FirstAct: Theatre Jil Jil Ramamani's Haiku in a Bun explores relationships and grieving in the time of a pandemic

Haiku in a Bun is a tale of three siblings, separated by continents and time-zones, who log on to a video-conferencing app to steady each other through a recent bereavement.

Vikram Phukan June 25, 2020 10:00:36 IST
FirstAct: Theatre Jil Jil Ramamani's Haiku in a Bun explores relationships and grieving in the time of a pandemic

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

After FirstAct's debut show with Improv Comedy Bangalore followed by Drama Queen's For Tomorrow, we're all set to present our next — Haiku in a Bun. It will be broadcast on our FacebookInstagram and Twitter pages at 8.30 pm IST on 5 June 2020.

An edited excerpt of a conversation among the creators of Haiku in a Bun — playwright Vikram Phukan, director Lakshvir Singh Saran, stage manager Akanksha Vyas, and actors Kriti Pant, Pranjal Vaid and Prashant Prakash — follows:

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Apprehensions about getting into a ‘digital theatre’ project —

LAKSHVIR: Just one — the internet. You can’t control it, and can’t do without it. You have to plan rehearsals keeping its unpredictability in mind. It’s like another actor (laughs). I don’t have a problem with digital theatre as such, and this project was more ‘theatre in digital’. The end-product isn’t theatre as such, but the process surely was, even if energies and bodies in space have a different impact interacting over the internet. Actually working on such a project cleared a lot of doubts I had about the medium.

KRITI: I was curious about how we would negotiate with the technology, and adapt to the given aspects of theatre practice as I have grown to understand it — warm-ups, exercises, text-work and blocking. I also wondered how the humanness would get affected, or how it would manifest itself. Ultimately, what chose the project for me was the prospect of working with Vikram’s writing, and alongside two actors I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with.

PRASHANT: I suppose the major apprehension was about it feeling forced. The idea of trying to transmute the medium of theatre onto a screen. And being so far away from your fellow actors, having no real sense of exchange with your audience, the audience themselves being isolated and only able to give the quality of attention possible when you’re staring at a screen. Not to mention being completely at the mercy of technology and the ever-present reality of technical snags.

I’m actually based in Goa at the moment, and the electricity tends to go out quite often, which means the WiFi goes off too... Some or all of these issues may be impossible to overcome. But I guess the paradox is — can you see some of these things as challenges, and do you think you can make a meaningful attempt towards addressing them? So the framework within which the story is set — the reality of a video call between three people in different places, grounds the piece, I think, with a certain relatability. That helps. Being acquainted with some of the people involved in this project and having the chance to work with and learn from them helps too.

PRANJAL: I hadn’t developed a taste for video-calls. It seemed contrived and a little put-on. I’d do it only if it was a formal interview or with people I’m really close to. Now that we’re compelled to live half our lives virtually, I couldn’t have held on to my video-call anxiety. I was excited to see how theatre evolves when there are no audience and no stage, just windows and icons. Kriti and Prashant are two of my favourite actors and I knew it was going to be an exciting masterclass with them.

AKANKSHA: Digital theatre goes beyond just the intersection of film and theatre; there are various ways technology can be used in theatre. The last two months have provided a set of unique constraints that have led to a surge of interest in this space. It is very exciting to see so many artists embracing this ‘digital' space, but my apprehensions are around how these current constraints limit how we explore this space. With limited access to resources, unstable internet connections, makeshift camera and sound equipment, how do we go beyond just a recording of a play reading and create theatre. I have always been very interested in how art and technology transform each-other. Theatre has been largely immutable in the face of technology, as compared to music, fine arts, or film. It is fascinating how technology is slowly weaving its way into this space.

FirstAct Theatre Jil Jil Ramamanis Haiku in a Bun explores relationships and grieving in the time of a pandemic

Promotional poster of Haiku in a Bun.

The interesting aspects of the process of this play —

LAKSHVIR: What was challenging was understanding Zoom. It was the space in which we performed and rehearsed in, and exploring what it held, and what it gave, was similar to real-world spaces I’ve worked in. The technology gave us a sense of how we would approach the piece. I enjoyed the parallels to live theatre — finding the equivalent of a fade-out or a black-out, for instance. We have great relationships between these ideas and the tools theatre has, and to compare it with a digital medium is unfair, but that was my approach. Would pinning a window enhance one particular actor? What is an entry and exit of Zoom? There are different levels to it — muting an actor, or switching off their video, or leaving a call. It is still a very creative process, and it does involve a group experience. So the idea of theatre remains.

KRITI: Firstly, because it was a live play that was to be recorded, we were rehearsing with all kinds of technological challenges. Also, since we are not in the same space, it’s been frustrating being alone, and getting into a moment or a frame of mind not being in the physical proximity of my co-actors or director, not being able to pull them aside for a private moment, for instance. With the dynamics getting established differently, I definitely missed the one-on-one relationships that get built in a live theatre set-up. I’ve already committed myself to another project, which is weird since I’m not particularly tech-savvy or enthused about having a digital media presence. But, this is the future, and I don’t think people of any persuasion shouldn’t attempt to swim with the tide with respect to the new opportunities that have emerged.

PRASHANT: Working in a different medium, with new rules, is always inherently interesting. It forces you to re-examine your process. Some of your avenues for play and exploration are closed down, and you have to find others. Besides this, one of the big things that I had to think about here was navigating channels of communication with the rest of the team during a rehearsal.

When and how to ask questions, make suggestions, etc. When to shut up. The things you have to consider in any co-creative process, but they get more complicated within the medium of a multi-party video call.

You don’t have the luxury of being in the same room (and what a luxury that is, huh?) and things seem to take longer than usual. There’s that inherent level of frustration we all felt, I believe, in our conversations being mediated by technology as, I suppose, they must now be. You have to learn to manage your time well.

PRANJAL: As actors, I believe we’re always trying to maximise the control over our performances to the tiniest of details. When you’ve logged onto Zoom, the energy of the room, in fact, is being governed by a sum of internet connections, so you can never rule out the possibility of an untimely hiccup at any of the ends. I guess we’ll have to ease up on control, learn to let go. And it’s not just a lesson in acting. I guess the internet plays are here to stay for some time. I accept the new order but secretly hope it doesn’t grow on me, and that it’s not too long before we can take the stage again.

AKANKSHA: How some experiences are lost and others gained, both for the performers and the viewers. Things as simple as physical distance — where making a 'socially-distanced' play is not nearly the same experience or relationship as working with people in the same room day after day. But it does give you the flexibility of working with anyone in the world.

The thoughts swirling in your head about the times we are in, especially those touched upon by the themes in the play —

LAKSHVIR: For me, I have been thinking about isolation. What is also very prevalent around me is fear. There is fear for lives and livelihoods — there are extreme situations people are experiencing in our country. There is fear for the future. These are the themes I’ve tried to bring out in the play. Part of it existed in the writing, and the truth of it emerged in the acting. It’s something all of us shared in common.

KRITI: This play has made me think a lot about mortality, mourning, grief, privilege and distance — the kind of a heady concoction that this moment in time has given rise to. People behave in such strange ways, and it’s made me think a lot about how to empathise and how to think beyond your perspective. There are so many frames of reference during rehearsals, reading how these characters react to the situation and seeing how my co-actors bring that to life. It’s a time for great kindness, I think.

PRASHANT: I may already have brought up two of these things — the effect the pandemic has on the way we communicate, and on how we view and manage time...The qualities of patience and restlessness... And of course, the premise of the story itself: negotiating a personal event as significant and tragic as the loss of a loved one, and the value of life in this current environment...These are unnerving thoughts, and worthwhile ones too.

PRANJAL: There’s a poignant sense of purposelessness in Shiraz’s life that also bothers me. The capitalist idea of work and time are faltering, and with that we’ve got to be doing a lot of unlearning, recalibrating.

The virus can kill humans, but not humanity. Empathy is our brightest chance at survival because it means both winning and losing the fight.

AKANKSHA: Is it really possible to have and persist with relationships purely on digital media, without any physical contact? Everyone is stuck in their homes (some alone, some not) trying to continue with life, work, hobbies, and indulgences. Are we really able to?

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Meet the creators —

KRITI PANT is a theatre practitioner, voiceover artist, and workshop facilitator. She is a co-founder of the Tadpole Repertory, acting in productions like Taramandal, Godspeed, A Winter's Tale and Quicksand. She co-devised and performs PlastiCity, a play for toddlers. Most recently seen in the tribunal play For The Record, she is currently working on a new play with Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust.

PRANJAL VAID has worked with groups like the Tadpole Repertory, Crow, Third Space Collective, the Play Factory and Kaivalya, with showings at festivals across India. A MICA graduate, he trained at the NSD’s Theatre-in-Education Sunday Club and learnt Navarasa Sadhana at Natanakairali, Kerala. His stage credits include Quicksand, Dastaan-e-Bhookh, Murakami Monologues and Still and Still Moving.

PRASHANT PRAKASH is a film and theatre actor. A Forbes 30 Under 30 achiever, his film credits include That Girl in Yellow Boots and Candyflip. With Quaff Theatre, he co-directed The Real Inspector Hound and co-wrote The Skeleton Woman. He co-founded the immersive theatre outfit Crow. His stage credits include Hayavadana, Numbers in the Dark, The Shakuntala Project and Under The Chestnut Tree.

AKANKSHA VYAS has a decade’s experience working in the intersection between technology and the arts. Currently CTO at Eichiba Inc, and visiting faculty at NMIMS School of Design, where she teaches Design Technology. She graduated in Interdisciplinary Humanities and Computer Science from Clarkson University, NY. In her free time, she works at a bookshop.

LAKSHVIR SINGH SARAN is an alumni of Kirori Mal College, Delhi and Drama School Mumbai. Formerly a member of Third Space Collective’s core team, he managed Delhi’s Off Stage theatre festival and the annual theatre program of Gurgaon’s Heritage Xperiential School. His acting credits include Mahish and Soni, the Netflix film. He has directed A Glass Filled with Memories and Graduation Day.

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, and the open script for Even Mists Have Silver Linings. He is a co-founder of InQueerAble, a queer theatre collective

Watch Theatre Jil Jil Ramnani's Haiku in a Bun here.

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