future of Indian theatre — more therapeutic and in open spaces

This piece was first published in January 2021 as part of Mahabahoo’s bilingual compilation of essays and commentaries marking the 175th year of the first Assamese news magazine, Orunodoi.

Picture used for representational purpose only (a scene from Tanvi Shah’s ‘Lethe-wards OR [The Play They Have All Come To See]’)

By Reema Gowalla

Theatre stands at the intersection of mainstream entertainment and a mode of storytelling that communicates more closely with people. Yet, when the auditoriums and art spaces took a beating during the viral outbreak, the screen became the only platform for many artistes to perform. Scores of actors, playwrights and backstage staff lost their jobs, and a community that mostly ran their shows on a shoestring budget are pushed to shut shop and sit at home.

When global theatre shifted online amid the first wave of the pandemic, pre-recorded versions of superhit plays were streamed by London’s National Theatre and the Royal Opera House, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera, among others. While it served a great deal of inspiration to watch cutting-edge, international theatre at the touch of a button, theatrewallahs in India struggled on, with the capacity of most venues to take risks being notably reduced. Still keeping the spirits high, many experimented with scripts written exclusively for Zoom, digital plays and a host of quirky object theatre acts, all of which garnered considerable attention from viewers on social media platforms for a couple of months or so.

Probably, it’s safe to say that as artistes continued to look inwards amid the uncertainties of a never-before-experienced time and felt an innate urge to express. Their art strongly reflects what they are going through.

August 2020 saw a month-long online fest that showcased short films based on play scripts, where artistes from different parts of the country participated. Mind you, these were pieces of art that were crafted and curated remotely. Probably, it’s safe to say that as artistes continued to look inwards amid the uncertainties of a never-before-experienced time and felt an innate urge to express. Their art strongly reflects what they are going through. The scene, however, was not very encouraging in the rural areas, where many folk and ritualistic artistes found it difficult to make the transition in the absence of high-speed internet and funding.

Through these plays, theatremakers made a resilient effort to be the voice of the people amid the pandemic-induced adversities. The loss of family members due to COVID-19, the lockdown’s impact on migrant workers compelling them to leave the cities and walk to their villages, and people’s deteriorating mental health, lockdown theatre repurposed the online stage to weave human narratives.

Goalpara’s ‘Under the Sal Tree’ annual theatre festival is a beautiful example of how theatre can unfold even in the middle of a forest, bringing the indigenous people together to enjoy a play.

By September-October last year, the concept of open-air theatre slowly started gaining ground, mainly because it’s easier to maintain physical distancing and other safety protocols outside. Interestingly though, performing in the outdoors is not new to the country’s audience. The proscenium came into existence only during the British rule, and the urban society has followed it so far as a norm. Even the practice of spotlight shining on the actors on stage and the audience sitting in the dark is borrowed from the Western world. Be it Kerala’s Kathakali, Karnataka’s Yakshagana, Kashmir’s Bhand Pather, Bengal’s Jatra or Bhaona in Assam, many folk and traditional performing art forms in India are still mostly an open-stage activity. Cut to contemporary theatre, Goalpara’s ‘Under the Sal Tree’ annual theatre festival is a beautiful example of how theatre can unfold even in the middle of a forest, bringing the indigenous people together to enjoy a play.

Theatre thrives on a unique sense of empathy and power to connect with the masses — something that surpasses cinema. More than ever before, theatre is now seen as therapeutic, a saviour that forges human connection.

In fact, several cultural greats opine that while understanding the nuances of the digital medium will be a necessity in the post-pandemic world, the outdoors make theatre a more immersive and interactive art form, giving artistes the opportunity to experiment with their craft. Theatre thrives on a unique sense of empathy and power to connect with the masses — something that surpasses cinema. More than ever before, theatre is now seen as therapeutic, a saviour that forges human connection.

It’s still quite ambitious to predict when auditoriums will reopen, but theatre hubs are not completely bereft of activities. Bengaluru’s Ranga Shankara theatre festival went hybrid in 2020, showcasing plays online and staging the same at the venue on a projector for a handful of art lovers. Again, there are plays that are being performed and recorded exclusively for the online space, so that language theatre gets a global audience in these difficult times. Their foyer is also opened up for a plethora of performances and interactions as the black box remains shut. Even the iconic Prithvi Theatre Festival in Mumbai followed the virtual route.

Fringe or pop-up theatre, many feel, is the way forward. Still a relatively new concept in the Indian context, it refers to non-conventional, small-scale productions that do not necessarily need a big space to open.

These curious trends, however, are indicating a paradigm shift in the manner theatre will be viewed in our country from now on. Fringe or pop-up theatre, many feel, is the way forward. Still a relatively new concept in the Indian context, it refers to non-conventional, small-scale productions that do not necessarily need a big space to open. Typically, these also offer opportunities for both aspiring and seasoned artistes to grow in a nurturing and supportive circle. Often considered a hotbed for intrepid, impactful narratives, this is a platform where artistes can start a conversation with the audience, and keep at it.

It’s a sustainable model that can ensure the generation of funds, however little they maybe. And in turn, this will also keep the spaces running and the community alive.

Fringe theatre comes with quite a few pluses, the most important one at this point being its ability to maintain safety and hygiene mandates for a handful of audiences at small venues in the neighbourhood. It’s a sustainable model that can ensure the generation of funds, however little they maybe. This, in turn, will keep the spaces running and the community alive. It’s important to note here that although the past months witnessed a huge surge in the popularity of shows on OTT platforms, the situation hasn’t changed much for theatre. Just like in pre-COVID times, many people are still not very keen on paying a small amount of money to watch a play online. For a community riddled by a lack of opportunities and meagre government support, fringe theatre can serve as a place of promise, if not prominence.

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