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From stage to cyberspace — theatre in the time of Covid

Zoom plays, audio plays, going solo — how the Kolkata theatre scene has coped with the pandemic

Vedant Karia | Published 13.09.21, 04:20 PM

Illustration by Tiyasa Das.

Theatre, an art form that relies on cohabiting a common space with the audience, has undergone an overhaul since the pandemic struck. Amateurs and veterans associated with the art form, spoke to My Kolkata about how they spent most of last year striving to redefine their lives and the meaning of drama.

Disappearing global boundaries

Sumit Lai Roy, founder of The Red Curtain — one of Kolkata’s oldest theatre groups — went international during the pandemic, as many of the group’s founding members are now stationed across the globe. In fact, The Red Curtain International is organising The Good Theatre Festival 2021 on September 25 and 26, where the world’s best theatre groups will put up six productions under a common platform, before a veteran jury.

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The 2020 edition of the festival allowed Roy to broaden his horizons and forge new relationships in this all-new digital world. “Hijinx from Wales, Big Telly Theatre Company from Northern Ireland, and How Drama from Singapore have done very creative work, and they are now friends and colleagues due to the disappearing boundaries,” he said.

The group introduced a ‘pay-it-forward’ format last year, where the show was free, and if the audience thought that more people should see it, they “paid it forward” to cover the production cost of the next show. The motive of the format was to help actors and technicians find work during such a time, and all members of the team were paid $10 per show (about Rs 744), which put the budget of each show at $350 (about Rs 26,000), since 10 people were employed as backstage hands, for set and costume design as well as technical and lighting expertise. 

 “Geography became history as we managed to bring members from 30 countries on board. One of our productions, The Art of Facing Fear had 25 actors from five continents performing simultaneously. We also raised more money for social causes in three months than we did in three years, because people were paying in dollars. This new model has changed the economics of what we were doing,” said Roy.

Zooming in

Theatre is in fact becoming a digital art. In less than a month after the first lockdown in 2020, veteran group Theatrecian performed its first play, No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre, to raise funds for technicians affected by the pandemic. Co-founder Tathagata Chowdhury lauded Zoom’s corporate feature as being a great simulation for the auditorium experience. “The actors performed live from their spaces. We had a separate channel for panellists and the audience. This helped create a virtual green room for our actors.” Chowdhury, who has directed five plays and conducted three screenwriting workshops during the course of the pandemic, counts the attendance of a global audience as a major perk of going online.

Theatrecian has tried to keep their e-plays socially relevant. For instance, Silence! The Court is in Session addressed the Boys’ Locker Room incident. Anushka Dasgupta, an actor at Theatrician who co-wrote Silence! The Court is in Session saw this new format as an amalgamation of theatre and film, with a greater scope of experimentation. Dasgupta had to accommodate the reduced attention span on Zoom by making the comprehensive play more compact. “By letting go of the subtleties, you’re not giving enough time for characters to develop. Dialogue-heavy plays are also a challenge given how the sound might face a glitch during the show,” she explained.

An audible era

Several youth theatre groups in Kolkata switched to audio plays during the lockdown. Hypokrites saw audio plays as an opportunity to release productions more regularly and maintain quality. “Not only does the absence of visual elements make producing plays easier, but audio dramas also amplify the audience’s imagination power,” said Anindya Sain, treasurer of the group, who was greatly influenced by Radio Mirchi’s Sunday Suspense.

This is also what prompted Udbhab to produce more than eight audio plays during the lockdown. “This format was primarily made for the radio, and drafted in a way where, irrespective of space, they would appeal to listeners as no visual details were required,” said co-founder of Udbhab, Aratrick Bhadra.

However, it wasn’t a smooth process, as actors sending individual recordings from their phones resulted in inconsistent audio quality which proved tough for the editor to fix. This made them select plays with scope for audio experimentation, like Utpal Dutt’s Tiner Tolowar.

Udbhab presented Tiner Tolowar, a segment of the audio play written by Utpal Dutta.

The inclusion of audio effects also gave producers more room for symbolisation outside of dialogue. Bhadra credited Samuel Beckett’s audio plays for the idea of incorporating sound effects, apart from dialogue, to draw the listener’s attention.

Take it to the audience

Suvendu Mukhopadhyay, who has been a mime artiste for 31 years, used to find a place on Kolkata’s stage for many adaptations. But with theatre moving online, Mukhopadhyay had to creatively rebuild himself. “This experience has taught me that even if audiences do not come to see me perform live, I need to go to them with my craft,” he says. The blurring of boundaries allowed Mukhopadhyay to conduct workshops online, and share his knowledge of illusion, expression, characterisation, and imagination with keen students, who earlier would have had to travel extensively to find a mentor.  

Mukhopadhyay has also found the chance to fly solo, since the pandemic has forced theatre groups to work with a reduced cast. He finds that this has given him the chance to hone his skills. “With more time at hand to read, we have also had the inspiration to adapt innovative themes into minimal production,” said Mukhopadhyay, who recently did a single-person production on India’s casteist society, by drawing a parallel with the George Floyd incident in America.

Suvendu Mukhopadhyay uploaded a production on casteism based on the George Floyd incident.

Curtain call

Unfortunately, not everyone has managed to adapt, or, indeed, had a chance to. While actors and directors have found a space for their craft online, technicians have had to endure the weight of the pandemic. Ajay Ranu, a technician with over 30 years of experience working in the light and set department for renowned groups including Padatik and Theatrecian, has been at home without a job for over a year. He realises that there may be little opportunity for him to resume work. “People are in a lot of pain and don’t have money, especially for entertainment… we are doing odd jobs to feed our families, from selling fish to working as daily labourers,” he sighed, adding that most technicians were only surviving due to government rations.

While different people have tried different things, the constant response among all remains that nothing really replaces the flavour of being on stage, and performing for an audience. But the pandemic has forced us all to forgo the comfort zones of what we know, and purchase an e-ticket into the unknown.

Last updated on 14.09.21, 09:18 PM
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