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The shifting notions of theatre space

The theatre space, as we know it, is shifting shape; as is the art that is performed on it

Published: Aug 31, 2016 06:33:22 AM IST
Updated: Aug 26, 2016 02:22:26 PM IST
The shifting notions of theatre space
Image: AJ Joji-Kochi Muziris Biannale
Deepan Sivaraman’s Khasakkinte Itihasam is hailed for being a grand production, set on a scale which was previously unimagined on Indian stage

This November, a group of theatre enthusiasts based in Thane, Mumbai’s neighbouring district, will embark upon a venture quite unlike anything before—a staging of Deepan Sivaraman’s epic drama Khasakkinte Itihasam (The Legends of Khasak) based on the seminal 1969 novel of the same name by OV Vijayan. This is yet another pit stop en route an onerous mission to revive Mumbai’s Malayalam theatre scene, which, until the mid-1970s, had enjoyed a veritable ‘golden age’.

In the past year, audiences in Mumbai and Delhi witnessed a ‘stage spectacular’ in the Broadway-style Beauty and the Beast, with a custom-built stage that brought alive enchanted castles with gothic interiors, and quaint hamlets. It was unequivocally hailed as a production on a scale earlier unimagined on the Indian stage.

Sivaraman’s production is a sprawling homegrown spectacular that is perhaps no less impressive when it comes to its magnitude of presentation. And at roughly half the ticket price compared to the Disney musical, whose tickets sold for between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000.

“Many Indian productions are built for the proscenium, and are not scenographically complex. They use lightweight portable sets,” says Sivaraman. A performance’s mise en scène is designed keeping many restrictions in mind. A venue like Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, with an open stage that thrusts a performance right into the audience, lends itself to greater versatility, but its fixed parameters can also lull theatre-makers into a status quo that is both comforting and limiting.

Sivaraman, who majored in scenography at London’s Central Saint Martins, says, “I am quite averse to constraints that curb an artiste’s imagination.” As an associate professor of Performance Studies at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, he leads a course that deals specifically with space and spectatorship; he has also designed and directed several site-specific plays. For instance, his The Cabinet of Dr Caligari had an extended run in 2015 in a defunct metallurgy workshop at the university. Each feature of the space—from its old plumbing to the peeling walls and decrepit furniture—was appropriated to serve the play’s portents, quite befitting a retread of a 1920 silent horror film that is considered an exemplar of German Expressionism. “When you are ambitious in terms of scale, each staging becomes a constant negotiation between what is available and your vision,” says Sivaraman.

Khasakkinte Itihasam certainly presented its own set of challenges. In the play, Sivaraman harnesses what can be termed the ‘panchabhuta’, or the five elements of live performance. There is a large open-air arena with a veritable pit of loose earth, dug up and filled over as the play’s themes of cleansing and defilement are brought disquietingly close to the surface. The extensive use of live fire is a nod to north Kerala’s theyyam culture. Actors carry flambeau that hover too close for comfort. Later, water showers down from makeshift rigs. Then there is the aroma of meals cooked before your eyes, and the whiff of ritualistic incense. Audiences sit in like they would in a circus-like amphitheatre whose scaffolds have sprung up overnight. “I have never performed before in Mumbai,” Sivaraman says, alluding to the infrastructural difficulties posed by his brand of promenade theatre.

The play’s journey started in 2014 in north Kerala’s sleepy Trikaripur, a village with lush paddy fields and palm trees, that is the perfect setting for Vijayan’s novel. “It has now performed across South India to large crowds who have embraced it whole-heartedly,” says Sivaraman. For his maiden visit to Mumbai, Sivaraman will seek to replicate this rooted ethos in a forest clearing carefully selected in Belapur, in Navi Mumbai. “My local organisers assure me of audiences in their thousands, but I don’t want this to end up as a display of Malayali pride,” he says, hoping to reach out to the city’s teeming theatre-goers, rather than just migrants from Kerala.

Sivaraman is not the only one trying to wean away urban audiences, known to be notoriously insular, from conventional spaces they are accustomed to. For instance, a new group, Accelerated Intimacy, recently commandeered an old, decrepit villa in Mumbai’s Versova Village, where several performers took over separate spaces—rooms, courtyards and verandahs—and performed interactive set-pieces to a single person each time.

The shifting notions of theatre space
Image: Selva Prakash for Forbes India
The crowd watches Sandbox Collective’s Dekho Magar Pyaar Se at the Goethe-Institut Max Mueller Bhavan at Indiranagar, Bengaluru

The audience, who paid Rs 1,500 for the set of performances, could walk in and out of the ‘shows’ and were asked to commit six hours to the interaction, compellingly titled 36 Questions in Proximity of a Conversation. In one of the pieces, the actor Dodo Bhujwala sits down for a cup of tea with his one-person audience, who is then taken indoors and requested to dress Bhujwala up in feminine attire that is laid out in a fully-equipped boudoir; likewise, Bhujwala does the same if the person is so inclined. Later, thus accoutered, they take a walk in the locality.

Another new group is Crow, from Nayantara Kotian and Forbes India 30 Under 30 alumnus Prashant Prakash. On the back of a successful crowdfunding campaign on Wishberry, they have won the mandate to create an innovative immersive experience called The Bliss of Solitude, for which Kotian says, “We are in search of an underground location with tunnels,” where a subterranean dystopia set in the future could unfold more authentically.

The Magical Floating Market
that Crow mounted for OML’s U/A Festival in Delhi in February was but a preview of the kind of work they hope to create. In that work, an expansive flea market was created from scratch in a parking lot and audiences could control how stories progressed by following different characters and making choices of their own. As Kotian said then, comparing their attempts to regular theatre, “Now that we are in it, I think it may be difficult to go back. It totally expands the possibilities of what you can do in a space.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the kind of theatre that works best in intimate spaces. They are much smaller in scale, but no less expansive in terms of ideas and subversions. The microscopic human condition becomes the focus of intensely personal pieces that forge their own relationship with the venues in which they are performed. Three remarkable works that have bubbled to the surface in recent years have been Jyoti Dogra’s Notes on Chai, Anish Victor’s Koogu and Mallika Taneja’s Thoda Dhyan Se. The pieces have originated in Mumbai, Bengaluru and New Delhi respectively, but the extensive touring they have undertaken certifies that they strike a universal chord.

Dogra’s piece uses snippets of daily conversations, but really is a triumph of vocal techniques, and she appears to link the quotidian lives of ordinary people through the sounds reverberating in their throats. This could be the slurping of tea off a saucer, or the clearing of a throat, or even a signature phrase uttered almost flippantly that, when replicated ad infinitum, becomes an entire psyche.

At last year’s Ekaharya solo performance festival at Tripunithura, near Kochi, Dogra had the high-ceilinged interiors of the refurbished Kalikotta Palace at her disposal, but preferred to perform in the more unassuming foyer that was just a fraction of the size. “Its dimensions aside, the foyer was a space that had the quality of drawing people in. It supported the work in a way that the interiors seemed to negate,” she says. This is certainly a fine distinction. “A cosy venue need not necessarily be conducive to the kind of solitary and introspective viewing the piece demands,” she explains.

This is quite different from Victor’s work, Koogu, which is positioned as a community ‘sharing’ with semi-autobiographical elements, in which many come away with the feeling of having held a person’s hand as he attempted to purge the demons within. Like Dogra, Victor uses spoken commentary, but Koogu is at its most impactful in its corporeal moments, when Victor’s rhythms and movements illustrate his internal resistance to the colonisation of his soul. For those seated just inches away, watching this gentle giant of a man suddenly flop to the ground, dead to the touch, is gasp-inducing. Plonking these pieces on to conventional podiums would be nothing short of annihilating their raison d’être.

The shifting notions of theatre space
Image: David Wohlshlag
Thoda Dhyan Se begins with Mallika Taneja completely naked, before she starts putting on layers and layers of clothes

Taneja’s performance, Thoda Dhyan Se, represents other spatial considerations. Technically, the performance has a simple structure: A typical middle-class woman waxing eloquent about the daily advisories she receives about what to wear, how to speak, and how to generally conduct herself. There is a catch, though. The performance begins with Taneja completely naked, before she starts putting on layers and layers of clothes, all but smothering herself in the process. The nudity is an important part of the performance, giving it a certain raw persuasiveness that has all the potential of being a conversation-starter.

“I have performed it in all kinds of spaces, and even the tiniest change reconfigures the piece completely,” says Taneja. She recalls walking through the audience one time in full glare, before she could even begin. “This created a different experience than say, having the show begin in complete darkness,” she explains. In Thrissur, as the publicised closing act of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, security measures had been put into place to ensure the event went off smoothly. Mobile phones and cameras were not allowed into the venue, and her handlers ensured the front row of the audience, in a black box studio filled to the rafters, were people they knew and trusted. The audience interaction that followed the piece gave a strong sense of what those who are accustomed to patriarchal systems actually think of a woman’s right to her own individuality.

Theatre-makers and their persuasions aside, the other prime mover in the field is the venue-owner. A glance at fixtures on a booking website gives us a snapshot of a faceless alternative theatre scene whose denizens have been priced out of mainstream venues and driven to other spaces of expression. Minimalism has become a creed, and not entirely due to aesthetic reasons. It is simply a virtue that’s practical and inexpensive. As supply meets demand, venues appear to be mushrooming everywhere. For some, theatre is a sideline, never lucrative, but with its own prestige.

The plush TARQ art gallery in South Mumbai’s Colaba neighbourhood played host to Bull, directed by Jim Sarbh, and like any bona fide artiste’s opening, the performance was accompanied by wine and delectable hors d’oeuvres. It was an electrifying evening, but didn’t quite become a regular feature at the gallery, possibly because it seemed too exclusive to attract other theatremakers. The Hive is a thriving community hub in Bandra, suburban Mumbai, but theatre is only a small cog in the wheel that keeps it whirring; the venues it offers have been compact and functional, but nondescript. But a new space in nearby Pali Naka, called the Cuckoo Club, operates under the aegis of The Hive, and here, performances acquire much more character because of the larger available space and the light and sound fixtures.

Over the last couple of years, refurbished car showrooms, lounge bars, microbreweries, art galleries, community centres, dance studios, terraces in commercial buildings, have all got into the act of attempting to turn into the cultural centre du jour. Yet, longevity is not something that many of these spaces have exhibited, because the nature of the coin is that a niche field such as theatre needs a special kind of nurturing, and in the absence of any clear-cut revenue model, cashing in remains only an outside possibility, even if ticket prices mirror that of bigger venues.

In this context, the story of Sitara Studio, an independent venue in Mumbai’s Dadar area, acquires some significance because of the concerted attempts of its proprietor, Nikhil Hemrajani, to create a lasting space for it in the city’s cultural landscape. “In the ’50s, it used to be a warehouse for a theatre group,” he says. Perhaps echoes of that affiliation have lingered and withstood the many changes the building has undergone, even as the milieu around it has metamorphosed into an industrial estate without any artistic predilections.

“In 2012, we positioned ourselves as a counter-culture venue, hiring out to music gigs mainly,” says Hemrajani, but an accidental tryst with theatre, when Adura Onashile’s HeLa was staged there by the British Council in 2014, opened the doors to new possibilities. Many plays have since performed there sporadically, and the difficult logistics of becoming a dedicated theatre venue have pushed Hemrajani back to the drawing board. “I have had two years of learning on the job,” he says, and adds that he is raring to return later this year with a model that works for both venue-owners and theatre-makers. “I have taken the feedback very seriously, and I think we are on the cusp of making a breakthrough this year, if things fall into place,” he says, optimistically.

The shifting notions of theatre space
Image: Vikas Khot
Dhat Pagli staged at The Barking Deer, a brewery in Lower Parel

Some of his concerns are very fundamental to a venue. Parking remains an issue. Performing licenses have to be obtained, sound and light fixtures need to be hired, electricity requirements have to be catered to. A working canteen is a definite plus. Then there is the question of curating shows and creating the right kind of buzz that will result in those magical bums-on-seats. What Hemrajani does have is a lot of solidarity from the theatre community at large. The bolstered interiors of the Sitara Studio, with its industrial fittings and old-world character, lend themselves magnificently to theatre. “Over the last couple of years, we have seen groups use the space in completely different ways,” he says. This versatility is an important hallmark for a venue that aspires to be home to both cutting-edge ventures and conventional stagings.

Another breed of people that is proving to be indispensable to the scene is the theatre facilitator. During Koogu’s two-week run in Mumbai, the show completed 100 performances in total since it opened in Bengaluru in 2014. This is no mean feat even for such a portable performance piece. It has travelled through many states, and has been performed on terraces, in living rooms and kitchens, in a forest and even in large auditoriums. This chequered journey has been made possible in part due to Victor’s virtuosity that is so accessible and friendly, but it is the Bengaluru-based Sandbox Collective, founded by Shiva Pathak and Nimi Ravindran, that produced the play and ran with it, that must be credited for such an extended run over three years.

“Apart from our own productions, we run a year-long itinerary of shows by other groups in various Bengaluru venues,” says Ravindran. The Collective has effectively taken on the role of a common resource stage administrator or, for outside productions, that of a play’s local producers. “We had initially short-listed 100 venues when we started out in 2013,” she says. Roughly half responded positively to becoming venues for theatre. Three of these have been harnessed most regularly: Their own modest office, dubbed the Beagle’s Loft, off MG Road; a corporate hall at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements in Armane Nagar, which allows access to the arts to insulated North Bangalore; and The Humming Tree, a bar with a great arts vibe in Indiranagar.

In Mumbai, Sunil Shanbag’s Tamaasha Theatre had sought out new venues for its own productions, adding prolifically to the roster of spaces available for theatre. While several of the venues accommodated only limited runs, there are breweries like The Barking Deer in Lower Parel and Brewbot in Andheri, and the fine dining restaurant, Bungalow 9 in Bandra, that have become regular cultural fixtures. These spaces, and others, have been made available to other groups by actor Sukant Goel and entrepreneur Sanchit Gupta, owners of the new outfit, Theatre on the Rocks, which facilitates performances in bars, lounges, and restaurants. “The model we follow is not that of supper theatre, but proper sit-down events during which liquor and food isn’t served,” says Goel. In just under a year, they have organised two dozen shows at such venues, including one of Koogu at Brewbot, a craft brewery in Andheri. “There are no costs associated with the brand, and the bulk of the proceeds from ticket sales go to the performing group,” he says. The venue itself earns from the food and beverages sales that spike during such soirées.

Certainly, an ecosystem seems to be in place for ‘small’ theatre, and yet there are also those who think big, and still manage to find venues that are capacious enough. While mainstream venues like the auditoria at the NCPA and the ubiquitous Prithvi Theatre continue to thrive, at least a viable fringe seems to be emerging. New players are trying to prop up new systems that work in an arts regime that chugs along without subsidy or largesse. That, in itself, indicates an arts spirit in fine fettle which, in turn, augers well for creative pursuits in the field of theatre.

(This story appears in the 02 September, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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