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Dear Aadyam

Is it possible to earn a living by doing just theatre?
– Anushka Ghose, Thespo Fellow, Hyderabad.

Dear Optimist,

I discovered the stage in school in Delhi when I was a child. I always loved performing in plays and was constantly attending theatre workshops in my summer vacations. I think it started as a means for my parents to keep me busy and out of their hair, progressed to a means for me to bunk classes in school and college and then as a means for me to buy time (and therefore, my freedom)  in Bombay when I came here for a “vacation” from Delhi. Ahem…over seventeen years ago.

It definitely bought me time (I mean, if I was committed to perform, obviously I couldn’t go back to Delhi), but to buy literally anything else, I have had to do multiple other things. My context is only Bombay, so my opinion is also entirely from the perspective of surviving in a very expensive city. Over the years, I’ve worked full time with a training company as a Voice and Accent Trainer and then a Corporate Trainer (and rushed to rehearsal after work, almost never making it on time), I’ve run production for theatre, ad films, short format digital content… all so that I could continue to act in the theatre. I now own a pickle company and do as much voiceover work as I can to try and support a comfortable living. But I always come back to the theatre. It’s like an addictive habit that one has to support with alternate sources of income.

Having said that, in 2019, I was lucky enough to have four running shows (even one that I had co-directed!!) with three very prolific and reputable theatre companies. I was performing on forty-two out of fifty-two weekends across the country. I was working with actors and directors that I could have only dreamed of working with when I first came to Bombay. This is a best case scenario for a freelance theatre actor in India. And I had to work relentlessly for sixteen years to be in it. Was I happy? I was elated! I absolutely adore being on stage and I love doing no other thing more than I love acting. Could I have survived had I not been working outside of the theatre? Maybe… but by the skin of my teeth. And the operative word being, “survived”.  Would I have managed to save anything in order to have survived the last six months in light of the Covid-19 lockdown? Definitely not.

But that’s just me. I know that a lot of my contemporaries have supported themselves, at least for a period of time, from performing in musicals (I wish I could sing and dance!) that run for seasons, as opposed to the short (a week if you’re very, very lucky) runs that smaller productions get over varying venues in different cities. I also have friends that have managed to run their homes, and indulge in some luxuries as well as manage some modest savings, from long running shows that have had the rare good fortune of either sponsors or multiple international tours.  Or both. But again, for a period of time. I have heard that Marathi and Gujarati theatre can be quite lucrative because of the sheer number of shows that happen and the frequency that they happen with.

Of course, all this was pre-pandemic. I wonder what the “new normal” holds for us? Will it be easier? Will people be dying to watch live shows after having been cooped up for so long? Or will it be even more difficult to pull them out of their pyjamas and their homes, away from the thousands of viewing options that are available on their screens? One can only live on hope. And I truly hope that one day, it is possible to earn a comfortable living from just acting in the theatre in India.

– Prerna Chawla

About Prerna Chawla

Prerna Chawla has acted in over 40 productions with prominent theatre groups such as Akvarious Productions, Motley, Rage, Aarambh, The Company Theatre, to name a few. She has been a voice & accent/behavioural trainer and is a prolific voiceover artist. She also runs a successful pickle business along with her sister, Pickle Shickle.

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