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It isn’t curtains for theatre

How the stage is being reimagined at a time when in-person audiences are impossible.

Vikram Phukan

Theatre, as we would like to remember it after a year that has dulled our senses like nothing before, is built on the precious relationship between real-time transmitting and receiving. What performers radiate, whether aura or talent, what the intimacy of proximity or the warmth of almost-touch brings about, how a space always appears to deliver more than three dimensions, or how sitting in assembly with strangers or kin allows us to bear witness rather than simply observe. These virtues have become prerequisites, which is why the rhetorical ‘What is theatre?’, often evokes the most specific of responses.

All these notions were turned on their head when the very medium of dissemination dissipated before our eyes, morphing into the attention-deficit realm of the digital, the virtual, or the simply not real enough. Digital is democratic: when the ‘stage’ is a screen , everyone gets a front row experience. A creator might exhort the viewer to use headphones or not ‘share one’s internet connection’ or ‘View in Gallery,’ but has no actual control of the rules of engagement. Audiences decide how they will receive, whether it’s over earphones in noisy commutes or flickering visuals from a projector in a suitably darkened room; they can skip forward, pause, minimise, mute, record their screens. Internet connection lag or old-fashioned power outages — a perfect excuse to disappear in the middle of an interminable Zoom call — have pushed theatre companies to create pre-recorded art, which can be absolute anathema to those accustomed to walking the boards each time an audience turns up to watch.

Once existential questions are dispensed with, a performing arts enterprise might ponder upon those facets of production which could deliver an ostensibly theatrical experience. Theatrewallahs looked at this new beast with suspicion at first, but it wasn’t long before group after group picked up the gauntlet, hesitatingly offering up fresh material. It might be fair to call the first year online a year of prototypes.

Bruce Guthrie’s pre-recorded production of Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall used a multi-camera setup and a crew of fifty-odd to capture a 40-minute long monologue in a single take, alternating between frames of reference while following the protagonist (Jim Sarbh) as he negotiates absence and presence on an otherwise empty stage. Sarbh delivers a consummate performance, but the camera is as much of a presence as he is; far from being invisible, as it might have been in a more cinematic staging, it commands its own allegiance as it pans and swerves and zooms in.

Video documentation often captures none of the nuance and visceral energy that gives a live spectacle immediacy and power. At the Ranga Shankara festival, Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry presented Black Box, a meditation on lockdown and its privations, shot by son Kabir Singh Chowdhry, as a film that was a marked departure from the seamless and unedited aesthetic of most digital theatrical projects. This was perhaps done to better immerse the viewer in solo performer Vansh Bharadwaj’s evocative turn, as it might have been experienced in person.

In digital projects, the camera becomes the ‘audience of one.’ Actors double up as technicians managing their own light, props, costumes and sound, with the impersonal device serving as mirror, prompter and co-actor. One project that flies with these constraints is Sanket Parkhe’s production of Niranjan Pedanekar’s The Light Catcher, in which Ritika Shrotri plays a photographer and the international women of mystery who serve as muses. Streamed live to audiences, the play’s two-camera set-up allows real-time switching between corners and nooks of a building in Madurai to evoke the disparate worlds inhabited by the characters, with Shrotri skillfully shifting between accents, demeanours, costumes and rooms. The play has been staged conventionally before, but the online staging’s dynamic shifts and adrenalised pacing elevates the material.

Elsewhere, Shrotri’s adventurous helming of Nightmare, another live production based on a story by satirist Ratnakar Matkari, takes cues from gaming and broadcasting to deliver a docudrama in which the action shifts from a graphics-laden television newsroom to a proletariat household or a site of working-class resistance. Unlike the spate of solo performances the year has seen, Nightmare features a large ensemble in attendance at the same venue, even if the play itself, live on a streaming platform in real time, can only be watched online.

Unlike those plays that only reach audiences as recorded video, Quasar Thakore Padamsee’s production of Duncan MacMillan’s Every Brilliant Thing gave us a glimpse of how a video-conferencing app (Zoom, in this case) can be integrated into a play. Audience members log in to a sharing by the comfortably dressed-down protagonist (played amiably by Vivek Madan) waxing eloquent about the ailments of the soul from the confines of his own home. Zoom’s webinar features — waiting rooms, breakout rooms, live chat, the speaker mode, response emoji — are all pulled into service, and audience members — peering in, looking out — become part of a special kind of spectatorship. The end-result is altogether different from that engendered by the play’s live stagings: much more sentimental, much less artificial.

Several more months might pass before the old normal hesitantly rears its head again, but not before these blueprints give way to systems of production and many more viable excursions into what is now being called a hybrid form. Semantics aside, it’s an idiom of expression that is probably here to stay.


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