Curtain Call: Collective experience of theatre is the only “normal”
In my previous article, I had disregarded the theory that the theatre experience will now evolve. I am not sure if “evolve” is the correct term here. Because I definitely do not consider watching shows online as an improvement over the live theatre experience. Let me use “change” instead.
To be honest, I did begin doubting the existence of the collective experience in the future. These strong doubts were, ironically, given a rather insipid term – “the new normal”.
Somewhere around June, after being away from any kind of performance for nearly 100 days, the void started playing on my mind. I was aware that I was one of the privileged ones. Many theatre artistes, actors and technicians, were going through financial issues. We were trying to do our bit by setting up a fund for them. Many artists around me had adapted themselves to another new normal – performances using Zoom! I genuinely envied them and their resilience.
I finally gave in and performed online too.
Everything about it was pretty similar to our live show. Announcing it online, getting people to buy the tickets, getting ready to perform, the goosebumps before the actual performance, meditating 10 minutes before curtain, watching the audience fill up – every experience was similar to a show in the theatre. Everything, except the actual performance!
Something was missing. I could feel it while performing. But I dismissed it immediately because not being present in the moment while performing is one of the biggest mistakes an artist can commit!
A few friends started a gathering of theatre practitioners from across the country (online, of course!) and rightly named it “Theatre Adda”. The idea was to have an informal dialogue between the theatre community in India, understand what the counterparts in different parts of the country are currently doing and just help each other cope with the long pause in live performances. It was very exciting to interact with nearly two hundred people from all over the country! The discussion quickly shifted to online theatre performances and its pros and cons. We also discussed the new initiatives, many of the online ticket booking software had started and how to use them to perform. Some were looking forward to using this new medium in a high data consuming and content hungry country like ours.
Most of the people discussing were either actors or directors. While this discussion was on, one of the theatrewallahs interjected. He introduced himself as a light designer and operator, working for the past 30 years. He said one simple thing – “I cannot be a part of the online theatre performances and I miss the touch of my light operating board”.
That was a moment of reckoning for me. That right there was the difference between a performance and a theatre experience! There was no give and take between the artists and the audience. It was like performing in front of a mirror. Where you are watching yourself perform. Techies will now tell me about the “gallery view” in Zoom. But not everybody in the audience has their cameras switched on, even if we request them to keep them on. In contrast, most people don’t switch off their microphones. Honestly, I do have a fundamental problem with asking people to switch off their microphones. Do we ask them to put themselves on mute when they come to the theatre? (Their phones, yes!) We expect them to watch, listen and react! I know that not every performance needs an applause, laughter or any audience reaction. Some pieces work best in silence. But there is no denying the fact that even that silence has to be collective, voluntarily. Not by pressing a button!
It was right at that moment in the “Theatre Adda” that I stopped brooding about the future of theatre. I knew that it was secure. There was no substitute to this collective experience. And as John Steinbeck puts it: The theatre is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.