It's a whole new world for Mumbai's theatre scene

Last month, actor-director Choiti Ghosh staged her play Alice in Wonderland at a 2,000 square feet sprawling space at South Mumbai. No, it wasn’t the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) nestled in tony Nariman Point but Ave 29, a multi-purpose loft at Hughes Road, which hosts product launches, private parties and seminars etc.

Tram Theatre Company performed their play, Alice in Wonderland at Ave 29, a 2,000 square feet loft, at Hughes Road last month. The intimate venue, which is usually used for parties and seminars, helped the actors interact with the audience closely

In June this year, Quasar Thakore Padamsee staged his play, Nostalgia Brand Chewing Gum, at Big Bang Cafe at Bandra. The comedy about four friends-turned-ex-lovers was earlier presented at Temperance, a dance studio at Bandra. Last year, actor-director Faezeh Jalali staged her production, All in the Timing, a collection of plays, mostly comedies at Le Sutra, an art hotel at Bandra and Ave 29 at Santacruz. These are just few instances of how theatre companies are now moving beyond the usual hubs such as NCPA and Prithvi and scouting for alternate venues.

Newly-formed theatre group NewBrain TheatreVolks performed Shakespeare Who at Over Act, an open-air terrace that functions as an alternative theatre venue at Oshiwara

The times - they are a changing
Ghosh says, “The sheer desperation to stage my play prompted me to scout for alternate venues.” In May this year, she, along with a friend, started a project to zero down venues that were open to stage plays.  The duo started off the month-long project by asking groups that had performed at such locations and also contacting almost everyone they knew to help them with names of places that could be used as possible venues.

They scouted garages, warehouses and many other places and finally zeroed in on Ave 29 at Santacruz and Hughes Road, Gallery and Beyond (an art gallery at Fort) and Temperance. Ghosh elaborates, “There are very few spaces where we can perform and others are are either too expensive, or ill-maintained or pose a struggle to draw in sufficient audiences vis-a-vis the rentals.

Last year, Khatijabai of Karmali Terrace, a monologue of the trials and tribulations of a 50-year-old woman essayed by Jayati Bhatia, was staged at the drawing room of Kilachand Mansion at Malabar Hill   

The theatres that are success stories remain overbooked. This has prompted experimental theatre groups to dig out alternative spaces. The idea is not just to do one-off shows, but to develop a relationship with the venue and cultivate it as a space that theatre audiences can frequent. The financial risks and the risk of playing to slim or empty houses remain, but it is okay for now, as we look at it as a long-term investment.”

Actor-director Rohit Tiwari couldn’t agree more. The founder of Theatrewalas, a theatre company, was prompted to develop Over Act, an open terrace at Oshiwara into an alternate venue for the same reasons. The place, which became operational since last August, has hosted almost 35 shows and also serves as a rehearsing space.

In March this year, Quasar Thakore Padamsee staged his production Nostalgia Brand Chewing Gum, a comedy about four friends, at Temperance, a dance studio at Bandra

Currently shut for a month-long renovation, Tiwari plans to open it soon as a 100-seater intimate theatre space replete with a green room and all the equipments such as lighting, sound and other infrastructure that is available at professional venues. Tiwari explains, “Unfortunately in Mumbai, there are very few affordable spaces where new theatre companies can perform.

Those that are affordable aren’t available and vice versa. Last year, during one of my shows, I met Madan Kotia who owns the space from where Over Act now operates. We started talking about the dismal state of affairs of performing arts in the city. That’s when he told me that I could develop the venue as a rehearsing and performing space for new groups.”

The open-air terrace theatre space that has a stage measuring 30X20 feet charges Rs 150 per hour for rehearsals. Tiwari opines, “As we are catering to new groups, we have kept the rates nominal. We charge a refundable deposit from groups who perform. Considering we didn’t do any kind of publicity about Over Act, I’m very happy with the kinds of response that we have garnered.”

It’s a whole new world
Performing at new venues also helps theatre companies to experiment with their productions and make them more interactive. Quasar Thakore Padamsee says, “Nostalgia Brand Chewing Gum is about four friends meeting up for dinner. So when we staged it at Big Bang Cafe, we tried to include the audience into the performance and provide them with a 360-degree experience.

Actors were not only sitting among audience members, but whenever the cast members would have a drink or enjoy their dinner on stage, even the viewers were served wine and food. Likewise, when we staged the same play at Temperance, we ensured that we used the space of the venue as much as possible. So we included scenes where actors were using the gym area.”

When QTP staged Khatijabai of Karmali Terrace, a monologue about an orphaned teenager, who marries into a wealthy household and matures into a memsahib, at the Kilachand Mansion a year ago, vast changes were made in the kind of lighting that was used. Padamsee explains, “Khatijabai… was a production that made extensive use of lights when we staged it at NCPA and Prithvi. But at the apartment, we made use of natural light.”

Ghosh, who will stage Alice in Wonderland today at NCPA, admits that performing at alternate venues is a learning experience. “When we staged the play at Ave 29, I designed it in such a way that it was meant for an intimate space. So actors were interacting with kids from the audience and the latter were also trying to reach out to them. Now for NCPA, I have added and deleted some scenes to suit the bigger space over there and for the audience who are far away from the stage,”she adds.

Jalali maintains that it also proves to be financially viable. “At these places you are usually not paying rent, you are only doing a sharing on ticket sales. Plus the venues take care of food and beverage. Also by performing at these new venues, we could tap newer audiences. Moreover, rather than elaborate sets, we just used tables and chairs and other props that did not need to be transported by tempos. So that was a physical and financial relief. ”

Broadening horizons
Tiwari maintains that with Over Act, he wants to break the prevalent structure wherein certain theatre companies get preference at venues simply because they are known groups. “By renovating our venue into an intimate space, we aim to provide as many facilities for smaller groups,” he says.

Padamsee, on the other hand, who has performed at Prithvi Theatre, NCPA and even at a basketball court says that performing at new venues is a more exciting process rather than a challenge. “If you are game for it, anything and everything is possible. In our case, people approached us to stage the plays at their venues. Theatre is a live medium and when you stage it at a new space, it’s a learning process for the cast members and the director.”

Nidhi Bisht, founder and director of New Brain TheatreVolks, who staged her play Shakespeare Who, at Over Act reiterates, “Earlier, we had staged at Ravindra Natya Mandir, Isckon and National Gallery of Modern Art. When we performed at Over Act, we worked on the light design and also brought speakers from home. This gave us an opportunity to learn.”

Ghosh admits that staging her play at an intimate venue has made her realise that theatre can be done anywhere. “Now, I can stage a play using just two dining tables,” he jokes. Padamsee, on a pensive note, maintains that this trend will be on the upswing in the near future. “As a city, we use our spaces very miserly. But we need to develop outdoor spaces like parks and gardens where plays can be performed and people can have ready access.

There are over 40 theatre groups who perform in English and over 30 who perform in Hindi. Considering at least each of them performs three plays in a year, so 220 productions are essentially vying for six venues. So groups scouting for new locations were bound to happen. But the exciting part is that people are changing their mindsets and willing to see plays at unusual locations.” Touche. 

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