Mumbai’s eateries, pubs and libraries turn into performance spaces

  • Soma Das and Manali Shah, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Mar 14, 2016 11:09 IST
Lucky Ali at a performance at Phoenix Marketcity (Photo courtesy: Phoenix Marketcity)

In a space-starved city, eateries, pubs and libraries are turning into alternate venues for performances and events.

A distinctly urban phenomenon is brewing in the city. Eateries are doubling up as yoga classes, gyms and bars are staging plays, and bookstores are hosting sushi-making workshops.

Puzzled? In a city like Mumbai, the number of creative people is inversely proportional to the performing spaces available. As if space constraints weren’t enough, performers have to deal with exorbitant rents. But instead of cribbing about the lack of space and opportunity, we’re doing something clever. We’re coming up with out-of-the-box solutions.

Interactive theatre performance I Love You, Let’s Have Sex at Blue Frog (Photo courtesy: Blue Frog)

“In Mumbai, apart from the NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts) and Prithvi Theatre, where could you perform? There are almost 300 theatre groups in the city,” says theatre director Akarsh Khurana, 36, proprietor of Akvarious Productions. Khurana has tackled this conventional problem by doing shows at the Brewbot microbrewery in Andheri; on the mezzanine floor of Jude Bakery, Bandra; and Prithvi House (a smaller venue opposite Prithvi Theatre), Juhu. “When you’re testing material, this format is perfect,” he adds. Khurana plans to stage plays at more eateries: The Bombay Canteen (Lower Parel) and the Taj Mahal Tea House (Bandra), among others.

Live, at a bar near you

Restaurants and bars aren’t entirely new to live gigs to increase footfall: be it with Happy Hours discounts or live music. But as our options increase — more restaurants, bars, more entertainment avenues — all kinds of spaces are looking at innovative ways to get you to walk in.

Read more: Mumbai weekend calender: March 11 to 13

Plays have been a major beneficiary of alternate venues. Eateries like Tilt All Day (Lower Parel) and PizzaExpress in Colaba have staged intimate theatre performances. Live music space Blue Frog (Lower Parel) also launched a property called Theatre at the Frog last April to stage plays.

In a first, NCPA, the haloed altar for many performing groups in the city, has now commissioned plays to be performed in smaller, alternate venues. Apart from performance spaces like The Hive and Cuckoo Club in Bandra, plays will also be staged at Brewbot, The Barking Deer (Lower Parel) and Blue Frog. Deepa Gahlot, head of theatre programming at the NCPA, says, “You don’t always need an elaborate set-up or a lot of actors. A different, younger crowd comes to these places. It’s a great way to talk to the youth and initiate dialogues around various issues.” To minimise audience distraction, rules of dinner theatre are followed: you can only order before or after the play, or during an interval.

Tape, a drag king performance, premiered at Tilt All Day (Photo courtesy: Gaysi Family)

While NCPA may have just joined the party, prominent theatre groups like Tamasha Theatre by Sunil Shanbag and The Company Theatre by Atul Kumar have been staging at venues as varied as eateries, gyms and residences.

Shanbag — whose play Marriage-ology was recently staged at F2 Fitness gym in Khar (the aerobics floor was turned into a stage) — looks for spaces that don’t compromise on the visibility and the acoustics. “In auditoriums, performances are impersonal and transactional in nature. At offbeat venues, there is a certain intimacy with the audience,” he says.

Another reason the trend works is because of the location. Gahlot says that people in the suburbs may find it difficult to travel across town to the NCPA at Nariman Point. “So the NCPA goes to them,” she says. For many, catching a play at their friendly neighbourhood bar could be their first introduction to the world of theatre. It can also be less intimidating than heading to the NCPA or Prithvi Theatre, with their formidable reputations.

Even malls are no longer places to just shop or dine. Since there aren’t many open air concert venues in Mumbai, and getting permissions is a Herculean task, more and more gigs are now happening in malls. High Street Phoenix’s monthly event, Awestrung, has seen artists like DJ Nucleya and Madboy/Mink perform in its courtyard. Phoenix Marketcity’s Dublin Square has hosted international acts like Romanian DJ Edward Maya and ’90s sensation Vengaboys.

Also read: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to return to Mumbai in May

Libraries and book stores — places under threat from online retailers — are also repositioning themselves. Trilogy by The Eternal Library (Lower Parel) is now the venue for the Talking Myths Project (talks on comparative mythology), while Kitab Khana (Fort), hosts Mumbai Local (inspirational talk sessions); and the Maharashtra Mitra Mandal, aka Mcubed Library (Bandra), hosts workshops and movie/book club activities.

Rules of the new game

But while finding new venues is welcome, it requires certain tweaks. “The plays use minimal space and props. The focus then shifts to the writing. The content has to be really good to work,” says Khurana.

Our nature is our sanctuary, a talk session at Mcubed library (Photo courtesy: Mcubed Library)

Venues aren’t complaining either. Siddharth Bhatia, 26, owner of Tilt All Day, which hosted Tape, a drag king show, in September last year, believes that hosting varied acts helps retain customers. Bhatia’s brief to his architect at the outset was to create a space suitable for live acts: plays, music performances, stand-up gigs. So, Tilt All Day features a raised platform in a corner that functions as a stage.

Vaishali Shinde, 46, co-founder of Mcubed Library admits that even though the events don’t fetch substantial revenue, they help retain interest in the library. “It serves as a community centre for interaction, and not just a book-borrowing place. We have people conducting workshops, volunteering and donating resources. This concept has worked so well, we have people wanting to start such a library in other parts of the city,” says Shinde.

Leading the way

One of the frontrunners, though, for using unconventional spaces, have been stand-up comedians. In the early 2000s, in the absence of comedy clubs, stand-up artists like Ash Chandler and Vir Das cut their teeth at pubs and cafés like the now-defunct Café Goa, Not Just Jazz by the Bay (now Pizza by the Bay) and Blue Frog. And while today there are dedicated comedy clubs, eateries remain one of the main venues for stand-up.

Comedian and author Radhika Vaz, who’s performed at venues like Tap Sports Bar (Andheri) and Blue Frog, says that such spaces make sense especially for stand-up artists. “Stand-up is one of the simpler forms of entertainment: you just need two or three artists (lots of upcoming ones are willing to perform), and there isn’t much equipment required.”

A staging of Four Play, a theatrical production, at Phoenix Marketcity (Photo courtesy: Phoenix Marketcity)

And this trend of unique performance spaces is evident not only in Mumbai but also in other cities. Even Delhi — a city known for its open spaces and street theatre culture — has seen performances at an unused factory and a potter’s studio.

Back in the city, the newly launched Akara Art Gallery (Colaba) has plans to host art screenings and talks, while Reunion Bar & Kitchen (Shivaji Park) is planning to screen movies. Expect more venues to join in. This is just the beginning of something new and wonderful.

5 quirky uses of spaces around the world

Princes Street Gardens, UK

This public park, in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, Scotland, was one of the venues for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2012. The move to take acts out of the theatre was motivated by the fact that with more than 20,000 performers in town, traditional spaces were available at a premium.

Testing Grounds, Australia

The container stage in South Bank, Australia is a 4mx6m shipping container equipped with basic lighting, a mirror ball and electricity. It is available for creative and education-related activities. 40 folding chairs are available for the seating audiences.

The London Eye, UK

The 32 capsules on this popular tourist attraction occasionally double up as entertainment spaces. In 2013, the Red Bull Academy converted it into a nightclub (and streamed it live), with artists like Lily Allen and Mark Ronson performing.

The London Eye has hosted music performances (Photo: Khamtran/Wikipedia commons)

The Theatre of Small Convenience, UK

A Victorian gentleman’s lavatory has been converted into a 12-seater theatre in Worcestershire, England. The smallest theatre in the world (as per the Guinness Book of Records 2002), the space hosts drama, storytelling, even opera.

The Kingsland Ward at St Johns, USA

This century-old institutional facility in Brooklyn, America, is the setting for Third Rail Productions’ play, Then She Fell. The multi-sensory experience is designed for just 15 audience members at a time, who are encouraged to explore hidden corners (often by themselves), and discover hidden scenes and clues.

Architect’s wish list

There is a tremendous potential in the city’s architectural and infrastructural assets and they lend themselves to spaces for alternative events. With the redevelopment of the mill lands, we lost a good opportunity. Here are other spaces that could be good venues:

Chawl courtyards of Lower Parel

There are many chawls that still exist across Mumbai and they represent the true working spirit of the city. They can form dynamic backdrops for events.

Kanheri Caves and Gilbert Hill

Extremely unique natural assets. They give incredible vantage points to the sprawl below and can make you wonder how they manage to exist amidst rapid urbanisation.

Worli Sea Link and Promenade

The Bandra Worli sea link (HT File Photo)

If it was planned correctly from the start, the Sea Link would have been one of the most coveted spaces in the city to host cultural programmes.

CST Station ticketing hall

It’s an architecturally invaluable space and as a UNESCO Heritage site, it has more potential than just selling tickets. It lends itself to events like a ghazal concert which could give the space a whole new identity.

Banganga tank

One of the few public spaces that still interweave the nature of mythology and dense urban existence. The tank is beautiful in scale and possesses a natural architectural character with the steps disappearing into the water.

- By Rajeev Thakker, Curator, Studio X (Space for experimental design)

Take Your Pick: 5 upcoming events at alternative venues

What: Head to Mcubed this Saturday to attend a talk on relationships hosted by psychotherapist Eric Mistry.

When: March 12, 5.30pm

Where: Mcubed, Princess Building, near Bandra Gymkhana, Bandra (W)

Call: 2641 1497

What: Catch Waiting for Naseer, a philosophical comedy, with an unusual premise. Two actors wait at Prithvi theatre’s café to catch a Naseeruddin Shah performance but only one is entitled to a ticket and both actors are dead.

When: March 13, 7.30pm; Where: Brewbot, Morya Landmark 1, Andheri (W); Call: 4003 4448

What: Relive the charm of childhood campfire story sessions at this modern-day take on storytelling. The event will see Roshan Abbas, Mini Mathur and Tess Joseph, among others, share their life experiences.

When: March 13, 8pm to 10pm; Where: Blue Frog, Mathuradas Mill Compound, Lower Parel; Call: 6158 6158

What: Learn the basics of preparing and presenting sushi rolls with chef Farrokh Khambata, and try your hand at making sushi. The class will also have bartenders give lessons in mocktail mixology.

When: March 18, 4.30pm to 6.30pm; Where: Crossword Bookstore, Mohammedbhai Mansion, below Kemps Corner flyover; Call: 6627 2100

What: Enjoy a musical evening as Bollywood playback singer and music composer Siddharth Mahadevan takes centrestage. Sarah-Jane Dias, Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café and Tejas Menon are also a part of the line-up.

When: March 11, 8pm onward, Where: Dublin Square, Phoenix Marketcity, Kurla; Call: 6180 1100

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