Theatre of the Pandemic

What do the stars say?

In the previous two posts in our series on the Theatre of the Pandemic, we discussed what theatre work has been done in the Pandemic era, and what unexpected fruits were borne. For the final installment of the series, we ask theatre artists to reflect on their most important learnings from the past 16 months. What is it that kept us going? (And what will keep us going in the future as well?)

The past several months have been a roller-coaster to say the least. Looking into the future has never been more difficult than it is now.

It was simultaneously a terrible and amazing year for the arts! While most of us were at home, we were binge-watching movies and TV shows, turned to cooking and baking for pleasure, began colouring, drawing, singing. But for professional artists, it was a struggle to find and make work, and several artists around the world were forced to leave the arts to sustain themselves.

Early on in the pandemic, an article stated that theatre may be making a mistake by offering shows for free online; once people get used to accessing this work for free, they will no longer be willing to pay for it. Though, in the initial months of the pandemic there were several free offerings, as time passed, companies around the world began adjusting their business models. Though loss of in-person shows meant there was loss of income, there were also savings to be made, as Meera Sitaraman (Theatre Nisha, Chennai) points out; the cost of venue, lights, and sound equipment were all wiped clean.

Simone Joyner’s photograph showing a streaming of National Theatre at Home’s
broadcast of ‘One Man Two Guv’nors’. Image courtesy The Hindu.

It was a digital age

The technological strides taken, by the world at large, and the theatre community specifically, were astronomical over the past year and a half. Rachit Khetan (Production Manager, QTP Entertainment Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai) notes that people soon got bored of seeing the Zoom meeting format, and that was where softwares such as OBS and Vmix came in. This allowed for flexibility through live editing and innovative streaming options. Hardly over a year ago, these were totally unknown softwares for most of us, and now they are key to making online experiences more interesting.

The drawback of the shift online is, of course, that it creates new barriers of accessibility. As Sitaraman points out, internet connection and digital education are not in the hands of all theatre practitioners and audiences in the country. Besides the lack of access, the matter of aesthetic taste comes in too. Quasar Thakore Padamsee (Co-Founder and Director at QTP, Mumbai) laments that internet shows don’t capture the essence of in-person shows, and furthermore, internet rehearsals are far more exhausting. These are gaps that we need to look into as a community.

A photo from Theatre Nisha’s ‘Crossing to Talikota’ that they shot in August 2020, for online viewers. Photo courtesy M Sivanesan

Yet, not quite what we expect

Mahesh Dattani (Mumbai), remarks that he spent the initial months of isolation pining for a rehearsal room; later he came to realise that artists need to have a relationship with the present. This may mean letting go of our notions of what the prerequisites to the creation of a new piece are. 

Letting go of habits and expectations is exactly what Tanvi Shah (director/dramaturg from Mumbai) feels is the need of the hour. She says, “I learnt that theatre doesn’t need vaulted ceilings and plush seats and proscenium arches. Theatre exists in the dogged hearts and minds of theatre makers and their hungry audiences, pixelated though they may be. Where there exists a signifier, a signified, and an interpreter actively interpreting, there exists theatre.”

Shah herself directed a rare ‘hybrid’ project, where there was an in-person audience of about 20, and a live online audience. This author was also a part of that show, and it was quite a challenge to find a communicative language that worked for both the eyes of the people present, and for the camera lens. We had to ask “what is it we are trying to communicate?” rather than “how do we communicate this?”. This was necessary to break out of the frameworks we were used to. 

a screengrab from ‘Unshared Childhoods’, a hybrid online + offline show performed at Harkat Studios. Photo by Meghana AT

We know how to bounce back

There have been plagues before, great theatres have burnt to the ground and been rebuilt, film, radio and television have been predicted to dethrone theatre, and yet the theatre has bounced back. As Sitaraman points out, theatre is resilient. It will survive all changes of the future, just as it has in the past. 

an artist’s rendition of the Globe Theatre burning down in 1613. Image courtesy the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

To that I would add that theatre people are resilient. Almost to the point of stubbornness, we have refused to leave our craft and our tribe, and we can see that the arts have bloomed and thrived in the past several months. A key requirement for resilience is the gift of patience. Mallika Singh (a performer from Mumbai) says that last year, she needed to remind herself that some things simply aren’t in our control and there is nothing to do about it. The art, for us all to master, is to figure out how to be patient and hold on to the things that matter, while recognising what is beyond our means, and letting go. 

But where do we go from here?

No crystal balls or messages in the stars can tell us what the future holds. I personally feel extremely hopeful at the end of this series, having seen the innovation and the grit of artists around the country. I don’t know what to expect but I feel confident in our ability to overcome whatever curveballs the future holds. As Vivek Madan (Director, Bhasha Centre, Bangalore) puts it, “It’s only just beginning… there’s a lot more to be discovered – content, form, meaning, politics, all of it.”

We, at Gitanjali Creative, are so excited to see what we discover.

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Satnaam Shri Waheguru