All of Chennai is a stage

Mathivanan Rajendran, Rajiv Krishnan, V. Balakrishnan and Karthik Kumar. Location courtesy: Alliance Francaise of Madras | Photo: R. Ravindran   | Photo Credit: R_RAVINDRAN

A young artiste stands under the spotlight. Years of practice and perseverance have finally paid off: he can contort his features and control his movements. He can slip into the mind of a miser, take the form of an animal or pretend to lead the life of a legend. His body is chiselled, his voice is trained and his will is strong. But, most importantly, he holds his audience in rapt attention. His impeccable craft elicits applause, but, when he gets off stage, questions posed to him include one as simple as, “How did you learn so many lines?”

“Learning lines are usually the least of my problems,” laughs Mathivanan Rajendran (aka Mathi) of Stray Factory. The toils of the theatre community are often not thought through by the audience who enjoy it as just a two-hour experience. Especially in Chennai, where footfalls are limited, but the scene is still cautiously innovating and thriving.

V. Balakrishnan (Bala) of Theatre Nisha says he once staged a play for four people. “Well, we’d paid for the auditorium and the actors were ready, so we performed. It was a good show,” he says simply. Given the economics of staging a play, Karthik Kumar (KK) of Evam says there is nothing that warrants the effort that goes into it. Yet, he adds, that in recent years, an increasing number of people are quitting their jobs to pursue theatre professionally.

Chennai’s theatre scene is nascent and still finding its collective identity. But, ask veteran artiste PC Ramakrishna (Ram) who has been in the theatre scene since 1969, and without skipping a beat he will tell you, “English language theatre has grown by leaps and bounds in this city.”

Ahead of World Theatre Day, MetroPlus talks to a few prominent theatre personalities to offer a bird’s eye view of the various facets of this city’s theatre scene.

Is the stage set?

In the early 80s, when Rajiv Krishnan of Perch was in college, Alliance Francaise was the preferred hangout spot. “At that time, it was known that if you wanted to meet girls, that’s the place to go,” chuckles Rajiv. Gravitating towards the space soon put him in touch with those from the performance circuit and sparked his interest in theatre. Now, he says, he’s been “doing nothing else but Theatre for the last 20 years.”

Today, there are venues to stage plays, and enough theatre collectives who do so; but we lack a singular hub for theatre, the way Sathyam Cinemas proves to be one for film lovers in the city. Ranga Shankara, a well known theatre auditorium in Bangalore, explains Rajiv, stages plays 300 days a year. “It’s also sentimental,” says Mathi, “You know a city respects its art when you have such a space.”

There is no simple way to track theatre events in the city. There’s no single website or media space that collates this information; it is usually scattered across mediums. But the only way to help the ecosystem is to have more performances, says Rajiv. “It can be good, bad or ugly, but people need to know that there is theatre to watch regularly,” he opines.

Of loud stilettos and audience antics

Twenty minutes into a performance, the door swings open. A stream of light filters into the auditorium and a woman, dressed in her Sunday best, which included a fairly loud pair of stilettos, struts into the auditorium. Tuk, tuk, tuk, she goes, finds a seat, disturbs her fellow viewers and plops down. Another 20 minutes later, she decides to leave. Tuk, tuk, tuk, again. “It was heart-wrenching,” says Bala, “If she had to walk around during the play, I wished she’d at least done it barefoot.”

Stories of audience antics are not rare. They are available for anyone who frequents plays to witness and recount. Wailing babies, fidgety crowds and loud ringtones that slice through the silence come as part of a theatre experience. There are also theatre aficionados, who like to enjoy their play out loud, drowning out dialogues for their fellow audience members. “I’m really glad you’re enjoying it, but like a good meal you don’t chew with your mouth open or burp loudly,” laughs Bala, but, as an artiste, he adds that he enjoys it. “A standing ovation can be extorted, but a sigh has to happen by itself,” he smiles.

Who’s watching?

In an experimental play called Quick Death, staged a few years ago by Thrissur-based troupe Theatre Roots & Wings at >The Hindu >Theatre Fest , “a series of actors just kept standing up and falling to the ground, dead,” says Mathi. And, that’s all they did for 40 minutes. “It was a good play, but many didn’t understand it,” he chuckles.

Chennai’s theatre scene offers acts that are too abstract to understand; something the audience here has never really warmed up to. Then, there are also those that are populist and attract throngs of people. But, as Bala explains, theatre as an art form existed before civilisation and is a collusive force in any society. Chennai groups are constantly trying to find a middle ground to engage and entertain the audience.

“It’s important to curate an audience, and market a performance to the right people. Right now, we are just casting a wide net and hoping enough people will come watch our shows,” says Mathi.

What theatre should be is debatable; artiste Vinodhini Vaidyanathan says it is an exalted experience that is not meant for everyone. She believes audiences need to read and observe more and acquire a taste for theatre. KK, on the other hand, takes a softer approach; he believes the audience should be given something fun, before they are eased into anything too arty or serious. But, with The Little Theatre actively working with children, Evam’s Happy Cow using theatre as a training tool in schools and Crea Shakti engaging college students, one might hope interest in theatre will only grow in the coming years.

The economics of Theatre artistes

In 1972, Madras Players staged Girish Karnad’s Hyavadana. Records reveal that the production cost Rs. 3,725. In 2005, the production was revived and that time, it cost Rs. 3.5 lakh. “I remember we cribbed about production cost even in 1972. But today, it is impossible to bring together a production for anything less than a few lakhs,” says Ram.

Add the cost of auditoriums and promotions, and the numbers double. KK says that corporate shows and theatre training bring in the money for Evam — which pay actors, theatre artistes and support productions — but plays don’t make a profit unless they are staged at least 40-50 times.

“People often ask if my parents approve of my career choice,” laughs Mathi. Many artistes find their calling while they are mid-way through a completely different career track. Some dabble in theatre while also juggling a well-paying corporate career, others are passionate enough to quit and pursue the art full-time.

While some groups, like Madras Players, encourage part-time actors, there are others, like Perch, which require full-time commitment. KK says that Evam, which was the first group to encourage theatre as a profession, is soon launching Evam Lab, an initiative to provide financial and artistic cover for actors. He adds, “Theatre has grown enough to support artistes. It’s important to make financial sense of this medium.”

The filmy glare

Mathi says he gets a lot of calls from people who want to act. “Sometimes, it’s full blown desperation: people just want one shot to prove themselves. There are others who think they’ll get paid a lot once they land a role. I have to stop them right there and explain the finances of the industry. But the funniest are the ones who send me head shots. That’s when I need to ask them clearly: do you want to act in films or theatre?”

It isn’t rare to see Chennai’s theatre artistes star in films. But theatre and film are very different, and one isn’t always the stepping stone to the other. Often, powerful theatre artistes are offered stock characters — a snappy sister, an angry uncle or a jealous friend. Although many say that the film fraternity is unaware of Chennai’s thriving theatre scene, the expertise of an actor who has a theatre background often lends colour even to the most staid roles. “It’s up to you to make the most out of any role offered to you. At the end of the day, movies are a huge leveller. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have. It’s all business driven. It’s about whose face is marketable and whose is not,” says Vinodhini.

It pays, it brings fame and offers a wider reach, but, says Mathi, “Theatre offers richer experiences.” Whether it is for the craft itself, or for the friendships that are forged or rehearsal time romances which aren’t rare, Chennai’s theatre circuit has been the breeding ground for a lot of talent to grow and find each other.

Theatre in the city


Date and Time


Gallantly Fought the Queen

March 26 and 27, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Alliance Francaise

Nagercoil Expressum Nadaga Companyum

April 3, 3.30 p.m. and 7.30 p.m.

Music Academy

Notes on Chai by Jyoti Dogra

April 8 and 9, 7 p.m.

The Goethe Institut

The woman who killed a buffalo

April 9 and 10, 7 p.m.


07/07/07 – The true story of Reyhaneh Jabbari

April 15, 7 p.m. and April 16, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Alliance Francaise

Amrapali and Rashmi Rathi

April 23, 5.30 p.m. and 7 p.m.


Solladi Sivashakthi and Asghar

April 24, 5.30 p.m. and 7 p.m.


Piya Behrupiya

April 24, 7.30 p.m.

Phoenix MarketCity

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Mar 3, 2021 4:51:28 AM |

Next Story