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The world’s a digital stage

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on March 22, 2021

New lease: Harkat founders Karan and Michaela Talwar have crafted a virtual and interactive platform

Chat room: Audiences can respond to queries that have been asked by the performers or ask them questions

A year after theatres shut down, artistes are reinventing themselves in the digital world to stay relevant

*Many theatre artistes and dancers were introduced to creative applications of digital technology and performed live to a camera

*The Harkat Virtual Interactive Stage is a simple black box with three digital cameras rigged anywhere on the grid running across the ceiling

*As audiences get used to interacting live with performers from the safety of their home, are they willing to pay the price of a ticket

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The year has proved American philosopher Susanne Langer’s theory that any art movement has three stages. It lives, dies, and is reborn. In her book Feeling and Form, she proposes that all artistes create a virtual world of form that symbolises feeling. The book was written in the 1950s, before the advent of virtual reality in our day to day lives.

March 13 marked the first anniversary of the day when theatres began to shut down worldwide. We have just witnessed the darkest year of performing arts in modern history. However, the performing arts reinvented itself in interesting ways. Many theatre artistes and dancers were introduced to creative applications of digital technology and performed live to a camera. The potential existence of feeling in form through symbols buffered into virtual reality. The spectators watched it live, too, but through the lens of virtuality. This avatar is probably here to stay and live to give birth to something else. There is potential in the new, just as there is perfection in the old. And art movements, knowing or otherwise, have always brought the two worlds together.

As we gear up for real space performances, are theatres preparing themselves for the new? Because there is no return to the old, even if we are safe once again.

Aram Nagar is a variegated enclave in a suburb of Mumbai known for its thriving entertainment industry. Itis probably closest to a fringe theatre area in the country, boasting of at least five performance spaces, all converted from standalone houses. Originally, Aram Nagar was a refugee camp for migrants after the Partition. It serves the arts well, as leases are comparatively affordable, and such bungalows are now a rarity in this city of tall smog-scraping structures. Not surprisingly, the ones to respond to change are from this enclave of fringe theatre spaces. One among them is Harkat, a studio that originally offered an intimate cube of space for performances in the evenings. It doubled as a film production office for its founders Karan Talwar and Michaela Talwar during the day. And this year, Harkat evolved to Harkat Virtual Interactive Stage.

The primary concern of the Talwars was how to retain the interactive, intimate nature of their space once they go online.

“We finally cracked it!” enthuses Michaela. “After one or two (online) visits, the new Harkat will feel again like your neighbourhood space that you can visit with a click of a button. The interface is inspired by the design of the early internet — without any fancy and distracting fluff. We concentrate on the bare minimum of things that would be possible in a ‘real’ theatre: We do not have breakout rooms, because we are not Zoom, but a theatre with only one ‘room’.”

A theatre with only one room is exactly what the old Harkat was if you excluded the restrooms and the tiny but vibrant front yard, which had the audiences chatting and mingling with the performers they had come to see. Can that be replicated or substituted? The restrooms are redundant as the audiences use their own, but the meeting point and social intimacy are now at a grave premium. How do you get that going with your audiences stuck in their own safe bubble? Michaela explains, “There’s a simple chat box which the director and performers can read while the performance is going on. There, audiences can respond to questions that have been asked by the performers or ask them questions. And if words are not enough to express, then the audience can clap (or any other audio or even visual feedback that fits the performance, such as a ‘wah’ or a blinking of a bulb), and the sound of it will be heard on stage by the actors — and even reverb back into the speakers of the audience!”

The Talwars had given me a grand tour of the Harkat VI Stage about a month ago after the government rules on social distancing eased a bit. It is a simple black box with three digital cameras rigged anywhere on the grid running across the ceiling. The sound console and monitor for view-back give it an almost mini-television studio feel but what keeps it firmly in the realm of live performance is the founders’ vision.

“Theatre — like film — works with blocking in a way that leads the audience’s gaze from one actor to another, from a ‘wide’ of the entire action taking on stage, to a small corner. Our camera setup allows this but in different magnifications. The director can switch from a wide-angle to a close-up spontaneously — and hence direct what the audience at home sees, in laser-sharp 4k since we’re using cinema cameras. Admittedly, it’s a new skill which the stage director needs to train herself on, which is why our tech team spends a lot of time rehearsing with the performers to crack this new way of storytelling.”

Now that they have a promising set-up, the content is key. Are there enough theatre practitioners who can write or devise pieces for this new format? At the start of the year, Harkat was lucky to have some support from the Goethe-Institut, and so they commissioned three new works designed from the very beginning for the Harkat VI Stage: A concert, an absurdist movement performance, and a Marathi play. Were they pleased with the response to these? From what Michaela tells me, the plays were received really well. O Gaanewali! was a beautiful concert-based time journey through the history of tawaifs and thumri. The Marathi play Vismay, by Gulmohar Productions, had an exciting premise, one that works beautifully on an interactive platform. A man is lost and can’t find his way back to his village, and the audience helps him find his way back home!

Curating the content they produce puts Harkat at the forefront of experimentation. To me, this is the key to their success. They have a season lined up already of brand new plays, all virtual and interactive. Michaela is enthused about two of their upcoming projects. “Unshared Childhoods is a heartbreakingly beautiful experiment in empathy by Tanvi Shah”. They also have a performance by Mumbai’s theatre star Atul Kumar, a devised piece by Sharmishta Saha called Shadows, exploring the relationship between humans and plants.

As audiences get used to interacting live with performers from the safety of their home, are they willing to pay the price of a ticket? Harkat, for now, relies on institutional support. They have a “pay what you want” philosophy for their online audience. Clearly, this project is driven by passion. The fervour and foresight of its founders as also the talent and courage of the performing groups who are willing to step into the unknown.

Art is infectious. It came from humans and permeated only human sensibilities. Like a virus, it has the ability to mutate in times of adversity growing stronger with each re-birth. Unlike a virus, Art is life-affirming.

Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

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Published on March 22, 2021
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