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When the play goes places

Wading in ankle-deep mud through a mesh of trees and shrubs at night ' with insects crawling on your feet and mosquitoes doing a Dracula ' is not everybody's idea of good theatre. When London-based Kinaetma Theatre took its audience on a tour of the Tollygunge Club lawns on a September night last year there were many reluctant travellers braving the slushy greens to pick up the threads of The Silk Route, a 'site-specific' performance. But for the adventurous few, the gruelling walk was an exciting allegory of the subject ' Marco Polo's journeys.

One also remembers the confusion among some 35 guests seated in a garden, when three dancing girls peeped out of windows, enacted a scene and then ushered them into a hall where everyone squatted on mats to enjoy the main act. That was Vikram Iyengar's Crossings at Uma Art Gallery on Sarat Bose Road, weaving dance and drama around Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth.

This May, there was Mumbai-based Pushan Kripalani's Industrial Theatre Company, which specialises in alternative spaces, performing Jean Jenet's The Maids in an apartment on Moira Street.

Club lawns, art galleries, apartments ' there's a growing trend among performers to move out of the proscenium into an unconventional space for an intimate feel.

Over the past two-three years, there have been productions at coffee shops, bookstores, lifestyle stores, hotels, restaurants, gardens and even drawing rooms. English theatre groups and celebrity performers have held forth at outlets like Coffee Pai, Caffeine, Caf' Coffee Day, Crossword and Oxford bookstores, while the hotels have gone a notch higher and dished out star actors from Mumbai along with wine and cheese. And in most cases, there have been more people than seats.

Alternative spaces surely offer a different kind of experience for viewers. The proximity with actors, the eye-to-eye contact, the higher levels of concentration, the twists and the turns all add up to make the otherwise passive audience feel part-participant, part-catalyst.

Some would feel that today's intimate theatre in alternative spaces is Badal Sircar's 'third theatre' of the 70s in a frivolous form, which has shifted from streets and parks to glitzy coffee shops and dimly-lit drawing rooms. But is it really just a fad or is the stage in the city really going places'

Medium and message'

For some, a performance at an alternative site means utilising the space as a character in the play. 'Space is very organic to the text. In fact, the play dictates the space. Here minute details are also given importance. It gives the opportunity for something equivalent to close-ups in films,' says Pushan, who had also staged Hayavadana in a garden in Ballygunge.

Yet others feel the unconventional location can be used to reach out to a greater audience and get their message across. Dolly Basu, whose solo on Jaamal Abroo's Mang has been a great hit at both Oxford Bookstore and Tollygunge Club, feels she can perform the piece even on a street.

'It is flexi-theatre. I don't need to depend on the proscenium alone,' says Basu. She had also performed the Chupkatha production Dui Tarango at the lifestyle store Hugli in Hastings. 'Experiments are always welcome, but these shouldn't be at the cost of aesthetics. You must remember that you need to stir your audience emotionally, intellectually and visually,' she cautions.

For the host...

Experimentation is really at a very nascent stage. But such performances bring a lot of visibility to the theatre groups and the owners of the venues view it as an image-building exercise. 'People who drop in to see the plays don't really end up buying books. But we want to promote theatre as our shop is more than just a dull bookstore,' says Sidharth Pansari of Crossword bookstore, which saw a surging crowd during Her Stories late last year.

Luncheon, supper and cocktail theatre ' promoted by Trincas, The Hyatt and The Park ' is a more chilled-out experience. You can keep an eye on the makeshift stage while sipping champagne or having soup.

Hyatt has tasted success with supper theatre through Lillete Dubey and M.K. Raina, while The Park uncorked TV stars Tanaaz Currim and Vinay Jain with cocktails galore. 'As theatre is an intellectual pursuit, it helps build our image. We bring in good faces and no one leaves in the middle of the play,' sums up Shyama Mishra, PR manager, Hyatt.

But often, the supper scores over the stage and the cocktails drown the drama. 'It's a little annoying when you are performing and people are more worried about their soup,' admits stage veteran Punam Singh.

For the performer...

First and foremost, it's cost-effective. Minus the elaborate props, sets and the huge rent. 'Putting up a production at proscenium theatres has become very expensive and so the scope for experimentation has also narrowed. At an unconventional location, one can perform serious theatre, too,' says actor-director Arun Mukherjee.

Plus, the proximity with the audience demands a sharper focus from the performer. 'The actors have to be on their toes,' says Sohag Sen, whose group Ensemble staged Jogajog as part of the Odeon festival at Crossword last week.

Some performers select pieces that can connect with the younger generation. Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee enacted John Hankins' The Constant Lover at Caf' Coffee Day as the plot 'appealed to trendy young people who usually hang out or even date in a caf'.

For the audience '

The sheer thrill of something new is drawing in the numbers. The bookstores and the clubs, for instance, have members, clients and theatre enthusiasts trooping in, while the five-star hotels find the city's celeb circuit turning up to see and to be seen. Even more interesting is the audience profile at coffee shops, which is mostly a walk-in crowd of college-goers and young professionals.

'We have a customer base of 22 to 35-year-olds who drop in during plays through word of mouth. Often we can barely accommodate so many youngsters,' says Naveen Pai, proprietor of Coffee Pai on Camac Street, that played host to Theatrecian.

'I find intimate theatre very communicative and informal,' feels Sanjoy, a first-year student fascinated by the staging of Jogajog at Crossword. 'And I will surely come back for a second performance of this kind.'

It is this return audience that alone can drive the show to destinations diverse and dynamic.

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