As theatres go dark, will the show go on?

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As the lockdown confines everyone indoors and out of each other’s vicinities, one of the most intimate art forms undergoes audience-loss withdrawal...

Theatre thrives on the live energy conjured up at the performance venue. A theatre without an audience is like a theatre without an audience.

In mid-March, Rajneesh Gautam was absorbed in conducting rehearsals of his upcoming play ‘Not so Mahabharat’, to be presented in Delhi’s Akshara Theatre on March 21. Months of fine-tuning the script, daily rehearsals, hunting for sponsorships had all led to this big moment. Tickets sales were good, the entire cast worked in delighted anticipation of opening day, but little did they know of the disaster unfolding behind the scenes.

On March 16, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the country, Delhi banned all social gatherings of more than 50 people at the same time, and Gautam’s work came to a grinding halt. “I just could not gather the courage to break this news to the team,” says Gautam. When he held a meeting the next day to call off the performance, the cast was still adamant on going ahead with it, regardless of the lack of audience. “The hard work, effort and rhythm/form would all go to waste — that was the feeling,” he says.

Kamya Mittal, one of the actors in the play, says it was difficult for her to process her feelings when she heard the news. She had been working on two such projects since December. “Now all that hard work has been reduced to zero,” she says.  The crew was hopeful of restrictions easing quickly in the beginning, but as the months passed, it was evident that the show would be cancelled. “We planned to perform 20 shows in the next few months, but I don’t see even half of them taking place now,” says Gautam. “The calendar for 2020 has been wiped clean.”

A whole world of performing arts, one that requires physical presence, has been put on hold because of the coronavirus. As the global case count reaches four million, the need for social distancing is as strong as ever, and industries across the board have been hit. The impact on contemporary theatre has seen less attention, but is equally, if not more, severe. Broadway in the United States, which is not only an important centre for the art form but also a big business, drew 14.8 million patrons last season and grossed $1.8 billion, according to an article in The New York Times.

However, in India, there have been no reports recording the growth in the industry over the years. The lack of research speaks volumes about how the theatre industry has been overlooked. Ernst and Young-FICCI released a report in 2016 titled ‘Creative Arts in India’. It gave the forecast of growth in the theatre industry till 2018 with an expectation of 2.5% annual growth to reach ₹27,500 crore in 2018 from ₹23,600 crore in 2012. The data included in this report is the latest we have found. “With the lockdown imposed in the country, 24 of our shows were cancelled, and a few were rescheduled indefinitely,” says Jalabala Vaidya, theatre artist and co-founder of Delhi’s iconic Akshara Theatre.

The CAA-NRC riots and Delhi elections had already led to cancellations of many of the company’s shows, and the pandemic has only added to their woes. Loan repayments, pending bills, including an electricity bill of ₹3.5 lakh and numerous outstanding payments have left the 48-year-old institution in a bind. The theatre conducts training programmes for adults and children, as well as a summer workshop from May to June, all of which stand cancelled. With zero revenue in the past two months, running the company has become difficult. “I am not concerned about the future of theatre in the long term,” she says, “but the short-term is extremely stressful.”

Under these circumstances, budding artists are also back to the drawing board. Gaurav Choudhury, an aspiring director from Delhi, does not know if he would be able to bring his play to life once all this ends as he needs to start the work from scratch including re-hiring the artists. “We were very busy with all-day rehearsals, but now, everything has been destroyed,” says Gaurav. His play was scheduled to be carried out on March 25 but has been called off due to the pandemic.

The theatre industry has seen its fair share of challenges in the past. Public interest in live theatre has waned over the years, and the takeover of film and online media, lack of funding and low wages in theatre have all slowly pushed the industry out of the limelight. Challenges such as inadequate infrastructure, obtaining sponsorships, onerous regulations, and lack of trained or willing artists due to small wages have left the art form in the lurch.

In the past few years, streaming services have boomed, and people have access to a larger variety of content than ever before, all from the comfort of their homes. “My husband and I used to visit Punjab Naatshala [a theatre space] in Amritsar to watch comedy satires every week,” says Mamta Sareen, a homemaker. “But this was almost a decade ago.” According to Sareen, the live arts have become monotonous over time. “Why would someone still prefer theatre?” she says.

Now, as governments across the world enforce strict restrictions on public movement and gatherings, the live arts may be on their way out. If theatre companies cannot survive the financial blow caused by the virus, they will be hard-pressed to hold up against the larger challenges the industry faces. Theatre may very well be on its way out. But longtime fans of the genre are adamant that it cannot be allowed to fade away.

David Cote, a theatre critic, playwright and opera librettist from New York, is confident that humanity will always need live theatre. “Being ‘alone together’ in a theatre or concert hall both reinforces the reality of the art before us and creates a sort of socio-psychological echo chamber, in which we have subjective experiences in the company of others,” he says. When the art is powerful, the every audience member’s pulse quickens simultaneously. A good joke can make hundreds, and thousands of people laugh as one. “It’s like we dream together,” says Cote.

For some, the immediacy of the experience is what makes theatre unique, setting it apart from film and television. “Watching stories unfold on a screen does not give you that deep sense of being in touch with human beings and their problems,” says Shanta Gokhale, a theatre critic based in Mumbai. Throughout history, the theatre has existed as a means for people to process and communicate their surroundings, and the socio-political climate around them. In 2001, the New York Broadway Theatre reopened within 48 hours after the September 11 Twin Tower attacks, to pull the city out of mourning.

In India, Rabindranath Tagore used the same medium to inculcate a feeling of patriotism during the freedom struggle. Theatre is a vital art in times of struggle. The theatre has survived pandemics in the past. The Spanish flu of 1918 is known to have been one of the deadliest pandemics the world has ever witnessed. However, the art form did not die after millions perished, says Cote. “Theatre has survived worse pandemics than the current one, and it will outlast it,” he added. Artists today are doing everything in their capacity to keep this art form relevant, as lockdowns across the world continue. The Internet is awash with creative collaborations of performers and organisations streaming their live shows or archived performances online.

“There’s a refreshing ad-hoc quality to these new productions and live-streamed play readings,” says Nancy Bishop, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and publisher and chief theatre critic of Third Coast Review, a Chicago-centric arts and online culture magazine. “The acting can be so inspired that you forget you’re watching a recording or that the live actors are in different spaces.” She hopes that this season of virtual theatre can keep the interest in live theatre alive until the post-pandemic new normal arrives. But she does not see it as a permanent solution. “Theatre-makers need our live reactions to refine their scripts and staging,” she says, “and theatre-goers benefit from the shared experience of a live performance.”

Ben Brantley, co-chief theatre critic at The New York Times writes in an email conversation that the human exchange of energy, the symbiotic relationship between the storytellers and their audiences cannot be replicated via screens. “I have enjoyed some of the online theatres that have been devised in the interim, but I am always aware of the differences,” he says, “It’s like trying to embrace someone you love when there’s a window between you.”

But while the artists and directors working in the industry have temporarily shifted their content online, the backstage crew, especially the technicians, make-up artists, designers, production staff, are all out of work. “For now we are paying our staff,” says Anasuya Vaidya, director at Akshara Theatre. “How else will they survive?” But they cannot continue to do so for much longer. Akshara Theatre has taken loans and is trying to persuade corporate entities to help out, but so far there has been no response. “Our artists, at least, can look forward to payment from us,” she says. “But, for freelancers, especially folk artists, it’s a terribly difficult time.”

Gautam’s theatre troupe faces the same future. “This is when we need the Indian government or philanthropists to rise to the occasion,” he says. Production houses will be forced to cut costs, reduce their cast and budget. He fears that this will further discourage new talent from entering the field. Mittal, also part of his troupe, agrees. The actress has been working in theatre full-time after graduating in 2018 and was always aware of the difficulties of the job. “I pursued it for my love of the art form,” she says, “but now, any career in theatre seems impossible.”

Some actors are still willing to chase their dreams of performing on the stage. Neel Kamal, a former senior analyst at Barclays Shared Services, quit his job in 2018 to pursue his passion of becoming a theatre artist. “I do not regret the decision,” he says. “I deliberately made the shift to this profession, knowing it can be uncertain.” Kamal is hopeful about the future, despite the fear surrounding the pandemic, and the disruption of daily life. “I know it looks like an ‘endgame’, but the art will save us,” he says.

Likewise, Soumyabrata Bhattacharya, a company secretary at Delhi Aviation Fuel Facility Pvt. Ltd., has made sure he does not give up on his dreams in theatre. The senior actor at Sukhmanch Theatre has been managing his profession and passion for more than 13 years now. “My 9-5 job feeds my stomach,” says Bhattacharya, “but daily theatre rehearsals after work give a breathing space for my soul.”

Hope is a common theme in these dark times, as newcomers and veterans look ahead at the uncertainties brought on by the virus. “The fact that theatre as an art form has survived for thousands of years is proof that it is an integral part of self-expression for society at large,” says Anasuya. Veterans like her believe in the unique communication that theatre brings, through which actors and audiences can share ideas, concepts, philosophy, through interactive chemistry.

Theatre can vocalise issues like no other performance art, and speak directly to the audience, in the most literal sense. “We collaborate with the art in the most intimate, public way possible,” says Cote.  He compares watching theatre — or any performing art — to a group to attending church, except that one does not necessarily have their beliefs or prejudices affirmed in the theatre. In theatre, the audience’s ideas are challenged, exposed, and ridiculed, which he believes can strengthen their finer impulses. “Going to live theatre is a moral and intellectual exercise,” he says. “Attending the theatre makes us better humans and better citizens.” For now, lovers of the stage continue to believe in the magic of theatre, and its perseverance. “It has survived some of the darkest periods in history, it will survive the lockdown,” says Anasuya. “In fact, many brilliant plays will emerge from this experience.”

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