“Theatre was never online,” says PC Ramakrishna, Past President, The Madras Players, setting the record straight right at the beginning.
At 65, arguably India’s oldest English theatre group has been best associated with Western classics and Indian tales that draw from mythology. Playing to packed houses at Chennai’s one-of-a-kind Museum Theatre, it has nurtured legends like noted playwright Girish Karnad. As such, a majority of its permanent members are now septuagenarians.
The ongoing pandemic has hit theatre hard and left no space for live gatherings, where artists come alive with the lights and sounds of the stage. Younger ones saw the signs early and made the virtual medium their home. Their millennial deftness with the smart phone and the exposure to content online came in handy.
But what of those who have spent a majority of their lives in performance without a brush with the internet? Left to their devices (pun), they are forced to experiment. And that’s what the brave stalwarts of The Madras Players are doing now; with high-speed broadband for an armour and Zoom for the battlefield.
In the thick of the lockdown, the group first began with putting out recorded versions of their well-received plays on YouTube, in May. These included Water, Chudamani, Julius Caesar, Midnight Hotel, Out of Order, and Doubt. Next, to mark former member Girish Karand’s birth anniversary in the month of June, was a tribute festival with classics like Nagamandala, Tughlaq and Witness for the Prosecution.
The plays were made available for viewing over a limited period of time and received heartening reactions. “There were about a 100 people watching them,” reveals Ramakrishna.
This is when they decided, they had to stay connected with their audience, and produce new work in the virtual space. A poetry reading over Zoom and a reading of Indian short stories, followed. Then came rehearsed readings of The Good Doctor, a comedy by Neil Simon based on short stories by Anton Chekhov. “Technical problems were bound to happen, not to mention the abject irony of electric lights and whirring fans in the backdrop of a period story,” Ramakrishna says. At 75, he had never navigated Zoom and was now trying his hand at virtual backgrounds. “Though an interesting concept, the images sometimes floated in the air,” he says revealing that the initial days were a hit-or-miss situation, with a kind audience letting the mishaps pass. “Younger members of the audience tried to help us out often prompting, ‘you’ll find a red button there or a green button here’, except the button was nowhere to be seen,” reveals Ramakrishna.
During one such reading, Mohammed Yusuf, 73, who joined The Madras Players back in 1964 (making him the group’s oldest member), found himself disappear from the screen. “People could hear me but couldn’t see me,” he says. Accessing Zoom over a smart phone for the first time, he was unaware of its technicalities and dynamics. “The problem resolved itself but eventually I did have to change my internet connection,” he confesses. Yusuf has enjoyed the transition to some degree and found solace in seeing fellow theatre-makers on his screen during a long, isolating lockdown. Besides, he no longer has to drive to a rehearsal since they’ve taken the Zoom route, too. But he is quick to add, “Nothing replaces the sound of clapping and cheering in a theatre. And it is the lights that make me come alive”. Ramakrishna too, misses the interaction and instant feedback the stage provides something that can only be accomplished through the chat messages on Zoom and can hardly be compared to the real thing. “Most often, its people writing in to say, they can’t hear us,” he says, in jest adding that it can also be deeply isolating. “There is no repartee, no cues and you have to whip up the sentiment all on your own,” he adds.
Tehzeeb Katari, director and actor, The Madras Players says it hasn’t been easy and the medium comes with its challenges and cannot be compared to the live medium at all. She too, was introduced to Zoom for the first time with these readings and finds the backdrops fascinating. “You can now have a top hat and lipstick through the machine, and that’s really interesting,” she says.
Both Katari and Ramakrishna admit though that making an ‘act’ sound like a conversation is the single biggest challenge of the medium. “You can’t speak at the same time. You need to account for delays in visual transition. And you are suddenly dealing with having to invent intermediate verbiage,” Ramakrishna explains. Each reading/ performance involves four to five Zoom rehearsals and despite them, it remains impossible to be prepared for power cuts and technical problems. “Those are unnerving,” he says. Katari adds, “The most you can do is get yourself the fastest internet connection there is and hope for the best”. Katari has been lucky to have a young daughter at home to be able to help her out in situations when a screen is frozen, unlike some of her counterparts.
She recounts a few incidents that can sometimes provide fodder for humour, those when an actor has accidentally muted him/herself and continues to talk. Despite their innate disadvantages and unsuitability of the virtual medium, The Madras Players continue to find ways to keep themselves relevant in these unprecedented times. The online readings are here to stay and they are also considering professionally videographed plays in the future.
Ultimately, it’s how Katari puts it, “At least we’ve got this!”