Two-minute noodle theatre

Is the idea of English theatre in Chennai about instant gratification, asks Sunandha Ragunathan

When I was directing my first full-length play, I called up one of my mentors in a euphoric daze and demanded she watch and support my debut work. She first congratulated me and then proceeded to ask why I had chosen to veer into another field and drew an analogy of how classical musicians would not venture into dance choreography and vice versa. While I probably will continue to direct, write and act in plays, her words thrash about frantically for space in my overcrowded subconscious.

What do we all hope to achieve doing English theatre in Chennai? Should we all examine if we want to serve up theatre as entertainment or do we want theatre to be enjoyed as an art? Whether art cannot be entertaining or if what is deemed entertaining does not possess intrinsic artistic value is another argument for another day. The question however begs an informed answer from those performing theatre in Chennai.

We are home to one of the oldest English theatre groups in the country, boast of incandescent talent but we often refer to our local theatre scene as nascent and adolescent. Why aren’t we more grown up? Is our need to stick our fingers in every pie fostering an instant gratification attitude towards our craft? With a flawed economic model in place, we define our success by audience number. When there are no producers to please or records to break, why can’t we list as many avant-garde theatre professionals, who call Chennai home, like in other classical arts?

First let’s get the professional versus amateur argument out of the way. To my knowledge (and I could be wrong), no Chennai theatre group makes a monthly income out of the plays staged or pays a stipend to its actors; then by that definition, all of Chennai’s groups can be clubbed into amateur category.

What if a group stages more than four full-length plays a year? If the average time to rehearse a play is two months, then a large part of the year is spent at rehearsals leaving time only to negotiate restaging of these plays at festivals or mulling over the next play. That sounds like a full-time job to me, despite not earning from it. And aren’t we diminishing those efforts by branding them “amateur”, when the word itself brings to mind shoddy attempts at histrionics when some of our full-time groups’ efforts are so much more?

Should we first create a nomenclature that accommodates Chennai theatre’s economic circumstances? What if we began referring to groups as full-time or part-time theatre groups? A part-time theatre group would be one that staged one full-length play a year using the ‘time spent rehearsing’ logic.

Secondly, while comparisons are odious, the struggle that some of my friends pursuing classical arts in Chennai face can serve as a parallel to our plight of being full-time theatre workers. Several classical musician friends of mine moan about dwindling audience for their performances. How could we not identify with that? They feel exhausted at having to juggle a full-time job with their art. Again, just our own story, isn’t it? Several dancer friends of mine complain that despite gruelling three-hour practice sessions every day and attending two master classes a week, they cannot find a sabha to ticket their show. I guess that’s where we’re different.

The classical arts come with a baggage of abhorrent audience etiquette, the guru parampara sometimes being exploited and even the occasional concert by a tone-deaf musician or a dancer oblivious to rhythm. But how different their approach to their craft is, is never more apparent than when I work with them.

I am not referring to their much written-about discipline or humility because it depends so much on the individual rather than the art form – plus I have seen my fair share of dancers who bunk rehearsals and musicians who want to save their performance for the show day; but I am citing their expanse of knowledge about their art form.

A musician or dancer who has been performing for 10 years during the “season” has seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge and command over his/her art form. These “entry level artistes” don’t perform in prime slots, rather in obscure sabhas at odd times to an almost invisible audience, but when they speak on music, classical theory or dance, we are left panting to catch up with them.

Actor training or lack thereof is one of the reasons we cannot proudly lay claim to having vast knowledge in and of our field.

Baffling as it is that our actors do not want to read about the craft, peruse texts that would enhance their understanding of the stage, or even watch shows performed by other groups from Chennai, what is truly damning is our indifference to that pitiable state. Isn’t it time we cherry-pick qualities from classical arts to emulate and therefore elevate our own art?

We are an art form that is not burdened with the label of being “classical” and therefore through elimination are more accessible. But accessible should not become synonymous with instant gratification theatre.

Are we doing a disservice to the audience and ourselves when we stage plays that cater to the lowest common denominator? How could we hope for an erudite audience or our increased exposure to local writers when we perpetuate the notion of English theatre in Chennai being “Western comedies” performed in anglicised accents? How can we expect presence at national festivals when we have no clue of what revelatory work originates from our own city and have very few crossover audiences?

Incidentally, on show day, my mentor was one of the first to arrive, sat at the edge-of-her seat, hugged me as we all walked out and even called me the next day to congratulate me on the things I’d gotten right. But her initial reaction still makes me wonder whether she was right. Should we focus on getting the basics right in our profession before we experiment with labyrinthine areas of expertise? Should we grow up and ditch two-minute noodles for a fulfilling meal?

(The writer is a theatre worker based in the city.)

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 8:53:31 PM |

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