With March 27 being World Theatre Day, Yashasvini Rajeshwar takes a look at theatre scene in the city and finds it flooded with youngsters, both on stage and in the audience.

“All the world’s a stage,

All the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts”

William Shakespeare’s famous lines from As You Like It (Scene 2, Act 7) have gone down in literary history as some of the best lines from English drama. They are oft quoted, amply referenced and have found their way into common parlance. Over the years, the stage has evolved, actors have grown and the era of Shakespearean drama has metamorphosised many times over. Yet, come March 27 every year and the world joins hands in the celebration of this stage. Established in 1962 by the International Theatre Institution, it marks a day dedicated to the commemoration of theatre, drama and what it takes to be on stage.

In my city

When it comes to festivities, Chennai cannot be far behind! The air is filled with excitement as various shows take the stage and drama comes to the forefront of entertainment. It goes without saying that theatre in Chennai is intrinsically linked to the twenty-somethings. Young, daring and eager to push the boundaries, the industry is characterised by the youth who participate with much fervour and aplomb.

Youth theatre in Chennai has improved tremendously in the last decade. Not only are more youngsters taking to acting but even the average age of the audience has dropped significantly, redefining the theatre experience itself. “Five years ago, the audiences comprised largely of friends and family. Today, more and more people are reading about drama and walking in.” muses Tanvi Patel of Crea-Shakthi, a youth theatre group. “Even crew members are recognised these days! And we are barely ever on stage!” exclaims her teammate, Smita Vanniyar. Apart from encouraging talent on stage, this increasing popularity has a number of other effects. As Karthik Kumar, co-founder of evam Entertainment explains, “Theatre is by far the most accessible medium for creative expression. Even for young entrepreneurs, it is a great industry to launch their innovative business ideas.”

The reasons for this trend are many. Nayantara Nayar, Artistic Director at Crea-Shakthi, explains the cycle. “Audiences are students and hence, plays are influenced by their taste. This makes theatre more popular and they keep coming back for more!” According to Karthik, this is also because of “the presence of organisations like evam which present a hopeful, profitable picture”. Schools across the city are actively interested in promoting drama amongst their students, exposing scores of children to the joy of the stage and role-playing much before they make the jump to formal theatre performances!

Gone are the days when drama was considered a wayward hobby of a few. Today, Krishnakumar Balasubramanian, Artistic Director of The Little Theatre voices a popular opinion when he says “theatre is essential to an individual’s overall wellbeing. It helps build a holistic personality.” This is also aided by the absence of too many entry barriers in the industry, a marked difference between theatre and cinema.

Young artists seem to be the directors’ dream. Malleable, uninhibited and willing to learn, the environment becomes more stimulating for everyone involved. In the words of Krishnakumar, “They do not carry any baggage and if there is some time available, student casts are the best to work with!” With young organisations sprouting up all over the country, experimental theatre is taking the nation by storm. A theatre fraternity is being created.

More practically, however, there still remain potholes to be filled and barriers to be crossed before considering the industry as a lucrative career option. Ask Tanvi and Nayantara how feasible full-time theatre is, they laugh, offering only a nervous “we’ll find out soon.” According to Prateek Prajosh, also from Crea-Shakthi though, what is needed is an innovative business model. Despite the wary optimists, however, Krishnakumar seems to represent popular opinion. “The term ‘theatre people’ refers to a whole range of professions. For those working on lights and sets, for example, theatre is not the only option. Actors, however, have it a little harder and as the scene is today, living off a career in acting is a little difficult. Theatre is an industry based on human resources and so, this is a problem all over the world.” Mangai, a theatre activist and professor agrees, adding that sponsorship and funding is particularly hard for vernacular drama.

Language, no bar

Chennai is an anomaly with respect to vernacular drama. With theatre in most other cities being dominated by the regional language (English is catching up in the metros), Chennai is perhaps the only city where Tamil theatre barely has any share in the market. “There are no contests at the campus level and Tamil theatre is not considered an investment for skill building. It is a very specific problem.” says A Mangai, who also directed a play in Tamil (Maunak-Kuram, hosted by Stella Maris College) using an all student cast.

The path of theatre is by no means smooth. Whether in English or Tamil, the road is fraught with challenges of various kinds. For Mangai, the lack of English translations of Tamil plays is astounding. “Even the likes of Girish Karnad wrote in the vernacular! Accessibility for Tamil theatre is so poor” she worries. The young actors at Crea-Shakthi speak out against uncooperative audiences with “cell phones ringing being the cardinal sin” according to Kavya Srinivasan.

However, the magnitude of change that the industry is undergoing is unbelievable. The excitement is evident in Krishnakumar’s voice when he comments on the new trend emerging. “People are beginning to create their own pieces! Performing culture-specific pieces is such an important progression!”

The general air around Chennai’s young theatre fraternity is one of optimism and hope. “As long as you are interested, people will find you” the actors at Crea-Shakthi believe. Karthik is all for new talent flooding the scene. “For those who are serious about getting into theatre and entering the market, there is nothing to stop them.” Krishnakumar stressed on the importance of widening one’s horizons. “Language is not a barrier at all. Travel. Gain perspective. Scout out a troupe. Lose inhibitions. It will all be okay,” he signs off.

If the infectious enthusiasm is anything to go by, Chennai and its theatre-enthusiast youngsters are fast on their way to agreeing with Oscar Wilde when he says “I regard theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

World Theatre Day special

@ TN Rajaratnam Auditorium

No 92 A , Durga BAI Deshmukh Road,

Opp To MGR Janaki College, (Near Andhra Mahila Sabha) RA Puram.

When: March 23

Time: 18:30 p.m.

Blithe Spirit, supernatural comedy by Noel Coward. Produced by Crea-Shakthi and Directed by Tanvi Patel,