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The show goes on, with masks

By Prachi Sibal

As we noted in Part One, some theatres, comedy clubs, and other performance venues have opened with abundant caution, restricting audiences to 50% of house capacity and insisting they be masked, and auditoriums sanitised between shows. For performer safety, even microphones are being sanitised between uses. The costs of these protocols are high, discouraging several smaller and alternate venues from reopening, but with those who have, there is a sense of optimism.

Sanitised applause

“We clapped when the lights came on,” says Saloni Shukla, an audience member at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre on the 5th November, when for the first time since lockdown, it welcomed a live audience. She describes the experience as a surreal one. “There was so much happiness when the bells went off. We haven’t heard them in months.” The invite-only event — incidentally Prithvi Theatre’s 42nd anniversary — saw theatre artistes get together to celebrate the return of live entertainment. They spoke of the ‘ghost light’ that kept the stage illuminated even as the rest of them stayed switched off for months. Was there a downer? Shukla remembers that audience reactions seemed muffled behind masks. Actors we spoke to all mentioned missing the backstage greetings at the end of every show, but for now they are happy to be back on a real stage.

Pallavi Mishra and her husband have been super-careful through lockdown because they were meeting their parents often. They had just begun to socialise, and also attended a play at Prithvi, a Motley production. “Our only fear was that it was a closed room,” she says. “The protocol was in place with temperature checks, sanitisers, blockades for every party to ensure social distancing and security staff doing rounds to make sure every unit was distanced. Perhaps the only disappointment was in the lack of social distancing in the queues outside and the few people taking off their masks mid-performance. I would go back but for work that I am familiar with and want to watch. I wouldn’t experiment with new work at this point”.

In Bengaluru, Aaron Fernandes, an entertainment entrepreneur, attended a dance performance by Rukmini Vijayakumar at the Bangalore International Centre in early January. “People were excited and there seemed to be no hesitation in attending a live performance,” he says. “The audience was masked, there were temperature checks and the door was kept open for some part of the performance. Every person was advised to stick to their groups. I am happy with the guidelines and would go back for more performances.”

No screens between

Kajol Srinivasan, stand-up comic, has been doing shows at Mumbai comedy rooms like Cat Cafe, Integral Space and Comedy Ladder, to audiences of eight to ten people, initially weekend-only gigs, but since mid-December, she’s been doing weekdays too. “I’ve spent the last 15 months performing on Zoom for corporate and other audiences,” she says. “It felt great right until the time I went back on stage last month: nothing compares to performing to a room full of people. Hell, I’d take performing live for two people over a show on Zoom that has many more.”

What has changed over these locked-down months? “My memory has weakened while performing from home,” Srinivasan says. “I now need sequence cards in my hand. Not all is bad though. Without the laughter we are so used to, Zoom, I believe, has made us stronger performers. We no longer depend on audience reactions. The audience is also less jaded and no longer takes the performer for granted. That they have made an effort to come for a gig shows.”

“Performances are not the same. After all, everything depends on the crowd,” says Prabhtoj Singh, Delhi-based musician. His band, The Copy Cats and Panic, began performing live again in September; the crowd, he tells us, has come a long way since. “It began with as few as seven or eight people in September to many more showing up in the festive season. People continue to cheer and clap. They are more fearless than you think when coming out. I remember some dancing at a few gigs, too.”

Performing to a smaller audience, while discouraging initially, has an up-side, he says: he has grown as a musician. “When the venue is full, you are bound to play popular songs to please everyone. Smaller crowds made me more open to trying new things. I’ve transitioned from jazz to other experiments.” But earnings have remained low. “There has been as much as a 50% cut-back on payments to musicians. Practically, that means we are having to do many more shows for the same amount of money.”

Mumbai-based Akvarious Productions, which celebrated its 20th anniversary at Prithvi Theatre in December with a performance of Dekh Behen, has had similar experiences. “Even at the highest, which is 50% occupancy, it is not possible to make your money back,” says Akarsh Khurana, founder. “At the beginning of the year, we had great plans for the anniversary. Come December, just being able to perform was celebration enough.” Preparing for the show did feel different. Actors were put through COVID-19 tests before rehearsal, strict protocols were followed in rehearsal spaces, precautions were taken with providing food, make-up artists wore gloves, masks and shields. Measures were also taken to avoid crowding of actors and backstage members. Even minor script changes were made: two actors were supposed to share a cigarette, but the scene was written out.

But performing, even with production crew and audiences in masks and socially-distanced seating didn’t feel very odd, he says, but he noticed that actors took some time to get back in rhythm on the stage. “It took 15 minutes on an average but the acclimatisation was easy to see and explain.” And, perhaps most reassuring, despite their being behind masks, he says audience reactions were easy to sense.

Towards better times

Shortage of conveyance and the recent night curfews in metro cities have added to the challenges. “We have to arrange shared cars for in-house staff,” says Zahan Kapoor of Prithvi Theatre. “With the curfews, we’ve even had a limited number of staff members staying back at the venue to get the shows up and running in time for the next day.” He believes some of the new measures could become permanent features at the theatre, like paperless ticketing, organised entry and reservations at the café.

The response to live entertainment, according to the performers and venue managers across India who Culture Wire spoke to, has been encouraging, if not overwhelming. In Mumbai, where cinema theatres have reported low footfall, theatre and comedy venues filling up may is a strong reminder of their relevance. “There is genuine joy and thrill in the audience,” Kapoor says. “These collective experiences cannot be recreated at home.”

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