Waiting in the wings

Updated: 22 November, 2020 07:19 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre | Mumbai

A live theatre show post-lockdown isn's just about disinfecting performance venues. It's an opportunity to curate stories suited to a COVID-impacted audience

A still from Anant Panshikar's Chi Sau Ka, which showcases Marathi musical theatre history. It is unlikely to be showcased anytime soon, as members of the cast reside in distant suburbs of Mumbai. The play’s revival depends primarily on the resumption of local train services
A still from Anant Panshikar's Chi Sau Ka, which showcases Marathi musical theatre history. It is unlikely to be showcased anytime soon, as members of the cast reside in distant suburbs of Mumbai. The play’s revival depends primarily on the resumption of local train services

Sumedha Raikar-MhatreYou, theatre lovers, are our family. It's our responsibility to take care of you, because our name itself mentions the word Cleaner." Thus, ran the newspaper ad of Marathi play Vacuum Cleaner on October 18, a random Sunday when Mumbai's theatre fraternity had no clarity over the Maharashtra government's official policy on the lifting of lockdown restrictions in the context of government/municipal or private-owned auditoriums in the state. The "soon coming" ad raised hopes and heckles because of the acutely awaited government communique about the operating procedures to revive an industry, which was rendered silent since the COVID-19 outbreak in March. While gyms and restaurants were being reopened (phase-wise), the prospect of a stage-facing masked gathering was still perceived as risky.

Interestingly, uncertainty about auditoriums is not over. It is experienced till date—even after the government issued unlock instructions for theatre/cinema halls on November 4—by 35-odd Marathi producers, as well as players in Hindi, English and Gujarati theatre. Stakeholders are clueless about how to tie the loose tangled ends of a business, that has anyway traditionally never made high profits, nor enjoyed institutional/government patronage.

A recent ad for the play Vacuum Cleaner, which promised to take care of the audience, raised hope that theatres would be opening soon
A recent ad for the play Vacuum Cleaner, which promised to take care of the audience, raised hope that theatres would be opening soon

In fact, Vacuum Cleaner's producer Pranit Bodke adds in jest: "We were asked by many, if we had inside intel about the upcoming lockdown lift. But, all we have is positivity for the restart of not just our play, but the recharge of an entire industry."

The ad was just meant to reassure backstage artistes and the audience about the willingness to bounce back.

very Brilliant Thing, an interactive play directed by Quasar Thakore Padamsee, was streamed for an online audience, in July-August this yea
Every Brilliant Thing, an interactive play directed by Quasar Thakore Padamsee, was streamed for an online audience, in July-August this year

The down-but-not-out spirit is an adivsable prescription at this point. There is little else to bank on, certainly not government succour. The state culture ministry has been at its evasive best. In a politically volatile climate, with too many fronts to deal with, the Thackeray administration is not in a position to either announce a workable welfare scheme for backstage workers and neither can they ensure disinfection/sanitisation protocols. They have issued primary standard operating procedures—50 per cent auditorium occupancy, subject to a ceiling of 200 persons seated at any point in a closed space—which are to be executed by the show makers. One expects some more SOPs soon. It is the only gesture to indicate government action.

"The onus is now fully on the production houses, which are naturally wondering why they should take the plunge this year. Agreeably, we never made profits, but why should we even risk our troupe's lives by venturing out in a risk-prone season," laments Anant Panshikar whose production Chi Sau Ka, a showcase of Marathi musical theatre history, is not likely to make a quick comeback. As members of the cast reside in varied distant suburbs of Mumbai, the play's revival—in a slightly reformed version, accomodating additional popular songs—depends primarily on the resumption of local trains.

Interestingly, the government hadn't met a single representative of the theatre world, not even the Marathi apex body, until November. The decision to open theatre halls was made unilaterally. In the words of producer Prasad Kambli, who heads the Marathi Vyavasayik Natya Nirmata Sangh, "the state government has not taken us into confidence; it has treated us way lower than any other beneficiary; it has offered schemes and lockdown aid for even honey collectors, but not theatre workers." Kambli's musical play Devbabhali, a fictional dialogue between the spurned spouses of Lord Vitthal and Saint Tukaram, was among the 35-odd plays that were received well at the box office, until COVID-19 upturned the city's cultural matrix. Post-March 2020, it has been a fend-for-yourself situation. Many producers have suffered immense loss of property because of the poor godown facilities in Mumbai.

While the government's stance has spiked the stress levels of those involved in the shaky theatre business, Cultural Affairs Minister Amit Deshmukh doesn't sense the gloom. For a wide range of questions—can theatre groups be given subsidised rental rates; can travelling troupes be exempted from toll duty; can fresh plays, not just musicals, get robust aid—he mouths predictable answers. He feels the safety of the audience is a joint responsibility of theatre managements, show producers and the venue owners, which is mostly the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation or private trusts. "We were unable to meet producers due to COVID-19, but now the cycle of meetings has begun. We expect a positive change soon." Deshmukh has no clear timeline to share; neither does he have the bandwidth for answering queries on the upkeep of auditoriums, nor can he guarantee weekend auditorium dates. For instance, the Dinanath Mangeshkar hall at Vile Parle has several infrastructural problems despite a costly prolonged renovation process costing around R16 crore. Deshmukh has a "we will soon resolve the problem" answer for most delicate issues, including the general need for upgrade of auditoriums in post-COVID times. It is another story that state's finances for theatre-related endeavors have never flowed smoothly since Independence, therefore they are least expected in the contemporary times.

As director-producer Sunil Shanbag, who has operated in a non-Marathi, but distinctly local Mumbai theatre tradition for over four decades, says: "As people invested in a cultural activity, we do theatre because we feel passionately about it. We do it without begging for government support. In the Marathi theatre world, at least there is a system, however flawed, of government aid and a quarterly allotment of assured auditorium dates. For most theatre in other languages, even that much is not available."

Shanbag says COVID-19 has busted some long-held myths about establishment/government pride in Marathi theatre. "It is time we [Marathi theatre or otherwise] re-examine our mores, practices and systems—the way we do what we do—and see possibilities outside the box." For instance, he feels the city has many underutilised public parks and amphitheatres where open-air shows can add a new 'freedom' to Mumbai's short-but-awaited winter months, especially factoring the much-discussed virus spread through AC ducts. Studio Tamasha's terrace space is soon going to light up with The Thing Is..., a series of three monologues that explore the idea of wishing.

One is not sure if intimate small-capacity spaces will allow the socially distanced seating norms in the post-lockdown scenario. In an experimental set up like Prithvi Theatre, what will distanced seating mean for a Makarand Deshpande play where often 50 people make an audience.

At this point, the industry has to address a basic issue. Is there an enlightened interest in doing things differently—scouting for safe theatre venues, which are beyond the conventional proscenium experience. Also, is the conversation limited to physical venues, because it has to include the type of scripts to be presented. Collective thinking needs to go into the themes and stories to be chosen for the unfolding times. If the times are sombre, which they clearly are, how does theatre—a rich life-affirming composite art—serve as the healer. Do we mount the same plays that were playing before the pandemic? Some theatre experts feel dark comedies suit the contemporary mood.

Audience taste, rather audience readiness to enjoy a play, cannot be determined without a more multilayered inclusive scrutiny of source material that vibes well with the silent mass seated in the dark. Such a scrutiny is possible only when a united theatre community, shedding off insularity, overcoming linguistic regional divides, dwells on the future of the performing art; and curates material that enriches the current discourse. It can happen when theatre people view or visit each other's stagings and coping strategies. Also, the audience is not just seeking entertainment, particularly at this point. Mental health experts maintain that a COVID-impacted audience, seized by uncertainties like never before, appreciates a slice of life and loss. They seek catharsis in the stories mounted for them; as is evident in the interactive play Every Brilliant Thing, directed by Quasar Thakore Padamsee, that was streamed for an online audience in July-August this year. There is an appetite for such scripts on key survival issues, which lend themselves to physical and online spaces.

As a critic covering multi-hued theatre for over three decades, I have seen theatrewalas embracing new themes and practices. I have also witnessed theatre magic created in temples, grocery stores, and beaches, and seen theatre responding to life—riots, floods, tsunamis, communal carnages, gender injustices. Theatre has demonstrated the power to relate to the moment and arrest the truth, which otherwise escapes in broad daylight.

Producers and directors need to show eagerness for cross-pollination of ideas and experimentation with scripts. They cannot restrict themselves to the silos they traditionally worked in. They have to think beyond safe bets like singer-actor Prashant Damle, among the rare performers, who can ensure a full house. The point is how long should (and can) Damle be used. Incidentally, he is soon turning 60.

Thankfully, mainstream theatre performances aren't beginning anytime soon, considering the back-and-forth unlock protocol. There is enough time for fresh ideation. There is time to rethink the notion of sellability. We can do better than pick up Vasant Kanetkar's 1966 script, Ashroonchi Zali Phule, for a 2021 audience.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at sumedha.raikar@mid-day.com

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First Published: 22 November, 2020 04:05 IST

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