The pandemic has not been easy for artistes and performance spaces alike. As the rest of the world limps back to normalcy, theatre and other live performances are returning, too. But it is fair to say, it’s a new normal that they are out to face and not what the community has seen before. As the SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) were rolled out by the Ministry of Home Affairs in mid-October, cinema theatres and live performance venues were allowed to reopen with diminished capacity (maximum 50 percent), mask protocol and social distancing.
While Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre took the lead and opened its doors on November 15, Bangalore’s Ranga Shankara followed suit with performances in the foyer on December 15. NCPA is gearing up to open, too. Traditional theatres with larger capacity have managed to host shows under the new SOPs and garnered what one could easily call a small crowd.
The burgeoning number of alternative spaces in the country, often restricted by size and form, on the other hand, have an uphill task ahead. Often hinged on business models that enable them to transform with every performance, they are also known for the communities they enable and in turn, the warmth they exude.
Cups of tea and chatter at the Mumbai’s Harkat Studios’ quaint balcony, a post-theatre meal at Bangalore’s The Courtyard may be experiences that cannot be replicated in the new normal. However, it isn’t just these. Most alternative spaces are struggling to host any performances at this point.
Harkat Studios, though reopened this month with film screenings, has accepted the fact that people may not be returning to theatres any time soon. “For a space as small as ours, opening up fully doesn’t make economic sense. We might host a few, chosen performances that have been designed for a smaller audience,” says Karan Suri Talwar, founder. He adds, “Alternative spaces have always had a precarious financial model in any case. In addition, the economics of a city like Mumbai make it harder”. Thus, they designed their own Harkat Virtual Interactive stage that will enable audiences to view performances online in a setup seemingly close to the real experience. Supported by Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, three grants of Rs 75,000 were announced for Mumbai-based artistes/troupes to be availed in the virtual format. The first of these performances will premiere at the end of the year.
Outside the box
While theatre artistes across the country have embraced the virtual medium during the pandemic, most can’t wait to get back to stage, just as venues scramble to find newer revenue models. Delhi’s Studio Safdar isn’t bringing live shows back but allows the space to be rented out for rehearsals and shoots, in groups of ten or less, founder Sudhanva Deshpande confirms.
Pune’s new black box theatre, The Box, was forced to look at a similar model when its launch was postponed during the pandemic. They hosted their first live show in early November, with limited seating and sanitisation measures. Bangalore’s Shoonya- Centre for Art and Somatic Practice, well-known as an alternative space for dance, theatre, music and martial arts is waiting this one out. With the mounting financial pressures, staff had to be let go. “While concerns about health are one of the reasons, we are still waiting to figure out a viable economic model in these times. The future is challenging with the old model,” says Thommen Ollapally, director, Shoonya. In the meanwhile, the space, Ollapally says, is open for artistes to rehearse with a pay-as-you-can policy.
The Courtyard, with a similarly downsized staff, reopened with a dance performance this month and plans to host a music festival in January. They will however, limit events to no more than two or three every month. “It makes no financial sense for the venue or the artistes. We are only doing it to stay relevant. We were barely making it work pre-pandemic,” says Akhila Srinivas, founder, The Courtyard.
The concerns are plenty and at 50 percent occupancy with social distancing measures in place, venues are able to host only a handful of attendees (often as low as 15 to 20), that is, if there are takers in the first place. Mumbai’s Studio Tamaasha, with its small Andheri venue, decided to take the show outdoors to the terrace. “We created a black box with one side open, for a small audience on the terrace. Each show can be attended by 20 people only and we plan to do one play every month,” says Sunil Shanbag, founder, Studio Tamaasha. “The economics are not spectacular. It is more of a gesture to reassert the validity of live performance,” he adds.
Despite the tribulations, Shanbag and Suri Talwar are both hopeful about the future of alternative spaces. “Larger spaces are designed to make money. For smaller ones it is never the main draw. They are more agile and hence will be able to restart,” Shanbag says. Suri Talwar believes it, too. “That larger spaces in Europe have shut down, is a sign. Smaller ones may just come back quicker,” he says.