In March 2020, theatre actors across India were largely in rehearsals, trying costumes, reading scripts, planning plays, teaching children and going about life as they knew it. Sanitiser was seen in some rehearsal rooms, but masks were as yet, still rare. News of the pandemic was prevalent, but most were disbelieving of the scope and scale of the problem.
This writer was directing Ionesco’s Rhinoceros when, on March 18, a week before opening night, an emergency meeting was called and a decision was taken to ‘box’ the production. The shock was palpable. Actors would now have to take planes, trains and buses back to homes in Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam, Hyderabad. More than fears for their own safety, they were despondent about the play not opening. On March 22, a nationwide voluntary curfew was announced and on March 24, the Prime Minister declared a national lockdown. Theatres were closed and curtains were drawn on the future. The first domino had fallen.
Theatre has historically involved actors, audience and a space that unified the two, be it a temple courtyard as in Mudiyettu or Harikatha, open harvested fields as in Yakshagana, amphitheatres as in Greek, Roman and later Elizabethan theatre, proscenium theatres of the 19th century and contemporary alternative venues such as galleries and public architecture. Actors in these spaces, breathed the same air as their audience, literally and metaphorically. Then came the pandemic and air itself became a contested idea. Apparently, this virus could hover in the air for at least three hours, approximately the time one would spend in a theatre! Air now needed the mediation of N95 masks. The western-style proscenium theatre was the first victim of the pandemic and in Bengaluru, both Ranga Shankara and Jagriti took a hit.
Once actors got past the initial shock of the loss of venue, livelihood and community, they gathered on platforms online, to take stock. One such was a monthly Theatre Adda initiated by Bruce Guthrie from the National Centre for the Performing Arts along with fellow theatre-makers including Bengaluru’s Vivek Madan. The tone of the conversations was open, sans agenda and included deliberations on the philosophical underpinnings of space — is the virtual stage comparable in impact to the embodied ‘real’ stage? Can a performance still be called theatre if it is digital and actor and audience are not ‘breathing the same air’? In a field that thrives on the imaginary what is now considered ‘real’?
Thinking on their feet
The etymology of theatre originates in the Greek “theatron”, which refers to ‘the viewing space’ or group seating, which makes theatre a community art. Two words are operative here — theatron and community. By definition, the digital stage has been the domain of ‘viewing’, since the early 2000s, with people displaying performative actions and interactions on platforms like Instagram or Snapchat and apps such as TikTok, Dubsmash and Chingari. In addition, urban youth’s idea of the community will likely include online friends, followers and fellow players, so the question of the embodied or virtual stage is moot.
Actors, thinking on their feet, first began by using the digital stage for training and collaboration. One could teach online, organise workshops, increase the reach of one’s audience without breaking the bank. Local groups, Little Jasmine Theatre Project and Theatre Lab (Youth) organised an international symposium on Theatre Pedagogies in the time of Zoom called Because the world is YOU drawing together digital theatre resources and methodologies from the subcontinent and Europe. A near impossibility in pre-Covid times.
Then Zoom recognised the performance opportunities opening up and introduced filters, break out rooms and the ability to fix the layout of the Zoom boxes. Actors made forays into theatrical virtuality or digital theatre.
QTP reconfigured their successful play Every Brilliant Thing, featuring Vivek Madan, for the virtual stage. It wasn’t a question of simply performing on Zoom, they had to re-think everything from the semiotics of the visible furniture to camera angles and audience interaction. Being theatrical online as against merely performing online was a challenge that was raising the creative stakes. Anuja Ghosalkar animated her Instagram performance Lonely Hearts Club into a live Zoom performance. She used CCTV footage to enhance the sensation of being witnessed. Deepika Arwind created her poignant Pyaare 2020-ji from an interactive poetry series that began on Instagram and transformed itself into a physical performance. Akshay Gandhi explored the loneliness of being locked down in a Butoh-inspired digital piece called It Is What It Is. This writer created Nagamma’s Letters: Two Women, One Pandemic, a digital archive of communiqués on WhatsApp and Instagram.
Innovation on demand
So new aesthetic choices and authorial processes began to emerge despite the generalised attack on virtual stages as disembodied.
Being locked into one’s living spaces raised dramaturgical questions of the personal and familial. Something about an actor being witnessed in their own home is itself revealing and intimate. With less to play with in terms of stage design, intermediality offered more options.
Academic questions arose regarding the differences in audience experience when actors appeared unaware of being witnessed (as in CCTV footage) when they performed for the camera (this appears stylised) as against performing to the camera lens (this appears intimate, confidential). Also, of risk.
Since live embodied theatre has an element of unmediated risk, how do we bring that to digital theatre besides ensuring content is unedited and performed in real-time? Early in the pandemic, Delhi based, Guild of the Goat, collaborated with nine actors across the globe to create a virtual site-specific excavation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, revealing to the audience that while it was pre-recorded on Zoom, it was performed in realtime with no edits. Happily, the snobbery long associated with faux intellectualism in theatre, wasn’t kosher anymore because livelihoods were at stake. This allowed actors to free-range graze and express themselves through everything from radio plays to stand-up reels. But while the old lines defining theatre were softening, they were not altogether gone.
Vivek Madan, who co-facilitated a workshop on hybrid models of theatre-making called All the World’s a [Virtual] Stage says: “There seems to be a balance between caring and openness. Those who cared too much (or too little) for film or theatre found it harder to ‘allow’ for a different approach to either. And this different approach is a must in tackling a hybrid/digital theatre model of performance. So, those with a reasonably solid foundation of craft, a strong point of enquiry, combined with a sense of curiosity, of daring and a willingness to jettison principles that wouldn’t serve that point of enquiry, were the ones who took the most from the workshop.”
Significantly, the constraints of the lockdowns and the indelible image of migrant labour across the country had, perhaps momentarily, brought what was hidden to the surface. Issues of identity, caste, gender, sexuality and economic oppression are not easily camouflaged in the cyber-intimacy of a Zoom window. Sri Vamsi Matta began the process of creating Star in the Sky about Rohit Vemula, online. Ayesha Susan will shortly open her immersive gaming, performance The Amazing Flabby Breasted Virgin & Other Sordid Tales. By the end of 2022, intermedial theatre festivals may have become the norm. Hybrid or blended pedagogies and dramaturgies will not disappear even if the virus does, because we have morphed into a people who enjoy the sexy opportunities of the net.
In David Ekdahl’s paper, Our Body Does Not Have To End Where Digital Screens Begin, he counters the attack on virtuality with his research on e-sports practitioners and video gamers. He observes that even on a virtual stage the audience are able to perceive subtle emotions, intentions and motivations, “just as we might intuitively recognise these phenomena based on how another’s physical body moves and acts in an embodied space.” Similarly, in a talk on Rasa and Empathy, Mallika Prasad said “When a performer experiences emotion in her body and is witness to this, there is a direct transference of sensations from her to the audience. Sometimes the audience is not even in the same physical space as the performer and this transference happens anyway. This is the general understanding of empathy. The closest one can come to describing the process of Rasa is mirror neurons in action.”
The new gatekeepers
Yet, if traditional embodied spaces had problems of elitism and gatekeeping, the politics of the virtual stage are not entirely different. Proprietary ownership of apps and internet access are the new gatekeepers. I asked Anuja Ghosalkar if this were easy to negotiate and she said: “I would like to treat this is as a provocation, a call to action — that each individual who engages with virtuality, has agency. Rather than think of ourselves as victims of Big Data, can we imagine ourselves as entities that can use those tools for dissent, to break norms, forms? Can we treat it as a starting point — that places human agency at a much more empowered level?”
While understanding the inevitability of the virtual stage, the soul of an actor knows it’s a mixed bag. Of course, we’ll keep on trucking, that’s in our DNA and the virtual stage will be summited too. But oh, how the skin misses human skin. The eyes miss making a connection with an unknown pair of eyes. The sublime beauty of breathing the same air as one’s audience. Thus we advance, seeking balance and that strange equilibrium of hybrid consciousness. As Yuval Noah Harari says “…our best bet is to develop our emotional intelligence, resilience, the ability to keep changing all the time.”
The author is an actor, director and filmmaker. She recently wrote a book of short stories about Bengaluru, while she was an artist-in-residence at Villa Waldberta, Munich.