The play begins, online

PARSHATHY J NATH | Updated on July 10, 2020 Published on July 10, 2020

Sitting ovation: The audience who watched The Little Prince on Zoom cheer the performers after the play   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

As a rampaging virus indefinitely suspends the conventional theatre performance, the digital platform is holding out a lifeline to artistes

* The Red Curtain, a theatre group based in Kolkata, staged their latest production TheLittle Prince on Zoom recently

* Anuja Ghosalkar, artistic director of theatre group Drama Queen, was commissioned to devise a play for the digital space

The world is your audience and Zoom, the video communications app, the stage. The audience mutes their mikes, but not their cameras. When the play begins, spectators — from across the globe — watch it live. Quite like a performance in an auditorium — the standard venue for theatre until a pandemic altered the setting — here too the show starts with a first, second and third bell. In the new-age digital stage, the performers can see the audience before the house lights go down. The audience responds with applause and laughs, there are the odd coughs too. Further, they send in their feedback to the play, communicating through emojis on the chat window. By enabling the participant option, they loop in a friend to watch the show with them and even manage to send one another private chats. The rest of the audience is not privy to these whispers! A virtual theatre performance, in a nutshell.

As a rampaging virus suspends play indefinitely, theatre practitioners are dabbling with new ways to create and showcase their work. At a time when conventional performance venues and methods have shut down, the digital platform is holding out a lifeline to theatre artistes. Many have got on board to find not merely a new grammar of performance, but also a far more democratic space.

The Red Curtain, a theatre group based in Kolkata, staged their latest production TheLittle Prince, which they called a pandemic parable, on Zoom recently. Sumit Lai Roy, thespian and a founder member of the group, stresses the need to find ways to involve the audience in a virtual performance.

Watch it online: The promo for another virtual play from The Red Curtain


“It’s a mistake to not include the audience. Making them visible is crucial to theatre. When you just upload a play on YouTube, you do not get to see the audience or their body language, or have the chance to interact with them. Once the audience is blacked out, they are bound to look at their phones. You are better off engaging them.”

Anuja Ghosalkar, artistic director of the Bengaluru-based theatre group Drama Queen, was commissioned by a news portal to devise a play for the digital space during the lockdown. The piece, For Tomorrow, unfolds like an absurd dream on mobile phones as it flits from birthday celebrations held on Zoom to the stolen glances of lovers.

Once more: Anuja Ghosalkar (top left) and her actors during the rehearsal of For Tomorrow held on Zoom   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT


Devising a performance for the virtual space was challenging, Ghosalkar recalls. “It was not easy to hold the audience’s attention. The piece was to be premiered on Facebook, which is a noisier space than Instagram. I was worried about the noise; my piece is gentle and quiet.” Not knowing the nature of the audience was another challenge. Her play was on a news portal where readers are usually flipping through headlines. “I don’t know if the one watching my work is a person who reads the news or an artiste friend. Finding out my audience was the most difficult part, and then to find out what they were doing as they watched my piece. Are they on their phone or eating? In the theatre we’ve a captive audience. In an online space, I cannot ask them to stop using the phone!” she says.

Stage to screen

While making provisions for audience engagement appears to be the new turn in virtual theatre, quite a few established troupes are making their well-received and critically appreciated plays accessible online. The Madras Players, a 65-year-old theatre group, has been streaming works such as Chudamani, Water, Tughlaq and Madaiah The Cobbler on YouTube since the lockdown. These plays are made available online for a limited time period. “All we could think of was putting out plays that had made a difference. Our plays have garnered at least 200 views online over three days,” says actor-director PC Ramakrishna, who has completed over 50 years in theatre and has been with The Madras Players since 1969. Pune-based Aasakta Kalamanch, founded by Mohit Takalkar, had ventured into the virtual space earlier. It uploaded plays such as Kashmir Kashmir, Maatra Raatra and Garbo for free on YouTube in February, to coincide with its 17th anniversary. Hrishikesh Pujari, actor at Aasakta, notes the increase in viewership during the lockdown. “Many viewers now send us feedback. We had done these plays, which are now online, 10 or 12 years ago. Some people remembered watching these plays in the theatre and now they were watching them online. The actors, too, were happy to again watch the plays that were recorded years ago.”

Early bird: Pune-based Aasakta Kalamanch ventured into the virtual space in February and uploaded plays such as Kashmir Kashmir on YouTube for free   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT


The e-theatre format has democratised viewership as well as the production, believes Roy. “I need just $40 a month to use the Zoom webinar facility. For that fee, I also get a virtual rehearsal space for a month. That’s indeed a meagre amount to pay for a worldwide audience,” Roy observes. Groups such as The Red Curtain have been backed through the lockdown by well-wishers who pitched in financially. Further, they saved on expenses such as on hiring auditoriums and rehearsal spaces. “So far, we’ve had 12 houseful shows. For the interactive play, the house size was set to 50 people. The maximum number of panellists possible in a webinar is 100,” Roy says. But now, when they rope in an actor for a part, they have to ensure he or she has the appropriate equipment to record their performance. “The actor’s camera can dramatically affect the quality of the production. For those who are not technologically equipped, we bear expenses such as data costs.”

Ghosalkar observes that the lockdown has brought the audience straight to her FB page. “Ten years ago, there was no social media. We had to pay almost ₹15,000-20,000 for a newspaper advertisement and I could not afford it. I do not need a theatre anymore. I do not have to flatter a theatre manager and wait for three months to see if he is going to help with booking venues for my show. I can communicate directly with my audience,” Ghosalkar says.

If not for social media and their reserves of optimism, the lockdown would have turned into a dismal situation for the Rangachetana theatre group in Thrissur. Refusing to be bogged down by the lockdown, the group active in the Kerala theatre scene for 40 years decided to shift the stage to their homes. They came up with small plays pegged on contemporary social causes, recorded them on mobile phones and uploaded them on their Facebook page. They have since March uploaded around 115 videos.

The short plays are often set in the terrace, kitchen, living room or the courtyard of an actor’s house and his or her family gets involved in the production. At artistic director KV Ganesh’s house, his wife helps him out with make-up, while the props are material readily available at home. Ganesh brought out all of his mother’s copper utensils tucked away in the house when he had to act as a vendor in a short video. “More than the financial benefits, our virtual presence has been an effective way to let people know that we are very much around; to let them know that we survive on theatre alone. People have responded by calling up to know how I am doing and requesting me to conduct workshops, as that can offer financial possibilities.”

While virtual theatre has not brought in money for the groups, it has given them visibility. Many hope it will open up new opportunities in the future.

Virtual theatre has expanded the horizons of the form. A piece based on Eugene O’Neill’s Before Breakfast wasdevised for the online space by theatre artiste Margi Reji and was performed by actors Pooja Mohanraj and Dileep Chilanka recently. The screen shows the woman seated at a table and venting out her frustration; her husband is an alcoholic and depressed. The man, meanwhile, is shown shaving in the bathroom through a tiny box on the top of the screen.

A new leap

His research, says Reji, showed this kind of work was possible through collaboration, even when the actors were at different places owing to the lockdown. “They had no idea how this was going to come together on screen. I explained the concept and told them to shoot on their phones. There was a good degree of awkwardness because of the lack of communication. But I wanted it that way.”

Ghosalkar observes that working in the digital landscape brings in a certain uncertainty too, and the response to that has been different. “I was collaborating with two theatre actors and two film-makers. Since the film professionals are familiar with the camera, they were used to the uncertainty of technology and medium. Another interesting response was from one of the theatre actors, who wanted to know if he should act with his phone in his hand. As a stage actor, he was always asked to keep his phone out of the rehearsal space. Whereas another actor who used the Zoom app for teaching was excited to see it being used so imaginatively,” she adds.

This is a great chance for new imaginations of theatre, says Ghosalkar. “When the camera, computer and phone come together, the medium of theatre changes. Then, we can no longer perform a play the way we did it in the past.”

Parshathy J Nath is a theatre artiste and writer based in Thrissur

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Published on July 10, 2020
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