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Ratna Pathak Shah narrates a story for Ranga Shankara's Little Cloud
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The Taming of Zoom

Reading Time: 8 minutes

For a theatre lover starved of the energy that the stage exudes when the lights come on, her recollections of what watching a play was about until six months ago may be maudlin but also, if you will, excusable. The snaking queue at Prithvi with early birds seated by the bookstore at one end and a bunch of college goers catching their breath after a mad sprint from the gates of Janki Kutir at the other. The clinking of cold coffee goblets rising to a crescendo in the Experimental Theatre foyer at the third bell. Calling dibs on one’s favourite spot in an Aaram Nagar theatre and the hushed rustle of settling in it. “Tch-tching!” at latecomers darting across the aisles in the glow of the usher’s torch. Checking and muting all kinds of noises the smartphone can make. And then, pin drop silence.

Much care has been taken to not frame these sentences in the past tense. Partly because long as it may seem, this is a temporary pause as theatres in safer countries are precariously beginning to prove. And partly because the thrill of watching theatre has returned through the virtual route, even as both artistes and audience are coming to grips with this new medium. It happened rather late for this writer one evening in July when she sceptically accepted an invitation for an online play.

A new medium

The Perfect Match by The Roots India is a digital experiment, as the Delhi-based multi-disciplinary performing arts organisation modestly calls it, devised for Zoom. An NRI father’s search for a suitable groom for his daughter comes to a grinding halt during the pandemic but resumes thanks to Zoom and a rather persistent matchmaker. A reluctant daughter comes on board to e-meet prospective grooms and through the saga of arranged marriage the racist, patriarchal, homophobic and hyper-nationalistic tendencies of our society begin to surface. Performed live on Zoom, the taut script, stinging satire and striking performances were helped by the near absence of frozen frames, network lag and other technical glitches that have rightly turned many suspicious of the medium.

A similar degree of ease with the live medium could be seen in Studio Tamaasha’s TheatreNama with Sunil Shanbag which opened with a guided viewing of Sex, Morality and Censorship! the noted director’s 2009 play that sought to capture the trajectory of Vijay Tendulkar’s classic Sakharam Binder and the prudish, duplicitous attitudes it had to battle. Interspersed with excerpts from a recording of the play, an insightful discussion on its making, the themes it grapples with and the choice of presenting it through Maharashtra’s folk art form of tamaasha unfolded as the Zoom windows seamlessly switched between Shanbag, Shanta Gokhale and Irawati Karnik, who developed the script, and the cast of the play including Nagesh Bhosale, Gitanjali Kulkarni, Ketaki Thatte, Subhrajyoti Barat and Puja Sarup. The preparedness on Zoom was easily comparable to the thorough rehearsals that go into Shanbag’s plays.

Studio Tamaasha's TheatreNama

The first few months of the lockdown were about the work that needed to be done for the theatre practitioners who had been severely affected by the drying up of performances, says Shanbag. “Enabling people to go online mentally prepared us to look at the medium not in a reactive but meaningful way and we began to read about how digital experiments have taken shape in other parts of the world.” Sharing the creative process through the guided viewing was in continuation with Shanbag’s ritual of speaking to the audience before a regular show. “We forge these boundaries between what goes on stage and what goes behind the scenes. But the days of make-belief are long gone. Knowing the process helps the audience watch a performance with a more deliberate eye,” he adds. The next TheatreNama will look at the performative history of Bombay to explore how it became the theatre capital of India. The studio’s other online initiatives include Urdu readings and a series of podcasts that present dramatised readings of new plays written by talented young writers from across India.

Recording for a Studio Tamaasha podcast

For many theatre companies and organisations, the dependence on snag-free, high-speed internet and uninterrupted power supply for presenting a performance live was much too iffy to hinge an entire production on. They came up with unique responses to these limitations and among the earliest to rise to the challenge was Bangalore’s mecca for theatre. On World Theatre Day on March 27, Ranga Shankara took its storytelling programme Little Cloud to YouTube by inviting 15 well-known theatre artistes including Ratna Pathak Shah and Ipshita Chakraborty to turn storytellers. The result was a much-loved series of 22 tales told in six languages including sign language shot on phone cameras inside the actors’ homes or gardens. “Much of what was happening online soon after the lockdown was knee-jerk in nature and there was no precedent to follow. But what we knew was that we had to get good actors to take this forward,” says artistic advisor and veteran artiste Arundhati Nag, who calls it an “unmanicured production” with no special effects or music.

Arundhati Nag narrates a story for Ranga Shankara's Little Cloud

The isolation, introspection and irritation of the lockdown lent itself to the overarching theme of Rage Productions’ One on One – Unlocked, an evening of 10 monologues in English and Hindi that premiered on August 14. A well-received series that has brought together accomplished playwrights, directors and actors ever since it was first staged in 2010, the concept was well-suited for a digital rendition that features such noted names as Abhishek Majumdar, Akarsh Khurana, Gurleen Judge, Nadir Khan, Rajit Kapur, Sukant Goel, Quasar Thakore-Padamsee, Seema Biswas, Gagan Dev Riar and Neil Bhoopalam. “The stories are quite varied because though everyone was in a similar space, we all wrote from a personal perspective,” says Rage co-founder and playwright Rahul da Cunha, whose monologue introduces viewers to a spunky cable TV repairman operating in the times of Corona. “It was interesting to see how Gurleen reacted to my writing and Joy [Fernandes] performed it.” The vagaries of Wi-Fi, as da Cunha puts it, made them decide against going live with the performances, which were recorded on camera. “It’s one thing to forget one’s lines on stage, it’s another thing to have to deal with a frozen frame,” he points out.

Seema Biswas in the monologue Aawaazein from One On One - Unlocked

Gerish Khemani, who directed The Pomegranate Workshop’s Antigone 24/7, concurs. A contemporary take on the Greek tragedy, the play stitches together performances from recorded Zoom sessions. A devised performance by young artistes aged between 18 and 20, who have been part of the theatre programme of the arts education company, it was first staged in 2014 featuring the same cast. They revisited it in 2016 before going digital with it in 2020. “Because of these periodic revisits by the same set of actors, the core text is part of their DNA and they stay true to it,” says founder Priya Srinivasan. “The actors reimagined the classic for the times we are living in using millennial tools such as the chorus taking its discussions to WhatsApp or Antigone and Haemon Instagramming each other,” elaborates Khemani. “We also had to justify why the plot was unfolding on Zoom. It couldn’t look like an abrupt shift from physical to virtual space.” And for that, Creon imposed a curfew on the city of Thebes as a result of the political turmoil it was in.

Showtime

The basics of theatre guided Singh and his team throughout as they aimed to make a live performance work online. “When the audience enters the theatre, they expect a pre-set which is what we replicated in the first few minutes of the performance to set the tone. Next, when characters speak, it is their body movements that mirror their authority. We did that by playing with the angle of the laptop screen and consciously choosing which character would walk while talking and who would be settled in front of a screen,” Singh explains. Whether a prospective groom would join the Zoom call via phone or laptop was another conscious decision as the vertical frame of the former gives a more candid, informal feel. Rigorous rehearsals – staring at the screen for three hours every day was the most exhausting bit of the process, Singh reveals – helped them make pragmatic decisions. “We chose the webinar set-up in Zoom over the meeting settings because though we wanted the audience to continually react, we preferred it to happen via the chat option to avoid surprises. We also realised that a 4G connection is more stable than Wi-Fi. To err on the side of caution, we ensured that each actor had two devices with connectivity of each kind.”

With an array of technical aspects to take care of, waking up on show day had the same buzz for the cast as it would on the day of performing at, say, Kamani Auditorium, Singh admits. “It was the same flow of light check, sound check and recording check. But what we were never worried about earlier was lights going off in the auditorium!”

Investing in high-speed internet was something Shanbag and his team did too. The smooth flow of the discussion was the outcome of at least four to five rehearsals with every speaker involved. “The zipping from the shared screen showing the performance recording to the speakers’ grid was enabled by our expert technical team that has acquired mastery of Zoom,” he informs.

With scenes recorded during daytime and at night, the play of light in Antigone 24/7 was particularly important, something that was achieved through adjusting the frame, the brightness of the glow emanating from the screen and lighting in the spaces actors performed in, Khemani says.

The new-age chorus in The Pomegranate Workshop's Antigone 24x7

The feasibility 

With work and socialisation having moved online too, has fatigue set in? “People are on Zoom the entire day. While workshops and watching films has worked for the online space because people are used to Netflix, it is still early days for theatre. Besides, largely what’s available right now is not of the NT Live standard,” da Cunha observes. “Having said that, for a writer it is a lot of fun because ever so slightly, it is like entering the area of film. I have enjoyed working in this medium. I realise I don’t have to be so verbal and I have been writing shorter sentences. It has allowed me to work on processes I hadn’t engaged with earlier,” he adds.

At The Pomegranate Workshop, Zoom has opened up new vistas of learning. Srinivasan informs that their tie-up with Chicago Children’s Theatre has enabled young students from Chicago, New York and Mumbai to learn together, something that will continue once the lockdown is lifted. Khemani points out that fusing the intimacy of the camera with the energy of theatre is what will be worth striving for in digital performances. “Of course, it comes with the caveat of negotiating a cluttered virtual space and online attention spans along with making your peace with the fact that once recorded, a digital performance is fixed. In theatre in the physical space, things are never really done. You keep going back to them and changing them after every performance.”

Staged at RS is an initiative by Ranga Shankara that aims to break this clutter. Having documented plays with a single camera so far, Nag informs that they will soon begin to record new plays professionally. “We’ll see how it goes over the next six months. If nothing, it would still be good documentation,” she says. “The real thing, however, is the real thing,” she adds, referring to RS Connect, a purely offline series under which they have opened up their well-ventilated ground floor café to a limited number of visitors as well as to artistes who would like to share their work with an audience after months of isolation.

Drawing from his experience of going online with The Perfect Match, Singh has some observations to share. “Extracting discipline out of the audience in theatre is easy. Here, we will never know how many times people got up, ate or received a call while watching the performance,” he remarks. That said, the money saved from renting out a theatre and rehearsal space and other miscellaneous expenses of food and transport, he tells me, helped the organisation earn thrice the amount it would otherwise do. While the core group of actors adhered to a revenue-sharing model, they were able to pay something more than a token honorarium to the marketing and design persons for the first time.

The Perfect Match by The Roots India 1

Shanbag however feels that it is much too early to talk about the financial viability of the online model. “But recording performances could offset earlier costs. We are at a stage of creating assets.”

As for Singh’s concern about discipline, the writer recalls what transpired on that July evening when she watched his play with family: we were glued to the screen; the tea went cold and a pesky call instantly disconnected.

About Snigdha Hasan

Snigdha Hasan is Editor of the On Stage, the arts magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. She has worked with the Outlook, Reader’s Digest and Mid-day, having written extensively on subjects of human interest and culture.

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