CELEBRATION March 27 is World Theatre Day. The auditoriums are abuzz with audiences, and we have, survived yet another year at the theatre. Struggling professionals, the passionate amateur and the ever enthusiastic audience soldier on, for one more year PRAKASH BElAWADI
May your work be compelling and original. May it be profound, touching, contemplative, and unique. May it help us to reflect on the question of what it means to be human, and may that reflection be blessed with heart, sincerity, candour, and grace. May you overcome adversity, censorship, poverty and nihilism, as many of you will most certainly be obliged to do.”
“May you be blessed with the talent and rigor to teach us about the beating of the human heart in all its complexity, and the humility and curiosity to make it your life's work. And may the best of you — for it will only be the best of you, and even then only in the rarest and briefest moments — succeed in framing that most basic of questions, ‘how do we live?' Godspeed.”
When actor John Malkovich formally read out the 50th World Theatre Day message at UNESCO in Paris on Thursday, addressing “fellow theatre workers, peers and comrades,” he was simply putting the human being back at the centre of experience.
It is routine that every World Theatre Day, which falls on March 27, will bring up the inevitable question: “Is theatre a dying art?” But each passing year, struggling professional and traditional artistes everywhere and amateur playgroups in the cities will perform old and new works before audiences that are offered an ever-widening spectrum of narrative engagement. It seems the theatre practice has survived yet another year, as it has done for about 3,000 years or more.
There is also the other scornful dismissal of urban, amateur theatre practice – dominated by the representation of reality through the fourth wall – as “bourgeois” or that other dreaded world – “elitist”. Claiming to valorise the “subaltern”, these are the voices that admire “serious” cinema and literary criticism. They smugly believe they have their champion in Bertolt Brecht, who despised the theatre that sought to give its audiences an experience of world without an agenda to change it. He called it “Culinary Theatre,” a theatre that merely refreshed the mind, as food would restore the body. Brecht wanted the audience to listen and watch a play and critically question the reality of their lives, the world of Capitalism and the society it created. The audience, he said, should not merely feel, but think.
Global capitalism has overwhelmed Brecht and the proscenium continues to frame the fourth wall. Small its custom is, but the playhouses of the city buzz with performances, mostly by the young, sustained by love of practice and caring audiences, who are willing to pay to watch these amateur efforts. Is this the bourgeoisie?
In his lecture titled ‘Beyond Bourgeois Theatre' at Sorbornne in 1960, Jean Paul Sartre declared that theatre in Paris was sustained and dominated for 150 years by the bourgeoisie who owned real estate in the city and controlled the economy. Sartre said: “...one deals here with an absolute control, the more because this same bourgeoisie, to scuttle a play, has merely to do one thing – namely, not to come. It is evident then that the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie has created a bourgeois theatre.” Sartre also believed that the diminishing critic was only representing this very class: “It is an error to contrast the newspaper critic with the public. The critic is the mirror of his public. If he writes nonsense, it is because the public which reads the newspaper will speak nonsense too; therefore, it would be futile to oppose one to the other...”
But this could be said equally of all the arts, not just “commercial cinema” and popular television. Art cinema, which is a small by-product of the big cinema, is sustained simply by State patronage that is rapidly dwindling and has little claim to being anywhere close to changing the world. Surely, even the smallest, Kannada art film cannot be produced without spending 40 to 50 lakhs. Do the returns come from ticket sales? What could be the state of classical music and dance, if they could be separated from the idea of theatre, without corporate sponsorship and upper-class support? Is there any possibility of a struggling young classical musician or dancer booking a hall and ticketing the entry? And what about ART? Who will seek and look and buy these paintings but the rich?
Theatre – folk, traditional and the city forms – offers unmatched agency to performer and audience, simply because the performance is easiest to mount and can fit any budget.
The performances have direct access to the playhouse, to their public and find subscription from the community or the individual buyer of ticket. As Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO declared, in a message before the 50th anniversary celebrations of World Theatre Day, “Theatre has the power to move, inspire, transform and educate in ways that no other art form can. Theatre reflects both the extraordinary diversity of cultures and our shared human condition, in all its vulnerability and strength.”
Theatre, which comprises all live performance, is based on work that creates the experience and disappears. The artistes, performers and non-performers that help create the performance, work with their bodies and the audience find and inform the experience as it happens, in a group, as a community. Theatre, even in the plays with pure commercial intent, the theatre of entertainment and tourism, is always a process.
The players are always in play, never packaged into products released big and across the global market. The market is inside the hall, also in the process, life-size. Theatre matters because there is life on stage.