On Stage to Online: In a virtual avatar performing arts can be enjoyed from one’s home, but can it entirely replace the stage experience?

Performing arts like theatre took a severe beating because of the pandemic. But today, it is available in a virtual avatar and can be enjoyed from one’s home. The virtual medium has its own advantages and disadvantages, though

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With theatre being a live and experiential form of entertainment, Talpade, however, feels that the need of the hour is to go online

The call starts with “How are you? Do you have any special concerns or reasons for happiness?” When one replies, the person on the other end reciprocates with an evenly-balanced dialogue for the next 15 minutes. Picking up on the issues raised, the ‘poet-doctor’ reads one verse of poems related to the conversation. The verses are selected from a collection compiled as ‘Poetic Vidal’—in reference to the Vidal compendium of pharmaceutical drugs which doctors consult when prescribing medication for patients. Poetic Vidal has more than 300 poems of William Blake, Samuel Beckett, Maya Angelou, William Butler Yeats, Leonard Cohen and many more, arranged according to subjects related to love, travelling, loneliness, happiness and childhood. Once the poet-doctor has read the poems, he/she draws up a poetry prescription for the person. For example, twice a day, reads two excerpts from the Mahabharata or verses by Verlaine—the texts are sent by email.

These one-on-one interactions between patients and actors by reading a selected poem is a therapeutic initiative by prominent Paris playhouse Théâtre de la Ville to keep its artistes working while the theatres remain dark. “While it may now be impossible to have audiences in our theatres, we have always felt duty-bound in these difficult times to express solidarity with humanity in such strange situations,” says Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, director of Théâtre de la Ville, a performance art theatre in Paris, whose team till date has called more than 15,000 people from all age groups. “We have had consultations by phone from people on offshore oil platforms to the elderly almost on a daily basis, to the point where we get to know one another and end up on first-name terms. Over time, some of them have died and we have received messages from their families expressing gratitude,” he adds. The poetic consultations continue in hospitals today in connection with education. The troupe is organising a World Day of Consultations on September 19 in several cities around the world, including Berlin, Bucharest, Florence, Dakar, Abidjan, Douala and Kaoshiung.

As soon as the pandemic hit, Demarcy-Mota knew that the team could no longer have live performances, so he formed an improvised theatre company and started consultations on telephone with 150 people from all sorts of backgrounds. The France-based troupe includes 120 artistes (others are doctors, scientists, etc) and is available around the world for consultations in 24 different languages.

Performing arts like theatre took a severe beating because of the pandemic. With theatres and performance houses closed, it seemed to be a death knell for the community. But thanks to innovations like Demarcy-Mota’s, the sector is now scaling new heights—virtually. Today, theatre is available for arts lovers in a virtual avatar and can be enjoyed on one’s laptop screen, smart TV and mobile phone.

However, the virtual medium has its own advantages and disadvantages, and may not entirely replace the stage experience. Despite a personalised viewing experience with sound clarity and no travel inconvenience, online theatre lends itself to some pertinent enquiries too, namely questions of accessibility of live acts and who does one actually perform to.

Reinvent, refresh
The idea of poetry as healing was first expressed by 20th-century Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who saw it as a cure for all afflictions. Today, Pessoa’s prescription inspires Théâtre de la Ville’s Demarcy-Mota, who has been receiving positive feedback on their therapeutic initiative. “We wanted to utilise the passive time actively and bring poetry and art in ways to improve well-being through moments of discussion and human interaction,” he says. While this idea was invented well before the pandemic and is designed for people who are not necessarily theatre-goers, the group’s poetic consultations offer people moments for discussions about poetry with even face-to-face conversations between an actor and a passer-by in public areas such as cafés, railway stations, libraries and shopping malls.

There are many initiatives happening closer home too. Take, for instance, the online theatre festival organised by Modern School Old Students Association (MSOSA) Naatak Mandali along with actor, director, writer and playwright Sohaila Kapur. The festival took place on Zoom in August this year and was broadcast on the social media handles of the association like Facebook and Instagram. It, in fact, continues to play on YouTube today. Interestingly, the festival—which had four hilarious one-act plays shot with 16 actors of all ages—was rehearsed and shot from each actor’s house who had never met each other.

The duration of each play, shot in Punjabi, Hindi and English, is about 30-40 minutes. The setting is the drawing room of a house where every actor is required to sit in one corner. “We try to take the best corner of each person’s room, which looks good as the drawing room of a house,” says Kapur, who is also a Modernite and the director of the MSOSA theatre festival.

Jaisa Tum Kaho revolves around an elderly couple, who rent out their house to a lawyer couple and how it all goes awry when a Haryanvi cook steps in. Suppressed Desires, written by Susen Glaspell, is about a psychologist and how she gets into the habit of scrutinising the habits and happenings in the lives of her close family, scaring them with her grim analyses. Total Syappa is an adaptation of Anton Chekov’s popular comedy, The Proposal, and is adapted to a Punjabi household in Delhi. Gossip Nama is an adaptation of the play He Said She Said written by Alice Gerstenberg.

The primary reason the plays are all in the comedy genre is because they wanted to make people feel happy, says Delhi-based Kapur. “When you are locked up at home, all you need is laughter, entertainment, drama and comedy,” she explains.

In 2020 and 2021, Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), the national theatre festival and awards ceremony, hosted its first virtual awards show. Directors created shows on video-conferencing platforms, and kept the essence of live theatre intact. “Theatre actors and directors have seen a huge shift—from creating and curating for digital as opposed to performing live. Rehearsals are on Zoom, green rooms are at home, the stage is a virtual platform. Actors, sound engineers, light designers, costume and make-up teams, stage technicians, etc, have all run out of work and it is very difficult to sustain the theatre ecosystem in such tough times. The challenges are many yet creative professionals have managed to create some beautiful productions,” says Mumbai-based Jay Shah, vice president, head—cultural outreach, Mahindra & Mahindra.

An OTT treat
If people can’t reach the theatre, it should reach people. Theatre artiste, actor, producer and director Shreyas Talpade took this adage very seriously. To save this performing art from the devastating effects of the pandemic last year, the artiste-turned-entrepreneur entered the startup ecosystem and launched his own OTT platform Nine Rasa. A platform exclusively designed for theatre and the performing arts, it brings a unique blend of nine emotions to entertain and enrich the viewers.

“The thought triggered last year when artistes and technicians were the worst hit. If online services served as the best medium to learn, watch and pursue hobbies like dance, cooking, fitness, then why not an OTT space for theatre, given its reach as a platform?” says Talpade. “But every new idea is met with resistance. Nine Rasa wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t come from a theatre background… it made me discuss, with many around, what could be done to tide over the situation. Theatre is one of the oldest and purest forms of entertainment. Amidst our busy lives and newer entertainment options available, it has taken a backseat over the years and that kept bothering me. In order to bring it back with similar excitement, this time was the most suitable,” says the 45-year-old actor, who now plans to approach big-ticket stars willing to act on stage.

Nine Rasa offers content in multiple variations, including plays, skits, storytelling and standup, across genres. There are over 100 hours of content available in Hindi, English, Marathi, Gujarati, with plans to add content in Malayalam, Haryanvi, Rajasthani and Bengali soon. New talent along with seasoned artistes (namely, Manish Chaudhary, Vijay Kenkre, Sapna Sand, Rajendra Gupta, Muni Jha, Sejal Jha, Sanjay Narvekar, Atul Parchure, Vishakha Subhedar and Sanjay Mone, among others) can be seen performing hits like Aye Ladki (Hindi), Atithi Devo Bhawa (Marathi), Sahebji Darling (Marathi), Pause (Gujarati) and Pashmina (Hindi).

There are three ways to earn for an artiste: being paid for their performance while shooting, during ground shows, and online contractual shows with a good chunk of the revenue shared with the team. A self-funded venture with close to Rs 4.5 crore spent on technology and generating content, Talpade feels there is no competition to Nine Rasa. “We are not competing with Netflix and Amazon… there is no other platform doing OTT theatre, so the 100% audience on OTT is technically my 100% audience,” says Talpade, who will be seen acting in one play, besides Hindi and Marathi films and web series in the near future.

Virtual court
Staged as a grand political event in Red Fort, Delhi, the 1858 trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor of India, by the East India Company marked not only the end of the Revolt of 1857, but also the end of the Mughal dynasty, bringing India under the direct control of the British crown. Found guilty of waging war against the state and treason against the British government in India, Zafar was exiled to Burma (now Myanmar). This legal event was intended to influence public opinion rather than ensure justice and is, therefore, a very useful form of art and theatre, says Delhi-based theatre director and lighting designer Zuleikha Chaudhari, whose virtual project Re: Staging the Trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar (which will air on Zoom by the end of the year) makes one think about the relationship between theatre, law, politics and historiography.

“Though the legitimacy of this trial has been questioned and criticised—not least because the East India Company had been formally operating in India as a vassal of the Mughal state—the trial’s guilty verdict and the subsequent banishment of the old emperor ushered in a new sovereign in India. This trial then can be viewed as the foundational moment of formal, colonial Indian legal history,” says the director, who has been exploring since 2014 the framework of law as performance, the role of performance in law, and the performativity of legal truth production.

Occurring at the juncture of pre-colonial and colonial law in India, the trial continues to be relevant, as it paved the way for the Indian Penal Code to be introduced in 1860. Based on the intrinsic relationship between theatre and law in general and the very specific ‘theatrical’ nature of Zafar’s show trial, Re: Staging the Trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar takes the form of a contemporary commission of inquiry with two lawyers, a judge and a series of expert witnesses investigating the 1858 trial and examining the ways in which legal legitimacy comes to be articulated, manifested and secured in the courtroom—or not.

While in earlier projects, Chaudhari has used artistes and actors as witnesses, in this performance, the lawyers will be in focus. “Although it is not so easy to find lawyers who are actors or vice-versa, the performance will also use Zafar’s poetry as a way to offer a counter-narrative to the original prosecution case,” she says, adding that the pandemic has changed courtrooms, which have taken up remote hearings. “Many are expected to remain online or in blended form for the foreseeable future. The staging of a virtual courtroom via this project seeks to examine whether, and how, legal processes and rituals that have been created to portray authority in the physical space translate to an online space,” says Chaudhuri, who has been working on the project for a year in collaboration with legal historian Kanika Sharma and School of African and Oriental Studies in the UK.

Continuous adaptation
Both Sharma and Chaudhuri are interested in how the physicality of the courtroom—vis-a-vis the costume of a judge and the atmosphere in the courtroom—translates into a digital performance on Zoom. “I feel theatre has to continue to adapt with the times. There will be a time when we go back to the physical space and this online learning can give us a chance to think about some important issues,” shares Chaudhuri, who feels performing online allows one to think about connectivity and accessibility. “What one can take back to live performance are the questions of where one performs, who does one perform to, as well as questions of financial access. The overall economic structure around live performance has limitations,” she adds.

Delhi-based director Sohaila Kapur agrees: “There are many limitations in the online medium. The little windows on the screen are differently placed and the duration of picture boxes is also different, so the actors have to look straight into the laptop camera and can’t look left or right. You can’t say ‘action’ or raise your hand while performing. All faces are in closeup on screen and show exact expressions, so the actor has to stay alert all the time. The screen backdrop has to match with the setting of the play, so that the look and feel is real and similar to each one’s setup. We specifically choose a play that is dialogue-oriented and not action-oriented. It’s like a film shoot where you see the face unlike in theatre, where you see the whole stage,” she says.

With theatre being a live and experiential form of entertainment, Talpade, however, feels that the need of the hour is to go online. “Unlike films, once you miss theatre, you never know when it’s going to come back on stage. So why should any performance in today’s day and age remain limited to auditoriums? The world needs to see how hard actors perform. And theatre deserves that kind of appreciation. You give a person money, you feed him for a day, but if you give him work, you feed him for life,” says the actor.

“My vision is to reach out to millions of millennials who want to see theatre with their parents and haven’t been able to venture out in the past. The fact that OTT gives the space to experiment with theatre and characters, makes it a versatile medium today,” adds Talpade.

Theatre has to continue to adapt with the times. There will be a time when we go back to the physical space and this online learning can give us a chance to think about some important issues
— Zuleikha Chaudhari, director, ‘Re: Staging the Trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar’

If online services can serve as the best medium to learn, watch and pursue hobbies like dance, cooking and fitness, then why not an OTT space for theatre, given its reach as a platform?
— Shreyas Talpade, founder, OTT platform Nine Rasa

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