Raising funds, attracting audiences, finding venues… these were the focus of a symposium held as part of The Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Fest 2011

“All of us who work in India have multiple horror stories. We also have miracles and stories of wonder,” said the unfailingly upbeat Arshia Sattar, adding, “theatre has survived, despite everything.”

Moderator of a symposium on ‘Keeping theatre alive', held at the Goethe Institut as part of The Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Festival, Sattar, who has twice served on the MetroPlus Playwright Award jury, writes about and teaches classical Indian literature in colleges across the country. She opened the discussion, stating Indian theatre needs more “money, venues, training schools and, of course, plays.” Earlier, Karl Pechatscheck, director, Goethe Institut, welcomed the gathering.

An obsession

Actor-director Kirtana Kumar from Bangalore, who runs Little Jasmine, Theatre Lab and Infinite Souls (a rural artists' retreat), opened with, “I'm the most unviable thing imaginable. When I began 30 years ago, viability was not even an option. It was just madness and obsession that worked. They were decisions of love.” She said, “As an artist I need to be untouched by the responsibility of developing an audience. That's the theatre, or an institution's responsibility.” Yet, she added, “It's partly survival instinct — we're teaching children, hopefully they'll grow into audiences. I also started an artist's residency, Infinite Souls. We find a balance between funded projects and those that sustain themselves.”

Joerg Esleben, an associate professor of German in Ottawa, who does research on intercultural theatre and is currently researching the work of East German theatre director Fritz Bennewitz in India, spoke of how Bennewitz worked out an interesting aesthetic of intercultural theatre. “He wrote of the difficulty of keeping folk theatre alive… the impact of film industry. Even in the 1970s Bollywood was taking audiences away and influencing acting techniques.

Commenting on the absence of state-funded theatre in India, he said, “In Germany we are very privileged to have a wealth of state-funded theatres, not just in big cities such as Berlin, but also small towns. However, public-funded theatre in Germany is now under threat due to cutbacks in public funding.”

Award-winning theatre director and screenplay writer Akarsh Khurana from Mumbai-based Akvarious Productions said, “We've gone through the whole rigmarole: rejections, sponsors, making compromises, struggling to make ends meet.” Then in 2008, he said things began to look up. “We performed eight plays, of which four supported themselves and thought, “Ok. There's a future here.” However, he said, “We're looking constantly for new venues — gardens, seaside amphitheatres, terraces, dining rooms.” He concluded that the solution is finding new venues and audiences. They had a successful performance in Bareilly, for instance, and did about 20 shows at The Comedy Store in Mumbai. “We have now done more than 100 shows in the last three years. This has moved from a hobby to my full-time profession.”

Different approach

Ruwanthie de Chickera, a playwright and theatre director from Sri Lanka, said “We have a completely different approach in Sri Lanka.” She added, “My two brothers and I started creating plays years ago. We did quite well but Sri Lanka is a small country, and after 10 shows you've exhausted your audiences.”

She added, “We learn to exploit our own limitations. For instance, the censor board, which has been dormant for ages has suddenly woken up and is creating a new dynamic.” So, she said, they find innovative ways to express themselves, “We use verbatim theatre, quoting people. So we don't take responsibility for the words, just their structure. We don't sell tickets, so we don't have to submit our scripts to the censor board. People can make contributions. Audiences enjoy it. People feel by participating they're being subversive. Which is great. Theatre should be subversive.”

While discussing remedies, Sunil Vishnu from evam spoke about the need for arts management in India to make theatre more economically viable. Prashant Prakash of Quaff Theatre inadvertently summed up the evening's theme with his comment. “Theatre is all I do. I don't do too much of it. I don't do enough of it. I have just Rs. 300 in my bank account. But this is what I do.”

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Arts, Entertainment & EventsMay 14, 2012