Theatre of the Pandemic

Part 2

In the second of this 3 part series, we look into the unexpected silver linings of the pandemic. Though the move to digital theatre has been a difficult one, artists have shown that their resilience and innovation knows no bounds.

At first, we thought this was a temporary pause. We had a few misgivings about “21 days”, perhaps; but I don’t think any of us expected to be holed indoors for this long. Theatre artists clearly experienced this “rude shock” of lockdown twice.

It was definitely difficult. Artists have shared their struggles with working in their living space, difficulties of network capabilities not being good enough, or simply of having to re-train themselves from scratch to a new form of work. However, even the darkest of clouds has a silver lining, and the optimism of our artists was key to finding these bright spots.

our community got larger

Covid rules left us physically distanced from the world, but several artists found that this physical isolation translated into greater engagement in online communities. Mallika Singh, an actor from Mumbai, co-curated the Theatre-Film-Theatre festival for Atul Kumar’s The Company Theatre (based in Mumbai as well). They invited film-makers to adapt theatre scripts and shoot them remotely with theatre performers. From the 600 entries, the shortlisted teams made 15 films to completion. Over several months, Mallika was in constant contact with the teams to support them as best she could. The artists were from all over the country, and Mallika left the experience with deep and meaningful friendships with people she had never met before. Networking is always key to freelance artists, and she feels that this extent of networking would not have been possible in such a short time in a non-covid world.

The poster for ‘The Unbearable Gaze’ by Priyanshi Vasani, from Theatre-Film-Theatre.
Image courtesy LiveMint.

Events and rehearsals moving online meant that commutes, cities of residence and visa status were no longer barriers to participation (in their place, internet connectivity and laptop RAM became the new hurdles to overcome). Playwright-director Mahesh Dattani (currently based in Mumbai) revels in the fact that he was able to conduct workshops in the Bay Area (west coast of USA), the East coast of USA, and Sydney (Australia) in the span of one month, with not a single visa application to fill and no jet lag whatsoever! Not being restricted by geography meant he was also able to attend a workshop with the Kutiyattam master Venu G., something that would have not been easily accessible in the past.

A screen grab from Mahesh Dattani’s zoom production of ‘Do the Needful’ shows how the approach to Zoom plays hasn’t been cut-and-dry at all. Rather, liveness, interaction, and theatricality have taken on new meanings.

we found new audiences

In the same vein, audience composition also began to vary dramatically. Jana Natya Manch (Delhi) artist Komita Dhanda rues that they could no longer reach the entirety of their usual audiences, as street theatre does not translate well to the online medium, more so when their audience is not always equipped with smartphones or fast enough internet. 

On the other hand, other companies found that they were able to reach a whole new demographic of audiences. Notable among these is the 135 year old Surabhi Theatre group, based in Hyderabad. At the beginning of lockdown, their prospects seemed bleak; however, a chance invitation from a private university in Guntur led them to create an online performance that had over 3000 views. This encouraged them to take their work online, and they soon found a keen audience among NRI Telugu speakers! Since September 2020, they have performed at least 28 digital shows, and intend to keep this momentum up.

What the new “backstage” looks like for Surabhi Theatre Group. Image courtesy TheNewsMinute.

For Surabhi Theatre Group, it was a shared language that brought audiences back to their digital offerings. On the other hand, Mangai A (a thespian and scholar from Chennai) found that she could cross the language barrier thanks to Zoom’s offering of closed captions. Through the captions, the team was able to live-translate their Tamil shows into English, thus reaching out to an Indian audience they couldn’t have reached out to before.

it was the age of upskilling

When we first began making a shift to digital theatre, artists around the world struggled with converting their live-performance skills to the digital sphere. Yet, viewers could see for themselves the marked improvement in skills and resources over the months of working online.

Mallika Singh shared that her first experience recording a digital play was frustrating and exhausting; she had to record audio separately, had to be careful of camera angles and natural light, and was suddenly fulfilling multiple roles of actor- cinematographer- gaffer-cameraperson. However, the second show she did was suddenly a lot simpler, and she credits this to the innate “jugaadu” mentality of theatre artists. “We were always overcoming big obstacles in innovative ways, so this was actually second nature to us; it’s just that the obstacles were of a different sort.”

A poster for ‘Cross Connections’, produced by Rage Productions, starring Mallika Singh.

Mallika’s words rang particularly true for me. After all, theatre artists have always had to “make do” with unexpected challenges and still managed to do so artfully; the audience must never know the struggle. The show has definitely gone on, no matter what. We’ve done it before, and with the shift to the online medium, we showed that we can do it once again. With the help of innumerable YouTube tutorials taking us through the nitty-gritties of streaming softwares, we not only managed, but succeeded – even thrived.

While motivation and inspiration may have had their off days, when we step back and look at the massive range of work, the themes, stories, resurrection of old plays, invigorated theatre education put out over the last 16 months, we can see that the silver lining is indeed shining brightly. 


  • Bhuj says:
    Jul 25 at 06:26

    Very well written.

  • Vik says:
    Jul 26 at 12:28

    Evolution not exctiction, loved it

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Satnaam Shri Waheguru