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Theatre of life; Act 2020

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on December 31, 2020

Ctrl Shift: Y2K20 was not just a thorn in the flesh, but also a prompt to reflect, reinvent and recreate   -  REUTERS/ LEE SMITH

For a form of art that is so dependent on human interaction and collaboration, theatre this year has been tested like never before. What have its practitioners learnt from the experience?

* Y2K20 taught me many things: I don’t need to step out of home to travel. If I am not travelling in space, I am travelling in time for sure. Any travel brings about change and the least expected of journeys is transformative

* Same Boat Theater recently had an online festival of new plays, in which my short play Untouchable was performed. Y2K20 has given Kang a resolve to devote time to her own writing and produce theatre for her newly founded company

* The next year will see Stepf take a sabbatical. While on it, she will contemplate “the necessity of live performance and our role as theatre-makers in this new world”. Her plans for the next couple of years include Zoom theatre

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Year 2020 is a perfect candidate as an index for everything likely to follow in the rest of the century. Call it Y2K20, if you will. In the decades to come, we will look back and talk about the things we did or didn’t do this year.

I, for one, have never spent a whole year at home without travelling to distant lands. Whether it is for holiday or work, packing my bags, moving my passport to the top drawer a day before that red-eye flight, digging into my box of bits and bobs for foreign currency, adjusting to time differences a week in advance — it was all a part of the rhythm of life year after year. Y2K20 taught me many things: I don’t need to step out of home to travel. If I am not travelling in space, I am travelling in time for sure. Any travel brings about change and the least expected of journeys is transformative.

To find out how some of my theatre colleagues across the globe fared, I reached out to them. These are artistes I have access to — either as collaborators or simply theatre-makers whose work I have seen and admired. They are also theatre practitioners who work across borders; people used to traversing cultures, using surprises around the corner as grist to their creative mills.

I first met Michael Walling some 26 years ago when he directed Romeo and Juliet in Portland, Oregon, where I taught many summers on an exchange programme. During an extended stopover in London, I literally bumped into him at a theatre conference on my way back home to India, and then we exchanged addresses. Since then, we have collaborated on projects, seen each other’s work, and laughed at our own cultural idiosyncrasies. Walling is the artistic director of Border Crossings in the UK, a theatre company that has indeed crossed borders. His company was lucky enough to have a stage performance this year titled The Great Experiment. It dealt with the indentured labour migrations from India after slavery was abolished in the British empire.

What Border Crossing couldn’t see through as originally planned was a live showcase of Arctic cultures for the British Museum. Called Magnetic North, this was meant to have been a part of ORIGINS, a biennial festival which creates a space in London for indigenous people to share their cultures and heritage. But Magnetic North did go online.

The format, however, had to change. To quote Walling from an interview in CentreStage, a blog on theatre, “We’re not able to gather our audience in the Museum space, and we’re not able to fly artists from around the world. What (online) audiences will hear is a constant musical heartbeat offered by the band VASSVIK from the Museum, together with two amazing artists of Inughuit heritage. Everyone else will be joining remotely. What audiences will see is a blend of live performance in the Museum, remote performers, and pre-recorded footage from the Arctic.” This re-inventing of performance may inspire Border Crossings to do more such work post-pandemic, finding ways of blending live and streamed work.

Lisa Kang is a playwright, actor and educator and the founder of Same Boat Theater Collective, an “environmental justice” theatre company based in San Francisco. Same Boat Theater recently had an online festival of new plays, in which my short play Untouchable was performed. Y2K20 has given Kang a resolve to devote time to her own writing and produce theatre for her newly founded company. “As a producer, I’m going to do my best to build an ecosystem of storytelling,” she says.

Kang was planning to do shows in San Francisco, but those plans went awry. “Instead, I ended up doing two global shows online for the company.” What has she gained from the year that veered by? “Online producing has introduced me to many fascinating people around the world whom I would not have met otherwise. I hope to continue collaborating with them. I’m trying my best to use the pain, disappointment, anger, anxiety, and grief over the events that unfolded in the past year to both deepen my work and impel me to create works as an activist as well as an artist.”

I met Sophia Stepf at a gathering organised by the Max Mueller Bhavan in Chennai about a decade ago. A year or so after that, I saw her devised piece C sharp C Blunt in Mumbai, a refreshing solo performance on the artificial construction of femininity, employing live sound, music and audience-generated moods to describe the female singing voice. Stepf is a theatre director, dramaturge and curator based in Berlin who frequently works in India. The next year will see her take a sabbatical. While on it, she will contemplate “the necessity of live performance and our role as theatre-makers in this new world.” Her plans for the next couple of years include Zoom theatre.

For Stepf, the year that hammered through turned out to be quite a productive one. “I made video-theatre for the first time in my life. I also adapted a performance to hygiene rules and opened this show directly after three months of lockdown, which was magic. I opened another show four days before the second lockdown, and those shows were also magic. I also started permaculture (holistic systems) and grew some of my own food, inspired by Deepak Chopra’s 21 Day Abundant Meditation,” she says.

To all three of these dynamic artists who cared enough to respond to my questions, Y2K20 was not just a thorn in the flesh, but a prompt to reflect, reinvent and recreate. Traditionally, theatre imitates the ecosystem of life, but in this case, it may do well for society to mirror art.

Walling sums up beautifully when asked what he hopes for once we see the back of the pandemic. “That we don’t go back to ‘normal’ because ‘normal’ was the problem in the first place. We have to put the chimaera of ‘success’ behind us. We don’t need more successful people consuming vast amounts of material wealth. What we need now are the healers, the carers, the peacemakers, the storytellers, the prophets, and the poets. We need people who can live well in their place, and who can understand that way of living as it connects to other places and other people across the globe. The current moment is an extraordinary opportunity, and we can’t afford to miss it.”

MAHESH DATTANI   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

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Published on December 31, 2020
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