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Ready to see the change?

Summer is peak time for children’s theatre in Mumbai. More plays to watch, and loads of workshops to sign up for. the guide goes behind the curtain to look at diversely refreshing approaches that are being adopted to engage this age group

In the last few weeks since the summer holidays began, eight-year-old Aryiana Seth has watched two plays. “Every summer, my mother and I watch a lot of plays. It’s a break from the usual routine, and I like seeing real people act more than watching a movie, which is a little unreal,” she says.

Every summer, Mumbai’s theatre landscape, at least, when it comes to children, is abuzz with numerous productions being staged across city venues. The roots of this summer theatrical bonanza can be traced to the early 1990s, when Sanjna Kapoor, who ran Prithvi Theatre and now Junoon, started the Summertime@Prithvi programme with a combination of workshops and a handful of plays.

Kapoor recalls, “When I began working at Prithvi Theatre — plays were terribly shoddy; double innuendo productions were running to packed houses, with an audience that lapped up this abysmal quality with delight. I felt an urgent need to nurture a discerning audience. I felt one of the most effective ways was to touch our next generation.” It’s why Summertime began, to make children fall in love with theatre through experiencing the joyful world of
creativity themselves.

Stage set for summer
“Through watching plays and developing an ability to discern good theatre from bad, thus I was curating and hosting a range of plays for children at Prithvi Theatre and venues across town. This lead to the hosting of a couple of children’s theatre festivals as well as producing their own children’s productions,” adds Kapoor, of how the turnaround began.


A scene from Shipwrecked! The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont

Almost two and a half decades later, the tradition of staging plays in summer, to a captive audience of children, continues, and has spread from the hallowed portals of Prithvi Theatre to the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) and other locations. This Summertime@Prithvi, Season of Plays and Workshops for the Young, 2014, has 87 shows of 23 new productions between April-end and June. NCPA too is hosting 11-15 plays from May to June. Things seem to be looking up.

Great expectations
Given that children are spoilt for choice, do the plays really live up to the expectations? Ariyana’s mother, Rashi Seth, an advertising professional, admits that often, it’s a hit-and-miss situation. “On an average, we watch between 12 and 15 plays through summer, and only five are worth it and the others are really quite cringe-worthy. However, I’ve also learnt that what I may dislike as an adult a child might actually love,” she explains.

So, what makes for an uplifting and fun theatre-watching experience for young people? According to Choiti Ghosh, who premiered her play, Alice in Wonderland, last year, and runs Tram Theatre, an object theatre company, children like to visualise. “Whether they are watching or hearing, they like to connect the dots, fill in the blanks, string images together and build stories for themselves,” says Ghosh, who also conducts workshops for children, says that kids love images. “Images that are delicate, evocative, playful and say many things at one go always work. Children love to interpret these. They prefer to be shown something and decide for themselves what that might mean, rather than be shown something and then told what it should mean,” she informs.


A rehearsal from Eat! that breaks the stereotype

A child’s mind
Suruchi Aulakh, actor and producer whose play Shipwrecked! The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont, premiered last month, feels that children will watch anything if one can tell a story well enough. “Children, these days, are used to hi-tech images and multiple sensory inputs. How does one, then, get and keep their attention? As theatre practitioners, we have to figure out newer ways of telling stories, even if it means returning to simple storytelling with no special effects,” she shares.

For Ratnabali Bhattacharjee, actor and director who is part of the ensemble cast of Eat! which premiered at Prithvi earlier this week, a child’s mind is constantly assimilating new information. “It’s important to not talk down to them and to use everyday theatricality. We need to realise that children can handle and see the big bad world and present things to them that are not mundane,” she asserts.

Interpret all the way
Eat! is a devised piece of theatre enacted by three people, and is about food, on the face of it, but has subliminal undertones of something more sinister, which Bhattacharjee is confident children will be able to interpret. “We have tried to create something that shows that a story well told can be devoid of elaborate sets and a tempo full of props.

We love theatre for its license to imagine, the suspended belief, that crosses all borders and manages to hit you smack in the face,” she reveals.

Aulakh adds that Shipwrecked is a good old-fashioned yarn that does away with all the wizardry and special effects that audiences have come to expect. “In the play, we have even created the sound effects live on stage, whether it is the sound of wind, horse hooves or the pop of a champagne bottle. Three actors enact all 26 roles.”

For Ariyana, what she is most looking forward to is a play that takes her places she has never been before. “Often when I watch the actors perform on stage I can imagine myself being transported to a different world and that’s what I enjoy the most. I get bored when they jump around too much, say silly things and treat me like a two-year-old though,” she says.

Looking forward
Kapoor’s Junoon, and their Arts at Play programme has taken a sabbatical this year to re-look at workshops and the presentation of plays for children. In December, they will announce plans for next year.

Echoing perhaps what most of her ilk feel, Kapoor agrees that this arm has a long way to go in the city, and across India too. “The most important thing that needs to be taken care of is the attitude towards children and the attitude towards what theatre for children can be. It is terribly serious business, and no childs’ play, by any means!”

Fresh outlook
To say something is stuck in a ‘familiar comfortable space’ would indicate no growth, which the ground reality at Prithvi contradicts. The energy and commitment put into these new productions is remarkable, and of course there will always be room for improvement — but the fact that so many new productions and performances are happening needs to be encouraged — only by constant and regular ‘doing’ will improvement in creativity and energy happen. 

— Kunal Kapoor, Prithvi Theatre

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