Friday, February 22, 2019

Posted at: Jul 7, 2018, 12:23 AM; last updated: Jul 7, 2018, 12:23 AM (IST)

Theatre has a new address

Theatre groups are challenging established notions of how a play is directed and where it is performed, in a bid to reach a wider audience

Shardul Bhardwaj

“We in the culture have done is exactly what economy, what the educational system, what technology has done, which is turn our back on a large part of our country.” 

— Oscar Eustis (Artistic Director, Public Theatre) 

At its very core, theatre is dialogue and a way to arrive at truth through dialogue. This is exactly what democracy is. In our times, it becomes essential to reassess the efficacy of theatre, which claims to talk about people’s issues and has gone a little ahead of what Thespis demonstrated at the nascent stage of theatre with the discovery of dialogue. Theatre groups like Tadpole Repertoire, Third Space Collective, Barefoot Theatre and Company Theatre are lauded for having a better reach than others while challenging the notion of how a play is performed.

Neel Sengupta from Third Space Collective recalls the realisation that their play Dastaan-e-Bhook, adapted from Sam Shephard’s Curse of the Starving Class, was not actually meant for a venue full of upper-middle class English speaking audiences when they were looking for a venue for performance. 

While on the one hand, the content of the play entails a discussion on human displacement due to real estate construction, on the other hand exists an audience that claims to understand the plight of such phenomena while continuing to inhabit the same apartments whose construction had led to the displacement. 

Exhibition to this kind of an audience is not the problem but the problem is that a huge part of theatre today has been restricted to this class of audiences in the metropolitan cities of India. 

Neel Chaudhuri from the Tadpole Repertoire asks, “Where are the spaces to perform and what is the economy of theatre?” A theatre company decides to perform at a certain venue based on various things: the infrastructure the place offers, the rent of the space and the outreach that a particular venue has. Hence, the perks of performing at Oddbird Theatre in Delhi or Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai would be that they provide state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment at reasonable prices, and have a regular audience network, irrespective of the play being performed. 

  On the contrary, a play like Mukkampost Bombilwadi (a Marathi play) where Hitler comes to a village would rarely be seen in a Prithvi. The play is performed in large proscenium auditoriums because its economics and audience base comes from the flourishing boxoffice theatre earnings.

Prithvi has a smaller seating capacity compared to other performing spaces in Mumbai. A play like Quicksand by Tadpole Repertory calls for a performance dynamic that is supported by a place like Oddbird Theatre with a square performance space surrounded by audience seating. It’s an aesthetic compromise to perform Quicksand at a venue, which has a proscenium stage and a frontal seating for the audience.

To attract a different audience, a group like Tadpole Repertory and Third Space Collective will have to diversify their performance venues. To go to a new venue, say in western Delhi, these groups, which are generally cash strapped, will have to resort to certain advertisement techniques, which might cost them as much as they spent on the play.  Going to a different city may not solve the problem; a venue in Lucknow in a theatre festival will also attract mostly the literati and the crème de la crème of society, who would come for the aesthetic pleasure.

  It would be amiss to shun plays made by these groups as ‘too intellectual’ due to their aesthetic and formal experiments. A play like Dastaan-e-Bhookh is one with scores of felt spaces which makes it accessible to people from all walks of life. While talking to these groups, one realises that there is a genuine want to engage and exhibit their performances to a wider audience. 

Tadpole, when it started in 2009, was performing mostly English plays. Down the line, they diversified into bilingual plays and now they are making a play called Raakhshas in Hindi with a view to perform in multiple venues. Third Space Collective has project in the pipeline named Mohalla (tentative name) where they aim to create an audience of art lovers in neighbourhoods of Delhi who would later be able to take part in the theatre as makers and audience.

  Neel Chaudhuri asserts, “There has to be a greater effort to break the mould they themselves are forming. It’s only when you travel to different spaces is when you understand how your work can function. I don’t think we break that mould.” It’s an uphill task but a task nonetheless to be able to come out of the limited spaces that these groups are functioning in. A larger context of work can inform and expand the kind of work these groups are attempting. Their limited performative context has started showing in their works. Third Space Collective is a fairly new group but when one now sees an older group like Tadpole Repertory perform, the actors, sometimes, seem to be using stock gestures in a play like Quicksand, and for a regular Tadpole audience, this might seem tired. This for an actor could be a result of performing, living and rehearsing in the same context for a long time. 

Perhaps, theatre groups attempting to do new work may have to be a little more self-critical of their performance practices. The economics is not on their side but they will have to create a large and varied audience in their respective cities for the art of theatre to be carried forward. Otherwise, there is a danger that theatre shall become a relic entombed in glass. The powers that be will be more than happy to put it away on a shelf only to make it more convenient for people to forget about it.


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