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Drama is dead, long live theatre

Five feisty women talk about the challenges the medium is facing, and how to deal with them

brunch Updated: Jul 22, 2018 00:01 IST
Ananya Ghosh
Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
theatre,plays,mumbai theatre
Marathi, Hindi and English theatre actors (from left) Rasika Agashe, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Faezeh Jalali, Yuki Ellias and Puja Sarup. On Rasika: Sari, Yewala boutique, Nashik. On Geetanjali: Dress and shoes, Forever 21. On Faezeh: Dress, 109°F; shoes from Clarks. On Yuki: Sarong from Manipur; jacket: Zara; tank top from Hill Road, Bandra; shoes from H&M. On Puja: Top, Zara; pants, Cottons; jacket, Elliza Donatein; shoes, Charles and Keith. Make-up: Stacy Gomes; hair: Avan Sethna(Prabhat Shetty)

As the Khans compete for audiences with Netflix and Hotstar, how tough is it for the humble theatre to fill up its seats?
Turns out, drama in India has another competitor as well: stand up comics, who are getting funnier and more aggressive in courting attention.

But all’s not over yet... And theatre is ready for a fight back.

Five powerful young theatre artists take pains to be heard. Each of them has been pushing the envelope: from making protest plays to breaking gender stereotypes, what they’re saying is important to hear.

Is lack of money Indian theatre’s biggest bane?

Or have audiences stopped evolving?

Are there too few theatres? Or, is the real need to break out of traditional performance spaces?

Each of our writers today know there’s no waiting for Godot. They’re young, they’re feisty and they’re here to make a change. Going by what they’re saying, we’re sure you’ll agree: Indian theatre is in good hands indeed!

ACT I: Money

‘Money is an issue we always have to struggle with’ –Faezeh Jalali

Faezeh is one of the most popular names in theatre today and the actor, director, producer and an aerialist is known for her socially relevant, experimental plays. Dress, Globus (Prabhat Shetty)

Theatre people are forever trying to find ways to fund plays. It is a battle each time. That’s because there are so many expenses involved. Even when/if we get a producer, we struggle to find a rehearsal space: we can’t afford the big studio spaces, so many groups end up rehearsing at home. Some small spaces and venues are happy to collaborate or partner with theatre groups and that sometimes helps ease the financial burden, because rehearsal costs are a major chunk of the budget.

Another chunk of money is required to put up the play, create sets, props and costumes. Many groups end up being quite minimalistic to save costs. Those of us who do theatre do it because we love the medium, and the freedom it gives us to experiment. It is really liberating. Hence we continue. But actors end up being the most dispensable and lowest in the pay hierarchy. As an actor, I feel terrible if I can’t pay my actors for rehearsals. But without a producer on board, I can’t afford to pay actors for rehearsals; I just don’t have the funds.

We are struggling with money but we are finding ways to work around the problem via crowdfunding and supplementing our theatre work with theatre-related jobs.

(Faezeh is the winner of multiple Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, META, and helms a theatre collaborative called FATS TheArts . You remember her from: Shikhandi — The Story of the In-betweens )

ACT II: Exposure

‘We need to get out of Prithvi and take the plays to the people ’– Geetanjali Kulkarni

Geetanjali is one of the veterans in the industry is also part of QUEST’s initiative that works towards spreading literacy through theatre among children in rural Maharashtra. Dress and shoes, Forever 21 (Prabhat Shetty)

Theatre artists tend to dwell in their own little world, mixing with the same group of people, performing to similar set of audiences. But while formal proscenium theatre is important to hone our skills, it is also important to get ourselves out of the comfort of formal theatres and reach new audiences.

That’s because we are only looking at one section of society to buy tickets and fill the theatres. Why can’t we go out of that theatre and tap a different section of society to make theatre literate? To include every part of society, we need to get out of Prithvi and take the plays to these people. We need to perform in slums and villages.

I realised that if you are performing only for the upper and the upper-middle class, you cannot expect a newer kind of interaction. So I started doing workshops for teachers, showing them theatre techniques to better tell textbook stories in classrooms. Over time, I felt that this was doubling as a theatre appreciation course. The teachers, and through them the students, were being introduced to storytelling and even the basics of theatre. We were creating future audiences for theatre.

We can’t sit and cry that there is no audience. We have to create the audience for theatre. And it is not the audience’s responsibility, but ours.

(An actor for 20 years, Geetanjali Kulkarni has been part of award-winning films like Mukti Bhawan and Court. You may also remember her from: Piya Behrupia)

ACT III: Audiences

‘A big urban population is not coming to the theatres anymore’ –Yuki Ellias

Yuki won the META awards last year in the Best Actor (female) category for her play Elephant in the Room. Leather jacket, Rocky S; pants Brass Tacks; tube top, Forever 21 (Prabhat Shetty)

The power of theatre is perhaps strongest when experienced not through watching a play but in realising its abilities to transport ourselves. The theatre-maker’s competition with film and the

Internet for an audience size is no doubt a losing battle. But if that same audience was to experience what it is to create a story, to embody the nature of performance, they could themselves feel being transported and transformed in far deeper ways than just observing the protagonists of a movie or play. The oldest form of virtual reality is to “play”. And to be able to play is liberating and strengthening.

I cross-fund a life in the arts by being a corporate coach. Every session with every organisation begins with two questions. How many of you have ever watched a play? And who has been to the theatre in the last two years? It is no surprise that the number of hands that go up is perhaps 10 per cent or less for both questions. School plays not counting!

So a big population of our urban world is not coming to the theatres anymore. They are the privileged, they have the access and the money and yet for many reasons, enough people just don’t make it to the theatre. But they are watching and consuming stories. Good and great stories. Films, web series, documentaries, the news, the media circus. People are observing on-screen heroes, villains, playing out their parts. We feel for the characters and champion them on. And so when we use stories to discuss roles of leadership or the art of lateral thinking or collaboration, film references pop out quite easily.

Then we take people through the act of “play”. We immerse them in the act of transformation. We invite them to improvise a scene. To act. To explore an abstract movement. To write a poem. To share personal stories. To re-tell other people’s stories. In doing this people shift out of just being the observer of art. The process of “play” takes you out of the audience seat, and demands that you try being different, to morph, to change.

Maybe the best thing about theatre is not the show. It is its ability to give people a chance to be more than who they think they are.

(One of the youngest, bright-eyed talents who has won critical acclaim, Yuki Ellias is an actor, director, and a corporate coach. You remember her from: Elephant In The Room)

ACT IV: Social change

‘Protest plays can lead to change, but they still must be entertaining’ – Rasika Agashe

Rasika takes a stand on the contemporary socio-political issues through her protest plays. Dress, Vintage Earth (Prabhat Shetty)

Nobody joins theatre to talk about issues. We love the medium, we love the craft, we love acting in front of a live audience… that’s why we are here. I’ve realised that for any medium to stay relevant, we need to talk about contemporary issues. We cannot bring about a revolution but we can make a difference.

I have seen it happen. In 2012, when the Delhi gang rape happened and the whole country was fuming, the token candlelight marches were not enough for me. That’s when I decided to make Museum of Species in Danger, a satire consisting of 12 monologues of women from mythology and real life. Initially, I just wanted to vent. But when I started putting this play together, my perspective towards theatre changed. I got a taste of the power of theatre of protest.

We travelled across India with the play and after each show, women of different age groups and walks of lives came up to us and shared their stories of molestation.

But protest plays are not rallies. They should be well-made plays that make you think. And they should definitely be entertaining. I come from Marathi theatre, so for me a play has to do at least 50 shows!

(Rasika Agashe believes in the power of protest plays. The actor and director is the co-founder of Being Association. You remember her from: Museum of Species in Danger)

ACT V: Scalability

‘We need to become a self-sustaining industry’ – Puja Sarup

Puja’s group, Patchwork Ensemble, made their debut with Ila, a play that questions gender stereotypes. Top, Zara; pants, Cottons; shoes, Charles and Keith (Prabhat Shetty)

It’s been 15 years since I gingerly tip-toed into the world of theatre. Fifteen years of dealing with people who think I act in serials, or assume I’m on stage because I haven’t gotten any screen offers yet. A lot of people believe that people do theatre on the side, or as a hobby till they get a break in Bollywood. But for a whole bunch of us this is the real deal. Theatre is not a waiting room: we are where we want to be!

It’s true that many actors opt for Bollywood or television because of the lack of money in theatre. The economics for a small theatre company like The Patchworks Ensemble, the one I co-founded with Sheena Khalid, is challenging. But we are working towards finding a sustainable solution for running a theatre company. Many of us who do theatre fulltime want to weed out the ad hoc-ness with which many theatre companies survive.

In the last couple of years, many alternative spaces have come up for performances. We have performed The Gentlemen’s Club and Ila in such spaces and those have worked beautifully. We also perform small skits at pubs and public spaces to give non-theatre going people a taste of theatre. So if the audiences are not coming to the theatres, we take theatre to them in spaces where they are at home.

(An award-winning actor, Puja Sarup’s play The Gentleman’s Club has become quite a conversation starter in social circles. You may also remember her from: Ila )

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From HT Brunch, July 22, 2018

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First Published: Jul 21, 2018 22:13 IST