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Theatre

Of all the performing arts, it is perhaps theatre that needs a live audience the most. With Covid-19 showing no signs of abating, theatre, the world over, is having to embrace the camera to reach out to its audiences. In the six months since lockdowns began, digital has pervaded all aspects of our lives, and theatre is no exception. In Indian theatre, though, groups and organisers are negotiating between performing live online or opting for recording.

Aadyam has opted for the latter for the sixth edition of its festival. “It will be very difficult to get audiences to watch theatre till there is some semblance of assurance that they will not catch Covid,” says actress Shernaz Patel, also artistic director of Aadyam. “One person coughs and everyone will be paranoid.” What is performed is also likely to see a change. “Everyone will want things that are life-affirming,” says Patel. “I don’t see many people wanting to go for anything dark or depressing at this point of time.” It’s why Aadyam plans to record three of its earlier plays, Purva Naresh’s musical Bandish 20-20,000 Hz (2017), the Rajat Kapoor-directed adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, titled I Don’t Like It, As You Like It (2016) and Akash Khurana-directed adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (2015), so as to spend less time in rehearsals. The plays will be recorded in October in Mumbai with a multi-camera set-up. Actors, though, will perform scenes in segments and not as continuous sequences, as has been the case with London’s National Theatre Live.

Mumbai’s QTP successfully attempted the live stream format by doing eight performances of Every Brilliant Thing, a one-man show about mental health wherein actor Vivek Madan uses the audience to tell the story, in July and August. Quasar Thakore Padamsee, director of QTP, says “if there was ever a time for this subject, it is now”. Seventy people joined via Zoom to watch Bengaluru-based Madan and stayed back for a post-performance chat with a mental health professional. But Padamsee wouldn’t call the performance “theatre”, for that, to him, is “an interaction between the actor and the audience in the same physical space”. The communal viewing experience may be lacking, but it will do for now since it still affords artists an audience.

Finding an audience has been made easier with platforms such as BookMyShow and Insider.in. In the past five months, BookMyShow has hosted 800 virtual theatre offerings, from full-fledged plays, dramatised readings and monologues, to poetry recitations and workshops with experts, including some new productions, like Pretty Boman and Chehal Pehal, which had audiences logging in from cities beyond the four metros. Initially free, the portal later began charging a fee. The strategy has paid off since theatre-related programming is among the top three paid categories on BookMyShow “with ticket sales growing more than 300 per cent in less than three months as of August”, says Albert Almeida, COO, live entertainment, BookMyShow. It’s why he believes that plays streamed digitally will endure even after auditoriums reopen. “It will help grow the reach of quality theatre and arts content, bring artists closer to their audiences, allowing them the opportunity to experiment with newer formats and build a possible new and steady revenue stream,” adds Almeida.

It remains a challenge to convince viewers, already spoiled for choice with a gamut of films and series at their disposal, to pick plays for entertainment. “It’s really frustrating to figure out how to reach out to people and make them buy a ticket which, in turn, supports the community at large,” says Patel, who was creative producer of One on One, Unlocked, a series of monologues which streamed on Insider in August. “We need to figure out how to reach an audience beyond the theatre community. Right now, all the stuff is consumed by us.”

For some, like acclaimed actress Arundhati Nag, founder of Ranga Shankara theatre in Bengaluru, the physical space is sacrosanct and cannot be replaced by virtual. From September 3, Ranga Shankara began welcoming a limited audience, 35-40 people, to watch a dance rehearsal or a short play, attend a poetry reading or a talk by a psychiatrist at its open-air foyer every weekend. Part of the ‘RS Connect series’, the free events are the institution’s way of giving people “the opportunity to look at the creation of art”, which otherwise has been ignored.

That’s not to say Nag is dismissive of digital. “We have been resisting digital all our lives because we have always believed the real thing is the real thing. But this was the last bastion that had to fall,” she says. Ranga Shankara, she says, didn’t have video recordings of a quality which could be uploaded online during the lockdown and that the institution’s programming team is now busier than ever recording plays with the aim of streaming at least one a month October onwards. It is also putting together the 16th edition of the annual Ranga Shankara festival, the first one to be held digitally.

Another fixture taking a similar path is ‘Thespo’, the annual youth theatre festival organised by QTP. The absence of a physical event means that in its 22nd year, it is accepting applications from theatre groups across the world which have been recorded on different social media applications. “I had no idea that there was an app named Twitch until young members informed me,” says Padamsee. The digital wave may be cresting right now, but Padamsee knows that theatre practitioners will be the first to rush to work whenever cultural spaces open. “Our turnaround time vis-à-vis films is shorter and the commerce is simpler too,” he says. “Also, we are notorious huggers. Hello, goodbye, happy or sad, we hug.” Covid may not allow theatrewallahs to hug with ease but it won’t stop them from making sure that the show goes on.

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