Performers bemoan lack of theatre rehearsal spaces in the Capital

Soaking in sweat under ill-maintained fans in poorly lit and not-so-clean environs in Central Delhi’s Gandhi Hundustani Sahitya Sabha, a bunch of young and middle aged actors are rehearsing for a play. A similar exercise is also going on at the Bhartiya Natya Sangh at Shankar Market. But those practicing in the open air space of Pyarelal Bhawan (formerly called the Gandhi Memorial Hall) don’t even have the luxury of fans. Disposable thermocol cups and paper plates indicate food and tea brought possibly from a dhaba close by.

Such scenes are not rare in Delhi or Mumbai, metros that breathe various art forms. The lack of theatre spaces in these metro cities has germinated frustration among thespians. Even the Chairperson of the National School of Drama, Amal Allana, has “to hire a space wherever available” whenever she is working on a play with her own production house, Dramatic Art and Design Academy (DADA).

Few lucky groups who produce plays for the NSD get rehearsal spaces at the NSD premises but other theatre groups have been struggling since decades. Schools, private rooms, roof tops, public parks and even libraries are hired, at times at unusually high prices.

Director M. K Raina, says, “A dedicated space for theatre rehearsals never existed in Delhi. I remember in my younger days, I used to rehearse in the parking lot of the LIC building in Connaught Place. We used to clean it ourselves before rehearsing. I have grown old, but status quo remains.”

Dr. Sayeed Alam of Pierrot's Troupe says “Earlier, I used to rehearse in free space provided by the YMCA but they stopped it. Sometime back Shri Ram Centre offered space, however it could not work out as dialogues from other theatre groups rehearsing in other rooms would mix with our dialogues. We tried rehearsing at the roof top of Shankar Market but during summers we couldn’t. Parking too was a problem. We moved to the CP round-about but there privacy had to be compromised. People would gather to watch, and honking of vehicles would disturb endlessly. Moreover, rehearsals there could be held only during winters.”

So, for eight years Alam has been rehearing at his residence in Sarita Vihar, but it has its disadvantages. “…Family privacy is breached. Moreover, as my practice room is on the ground floor, people gather outside my house trying to peep in, thinking some fight is going on inside… It also disturbs the neighbours.”

Pervez Ahmed, poet, playwright and director known for “Bol Ke Lab Azad Hain Tere”, a play on Faiz Ahmed Faiz, rehearsed for the play at Aiwan-e-Ghalib’s library in ITO. He recalls, “We use to pick up all the chairs and tables, place them outside, practice, and keep them back.”

Also, just any rehearsal space doesn’t give the feel of the real stage. While doing the actual play before audiences, the dynamics change.

“It creates immense technical problems,” says Ahmed. “...we need at least one full dress rehearsal on the actual stage but we don’t get the auditorium even an hour before the performance. It is like not doing net practice but playing the real match.”

For almost 10 years, playwright and director Arvind Gaur had been practicing either under the trees, school lawns, or in places like a room inside Raja Ram Mohan Memorial Hall (ITO), the roof top of Bhartiya Natya Sangh, or the open air space at Pyarelal Bhawan.

Notably, Gaur was “thrown out” from earlier rehearsal spaces because of the nature of his plays. “The owners used to think I was involved in some ‘anti-national’ thing as most of my plays were issue-based or on social awareness.

Now Gaur rehearses in a school which gives its premises for a “nominal charge”. Unfortunately, renting out schools doesn’t come without problems either. School managements give premises only to select theatre groups as it involves risk of security and use of furniture and infrastructure. So, except for a few, most schools in Delhi don’t rent out their space.

What can be done to solve the space crunch? Some spaces in Central Delhi like Rajendra Bhawan, Hindi Bhawan, Bal Bhawan and Aiwan-e-Ghalib could be turned into rehearsal spaces with little investment. Poorva Sanskritic Kendra in East Delhi is the only venue given out free of cost.

Some suggest private organisations should invest in building a rehearsal complex for performing arts, with sound proof rooms, guest houses, canteens -- a multiplex for theatre. “What they have done for the films, they should do for theatre now,” asserts Alam. Ahmed feels the government can fund some spaces. Actor, writer Tom Alter however, is not in favour of government help. He says, “Space can always be found, with a little creative thought. It is not easy, but that makes it more exciting. Peoples' houses are the best spaces for initial rehearsals and nearer the show halls themselves should provide rehearsal space at reduced rates.”