What draws crowds to plays that have been staged for years? Why haven’t local troupes caught up with technology yet? Where are the gen-next playwrights and actors? Lakshmi Krupa on the Tamil theatre scene in the city

‘Crazy’ Mohan’s Chocolate Krishna still runs to packed houses across the country (and in the U.S.). The last count stands at 600 shows. Y. Gee. Mahendra has completed over 50 years on stage and his troupe UAA (United Amateur Artists) has performed plays such as Vietnam Veedu, Swadeshi Iyer, Kathalikka Neramundu and Ragasyam Parama Ragasyam countless times. S.Ve. Shekar’s Periya Thambi, Alwaa, 1,000 Udhai Vaangiya Aboorva Sigamani... are all available as MP3s and videos and even back in the days of good old cassettes Shekar carved a niche for himself. Yet, recently, his troupe performed two plays on the same day at different venues — back to back. In these plays, even today, sets are incidental — most often they are just screens and the actors use standing microphones — they speak their dialogue into the mic, while standing. Due to this logistical issue, often only non-speaking characters walk. Still, over weekends, sabha halls fill up with fans and ticket queues are only growing. It is almost a mystery how these playwrights have kept their audiences hooked with nothing but wit.

Life is full of humour

“Many in the audience even know the dialogues. What they look forward to is the improvisations I make. Even my crew waits to see which social issue I will comment on in each play,” says Shekar. ‘Crazy’ Mohan, though, works on a different level. “You know how people read Vishnu and Lalitha Sahasranamam in the morning everyday?” he asks, and goes on to add, “I read P.G. Wodehouse, Kalki and Bhagyam Ramaswamy every morning.” Mohan believes that whatever he reads gets registered at a subconscious level and contributes to his writing and speaking skills. “The trick is to understand that life is full of humour. Nothing is serious, except maybe death and taxes,” he laughs, giving a humorous spin to Benjamin Franklin’s observation.

A strong storyline and natural performances go a long way, according to Y. Gee. Mahendra. His troupe also improvises a lot on the script during rehearsals. Plays with stories that are not time-bound or seasonal are able to withstand the test of time, believes Mahendra. “Of course, we have also been fortunate to get very good artistes,” he adds.

The artistes are aware of the technological lag in these plays but attribute several reasons for the same. “Technology can be bought. It’s a question of outsourcing it to someone, but the biggest problem is cost,” says Mohan. “Since we are a dialogue-oriented production house, it has never hurt us,” he adds. Mohan has taken his plays to several school and college auditoriums in the U.S., where the halls are huge and he has had to draw the curtains on the stage to make them smaller and keep the audience engaged. He believes that good humour can keep the crowds coming in — even if the setting isn’t the best.

What is striking is that the standing mics and basic sets are not just a thing with older groups but even newer ones. Chennai Drama House, a young spunky team that is slowly making a name for itself in the Tamil drama scene, too faces similar challenges. “Our genre of theatre focuses on dialogues and not the setting,” says Karthik Bhatt of the group. He too rues that revenue is a big hindrance. “We are definitely looking at adding collar microphones and upgrading ourselves, but that will have to wait until we are big enough to feel assured that we can spend on things like this.”

Shekar’s approach to the issue is practical. “First there’s the cost factor. Second, many a time collar mics amplify noise caused by jewellery and costume. In plays that are so dialogue-oriented we want everyone to hear what we are saying and of course, see us clearly. That’s our concern. Theatre is not a very remunerative field. In the past, it was a gateway to Kollywood. Today, television does that. For people like me, drama acts as a pedestal to showcase our passion,” he says.

Mahendra chips in, “Modern technology is welcome but gimmicks alone cannot sustain a play. Technology can add sheen to a play but nothing can take the place of a good story, powerful dialogues and good performances.”

“Our audience is smaller, unlike say for television where lakhs of people watch and there is enough investment for technology,” Shekar says. Commenting on the crowds at plays today, Mohan says, “Earlier if a play was successful, we would do 200 shows. Today we have done 600 shows of Chocolate Krishna here and abroad. Drama is not dying. On the contrary, people are willing to come and watch something over and over again, provided you rise up to the standards they expect.”

Promising future

The future does look promising with groups such as Shraddha Theatre People that is willing to invest in good scripts. “We do only four plays in a year. One every quarter,” says T.D. Sundararajan of the group. In the past, Shraddha has been the force behind a play that unravels during the tsunami in Dhanushkodi, a historical play on Manickavasagar and an espionage thriller. “If the play needs technical assistance we are willing to go the whole hog. For the tsunami play, we created rain effects on the stage for an entire hour. We only help with the logistics; the director takes the call once we accept a script. In fact, we welcome good Tamil scripts from anyone and are willing to invest in these plays because we want to do something for Tamil theatre,” he adds.

According to Mohan, “There are a number of troupes today. But what we need are good writers. I am not saying everyone should write humour. There will again come a day when audiences will appreciate serious theatre more and then even the likes of Mohan will have to write on serious issues,” he adds earnestly.