All for the love of theatre...

All for the love of theatre...
Theatre is undergoing change the world over and India is no exception. Mahesh Elkunchwar, one of India’s most celebrated modern playwrights, and Anuradha Kapur, former director of the Delhi-based National School of Drama, talk about the latest trends in Indian theatre today...

I have noticed a trend wherein classics are being endlessly repeated in theatre, sometimes with a contemporary twist to them. Is this because we lack good, original Indian writing for theatre today?

MAHESH ELKUNCHWAR (ME): Plays are being written, and some very good ones too, but it is also true that somehow they have not been able to rise to the stature of plays written in the 70s and 80s. Classics are being repeated all over the world. There is something in them that people of all times can relate to.

ANURADHA KAPUR (AK): I think going back to texts doesn’t necessarily indicate that there is nothing new being written; instead, it is a re-evaluation of our own time… 

In the West, there is a growing trend of sequels, even in theatre. For instance, there is a new ‘Doll’s House’ and a ‘Beyond Miss Julie’, which begin where the classic plays by Ibsen & August Strindberg, ended… Any such example in Indian theatre?

ME: Well, G P Deshpande has written two sequels to Tendulkar’s Kanyadan and I think, Sakharam Binder. They failed to convey any experience. Personally, I find this effort not only futile but somehow unethical. To build a superstructure on somebody else’s work shows lack of originality. If at all that play requires a sequel, it should be left to the writer.

AK: I’m not sure there’s another example vis- a- vis a contemporary text, but there are many attempts at reworking stories from the classical repertoire — like those of Sita, Draupadi, etc. There are attempts at reconstructing novels as well. And why not? I sought to do that with Umrao Jan Ada and collaborated with the distinguished novelist Geetanjali Shree to look at Umrao and her (life) or lives from different perspectives. Not just the one that delivers her towards a point of regret and victimage, which is what happens at the end of the novel, but one in which she has options, in which she carves a role for herself instead of stepping into one.

‘Immersive theatre’ is a new experience in our metropolises, which take the audience to non-conventional performance spaces. Do you think that proscenium theatres, which are conventional auditoria, are on their way out?

ME: People have been doing theatre on terraces, lawns and courtyards of homes for quite a few years in Mumbai. Auditoriums charge heavily and amateurs did /do not have that kind of money. Wanting to get rid of the proscenium also has been an artistic passion for many. I think the immediacy in theatre depends on the exchange between the actor/s and the audience. And this exchange is possible in conventional proscenium theatres, which may be absent in immersive theatre. 

AK: I believe immersive theatre is about experiencing a site and awakening the senses around that site. It places the sensorium as central to understanding a play. For example, in my play, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, the scenes didn’t go to the audience, it was the other way round. The play was laid out on the grounds and in a classroom, and each place had different atmospheres which one could smell and experience sensorially. I preferred this to presenting an Olympian view of the script, through the eyes of an omnipresent author.

Mahesh, you collaborated with Anuradha on the production of your classic, ‘Wada Chirebandi’, which was played out on a fantastic open set designed by scenographer Deepan Sivaraman, on the NSD school grounds. The audience perched on the top like voyeurs watching the goings-on beneath. Can you both talk about that experience?

ME: It was a new experience for me and since then, I have been looking around for someone who would try the play out in one of our traditional wadas. This seems to be going contradictory to what I have said earlier. It is not. We must try all possible ways of doing a text and see if we can lend different dimensions to it. Anu’s production did that and that is largely because she had choreographed the play beautifully.

AK: Again, the idea of laying out a wada came from an improvisation in which I had asked the actors to tell the whole epic story as from a particular room. The puja room, the kitchen, the bedroom, the water body… Naturally, the focus of the story changed every time the site changed. The story from a kothri was different from one told from the kitchen where the women slaved all day. The spectator needed to ask — am I a voyeur, a family member, a neighbour, or a passerby? By asking this, the epic scale came very close to the viewer.
 Anuradha, what is site-specific theatre? That is catching on too…

AK: Site-specific theatre aims to use a real architectural building or landscape for theatre: it does not use architecture that is made specially for theatre like theatre halls. Site-specific theatre causes a two-way change: the site becomes differently apprehended once performance happens on it, and the performance becomes different when it is performed in a ‘real’ environment.

Many of your plays are performed by amateur groups, Mahesh. With the costs of production and auditoriums soaring and sponsorships shrinking, what do you think is the future of amateur theatre in India?

ME: Amateur theatre is always poor, anywhere in the world. My plays were done in the classrooms of ramshackle municipal buildings, some faraway abandoned halls. We performed in the evening, swept the floor ourselves, removed the cobwebs and could afford only a couple of lights. But the plays worked. Even now, at least in Maharashtra, there are groups which are doing theatre just like we did 50 years ago. It will always be like this and this theatre will never die.

As someone who has groomed youngsters to become theatre professionals, what is your take on amateur theatre, Anuradha, because only a very small percentage of theatre enthusiasts are lucky enough to secure admission to theatre school in India or abroad...

AK: Amateur comes from the word ‘amour’, which means love. I think theatre making is a passion, a way of critical thinking and of engaging with your times. And because there is engagement, it also makes you commit to your moment in history. Without love, I think any profession is impossible.  But only love and inspiration don’t necessarily produce work. Like any profession, theatre needs work, labour, patience, and it’s this aspect that professional training hopes to achieve and which is its pedagogical intent.

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