2020, the year of resilience in theatre: Practitioners and institutions rose to the challenges of an unprecedented crisis

The pandemic presented endless opportunities for theatrewallahs to rally together as a networked community beyond the usual barriers of geography or language.

Vikram Phukan December 24, 2020 09:32:34 IST
2020, the year of resilience in theatre: Practitioners and institutions rose to the challenges of an unprecedented crisis

Representational image via Facebook/Drama School of Mumbai

Read more from our '2020, the year of...' series.

For the theatre community, the last month of the year is usually a time for winding down, taking stock, balancing the books (sparse as they might be), and carefully putting away the implements of a year-long engagement with the practice. Then again, in this uncommon year, that was perhaps all one could do over months of uncertainties and speculation, spent milling in the uncanny limbo of an entire trade brought to a grinding halt by a super-spreading virus.

What is heartening is that the dregs of the year appear to have ushered in a new spring and a new bounce, as murmurings from across the country speak of a gentle giant slowly stirring from a long hibernation. Experimental theatre’s flagship venue, Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre resumed a regular calendar in late November, albeit with several COVID-19 restrictions in place. The plays came from a stable of old favourites — Ansh, aRanya, Motley, Akvarious, Rangbaaz (whose winter re-run of Bade Miyan Deewane is now a yearly affair) — bringing a whiff of earthy if sanitised familiarity, even nostalgia, to a venue usually teeming with both dedicated theatre-lovers and equally oblivious cafe-goers with a predilection for cinnamon-steeped Sulaimani chai. The extended closure was unprecedented in Prithvi’s 42-year history, and the venue solemnly marked the lockdown’s cultural privations with a halogen fixture that kept the stage illuminated through the long year.

Read on Firstpost: coronavirus Outbreak: India's theatre practitioners view crisis as time to introspect, reinvigorate stage ecosystem

As the Akvarious group returned to its prolific ways by celebrating 20 years of its existence with a slew of performances, the moderate turnouts could do nothing to dampen the excitement of eager actors once again treading the boards, looking out at real people peering down at them, sinister Addams Family masks and twinkling eyes in place — a special kind of spectatorship that went both ways, in a year that threw into sharp relief the umbilical cord that irrevocably links audience and performer. And Akvarious has almost a year in hand to put up many more 20-year-anniversary festivals in venues across the city.

More than 2,500 km to the east, in mid-December, at Assam’s Goalpara district, it was business as usual for the folk theatre collective, Badungduppa Kalakendra, as it organised the annual eco-friendly Under The Sal Tree theatre festival — so named because of its unique open-air amphitheater hemmed in by said trees. Rather than the pan-national itinerary that has been its wont in recent years, the festival stuck with local Assamese offerings, including two all-women ensembles —Simanta Phukan’s period play Kamala Kunwarir Sadhu performed by a dozen-odd women resplendent in traditional gold mekhla, and Manimala Das’ Bhumikanya, a feisty meditation on the grand old women from the great epics. The large crowds at the festival, consisting of both rural and urban comers, possibly evoked mixed emotions — the heart-warming plenteousness only slightly marred by a perhaps inadvertent disregard for social distancing norms (although masks abounded to some degree).

2020 the year of resilience in theatre Practitioners and institutions rose to the challenges of an unprecedented crisis

Still from Kamala Kunwarir Sadhu. Image via Facebook/Simanta Phukan

Around the same time, at the new experimental black box auditorium in Pune, called simply The Box, playwright Satish Alekar staged a contemporary revival of his black comedy Mahanirvan with the Natak Company. The show was a full house at 50 percent capacity, mirroring in scale the encouraging numbers in larger prosceniums enjoyed by Adwait Dadarkar’s Eka Lagnachi Pudhichi Ghosht, which flagged off Pune’s commercial theatre revival. Its popular lead actor Prashant Damle unfortunately contracted COVID-19 post the opening run, underlining the many risks of artistic engagement that are yet to be mitigated despite the loosening of state diktats on performing venues.

2020 the year of resilience in theatre Practitioners and institutions rose to the challenges of an unprecedented crisis

Still from Mahanirvan. Image via Facebook/NCPA

Preceding these forays by several weeks was the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival in Hyderabad, now in its 15th year. It took off at the restored Moazzam Jahi Market courtyard, which provided a historic Nizamian backdrop to Mohammad Ali Baig’s heritage play Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada. Practitioners who have ventured to the live stage this year have understandably been drawn to scaled-down outings with easier safeguards, as evinced by the solo performances — like Danish Husain performing a signature dastangoi and Bhageerathi Bai rendering KV Subbanna’s Shakuntala ke Saath ek Dopehar — that filled up the festival programme. Audiences at the Radisson Blu Plaza were restricted to a hundred per show (roughly a third of its capacity).

2020 the year of resilience in theatre Practitioners and institutions rose to the challenges of an unprecedented crisis

Still from Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada at Hyderabad's Moazzam Jahi Market courtyard. Image via Facebook/Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation

These returns to fundamentals need not obliterate the considerable strides made by theatre companies to meet the pandemic head-on, as they made uneasy excursions into the omnipresent and omniscient digital medium. Initially, this meant grappling with the imminent ‘new normal’, and collective introspection — digital conversations and sharings became the order of the day, via lag-delayed Instagram Live tête-à-têtes or ‘webinars’ on Zoom and Google Meet.

Related: FirstAct, Firstpost's special collaborative project features theatre and improv artists from all over India, who perform short pieces or readings over a Zoom video-conference call

The pandemic presented endless opportunities for theatrewallahs to rally together as a networked community beyond the usual barriers of geography or language — from the edifying international lecture series in theatre pedagogy, Unrehearsed Futures, organised by the Drama School Mumbai with remarkable regularity, to cheerleading Instagram channels like Akvarious Live, D for Drama Live and Dhiraj Wadhwani’s Offbeat Circuit papering over the cracks of a community falling apart, to the popular Online Theatre Adda, a monthly forum on Zoom attended by scores of practitioners lighting up scores of windows, from “young drama students to career veterans; venue managers to writers; technicians to administrative staff, actors to academicians.”

The elephant in the room, at least in the early months, was whether the internet could be commandeered into a site for theatrical performance, given the uneasy relationship between live performance and material expressly captured on camera. Even real-time interactions using digital modes of communication come with the charge of being filtered through a lens, a catastrophic degree of removal for some, in which the magic of physical immediacy and ‘aliveness’ appears to be forgone for a certainly immersive yet attention-deficit engagement. The way a transmitted piece would be received by the ‘end user’ now lay outside the control of most makers. Still, groups persevered in this ‘new’ medium, eschewing the guiles of movie-style editing to stream content, whether recorded or live, that maintained the rhythms and qualities of theatre as we remembered it. They brought in processes that attempted to simulate on-floor engagements in the rehearsal studios of yore. The Zoom window acquired new prescience, a constraint that nonetheless brought back focus to text and expressiveness, and the nuances of visible performance. The actor was now a technician, in control of their own light, props and make-up; and the device screen served as green-room mirror, teleprompter and beaming co-actor, all rolled into one.

This year had started strong with productions like Anuradha Kapur’s Daughters Opera, based on a libretto by Tammy Brennan, in which the voices of women who subsist beyond the edifices of documented citizenship found rich resonance in a song-cycle composed by David Chisholm. Then the National Centre of Performing Arts (NCPA) presented another international collaboration – Melly Still’s The Mirror Crack’d, featuring Shernaz Patel in fine fettle as a decrepit Indian Miss Marple in a production that held on to an elegant sophistication and atmospheric staging even as it aimed to achieve a solid commercial run.

The slim pickings post-pandemic include Mohit Takalkar’s contemplative The Colour of Loss, a pre-recorded online play adapted from The White Book by South Korean writer Han Kang. This choice of literary material is perfectly in keeping with the director’s eclectic persuasions, as is its distinctive dramatic realisation. It features a set of strong performances by Mrinmayee Godbole, Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, Manasi Bhawalkar and Dipti Mahadev. The focused quartet’s reflections on personal upheavals and grief are punctuated by quotidian moments etched in pristine white. Accordingly, the blurb exhorts its audience to ‘wear white while watching’ but the empathetic actors belie the need for such a crutch.

2020 the year of resilience in theatre Practitioners and institutions rose to the challenges of an unprecedented crisis

(Left) Quasar Thakore Padamsee's Every Brilliant Thing and (Right) Sunil Shanbag's S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship. Images via Facebook

Reimagining their 2019 hit, Duncan MacMillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, as a live online play, director Quasar Thakore Padamsee and performer Vivek Madan delivered one of the online season’s first bona fide home runs, as they thoughtfully strung together the play’s ‘Hallmark card’ moments, drawing genuine uplift from material that could as easily come off as whimsical. Elsewhere, Aseem Hattangady’s Quaran-time Shakespeare was a punchy if abbreviated affair and Sunil Shanbag’s TheatreNama series intriguingly placed his past works, like the contemporary classic S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship, in historical context, in a ‘guided viewing’ of the play — where the source material was archival video documentation of a showing, interspersed with live commentary from the play’s creative team, which included the writers Shanta Gokhale and Irawati Karnik. At the Ranga Shankara festival, presented as a series of online events, Neelam Mansingh Chaudhry premiered the mesmerising Black Box featuring a viscerally eloquent performance by Vansh Bharadwaj. It was presented as a cinematically-shot showcase that marked a departure from the ‘seamless and unedited’ aesthetic that drove other makers this year, at some cost perhaps to the veracity of an actor’s labour.

As a parting note, December threw up three markedly different solo-performances by women. Deepika Arwind presented the self-referential Pyaare 2020ji, which drew from her own insta-poems, serving up angst in small doses that packed a wallop by the end. Jyoti Dogra brought a refreshing lack of vanity to Nihayati Niji Baatein, a lacerating look at a woman’s lack of self-regard masquerading as a makeup tutorial video. And, as part of Thespo’s online-only 22nd edition, 20-year-old Ritika Shrotri not only played 10-odd characters in Sanket Parkhe’s The Light Catcher, written by Niranjan Pedanekar; she also directed the large ensemble who delivered the dark satire Nightmare, based on a story by Ratnakar Matkari, and presented as part news-show and part documentary; and outside Thespo, also found time to script Kaumudi Walokar’s courtroom drama, Tahakoob, which will premiere at an online year-end event organised by The Box.

These ostensibly ‘youth theatre’ outings exhibited some of the best uses of available technologies to stream theatre as engrossing digital content without losing the vitality and frisson of live performance. In fact, a kaleidoscopic look at the year’s digital offerings reveals a slate that is far more democratic in the ways works might bubble to the surface. A ‘successful’ run of a play might depend on social media influence or off-line reputations, but it is independent of the inherent hierarchies of cultural institutions that are often at cross-purposes with any real notions of inclusivity. Perhaps, opening the digital floodgates, if one can sift through the chaff, will allow works that would otherwise be relegated to the cultural fringe, to find equal airing with the so-called bigger players who perhaps do not have a larger claim on attention spans and internet bandwidth.

This was a particularly dismal year of constant departures, and the theatre world had to field its share of monumental losses. Last December was unsettled by the passing of Shreeram Lagoo, strongman of the Marathi stage. Joining him at the giant amphitheatre in the sky this year were theatre doyen and renaissance man Ebrahim Alkazi; character actor par excellence Soumitra Chatterjee, whose significant theatre innings was overshadowed by his work in films; dance legend Astad Deboo; and super-actor Irrfan Khan, whose humble but accomplished beginnings in theatre had become the stuff of folklore. The illustrious list includes patron of the arts Rajaram Amrut Bhalerao, prima donna turned auteur Usha Ganguli, first lady of the Parsi Gujarati stage Ruby Patel, renowned thespians Vishwa Mohan Badola and Ravi Patwardhan, expatriate Indian actor of distinguished theatre pedigree Ranjit Chowdhry, creative force of Gujarati theatre, Kamlesh Mota, and international pedagogue with a decades-long India connection, Phillip Zarrilli.

As a sum of all its parts, theatre in India engages a workforce of not inconsiderable proportions raring to go where the turf of performance beckons, even in the face of immense odds. Perhaps, a defining aspect of this resilience came in the shape of multiple relief efforts that specifically targeted artistes from the performing arts. For instance, the Assistance for Disaster Affected Artistes fund, which brought together grassroots organisations like the Rajasthan-based Pehchaan Lok Sangeet Sansthan Maharashtra’s Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch, and raised Rs 42 lakhs through crowd-funding. The efforts brought into focus the pitfalls of being in a so-called ‘unorganised sector’ with many freelance theatrewallahs beyond the pale when it came to state-sponsored funds.

Theatre thrives in a gig economy of sorts, but serious questions were raised regarding sustenance not just in the times of the pandemic, but beyond, and setting up a financial support system for artists as suggested by Puducherry's Indianostrum Theatre, along the lines of, say, France’s intermittence du spectacle (a system of compensation designed for those professionals who alternate between periods of employment and unemployment). These conversations are still inchoate. The real lessons of a year in lockdown will perhaps only be understood over the coming months, in terms of how the hardly monolithic Indian theatre organises itself in its many pockets, across its classes and divisions and sensibilities.

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