No space for stage
While performance venues are growing in Mumbai, rehearsal spaces for theatre are limited to living rooms and goodwill gestures
"In 1994, when a commemorative stamp was issued on Indian People Theatre Association's completion of 50 years, the late former state Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh was saddened to learn that IPTA Mumbai had no rehearsal space of its own. We were promised we would soon be allotted a dedicated venue. This year, the institution completed 75 years, but we are still waiting to call a space our own," shares veteran actor and IPTA vice president Aanjjan Srivastav. "If this is the state of a theatre association with such a rich legacy, you can imagine what smaller production houses go through."
Kaifi Azmi's residence opposite Prithvi Theatre is a preferred venue for final-day rehearsal
In a place like Mumbai, where real estate rules the roost, anything that falls outside the purview of bare necessities becomes a luxury. Among the many intangible casualties of these sky-high rates are rehearsal spaces for theatre. And the lower one is in the theatrical hierarchy, the bigger the problem. Who better than Mumbai's artistes and directors to throw light on this space crunch.
Municipal schools double up as rehearsal spaces
Problems of magnification
"Rehearsal is the base of theatre. Every success and failure in the final outcome goes back to how the rehearsals went," says Srivastav. Faezeh Jalali, founder of the experimental theatre group, Fats the Arts, echoes the view. "I like to rehearse for at least three months for my productions. Even the most affordable spaces in Mumbai charge '500 per hour. So, if I rehearse for four hours a day, it adds up to '1.5 lakh for three months, just for the rent. Add to it expenses like food for the crew, props, costumes, set and other production costs and you are staring at a budget of '5 lakh - not a small figure for a production house that doesn't engage with commercial content."
Faezeh Jalali and Priyadarshan Jadhav
Which is why rehearsals, for most part if not completely, take place in actors' homes. "Blocking, or how an actor moves and stands on the stage through the course of the play, is critical to theatre, something that's difficult to get right unless you rehearse on the final stage itself," explains Srivastav's daughter Ranjana, who is also a theatre actor and manages the light and sound for their productions.
Even if theatre groups manage to find a rehearsal space, it is often an empty one, bereft of any theatre-specific facilities. "It's incredible how so often, the first show of a play also becomes the first technical rehearsal," laments Ranjana. "A classroom is a classroom, not a rehearsal venue," says actor and director Priyadarshan Jadhav, known for his Marathi productions, as he refers to a small municipal school in Mahim that several Marathi theatre groups use. In fact, several municipal schools across the city double up as rehearsal spaces because of their nominal fees.
"We have to schedule our rehearsals based on the school timings," says Srivastav about a municipal school in Santacruz, which IPTA uses. "With no lifts, senior actors have to take the stairs to reach its second-floor auditorium. AK Hangal, KA Abbas and Balraj Sahni have all rehearsed here."
Jalali, who is a trained aerial artiste, says she has had to use the facilities of the mallakhamb school in Shivaji Park to practise the form.
But hasn't the recent spurt in performance venues in Mumbai, suited to the needs of smaller production houses, eased the space crunch problem? "Often, these venues are rented spaces. So, understandably, the owners need to recover costs by sub-letting them. Commercially viable ventures like yoga and dance classes that can afford high rents are given priority over theatre," rues Jalali.
Where the government fails to do its job, a few Mumbaikars, with their hearts in the right place and some space to spare, lend a helping hand. "Generous members of the Sahitya Sahawas housing society in Kalanagar give out their community hall to Marathi theatre groups. It's a well-maintained space," reveals Jadhav.
"A theatre lover from Goregaon, Akash Naik, offers his small space at nominal rates," adds Jalali. "But I find residencies like those run by Atul Kumar in Kamshet and Geetanjali Kulkarni in Wada most feasible."
"MS Sathyu sahab, who is a master of stage craft, once said, 'Primarily, what an actor needs is space to move around'," Ranjana recalls. Until the arts get the attention they deserve, this primary need will remain a luxury.
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