Stories of a vendor: from street to stage

After a fairly gratifying experience last year when two of their works were showcased in Mumbai to appreciative audiences, Bengaluru-based theatremaker Aruna Ganesh Ram and her troupe, Visual Respiration, are back in town with a brand new production, Stand on the Street. The production will be staged at the Cuckoo Club, a venue quite amenable to having copious amounts of food prepared and consumed on stage during the running time of this immersive experience. The performance hall will be transformed into a veritable street populated with roadside vendors, with their personal stories and social mores, their intrepid navigation of an unforgiving urban landscape, and, of course, the food that might well be worth the price of admission. Street food is very culturally specific, and a group from the South are likely to come up with a sumptuous spread with its own culinary qualities that could be both surprising and familiar.

Four performers will hold sway on a turf specially created for roving audiences who are encouraged to move around and interactively create their own experience of the play, comprising of both collective and private moments. As is often the case with immersive theatre, Stand on the Street promises to engage the senses in many more ways than just the gastronomic, although foodies might be won over in a few bites. In order to authentically place her performers in the milieu that they plan to inhabit in the ‘here and now’, Ram and her team personally prepare all the food that is available for consumption on the show for several hours before a performance in order to get ready to ‘become’ culturally rooted street vendors. It is a show bound to be full of teachable moments about how the ‘other side’ lives, but not without fun and laughs.

The burgeoning field of immersive theatre was Ram’s specialisation at London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She singles out one experience in particular that awakened her to the possibilities of these kinds of performances. The popular Secret Cinema screenings in the UK combine “film screenings with interactive performances in purpose-built sets”. Ram had signed up for a screening of the prison drama, The Shawshank Redemption, but for hours prior to the performance, she and other ‘inmates’ found themselves in prison jumpsuits and incarcerated in an unrelenting jail environment created in an empty school in Hackney. At one point she was even force-fed baked beans (which she hates) during a simulation of meal times at prisons. It was an unsettling experience that cut to the bone, yet she persevered with the evening, sold on the idea of interactive experiences and how they can physically and psychologically engage the viewer in a manner that conventional theatre with its make-believe portents might not. In London, the world of immersive theatre has grown exponentially, and groups like the pioneering outfit, Punchdrunk, continue to push the envelope in terms of what can be served up in the name of interactivity.

Back home, faced with reticent and conservative Indian audiences, Ram has worked with creating a practice whose offerings are calibrated to create non-threatening spaces of interaction which can still instil a powerful sense of the themes she grapples with in each new piece. It is a fairly sparse field, with the Delhi-based Crow and Ram’s Visual Respiration possibly the only groups dedicated to the form. Prohibitive production costs might dissuade them from going the whole hog in terms of site-specific customised experiences (so no sprawling prison sets for Indian theatregoers), but Ram appears to have found her métier in more portable works that, in their intimacy of presentation, still engage their audiences with immediacy and effectiveness. For instance, in Coloured and Choosing, just a single blindfolded audience member at a time is taken through a sensory experience that includes a soundscape and also touch. The experience encourages surrendering to the unknown, but also brings a body’s innate defenses to the fore. In one performance, an audience member decided to test Ram’s actors by falling on her back (what is called a ‘trust fall’ in theatre parlance).

This prompted Ram to introduce stronger safety measures for all participants.

With each new work, Visual Respiration is attempting to expand their frontiers, either in adventurousness of ambition by creating new material. They also want to cultivate ‘activated’ audiences willing to author their own experience of a piece and not simply be taken through the motions, and seek collaborations with creators (like architects or visual artists) whose works and ideas resonate strongly with their own notions of promenade theatre. Ram’s willingness to experiment with such an inchoate medium is an indication of present and future dividends, for both makers and audiences alike.

Stand on the Street is being staged at the Cuckoo Club, Bandra today and April 27, at 8 p.m.; more details at; and at Piramal Museum of Art, Byculla. Check:

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 3:12:13 PM |

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