From fresh seasons of hit TV shows to theatre for all ages, Mumbai’s eateries and nightspots are redefining themselves as part-stages and recording studios. Suprita Mitter goes behind the scenes
A silent audience witnessed two blindfolded actors sitting besides each other. When you looked around closely, you realised that the audience watching the play could be pre-teens. Not dressed in their arty best, but sporting casuals instead, they looked glued to the performance. A waiter silently, (pin drop, almost) placed a plate full of gourmet food at the table and little guest acknowledged it with a nod. The play Muffin that depicts the romance between a blind couple, was staged on a 14 ft x 8 ft stage at Tuning Fork, a newly opened restaurant and performance venue in Khar.
The play Muffins being performed at Tuning Fork
The stage is set
"It's great to be performing at an alternate venue. If I were going to perform at the NCPA or Prithvi, I would get a date five or six months later, and would have to endure excessive paperwork. Here the communication is fast and clear," says director Nandram Aanand who approves of food and beverages being served during the shows. "I tweak bits of the script to adapt to the venue. We have a scene where the couple is seated in the restaurant and that works brilliantly," shares Aanand. Unlike most other venues, Tuning Fork does not have tickets for these shows. "When we started out, the idea was to be a performance venue where people can also eat and drink. We work with newer artistes who need the exposure. It allows us to promote fresh talent. The moment we start selling tickets, we will have to worry about filling seats and showcase popular plays and earn the cash. We don't want to do that," says Balraj Singh Ghai, co-owner.
Hindi Medium performed at The Bombay Canteen
The space also enables artistes to record their gigs that can be uploaded on social media for promotion. A recording studio, located within its premises, allows musicians to record their work. "All prices for these recordings are redeemable for food vouchers (valid for 30 days and transferable)," says Ghai. Avik Chattejee of Hoppipola rode on the buzz of Game of Thrones (GOT), and screened the opening episode of Season 6 recently. "Considering the show's popularity and traction on social media and among the younth, we screening GOT from s05 and based on last time's response, we will be also be screening s06."
Recently, The Bombay Canteen, Lower Parel's hip hangout staged plays. "We have done two shows of the play Hindi Medium, produced by Akvarious Productions. It blended well with our restaurant's theme that celebrates all things Indian. It was a mix of contemporary Indian stories, which we liked. We are still experimenting between what works and what doesn't," says partner Sameer Seth. While restaurants and pubs work out as alternate venues, content performed here differs from the works done at traditional venues.
Akvarious performs Colaba Casanova at Brewbot
Director Akarsh Khurana of Akvarious productions who has performed at venues like The Bombay Canteen and Brewbot scripts some of his work keeping these venues in mind. "We were the first group to perform at both venues. Initially, there is a novelty factor. Audiences vary, and so does the mindset. At The Bombay Canteen, the audience was mainly the restaurant's regular customers who watched the play since it was happening there.
The idea is to slowly convert the eating out audience into a theatre audience," suggests Khurana. "We started doing the Fringe Festival with venues like this in mind. Shorter forms, casual outlook and less intense plays have worked better. Venues also help experiment because we are not creating content that needs to fill up an auditorium and earn big bucks. Production costs are lower," he adds. Andheri’s Brewbot has hosted plays by the Tamasha theatre group, which has had intensive lighting and props too.
Theatre in the nightclub
In 2015, popular nightspot blueFROG also introduced the property Theatre at the Frog, where they staged full theatre performances. "The experience of performing at such a 'trippy' venue can be a high too as it's not designed as conventional theatre. As a result, performers have to work harder to engage the audience. But this in turn, leads to renewed energy and a buzz unlike a regular space. There are fewer rules too, with less formality," says Quasar Padamsee of QTP Theatre Company. "Our set was the same but we had to make certain changes to the lighting because of the nature of the space. What we lost in lighting we gained in audience interaction. Sometimes, moving out of comfortable spaces lifts the show. Also, they had reworked their menu to go with our Central American theme of the play, so that was exciting."
"The most exciting bit about collaborating with theatre companies is to watch them innovate. Most groups are flexible and we try to work out interval timings. There's no service during performances. We don't have a rotating audience and have one show on one evening, says Ruchika Tiku, Programming Head of blueFROG. Theatre wallahs are also excited. "We don't have enough conventional spaces. These venues are a lifeline to a more vibrant culture scene. Artistically too, the challenge is to create a unique work that cannot simply be reproduced in other venues," says Padamsee. "It's bringing theatre closer to people. There were no theatre venues in Andheri or Lower Parel before this for example. It's not a substitute but an expansion," says Khurana.