December is no longer the only month chock-full of cultural highlights for the city

December is no longer the only month chock-full of cultural highlights for the city. While pattu sarees rustle and malli poo scents halls trilling with Carnatic notes every winter, Chennai’s theatre enthusiasts find shelter in August’s hearty embrace. Institutes, bars and cafes throw open their doors for the city’s tryst with theatre during this month.

‘Live in August’, says Sunil Vishnu K., actor and co-founder of Evam, one of India’s largest theatre groups, would have been unimaginable 10 or 20 years ago. Clearly, Chennai’s English theatre scene has come a long way.

In a city that has always been appreciative of art and culture, English theatre found a footing with The Madras Players, which had its beginnings in a play-reading group for expats under the aegis of the British Council in the 1950s. It was not until 1955 however, that the group was formally handed over to its founding members, N. S. Yamuna and Gayathri (Grace) Krishnaswami.

P.C. Ramakrishna, actor and member of the group since 1969, says, “Early on, we did only adaptations of English and American plays. But the 70s saw us staging Indian plays and later, creations of city authors including Shreekumar Varma and Indira Parthasarathy.”

Over the years, the city has accommodated many new groups and movements nurturing the art form. Take CreaShakthi for instance. Founded in 2009, this group, through its youth theatre festivals, showcases promising talent from schools and colleges.

Dushyanth Gunashekar, creative head of CreaShakthi, says, “Earlier, each theatre group had to boast of having the who’s who, in order to make it work. Now, that snobbery no longer exists. Theatre groups and actors understand and respect each other’s identity and space.”

He points out that theatre has become a craft of communion. And indeed, collaboration does seem to be the mantra for many groups. The Madras Players, for instance, have on numerous occasions roped in young directors and actors for their productions.

“Collaboration is key for younger practitioners of theatre. There is much to be learnt from other arts and artistes,” says founder of Stray Factory, Mathivanan Rajendran.

With theatre in the city becoming more egalitarian, there is a space for and need of more promotional events and festivals, and there seems to be no dearth on this front. The Short+Sweet festival, which provides an avenue for youth theatre and campus groups, has injected made no small contribution in injecting the theatre community with fresh perspective and talent. Evam’s ‘Art-prentice’, a marketing-cum-theatre initiative to be introduced soon across city colleges, aims at providing a platform for exhibition of talent and signing on art managers. The Hindu Metroplus Theatre Fest, a yearly event of a motley display of live acting, has helped bolster theatre’s popularity in the city, and attracts a large overall audience of 4000.

But there seems to be room for more, says Sunil Vishnu. “Most of a typical play’s audience comprises friends and family and this is a cause of concern, especially for smaller groups. This is where the need for professionalisation crops up. We still have fewer people making a living out of theatre here, as compared to, say, Bangalore.” He adds there is not enough of a cross-pollination of an appreciative audience: not many that appreciate Carnatic music are drawn to plays and vice versa.

Despite still struggling for applause from the mainstream audience, the city’s theatre groups have not shied from taking a bow nationally, and even internationally at times.

Stray Factory’s My name is Cine-maa, was staged in Singapore this month. Last year, Evam’s 39 Steps was nominated for seven and won two of the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards. Evam was Chennai’s first theatre group to win the award.

Closer to home, the theatre scene still needs a better script.

Prasanna Ramaswamy, theatre director and State awardee for theatre, points out to other challenges. “Right from space to rehearse to auditoriums to perform, theatre groups face many challenges,” she says. She adds that despite its struggles and shortcomings, English theatre in Chennai is nowhere near to taking a curtain call. With a niche, but growing audience, the community is confident of holding its ground for years to come.

Chennai Central at The Hindu celebrates Madras Week

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This article has been corrected for a factual error.