Sanjna Kapoor: Sheer Madness Kept Prithvi Going

Sanjna Kapoor talks to Forbes India about leaving Prithvi Theatre and her plans for her new venture Junoon

Published: Mar 20, 2012
Sanjna Kapoor: Sheer Madness Kept Prithvi Going
Image: Vikas Khot

Sanjna Kapoor
Age:
44
Education: Very little (O-levels)
Designation: Co-founder and director of Junoon, ex-director, Prithvi Theatre
Career: Worked 21 years at Prithvi, energising the venue with various initiatives, programmes and festivals
Interests: The world of theatre, scuba diving and walking in the wild  

Tell us a little about the Prithvi story. What's kept it going? And what have you tried to achieve while you were running it?
Sheer madness and stubborn determination is what has kept Prithvi Theatre going all these years. And of course sponsors monies!

In my 20-odd years there, I guess the core of my efforts have been to contribute to the raison d’etre of Prithvi Theatre, which is to run a vibrant professional theatre venue that nurtures professional theatre and develops a discerning audience. All the initiatives—touring festivals, theatre exhibitions, children’s workshops, an art gallery, partnership programmes, a monthly newsletter—contribute to this main aim.

Prithvi has a special place in the city’s heart, in every theatrewallah’s heart. So many have gone on from Prithvi to success and wealth. Why has it always been a struggle to keep the theatre financially viable?
Any theatre like Prithvi, anywhere in the world, would need support, as it would not be completely self-sufficient. In most countries, a major part of this support would come from the government; ours however has absolutely no scheme to support an institution like Prithvi.

At the outset it needs to be understood that Prithvi subsidises its rent—what theatre groups take home is their ticket income, and what we take home is a subsidised rent that the groups pay us per show. This has to be subsidised because we need to consider the group’s survival and long-term sustainability, given all their overheads. If we were to charge our costs or profit, then we would never have a bevy of 50-odd groups clamouring for performing dates every month.

However, Prithvi is different from most theatre venues in India: We are not an auditorium available for rent. Groups apply, and they are granted their dates based on certain criteria; we curate our programme.

Building an audience and nurturing groups is at the core of Prithvi’s mandate.

Today, it is happy-making to see audiences willing to pay more for theatre tickets. For the first time in our history, regular theatre tickets are at par with cinema tickets on weekends. This is a wonderful surprise.

But what we really need to become more self-sufficient is many more Prithvi-like theatres in Mumbai. This would lead our theatre groups to more performance opportunities, which would in turn generate a greater income for them. Then we need not subsidise their losses to such an extent.

I do also believe a major part of the fault as to why Prithvi is so tough to run financially has been ours. We never ever made any efforts to use the enormous goodwill that 34 years of our existence has generated amongst so many thousands of unknown or even known people, thereby allowing for our community to contribute to our survival. I believe this is a huge opportunity… waiting to be tapped.

Once upon a time, royalty were Art’s patrons. Now, support comes from the government, and from corporate bodies. Why is it that the arts find it so tough to exist on, say, ticket prices?
Numbers need to add up! Audience numbers need to add up to enable sustainable theatre activity. I do believe this is possible … I believe we have the audiences and we have the ‘software’, the performing groups. What we do not have is the infrastructure, the venues that allow for the coming together of the audience and performer in a conducive manner. This is what Prithvi addresses—but it cannot make a real change on its own.

We also have to actively make theatre an attractive, cool, sexy or what-have-you part of our lives. We need to value its contribution to our lives.

Keeping ticket prices and hiring costs low has meant that you had to lean heavily on sponsors. Has it gotten easier to find corporate patronage? Has the government helped out?
Being overly dependent on sponsors is not a healthy way of being. Finding a balance is always recommended. The government needs to be gently coerced into understanding the theatre’s needs. This is changing… but far too slowly.

What would you say to someone starting a theatre right now?
Come to Junoon—we have set up an advisory/consultancy service for new theatre venues or events!

During your time running the theatre, it grew to embrace much more than plays. What was your reasoning for this?
We have always believed that all the arts need to be under one roof, to contribute to the vibrancy of an arts centre or theatre. I personally feel this can be broadened to embrace wider areas of creative thought—which is why I initiated the ‘Chai & Why’ session at Prithvi in partnership with TIFR [Tata Institute of Fundamental Research].

Theatre does not only engage with the aesthetic but also with the idea.

It's been 34 years since Prithvi Theatre opened its doors. You were there when your mother was going over the plans for the place. You once told me how you would fall asleep on the sofas in the back row during shows. You were 16 when the first festival your mother organised happened. You've spent the last 21 years running the theatre. It can’t have been easy to let go, move on. How long did you take to make up your mind?
We (my brother, Kunal and I) have been working on this idea for just over a year now. Junoon has taken shape over the past six months.

It was not easy, as I guess it isn’t when your child leaves home for the first time. But in your heart you know it is for the betterment of you all. Ironically, I always used to jokingly say Prithvi was like a child, but I wish it would grow up and leave home.

Tell us about Junoon. What's it all about, and what are your plans?
Junoon is really taking all that Sameera [Iyengar, formerly of Prithvi as well, and Kapoor’s partner in Junoon] and I have learnt in our years of working at Prithvi (Sameera has been there 10 years) and putting our energies towards realising some of what we believe are the greatest lacunas in our field. At the outset our belief is that arts are integral to a healthy society.

We are going to create various platforms that are engaging, accessible and welcoming through our programmes. Now I’m exhausted as we come to the most important part of my life right now. Please do look at our website [junoontheatre.org ]; it has it all.

(This story appears in the 30 March, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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