Let me jump straight in. I am Vivek Madan, an actor and producer/curator based out of Bangalore.
My most recent offering as an actor is QTP’s production of Every Brilliant Thing, a solo, interactive piece written by Duncan McMillan and Johnny Donahoe, and directed by Q. We opened the play in March 2019 and completed 45 shows around the country until we were forced into a hiatus, like the rest of the world, because of the pandemic. Fair warning to those who haven’t seen the play: I’ve tried to be vague about the plot details but there may be some spoilers ahead.
In April 2020, a week or so into the national lockdown, two friends of mine, Nadir Khan and Arundhati Ghosh, suggested that we devise an online or a Zoom version of the play. QTP had also been similarly prodded, but we resisted. For one, we felt this thing would blow over quickly (oh such fools we were!) and for another, neither Q nor I are particularly enamoured by the notion of making work for the camera. Besides, we said, this piece is so interactive… So sensitive… It needs a shared space… The lack of physical proximity will kill the play!
Cut to (see, I’m already using filmy phrases) about 40 days later. I get a message from Q saying Insider has approached them (In the persistent person of Nadir, remember him?) to do EBT online, what do I think? By this time, we had all encountered people – or stories of people – who had begun to feel a sense of despair at the loneliness, the hopelessness, the breakdown of our healthcare and crisis management systems, the lack of paid work… The pandemic had truly hit and the logical remedy for nearly all of these things – meeting, working, playing, rehearsing, a handshake or a hug – was denied us, seemingly with no respite.
So… Q, Toral, Vivek Rao and I spoke. We agreed that we should at least try doing the play; that the reasons for doing it outweighed the trepidations for not. I don’t want to make us seem like heroes on fast horses charging in to ‘save’ people, so I will also say that though we in the team were fortunate enough to be free of the illness, we were all infected by the malaise that it had caused and we were looking forward to immersing ourselves in something productive, something useful, something creative! You know the litany: selfishness and altruism, manifesting themselves in turn and in equal measure.
And then began one of the most fascinating and frustrating rehearsal processes I have experienced. The first week was really easy. We were reacquainted with the text, the joy of the words, of hearing them out loud, of embarking on a journey again. Wonderful! This will be easy!
And from the second week on, the cracks started to appear.
The first thing to take a toll on me was the fact that I was cameraman, stage manager, lighting assistant, coffee-maker and actor. Due credit to Q, Toral and the team, they realised this early on and tried to find ways of making this weigh less heavily, but there was really no choice. Now with the lockdown having eased, it’ll be easier to have some support ‘on location’ but at the time, it was just me and it was taxing to do all of that and perform. For someone who had done years of production work, this was particularly galling!
Coming to performing. There are so many small hurdles that I hadn’t considered…
The fact that I had to look into the camera on my laptop, in order for it to seem like I was making eye contact. I couldn’t look at the faces of the audience on my screen, except at certain specific points, because looking at them in their homes, rather than looking at them on my screen, was my only link to them.
So, on the one hand, I’m doing all this acting to this tiny black dot on my computer. And on the other, I can’t tell if all this acting is actually working because when I’m close the camera, people can tell if my eyes dart here and there and when I’m far away from the camera, I can’t see them at all because their faces are so small.
Then there’s the fact that everyone is on mute. I had argued early on that I wanted everyone to stay with mics on for the show and I was gently vetoed. Thank God! While it was a good idea in theory, the number of times we heard all kinds of extraneous sounds during shows… That’s a whole other blogpost.
So everyone stayed on mute. And I could only hear myself.
It was really weird. And it changed my relationship with the silences in the play. Q pointed that out later in the process, it was a revelation.
Another thing that changed significantly in tangible terms, was the tone of certain sections. Since I couldn’t rely on subliminal communication through gesture, through a glance at a particular person, I found that I needed to be more instructional – I think that’s the word, or maybe I should say more overt? – in my interactions. I needed to spell out what I needed, whom I was requesting help from, and that meant the tone, the pace, my hold on the play changed significantly and had to be balanced with more ease, more candour.
There were other challenges (I had to constantly look at myself on screen to check if I was in frame, it was oddly hypnotic and very distracting; I hated the way I would use my hands in mid-shots; I had to work hard to stay off-centre in the frame because that’s so much more interesting, but so much riskier and so not natural) but in the interest of brevity, I will jump to the most significant one. Because of all of these various reasons, every acting impulse, every change in mood or tone or tempo, every reaction, had to be self-generated. For the most part, I simply had no idea how the audience was receiving it so I couldn’t course correct. And except for the parts where I engage in dialogue with a member of the audience, I had nothing to play off. It was like performing in (or into) a cave with Echo as my only audience member, invisible but there, giving back only what I gave and not an iota more.
As daunting as all of this sounds, we worked it all out, one by one. And the things that held us in good stead are the things that haven’t changed in the transition from stage to digital.
- We always sought the answer to the question of why. Why would I move now? Why switch now? Why does the frame need to be wide for this portion and why come so close at this other one? An example: we wondered why I was telling this story. At the stage show, we had made the room feel like a support group, a unified and unifying space: something that bears out towards the end of the play. But here, with no way to unify anything, we said that I had invited people ‘home’ to simply share my story. I couldn’t make it work. Which brings us to…
- Rehearsal. Trial and error. Serendipity. Endless discussion, unpacking, unknotting, unlearning. I said the words, “Thank you for being here, in my home” at the beginning of every preview. A couple of days before we opened, thanks to some feedback from a preview audience member, I added “And thank you for having me in yours” And that was it. It had taken us a long time to realise that we were so focused on how people were in my home; we hadn’t caught on to the fact that I was in theirs! We had opened the door to that feeling of unity, of community!
- Trust. In a long-distance rehearsal, it’s almost like it has to be renewed. Because you expect the relationship to be the same, but it isn’t. It loses some nuance, some of the ease; it gains a hard edge. You can sense it in interruptions or when you have to repeat something because of audio failure, or when you can’t quite see where the other person’s attention is or where the tension in their body is. So, trust. Same as in the stage version, but with a premium.
And then there are some things that even rehearsal can’t help with. Internet issues. Power cuts. Audience members forgetting their lines or their cues (as simple as they were), people moving around during the show with their camera, unwittingly taking everyone else on a tour of their own homes as they combed their hair, made coffee, smoked a cigarette, turned on a mixie, drove a car!
For these things, there was a team. And it is a wonderful team. On the stage show, we have one stage manager who runs sound, and one person on lights. Here, we had a team of five people. Someone was monitoring audience participation and stepping in when they missed a cue, someone else was writing closed captions (a medium-based addition that really mitigated the distance), a third person was on sound, four and five were on tech support. And every member of the team had a backup person, in case their internet or power fluctuated. It was a large-scale operation with multiple redundancies built in, and few Companies can manage this with the aplomb, ability and attitude that QTP is rightly known for. Big shout out to Rachit Khetan, Robbin Singh and Srishti Ray!
I’ll leave you with two thoughts to consider. One is practical: we were only given permission to do 8 shows, because digital performing rights is a new animal and agents and estates haven’t quite figured it out yet. Until they do, in the way of most bureaucratic setups, the default response will be no. We were also affected by the new IPRS tariff. They asked us for Rs. 60,000 per show! I mean, what are they smoking??? (Kaizad Gherda came to our rescue and gave us his music to use. It worked beautifully.) So, factor in copyrights and licenses is the first thought.
And the second is philosophical. Was what we did theatre? Was it a play? QTP has a distinct view, that’s why the publicity referred to it as a ‘live, participative, story-sharing experience’. Personally, I don’t agree. But I think there are several definitions of what can be construed as theatre and what can’t and we all make that for ourselves.
Regardless of what that definition is, the digital medium for live performance is here. It was always coming, maybe in 10 or 15 or 20 years; the pandemic has forced it on us and perhaps it’s that that sticks in our craws. But it is here. And some of us will use it, some will eschew it. Some will use it poorly; some will excel at it. Some will dabble in it, call it inter-disciplinary, experimental, avant-garde. Whatever it may be, it is here, it is legitimate and it requires the same honesty, rigour, patience and pattern of failure and problem-solving innovation that we have embraced while creating for the stage.
Long live the theatre.
Thank you so much for listening, for being in my head and allowing me in yours. Stay well.
– Vivek Madan