This year, as an invitee to the Vienna Festival, I found myself at the central warehouse of a refurbished coffin factory, which had been taken over by a young Swiss performing troupe giving vent to adolescent angst, even as the audience circled them, following them to each nook. In the end, they propelled long tangles of wires to the beams, and plugged electric guitars into their trailing ends and performed an impromptu rock concert – the piece was Noise , directed by Sebastian Nübling. Right at the centre of the action, the audience continued as bystanders, nervous at the prospect of imminent interaction.
This was an example of a site-specific piece, created to interact with a very specific environment (as opposed to a regular concert-hall), and make use of its distinct features. In this case, an abandoned factory with its high ceilings, fortified walls and wrought-iron beams, provided a secluded world of escape to disaffected kids.
Certainly, immersive and/or site-specific works carry the charge of being cutting edge enough to attract a new breed of Indian theatre-makers. For instance, NSD graduate Tushar Pandey offers a unique spin on a Harold Pinter classic, with his Dumb Wait-err , where the performance takes place in a suburban Andheri apartment in a kitchen re-fashioned as a stuffy backroom that harbours a bickering duo. The audience, seated separately, watch the proceedings through CCTV footage on television screens — a pinhole-viewing experience that makes the airless setting seem even more claustrophobic. This simulated setting can be replicated in any such non-traditional performing space (read, people’s houses), and perhaps, electing to present the material in this manner may have been prompted by the sheer paucity of regular venues for such experimental works.
The distant but omniscient viewers in Pandey’s work are altogether done away with in 36 Questions in Proximity of a Conversation , a collaborative effort from Accelerated Intimacy. Here, six performers perform simultaneously in as many spaces in the same hospice (for instance, a villa in Versova was commandeered in October for a six-hour long performance), but only to a single person at a time, who is invited to transgress personal boundaries, not in any facetious manner, but full-bloodedly. Touch, so sacrosanct otherwise, becomes a vital form of communication. In one of the pieces, Nihaarika Negi, one of the group’s founders, invites her ‘viewer’ to participate in a ritualistic shower. Essentially, each slice of performance art demands a measure of blood-letting from its audience, and is immersive in the truest sense – not just introducing the viewer to an authentic setting, but also having her submit to the performance. 36 Questions ... has only been performed twice this year, but stands at the cusp of what could be an artistic breakthrough for Indian theatre.
More immersive works are in the offing. The new group, Crow, founded by Nayantara Kotian and Prashant Prakash, brandishes the tag-line ‘creating immersive experiences’. Earlier this year, the group raised more than Rs 5 lakh on Wishberry, for their futuristic The Bliss of Solitude , set in a dystopian world in which the debris of technology has pushed humans underground. Currently being developed in India and Germany, the play could make for an eerie yet exciting experience.