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Performance venues are cautiously reopening all over India, but the journey ahead isn’t easy

By Prachi Sibal

In lockdown, performance venues were forced to shut shop with no other source of revenue. So when the Ministry of Home Affairs, in October, issued standard operating procedures (SOPs) for theatres, and state governments allowed cinemas and other cultural venues to resume operations (with caveats including a 50% occupancy ceiling and mandatory masks), it came as a huge relief. The weeks since have seen several venues across the country slowly opening up for physical performances.

Hospitality shows the way

F&B venues were allowed to open earlier, and those that host live entertainment shows showed the way.

Mumbai’s The Habitat and Above the Habitat opened their doors to comedy shows early in November with less than 50% capacity, and with the distance between the stage and the audience increased from seven feet to 12. In addition, says Balraj Singh Ghai, owner and founder, “There is a minimum 60- to 90-minute gap between two shows for sanitising the auditorium, with a thorough wipe-down of objects including the microphone.” They have also been discouraging walk-ins and calling every ticket holder in advance to ensure there is no recent travel history. “We have also had comedians volunteering to take COVID tests since they are the only ones without a mask in the space.”

In the NCR, The Piano Man Jazz Club has been hosting gigs at their New Delhi and Gurgaon outlets, all following the Ministry’s SoPs, with a restriction on queues outside and sanitised microphones. Founder Arjun Sagar Gupta says, “We have the same pattern of attendance, more on weekends than on weekdays, except it is at one-third the usual capacity.” There is and santisation of microphones for artistes. All with 150 gigs so far have been unticketed, Gupta says, and no major decisions on ticketing will be taken until a vaccine arrives.

Tentative openings

Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre reopened on November 15 with the play Udayswar, followed by four days of performances of Motley Theatre Group’s Einstein. Programming for the following months, they say, will continue, following government guidelines. “The theatre is sanitised before and after every show,” says Kunal Kapoor, trustee, “with UVC lamps, seats wiped down and fogging. Any audience members not complying with the guidelines is asked to leave the premises, he says.

In Hyderabad, the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation hosted their annual festival following protocols, and shortened from a week-long festival to four days across two venues. Noor Baig, playwright and vice president of the foundation, says, “Most shows were either solos or made up of a two-member cast, except the home production. Local technical staff was provided.” Performers were required to take COVID tests, he says, aside from the other safety requirements.

The Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts and Research at Auroville will host its regular festival marking founder Veenapani Chawla’s birth anniversary, but instead of a non-stop festival of theatre and performing arts, there will be limited occupancy, socially distanced shows on weekends only, from April to September 2021. This month, they restarted their popular residential acting workshops, but at half-capacity. In addition, says Nimmy Raphel, artist at Adishakti, “All participants are required to take an RT-PCR test before arrival and rooms are sanitised. No staff is allowed to enter the rooms.” Bengaluru’s Jagriti plans to reopen on 5th January with a series of monologues written by Gautam Raja and produced in-house. “The protocol will depend on the new regulations that are in place at the time and those in line with the cycle of the pandemic itself”, says Rebecca Spurgeon, Artistic Director. Looking ahead, she says, “It may not be possible to host ten shows of a performance. It may not be possible for audiences to meet the performers outside the green room. There is still a lot we don’t know.”

Pune-based alternative space The Box had planned to transform an unused industrial shed into a black box theatre, the city’s first. “We started work on it and the pandemic hit,” says Rupali Bhave, partner. They put their plans of an outdoor gallery and a museum of theatre objects on hold, and rented out the space for shoots and photography. On 5th November, The Box welcomed its first audience members for a play; there were no paper tickets, bags were sprayed, and volunteer intervention available at every stage.

Veda Factory in Mumbai opened for rehearsals and workshops in early November with all precautions in place. “If we start now, it will take a couple of months for regular programming to resume,” says Sampat Singh Rathore, founder. “Major events will only take place starting January. We are only receiving tentative bookings at the moment.” They are also toying with the idea of living streaming from the venue, he says.

In Ahmedabad, Conflictorium opened its doors to visitors in August — with registration online in advance — but does not plan to reopen its performance space anytime soon. Avni Sethi, founder-director, says, “This goes against the core of the open space we set out to build but is the need of the hour.”

Business not as usual

Studio Safdar, an alternative space in Delhi, is renting out is premises. “We have no public programming at the moment,” says Sudhanva Deshpande, founder. “We allow people in batches of ten or less for shoots, spaced six hours apart with sanitising and mask protocols in place.”

It’s a model others are also following, but some venues are exploring new ways to accommodate their audiences.

Bangalore International Centre (BIC) reopened at one-third capacity earlier this month, with dance and music performances (but avoiding live singing and wind instruments). “COVID tests are encouraged for the speakers but not mandated,” says V Ravichandar, honorary director. At the time of this writing, BIC was getting ready for a truncated version of the Bangalore Lit Fest on 13th and 14th December, with a hybrid model: 30 to 40 people attending physically while others join in via web conferencing.

Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru also tried a new model for its annual theatre festival in October. Founder Arundhati Nag says, “We tried recorded shows, live streaming, and a combination of the two with performers being pulled in from various locations. There were also rehearsed readings in the foyer that were attended physically but with socially-distanced seating and masks.” The theatre will open its doors for physical audiences on 25th December, she says. “We are trying to show plays with limited cast members something that has always been a challenge in Karnataka with its legacy of large casts in theatre.”

Sharing learning

Bangalore Collective of Spaces is an informal group of 15 arts and culture non-profits, F&B outlets and others that came together initially in April to approach the state government for relief from fixed electricity charges. It has since evolved into a space for knowledge sharing, meeting once a month to share their reopening experiences. It has also aided the pooling of resources and spaces to be able to host joint events. This, perhaps, is the way forward for the entire sector: exchanging knowledge and experience gained.


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