Chennai’s theatre scene is increasingly being powered by college-goers who are as enthusiastic about the art as they are hopeful about its future.

The meeting was on the first floor of a rather obscure building in Adyar. As I entered, I could hear larger than life voices mouthing theatrical dialogue against the background of what sounded like the strains of a violin. A makeshift set, a laptop, and a dozen young artists had converted what used to be an apartment into a stage and performing with such conviction that you could have sworn they were on Broadway.

This entire scenario with sets and props and dialogues is becoming increasingly popular in the city. Youth theatre is on the rise, especially in college campuses where students are coming together to put up annual productions and hone their talent.

Dramatic movement

Not too long ago, plays were extended parties where the who’s who of the city hobnobbed amongst themselves, clad in boutique apparel and just the right amount of jewellery. Fast forward to today, and there is a vibrant campus theatre movement emerging.

In the three to four years of undergraduate education that students receive, they will almost definitely be exposed to theatre in one way or the other. Some act, others produce and scores of others comprise the much needed audience, without whom the actors will quite literally be talking to the walls.

Ask around what drove this shift in trend and the range of responses from individual action to institutional changes is surprising. Rahul of Sri Venkateswara College of Engineering is a firm believer in the power of educational institutions.

“Colleges scout talent for their respective drama clubs,” he says. “Apart from that, there is also a culture of social activity on most campuses that draws people into participating in theatre.”

Vignesh from SSN College of Engineering adds to the institutional angle by crediting organisations like CreaShakthi. “It provides us a live platform to showcase our talent and makes sure that English theatre does not decline, but instead, becomes contagious.”

Sukanya Umesh from the Stella Players (Stella Maris College) also thanks CreaShakthi.

“The amount of publicity that events like the Short+Sweet Theatre Festival is getting and the fact that organisations like CreaShakthi are making a business of theatre and are funding college productions have significantly led to the shift in attitude from theatre being for pseudo-intellectuals to regular people.”

Decision-making

This emerging trend of student involvement has led drama troupes to the next question of what to perform — should they act out what had already been written or does the scope of campus theatre also include honing scriptwriting talent and coming up with original plays?

Srutanjay, president of Theatron (Anna University), is evidently excited about the latter. “As a director, own plays are far more interesting because it allows us to create from scratch as opposed to limiting ourselves to an existing framework. Also, writing a script for college audiences works better as we are able to choose an appropriate subject to enact. It works differently when we are performing for the general public,” he says.

Athmajalakshmi, president of Teatro (Ethiraj College for Women), agrees, albeit from a production point of view. “After having done production for three years now, I can say that original script allows for a clearer understanding of set and direction.”

And finally, the next stage in the process — deciding what should go into the story itself. Is theatre an instrument of change or merely one of self-expression? In campuses across the city, do artists swear by art for art’s sake or are they vowing to use the stage as a platform for social amelioration?

“I think the role of theatre in society is the same as any other form of mass media — to fulfil our need for expression and affiliation. I believe that this can be achieved without compromising on the beauty of theatre as an art form,” says Nivedita Ganesh of Women’s Christian College.

In agreement is Bhargav Prasad from Sri Venkateswara College of Engineering. “The purpose of any form of art, be it theatre, music or cinema, is entertaining the audience. But if you can use theatre as an instrument of change without losing its artistic value, why not?”

There are, however, those who are staunchly on the other side of the debate, swearing by theatre’s potential to cause ripples on the larger social fabric. “Theatre is an instrument of change for sure. There is so much you can do with it without being didactic. You can increase awareness, use the profits from a play for a cause or even just hunt and fund talent,” says Sukanya says.

“Theatre is a tool to communicate anything to any class of people. It is perfect for changing attitudes and perceptions,” says Srutanjay

Looking ahead

As conversation swirls unbridled in the air, one conclusion seems evident. Youth theatre in Chennai is definitely on the upswing, involving increasing numbers of students and making its mark in what was thus far seen to be an impenetrable area of expression.

While we bask in the glory of having come this far, perhaps it is time to peek into the future as well. We need more original scripts and more avenues for funding campus theatre.

Yet, the biggest need of them all remains. The campus youth theatre circuit in Chennai needs to warm up to vernacular mediums of expression. Perhaps it is time to push the definition of inclusivity to the next step, from elitist hobby to campus initiatives and now, to truly mass entertainment.

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Talent scouts

“Not very long ago, the words “theatre” and “funding” were on two sides of a pretty rough river. There was an elusive bridge which connected the two, and it was called Sponsorship. Many were able to find this bridge, thanks to generous relatives, or corporates who showed the way in exchange for a banner here or a sticker there. But for most, it remained just that — elusive.

Meanwhile at CreaShakthi, we were faced with a basic question of identity — should our productions be identified by excellent but familiar talent, or should the quality of storytelling supercede the individuals who grace the stage? While we were unanimous with choosing the latter option, it brought with it more challenges — where are we going to source new talent, every single time? And it hit us — that reservoir of talent in the city’s colleges; untapped, unexplored, unknown geniuses just waiting to burst out.

And so began the happy marriage between commerce and talent management in Chennai’s youth theatre scene. We called it the CreaShakthi Campus Theatre Initiative (CTI), a shot in the arm for the various college drama clubs in the country (19 at last count) to get down and do their thing without having to worry about where the cash would come in from. CreaShakthi takes college clubs under our wings, both financially and artistically, giving them the much needed platform to perform and hone their innate skills in the theatrical arts. This low-cost/ low-revenue model makes a negligible dent to the bottom line, but has the effect of increasing the talent equity almost exponentially – which of course cannot be valued in monetary terms.

Over time, we found that various city colleges had their own grammar and, for lack of a better word, “style”. We encouraged this identity stamp, and gave them a free reign to build upon it. Our Artistic Directors would double up as talent scouts during these productions and pick those who we feel are a cut above the rest. The result – almost every CreaShakthi production features first timers and fresh legs who would have otherwise gotten lost in the routine of exams and attendance.

CTI’s are CreaShakthi’s pet projects – we love the simplicity of it all, the unbridled enthusiasm of college students taking to stage for the first time, and the satisfaction of spotting new talent so organically. We found out that there was no need to find that bridge called Sponsorship – it was much easier to build our own bridges. Saves us the Drama to focus on the Theatre.”

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