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Changing Mediums in Corona: The Show Must Go On(line)

Written by Devi Sastry, 26th July 2020

Rising up in clamorous applause after a show at Ranga Shankara, Jagriti Theatre, or any of the numerous performance spaces scattered across Bangalore seems like a thing of the distant past. With the closure of performance venues due to COVID-19 concerns, theatre practitioners have had to adapt to the new normal: a stage confined to rectangular screens, built of boxes and virtual backgrounds, perched precariously on each participant’s internet connection. As an art that is accustomed to the benefits of contact, movement, and sharing the energy of a physical space, theatre is bound to face unique challenges in keeping up with this suddenly altered, exclusively virtual world. Nevertheless, some theatre artists, educators, and groups based in Bangalore have found ways to continue their work over platforms like Zoom and YouTube, expanding the nature and definition of theatre as we imagine it.

Kirtana Kumar

For some artists, the national lockdown came at a particularly inopportune moment. Kirtana Kumar, a theatre practitioner and educator based in Bangalore, was a few weeks away from the opening night of a production that she directed at Drama School Mumbai, when the tough decision to box the project was made and she had to return home. Despite this, she said that her experience of the lockdown period has not been one of disappointment, as it provided time for introspection, and that the shift online became an opportunity to explore new dimensions of theatre. As soon as the lockdown began, she started working on the aural theatre project In the hour of God: a collaboration of 50 actors reading excerpts from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri with episodes released everyday on YouTube. Eventually, work that had earlier been face-to-face moved online as well – Kirtana has continued Theatre Lab-Youth classes, one-on-one workshops for adults, and even the annual summer camp over Zoom. “I feel that as artists, we have to ride the zeitgeist and keep up with what’s happening. If not, it would be such a missed opportunity,” she said.

Another theatre practitioner who has taken the lockdown in his stride is Chanakya Vyas, creative director of the theatre group Indian Ensemble. Chanakya has been working on an interactive theatre project initially meant to take place at different lakes across Bangalore, providing an opportunity for the community to gather and engage with the story of the common space. After the lockdown was announced, Chanakya began exploring podcasts as a medium, and is currently working on an audio drama that is an offshoot of the lake project, set to be released in an episodic format. Indian Ensemble too, has adapted its theatre outreach and training programs to the virtual world. ‘First Draft,’ a program that allows selected applicants to explore and develop their ideas through research and creative processes, was announced as an online program for 2020. “It opened up a whole new world,” said Chanakya. “We received 60 applications from across the country with some fascinating ideas.”

Chanakya Vyas – Image Credits mythii p@yellowlites2019

Many artists feel that moving online has opened the doors for collaboration across geographical boundaries; Chanakya has been able to work with people in other cities, and Kirtana has used this opportunity to curate a webinar about theatre pedagogy in the time of Zoom, with speakers from all over the world. In addition to creating a platform on which to share insights and resources about theatre education online, the webinar addressed the importance of arts education, the potential of theatre to help teachers grappling with the shift online, and the effects of virtual learning on children. Kirtana believes that this time will allow educators to consider negative aspects inherent to education, and introspect on how they’ve been working with children.

However, online theatre comes with its own set of challenges, the most practical of which, as Chanakya noted, are internet instability and screen fatigue: “It’s difficult to remain seated, constantly looking at a screen while having to stay focussed and being viewed as well.” When speaking about her classes with Theatre Lab-Youth, Kirtana mentioned that the transition to online learning can be difficult for some children. As there are more opportunities for distraction, she emphasises the importance of interactivity and keeping children engaged through trivia questions, improvisation in Zoom breakout rooms, and using the webcam in interesting ways.

Zui Kumar-Reddy, a musician, writer, and theatre artist, encountered other obstacles when adapting The Name Project, an interactive production that she directed, to Zoom. What had started as a writing exercise for young theatre students turned into a performance at Shoonya, a centre for art and somatic practices, at which each of the young actors and audience members were guided through the process of writing and sharing a poem about their own name. When replicating the project online, Zui found it much more difficult to define the performance space, especially considering that it is the attendees themselves who become the performers. “It was more relaxed in person – online, everything had to be more structured,” she said.

Shoonya Studio. Image Credits Shoonya Studio

While Zoom has provided the opportunity for creative output, the circumstances have also allowed increased access to professionally filmed theatre performances. Rukmini Vasanth, an actor who has been using this time to consider her craft, would have been otherwise unable to watch National Theatre Live broadcasts and recorded performances that are now available online. Still, she feels that there is a trade-off: filmed theatre may be more accessible, but it does not have the electric feeling of being part of a live audience. Chanakya, however, doesn’t think theatre has reached a wider audience. “For practitioners, theatre work is more accessible, but in terms of the audience, I think those who are watching productions online are the same people who might have come to live shows.”

Of course, these questions only arise when students and audiences have access to digital devices and the internet. Lakshmi Karunakaran is an educator who works with children in underserved communities as the head of the Buguri Children’s Program, of which arts education involving theatre activities is a large part. The program’s immediate priority during the time of lockdown was to provide food to families in the community, and then formulate a plan to ensure continued access to books and educational art activities for the children. Lakshmi emphasises the importance of adopting a hybrid access model in order to reach all children, especially those who do not have access to the internet or smartphones. “The shift online is going to completely change the paradigm of our work. As educators and arts practitioners, we should be more cognizant of the effects of digital education and remember that we are turning our heads away from 70 to 80% of the children.” Lakshmi believes that children should also have access to information about COVID-19 that is specifically tailored to help them understand the crisis. The program has created a radio drama called the Buguri Podcast in collaboration with RadioActive 90.4 Mhz Community Radio that provides information about the disease, and addresses the children’s questions about the pandemic.

Buguri Children’s Program, Puppet Show in the Community. Image Credits Lakshmi Karunakaran

Younger theatre artists have also found it difficult to adapt to the newly online world of theatre. Samragni Dasgupta, co-founder and creative director of Last Page Collective, spoke about the challenges that the startup has faced. “Summer is usually a time when we can focus on workshops and camps that generate revenue for us to invest in larger-scale productions, but that’s not possible now,” she said. Last Page Collective have adapted their open mic series ‘Backyard Nights’ to live-streamed performances featuring budding artists, and are considering conducting theatre workshops online. Unlike established practitioners, the younger generation faces the challenge of reconfiguring the way they imagine theatre while still being new to the field. However, some young folks have been able to keep in touch with their work: Manas Ganguly, an emerging actor, has been able to participate in online readings, and even rehearse over the internet for plays that might open once the lockdown is over.

Although the virtual world affords new opportunities, there seems to be a consensus that nothing can replicate the experience of live theatre. As theatre artists move to other platforms, what happens to the spaces they used to inhabit? Prior to the lockdown, Shoonya hosted workshops, rehearsals, performances, film screenings and other arts-related events. Though their team initially explored the virtual medium, they quickly realised that shifting to an online model would not be financially sustainable, and the space has since remained closed. Thommen Ollapally, director of Shoonya, said, “We’ve had to downsize the team and reduce overheads. There will be a time when we can repoen, but for now, we’re just surviving until the environment is more conducive.” Another space in Bangalore that has been impacted by the restrictions is Jagriti Theatre – Arundhati Raja, founder trustee, said that their revenue has come to a complete standstill. Nevertheless, Jagriti has been able to resume drama classes online, host a virtual Masterclass with performances by adult actors and older students, and plans to upload past productions to their YouTube channel. “Getting ticketed live-streaming going is one idea, but as with all shows, the revenue depends on the number of tickets sold,” said Arundhati.

The future of theatre may be unpredictable, but one thing is certain: art is resilient. In spite of the lockdown, theatre practitioners are finding ways to engage with the community. “Theatre has always existed in a space of finding its stage. Now our community has changed yet again, and we’ve had to rethink our stage,” said Kirtana. The lockdown period and the shift online has provided space for theatre practitioners to re-evaluate their approach, and has allowed the public to consider the importance of the arts. According to Rukmini, “this period of evolution feels so difficult to us but once we realise we have no option, we just move.” While many theatre artists hold out hope that someday soon, they will be able to come together and share a stage again, it’s clear that in the meantime, no matter the circumstances, the show must go on.

Featured image credits – Jagriti Theatre

Experience Further: Apart from the obvious relation to performers persisting in spite of the circumstances, I find the opening lines about empty spaces and abandoned places to be eerily resonant with what theatres and other places of gathering look like at this time.

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