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A shot in the dark: Why artistes love to perform with lights out

Why are comedians, poets and theatre artistes choosing to perform on stage, in front of an audience, with the lights out? We find out.

art and culture Updated: Jul 24, 2016 19:21 IST
Sapna Mathur
Theatre director Tushar Dalvi’s play, The Darkroom Project, takes place in partial darkness. A red light is focuses on the actors.
Theatre director Tushar Dalvi’s play, The Darkroom Project, takes place in partial darkness. A red light is focuses on the actors.

The popular American online series, Daredevil, traces the life of a blind lawyer-turned-superhero, Matthew Murdock, who relies heavily on his heightened senses. City-based stand-up comedian Utsav Chakraborty identifies with how Murdock gauges his surroundings. This year, Chakraborty hosted and participated in two comedy shows called Pitch Black at The Hive, Khar (W). These events took place in complete darkness. Even though he didn’t have to fight off any bad guys, it was still a challenge. “In my head, the show is like the stand-up equivalent of Daredevil. You’re blind, but all your other senses are heightened,” he says.

This year, stand-up comedian Utsav Chakraborty hosted and participated in two comedy shows called Pitch Black at The Hive, Khar (W). These events took place in complete darkness.

It is exactly this exalted sense of awareness that theatre director Tushar Dalvi wanted to achieve with his play, The Darkroom Project. The play’s title, as it suggests, refers directly to a darkroom, where photographs are developed. The drama takes place in partial darkness; only a red light illuminates the stage. Viewers are blindfolded before they enter the venue, and their blindfolds are removed only when the show starts. “We have tried to explore as many different facets of darkness as possible. Blindfolding the audience heightens their other senses. It helps us get their undivided attention. It has great recall value too. The stories get embedded deep within the audience’s psyche,” says Dalvi, who runs Rangaai Theatre Company.

The Darkroom Project refers directly to a darkroom, where photographs are developed. The drama takes place in partial darkness; only a red light illuminates the stage.

How it began

The idea of performing in the dark first garnered attention at the Leicester Comedy Festival, UK, in 2009, as an energy conservation effort. London’s Soho Theatre has been hosting such shows for a while now. In Mumbai, however, the concept is only just catching on. Besides a few comedians and Rangaai, spoken word poets have also been exploring this particular performance style in the past year.

Ramya Pandyan, a Mumbai resident who has been attending open mics since 2009, says she started participating in blind poetry shows because they offered her anonymity. They also made her more aware of her craft. “The biggest distinction between the performing arts and other art forms is that there is no barrier between the artiste and the audience. With writing, you feel a certain safety behind the computer screen or notebook. But when you’re on stage, you are naked and vulnerable in front of the audience and their judgement. But a dark room levels this playing field,” she says, telling us that she’s even recited her poem, Lullaby, to live music in the dark. “Once you get used to the darkness, you feel a certain warmth and closeness with the people who are in that room with you. You can hear people breathing, shifting and fidgeting. We tend to listen to each other better — both the audience and the performers,” adds Pandyan.

Read: Attend a stand-up comedy gig in Mumbai on sex and disability

Mumbai resident Ramya Pandyan has recited her poem, Lullaby, to live music in the dark.

During her regular shows, where the lights were switched on, Pandyan had become used to finding encouragement from some “friendly faces” in the crowd. But trying her hand at open mics in the dark has brought her out of that comfort zone. “Removing the visual aspect of a performance poses a huge challenge, which can only be good. Also, stage fright deters a lot of good writers. Reading in the darkness, without the weight of the audience’s eyes on them, might encourage many more people to approach the stage,” she says.

Improvisational approach

As the show’s host, Chakraborty took advantage of the dark. “It is one of those events, where you can get away with anything,” he says, adding that he often imitated the other comics right after their performances. “I acted like they had never actually left the stage,” he says. His listeners, the comedian says, loved the format.

But the dark is not always comforting. Comedian Adhiraj Singh, for example, has dealt with hecklers at such shows. “The experience is difficult. The audience starts heckling if you slip up. Being in the dark, the hecklers know they can’t be singled out, and can get away with a lot. It’s a lot like the anonymity the Internet gives you. It’s almost like listening to the radio or speaking on the phone. Having said that, the distance created by listening to only a disembodied voice puts a lot of weight on a performer to make his or her material shine,” says Singh.



Stand-up comedian Adhiraj Singh has dealt with several hecklers during performances in the dark.

What is even more trying is when artistes want to collaborate on a performance in the dark. Pandyan worked with guitarist Karthik Rao on a blind poetry show, and it was “tricky” to carry through. “Any spoken word performance is a spontaneous art form. This means your words, speed, tone and the order can change with every rendition. In collaborations, you have to communicate with each other during the performance without letting the audience know. Thankfully, Karthik and I managed to read each other’s sounds during the performance and didn’t miss any beats,” she says. Bad experiences or good, this is an activity these performers are willing to experiment with. “We grew as artistes because of it,” says Pandyan.

WATCH:

August 3 -- Pitch Black: Comedy In The Dark, at The Hive, Khar (W), at 8.30pm.

August 7 -- The Darkroom Project, at CLAP, Malad (W), at 7pm.