FirstAct: In '11:11', an experimental performance that explores virtual reality as a therapeutic aid

Captured on camera in a single take, 11:11 is a response to the growing disaffection induced by the pandemic in a year that has pushed us online with a vengeance.

Vikram Phukan April 22, 2021 15:14:19 IST
FirstAct: In '11:11', an experimental performance that explores virtual reality as a therapeutic aid

Vikram Phukan (left) and Pratik Karyakarte are the principal collaborators of FirstAct's upcoming presentation, 11:11.

Editor's note: With FirstAct, Firstpost is collaborating with theatre and improv artists from all over India, who'll perform short pieces or readings over a Zoom video-conference call.

After FirstAct's debut show with Improv Comedy Bangalore, followed by Drama Queen's For Tomorrow, Theatre Jil Jil Ramamani's Haiku in a Bun, OGLAM's Abey Yaar!, Chanakya Vyas' Leftovers, MD Pallavi's Salt, Akhoka Theatre's Between the Banks, and Alienstar Collective's Star Light we are all set to present our next — 11:11. It will be broadcast on our FacebookYouTube and Instagram pages (IGTV) at 7.30 pm IST on 23 April, 2020.

Following is an edited excerpt of an interaction between the director Vikram Phukan, the performer Pratik Karyakarte and collaborators in the project, Chinmay Pawar, Deepmala Khera and Jai Khadilkar of Theatre Jil Jil Ramamani and Unbox Pune's upcoming production - 11:11 on Firstpost.

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On 11:11’s raison d’etre —

VIKRAM: We developed this physical theatre performance, 11:11, on virtual reality therapy, using a performer’s involuntary movements when immersed in a simulated interactive environment, as a launchpad to devise new corporeal expression. We explore how the VR ‘in-world' works in opposition to the actual world in which the subject is effectively rendered blind by their headset. Pratik rehearsed in a ‘green screen’ equipped studio in Pune, from where the piece was to be streamed, with live edits, to online audiences. Eventually, for this first showing, we decided to create a pre-recorded cut after capturing the performance on camera in a single take — after weeks of rehearsals.

The idea of VR as a therapeutic aid, comes under the ambit of Dry Ice, my play on the spate of early deaths among queer people in India — with depression among the silent killers. VR therapy is gaining currency in Indian psychiatric practice. Our focus, which is quite preliminary at this stage, is on its effects on characters’ states of mind. This will be eventually juxtaposed with a performance by actor Rushab Kamdar on meth use (another scourge), where the firing of electrical impulses (the body’s native ‘tech’) results in its own altered experiences.

On working remotely —

PRATIK: After the global pandemic, this was the first experiment we did with the help of Zoom. Needless to say, it was quite a different experience...Working online might be easy for those who are used to the screen daily. But for theatre artists, it is difficult at the outset itself even if Zoom was the only way for the team to stay connected with each other.

As a movement artist, I faced a lot of problems during the process. Sometimes working in a 16:9 format (which is ultimately how audiences receive the work) makes you stubborn and resist the process. But we managed to make peace with this situation and work towards creating a good piece. I tried to keep my calm throughout while negotiating the physical and emotional situations demanded by the piece, within that restricted space! Sometimes the environment may not favour the actor, but we should learn to find comfort within the constraints.

FirstAct In 1111 an experimental performance that explores virtual reality as a therapeutic aid

Promotional poster for 11:11. Courtesy: Vikram Phukan

On what the title '11:11' signifies —

JAI: '11:11'- the title alone makes me think of the 11th hour, right before the dead of night when it's time to unwind; the very last moment when you come home to your truth, shedding skin, shedding the remains of the day. It’s then that they are what they are, rather than what they choose to be, it's what they'd experience rather than what they're forced to go through. It may be the 11th hour and yet… ironically, it's not too late for them to be seen.

On the process behind staging the piece —

CHINMAY: Working on 11:11 has been an interesting journey. Till now, I have been doing live theatre performances and this was my first virtual play. To be honest, initially, I was quite confused about how things should be carried out on a virtual platform. Vikram took us through different processes that helped me understand the ways in which we would present this play. No doubt there were some creative differences — I guess communicating remotely was one of the reasons for this because for me it becomes difficult to visualise things on a Zoom call, but eventually things fell into place, though it took some time.

Processes like working with a notated choreographic score, creating devised work while blindfolded, or using involuntary movements, were interesting and helpful and working with different artists also provided interesting insight. I would love to see this project performed in front of a live audience.

DEEPMALA: Virtual reality therapy uses very special programs, visual immersion devices and artificially created environments, to give us simulated experiences. These experiences are useful in treating psychological conditions and challenges faced by patients. This is a very safe method of therapy as you are in a safe environment, like your home, and you're interacting with only as much stimuli as you can handle as you start desensitising yourself to social anxieties, like the fear of heights, for instance. Our process was to introduce Pratik to virtual environments, where he was given an initiation statement and some directives, and watch how he was able to negotiate entire worlds, through his body, and his expressions. The room gets converted into wherever the simulation, fueled by his own imagination, took him, which in turn became material that the team discussed and repurposed to create 11:11.

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Meet the principal collaborators —

VIKRAM PHUKAN is a Mumbai-based theatre practitioner and stage commentator. He has written and directed Those Left Behind Things, a play on Iranian asylum seekers. His other writing credits include Stories in a Song, Limbo, an Indian adaptation of The Price, collaborating on The Gentlemen's Club, the open script for Even Mists Have Silver Linings. and the upcoming plays Dry Ice and Adventures of Jil Jil. He is a co-founder of InQueerAble, a queer theatre platform.

PRATIK KARYAKARTE began his theatre journey in Pune’s frenetic inter-collegiate competition scene. In 2017, he began the experimental theatre group, Unbox Pune, with a specialisation in movement-based theatre. His solo performance, O, was selected as part of Thespo 21, a competitive youth theatre festival, and Shorts Live, a theatre festival organised by Roots India. His other theatre credits include One by Two performed at InQueerAble, the Indo-US co-production, Even Mists Have Silver Linings, and the Unbox productions Which Colour Do You Want?, Untitled and The Solid Bind. Karyakarte organises the Prayogshala, a weekly physical theatre workshop for beginners in the form.

Watch Theatre Jil Jil Ramamani and Unbox Pune's '11:11' here.

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