Theatre of the Pandemic

Part 1

This is the first in a three part series about the theatre that has bloomed during the pandemic months. We’ll start with peeking into the work that has been done online, then delve into the learnings and end with the Big Question: where do we go from here?

“When covid ends” is the new way of saying “somewhere over the rainbow…”: that wonderous world we hope exists, but we can’t really be sure when we’ll get there. Even once we’re all vaccinated, our lives have been changed forever. Several people will continue to work from home, several others may continue to be uncomfortable with crowded public places for years on end. And in this new world, we theatre folk may simply have to come to terms with the flavour of the season that is Digital Theatre.

(side note: there’s a fair bit of argument over terminology: is this really theatre? Several people feel that this simply cannot be referred to as theatre, and prefer “live performance” or “digital storytelling” instead. I personally feel this conversation is as old as theatre itself. Even before we came online we were arguing over whether storytelling is theatre, whether dance is theatre, how much can experimental work be called theatre instead of performance art? While these debates are certainly worth having, for the time being I will side-step this argument and simply use the term ‘digital theatre’ to encompass all live/theatrical work presented online during the pandemic.)

So what has been happening online? At the very start of the pandemic, several theatre groups chose to stream high-quality recordings of performances from pre-covid days. One such performance I watched was The Encounter by Complicité. A fantastically performed show, recorded in extremely high quality, I quickly forgot that I was not actually watching it live. The live audience in the video gasped and chuckled and sighed in unison with me sitting alone in my home; I felt connected with them, as we all witnessed Simon McBurney’s awe-inspiring performance. 

Image courtesy Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Closer to home, a slightly modified approach was taken by the theatre festival Aadyam, which chose to record some of their shows from past seasons, specifically to be streamed. Vivek Madan, actor from The Hound of the Baskervilles shares that they still treated it like theatre; they did not re-block for camera, nor did they play to the camera. Theatre Arpana started TheatreNama on Insider where audiences could watch a guided viewing of shows such as S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship. Here, snippets from the play were interspersed with comments and insights from director Sunil Shanbag and co-writer Irawati Karnik. The feedback the team received was that even though they did not watch the whole play, viewers felt as if they had gotten a holistic understanding of what had been performed.

Image courtesy: Insider.in and Studio Tamaasha

There was plenty of new work created during the pandemic; Akvarious Productions featured a number of actors performing monologues on Instagram live, some of which were then stitched together into a revue style performance at Prithvi Theatre entitled Covid or Without You in December. Saatvika Kantamneni, producer at Akvarious Productions, shares that the response to these were varied, with some going more viral than others, though the overall reception was positive.

Other theatre groups chose to alter pre-existing shows for the digital medium. QTP’s interactive show, originally staged in the round, Every Brilliant Thing was turned into a Zoom performance. While rehearsing the online version, Quasar Thakore Padamsee (the director) realised that Vivek Madan (the actor) needed to look into his webcam, to give the impression of making eye contact with the audience. However, to look into the webcam meant Madan could no longer actually see the faces of the audience members, who had kept their cameras on. Quasar found it quite amusing that they had to employ artifice to give the impression of less artifice! 

Besides performances there were several workshops, improv jams, theatre games that sprung up around the country and the world. Groups like Kaivalya Plays or The Shakespeare Company India began conducting sessions where actors could meet online, play theatre games together, and exercise their acting muscle. Masterclasses and panel discussions became more common and accessible than before, and several theatre festivals, including Jairangam, Thespo, the Prithvi Festival and the recently concluded Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards held a number of live sessions on their social media accounts.

Several theatre makers took the opportunity to re-group, work on their writing, research and study, or archive their past work. Some moved towards online play readings. Theatre Nisha, based in Chennai, began a daily play reading series, where they would read and deconstruct modern Indian writing.

Image courtesy: Helen Shaw/Vulture

Some slightly wackier shows include a rendition of The Seagull, directed by Celine Song  which took place in The Sims 4 and was live streamed on Twitch. This was quite a rare approach, as others took a more direct route with a wave of performances on Instagram live, Facebook live etc. Softwares that had their moment in the sun include OBS Studio, NDI Studio, Vmix and of course, the patron saint of lockdown: Zoom.

Somewhere along the way, the “jugaad” mentality gave way to some really inventive approaches to creating modern, effective live work. Though we miss live theatre, many artists found that the journey to a post-covid theatre world isn’t all bad; there were several moments where “skies were blue”. Next week, we’ll delve into the unexpected benefits of digital theatre. 

While you’re waiting for the next piece, we encourage you to soak in all the digital theatre options (live and prerecorded) you can get your hands on. Prepare to be moved, engaged, and inspired! We hope you enjoy your discovery.

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Satnaam Shri Waheguru