Caught in the act

Niharika Mallimadugula  | Updated on January 23, 2018
Aruna Ganeshram’s Re:Play explores mythology, history and current affairs through traditional Indian games.

Aruna Ganeshram’s Re:Play explores mythology, history and current affairs through traditional Indian games.

Everyone plays a part Immersive opera Clive & Other Stories, designed by Nayantara Kotian. Photo: Andreas Grieger

Everyone plays a part Immersive opera Clive & Other Stories, designed by Nayantara Kotian. Photo: Andreas Grieger

An opera called Clive & Other Stories designed by Nayantara

Audience meld into the cast, as immersive theatre comes to a cafe, a home, even a garage near you

A photograph is a moment captured, a fragment of the past relived. The memory of it, however, is often hazy — what led to it, what happened then, what happened afterwards? Is there a story behind every picture?

In 2013, theatre director and designer Aruna Ganeshram created a play titled Visual Respiration, which aimed to bring still images to life. “We took a bunch of photographs and projected them onto our bodies, and we told the stories of those photographs, converting the digital to analogue,” she says. It took the audience on a journey across countries, streets and spaces, immersed in not just the sights and sounds but also smell, taste and touch. “That is when the idea of immersive theatre happened,” says Ganeshram.

Breaking the fourth wall

Blurring the lines between performer and spectator, immersive theatre is pushing the boundaries of innovation. Locating performances in spaces ranging from cafes and homes to garages, this format co-opts the audiences. With no concept of a stage either, the old theatrical contract is broken.

“Immersive theatre combines the realism of film, the liveness of theatre and the interactivity of gaming. The audience have the agency to choose their own narrative, and hence they are participants in control. This aspect is very empowering,” says Nayantara Kotian, who is currently seeking crowdfunding for her sci-fi immersive play Bliss of Solitude.

Making the observation that in life we transform slowly, not suddenly, Amitesh Grover, assistant professor at the National School of Drama, invites people to immerse themselves fully into the time-expansive events he creates. “Think of a long-term relationship or romantic love, and how that is different from a single date. That is the difference between watching theatre for an hour, or immersing yourself in a daylong, nightlong, or month-long piece of alternative reality.”

That includes the use of realistic space and design, as well as multi-sensory elements. The audience gets to decide the course of the performance and the interpretation, becoming co-creators in the process. In Ganeshram’s Re:Play, for instance, themes from Indian mythology, history and contemporary events were explored through traditional Indian games such as Lagori (seven stones) and Paramapadam (snakes and ladders). At different points, the audience became players.

“For some, the play triggered pure nostalgia, for others it was about power-play and bureaucracy. Some also interpreted it as the bigger game of politics where citizens are pawns,” says the director. Grover seconds this: “When people with different backgrounds, histories and prejudices participate, an experience is created in which there are multiple narratives, collisions of philosophies, impassioned claims being made on versions of truth,” he says.

Theatre of possibilities

Immersive theatre also presents a radical alternative to traditional proscenium theatre, which, apart from having a passive audience, can also be classist.

“In a proscenium setup, more money means a front-row seat. Lesser, and you are pushed to the balcony. There is a politics behind immersive theatre: you treat your audience equally. There is no need to put the performer on a higher pedestal either,” says Deepan Sivaraman, director and scenographer, who is adapting Portuguese writer Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness in the immersive format. The story has people in a town slowly losing sight from an unknown disease. The audience will be blindfolded for most of the play, experiencing it through their other senses. They will also be guided by the performers. “Blindness is not just about not being able to see; it has a deeper philosophical relevance, which the play will bring out,” he explains.

While several immersive productions have leaned towards a political-philosophical exploration of contemporary society, Kotian taps into her childhood fascination with science fiction. “There is a myth that science fiction is ‘unstageable’ because it calls for too great a suspension of disbelief from the viewer. Audiences, acclimatised to the visual effects of films, expect that from sci-fi theatre as well. Immersive makes this possible to a great extent,” she says.

Sivaraman, on the other hand, strongly believes that “theatre is the kind of place where you re-look life, and when life is performed, it needs to be as experiential as possible. Illusionist theatre might amaze you, like magic. But life is not magic, it’s real.”

While the templates for inspiration are many, the desired outcome is always a fascinating experience. Just the right amount of magic to keep it both real and exciting.

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Published on April 10, 2015
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