Small in space, big on drama

Small in space, big on drama
It is a small theatre in a defunct mill in the heart of the erstwhile textile manufacturing hub of what was once Bombay. The mill stands silent while G5A, the theatre, throbs with activity. Put up by Anuradha Parikh, G5A is a black box auditorium; and Mumbai’s theatre lovers have gathered here to watch Gajab Kahani, the second play in the third season of plays, by Aadyam, an Aditya Birla group initiative.

We are perhaps 60 viewers seated on swivel chairs that we have to swivel constantly to watch a 360-degree performance that takes place all around us, against black-clad walls. Gajab Kahani narrates the story of an elephant and its mahout’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna, and it is to the credit of its director Mohit Takalkar and his team that they are able to bring alive this mammoth tale within the confines of the tiny G5A.

With just stark, wooden, raised structures surrounding the audience, this Pune-based group recreates royal palaces, forests, ships, snowstorms et al on the sheer strength of word power, lighting and sound effects. A marvellous collective effort that tells a sad-funny story set in 16th century Europe. Sometimes using all the four sides of the auditorium simultaneously, the play juxtaposes different classes of people in confrontational situations very effectively.

Complete experience

While G5A is a recent addition to Mumbai’s theatre scene, Experimental, another black box auditorium, has been in existence since 1986 as part of the National Centre for Performing Arts (founded by JRD Tata and Dr Jamshed Bhabha). Experimental has 300 movable seats that can be adjusted to suit innovative forms of drama as well as other performances.

Seema Bhargava Pahwa, veteran theatre artiste who put up Bhishmotsav here in 2015, the centenary year of Bhisham Sahani, explains why she chose this venue. “We staged a collection of Bhishamji’s short stories, which I feel come across better in a small space like a black box. Some of the stories were enacted by just two actors, or even one, and they could convey the nuances of their characters very effectively in this kind of intimate space.”

Indeed, in a black box auditorium, the actors can underplay and convey the deeper subtext in a subtle manner as did Yashpal Sharma at the above festival, in the play Oob, which means boredom. Far from boring the viewers, in an enthralling mono-act, Sharma conveyed the tedium of an exam invigilator’s job while simultaneously bringing alive and satirising those associated with a run-of-the-mill school.

Seema staged the festival with minimal props, basically using just a set of wooden boxes that were used innovatively in all the five stories. She says, “Flexibility is an important factor in the choice of props when you perform in a black box; but, as theatre artistes, we can create scenes just through words as we are tapping the unlimited imagination of the audience in telling a story. Of course, the actor’s performance and the lighting and music dramatises the story so the audience is kept spellbound.”

Samik Bandyopadhyay, Tagore National Fellow, School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, Delhi, says, “Once you have a black box, it can be used in many possible ways, elitist, experimental, classroom work, training etc.”

Seema is well-versed in the logistics of dramatising literature within the black walls of small auditoriums as she has been performing in such environs since her student days in Delhi’s National School of Drama (NSD). “Apart from NSD, we did black box shows in the basement of Shri Ram Centre in Delhi.” Her husband, versatile actor Manoj Pahwa, adds, “In the early 1980s, the black box auditorium in Shri Ram was a boon for fresh, struggling artistes like us. We would book the place for a week at Rs 400 a day and manage to recover the amount through ticket sales.”

Far away from bustling metropolises, in a village in Bengal, a group of 15 dedicated Santhals and 15 lower middle-class villagers have a theatre group called ‘Ebong Aamra’ (meaning ‘And Us’, clearly in contrast to Badal Sarkar’s celebrated play Ebong Indrajit, which was about an individual who stood apart). The group has created a self-sufficient theatre village, Tepantar, at some distance from Santiniketan, and adapts plays like Oedipus Rex and Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug. Appreciated in cities like Delhi as well, the group was given an initial donation from Rajya Sabha member and Kannada actor B Jayashree to put up a black box theatre in their village. The rest of the money was given by the UPA government under a scheme for black box theatres, drawn up by government experts.

Ebong Aamra does not sell tickets but gathers money after a show, with viewers giving whatever they can afford. Their audience comprises viewers from surrounding villages as well as students and faculty from Santiniketan’s Visva-Bharati University. Occasionally, die-hard theatre buffs from Kolkata and the district towns also trek to this village to watch a play innovatively staged by Ebong Aamra.

Perhaps, Ebong Aamra best reflects the spirit of the small, black-clad theatres that came up in the 1960s and 1970s in America when abandoned warehouses, schools etc., were converted into spaces for off-beat theatre to be performed at low costs. Theatres like Experimental in Mumbai, on the other hand, are not cheap to hire; and ticket prices, correspondingly, are on the steeper side. So, has the concept of black box theatre moved away from its original purpose of making experimental theatre affordable, both to the performers as well as to the audience?

The basic character

Apart from the cost factor, sometimes the content and manner of presentation of some plays defeat the raison d’etre of this genre of auditoria. Grand sets put up in the front as on a proscenium stage look disproportionate and out of place. So, what is the essential character of a black box auditorium? Sunil Shanbag, versatile and seasoned theatre director, sums it up perfectly. “The use of black as a colour and the flexibility of the space in a black box allow the staging to acquire a different quality,” he explains.

He goes on, “A black box ideally should allow the performers to arrange the staging area and the audience area as they desire. But sometimes, technical and other architectural issues come in the way. Again, not every production lends itself to a black box, so quite often a black box space is used like a conventional space, which in a way defeats the purpose of a black box.”

Further, he says, “Ideally, the black neutralises the backdrop, and if lit in a particular fashion, the play exists almost as if in a limbo, disconnected with a specific time or space. This is a powerful visual, aesthetic and artistic element and has to be considered. The black box allows experimentation…it breaks the conventionality of regular theatre spaces, it allows for a different relationship between the audience and the performers, and offers greater freedom to play with the use of space as an element in performance.”

A black box theatre, therefore, is a challenging area to perform in. And when utilised imaginatively, it can create magic, all of its own!

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