The lockdown bought severe tempest in the lives of the theatre artists

Arts & Culture Bangalore Capstone COVID-19

Revenue from virtual performances is not enough to make ends meet

Much Ado about everything: Performers suffers during lockdown

Anurag, who is a freelancer theatre artist from Mysore, had a child just two days before the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 25. Anurag, who is now a part of S. L. Bhyrappa’s Parva, produced by Rangayana, was married in 2019. He also runs Yavanika Mysore, which basically is a summer camp for kids, which was cancelled due to Covid last year.

Anurag said, “I did theatre classes for kids and also for adults during the lockdown. The money that I got from those workshops was okay for some survival, but due to the baby and all, couldn’t make ends meet.” Also while the physical workshops attracted more than 25 students, the virtual one could only attract 10-15 students. He went on to say, “Physical workshops are more proactive than the virtual ones; the people were not interested in online theatre. In virtual theatre, there is no proper interaction between the teachers and students.”

“If we perform, if we do some activites, there will be cash flow; if not, there won’t be any cash flow. So, I was severely affected, as I couldn’t perform on stage,” said Anurag. Also as the cost of living in Mysore is very high, he had to take a lot of loans to make ends meet. “It became very difficult even to get the baby products; I am now clearing the loans that I had to take during the pandemic,” he adds.

“The only good thing now is Rangayana’s Parva; it is a salary based thing, so I had to sign a contract with them. We have had seven shows till now, and many more lined up, which are now cancelled thanks to the second wave; but the contract makes sure that the salary keeps coming in,” Anurag added.

Rajesh, another actor from Rangayana Mysore is also associated with the group that performs Parva. “Me and my whole team were clueless during the first lockdown. We tried webinars and online workshops to make ends meet. But, we couldn’t communicate properly with the audience through the online platforms. We took crash courses on how to manage and create webinars.” They tried to do four webinars in total, and set an admission fees of ₹100.

Rajesh and his group faced a huge financial crisis and turned to ‘hotel performances’, which was basically reading the dramas line by line. Even this didn’t last long, when the lockdown was extended. Some NGOs, who saw their past performances, helped them to some extent. They did odd jobs including babysitting the neighbouring children to earn money.

“We used to eat one time or two time per day during lockdown,” said Rajesh, “We know lot of sponsors like NGO, who asks our help to distribute the foods. So when we helped them, they gave us food to eat, and that helped us a lot in survival.”

“Since we knew only acting, the jobs were limited for us,” Rajesh said.

According to Rajesh, theatre activities were limited during the lockdown. He calls the virtual theatre ‘a very live media, yet poor in number,’ due to the lower number of audiences in the plays in virtual medium.

Parva is the only drama or play which Rajesh is planning to perform in multiple states, but with the second wave in full swing, he is a bit sceptical.  “The life of an artist is risky. I am scared of the increasing Covid cases, as the government may declare another lockdown. After a long time, I am earning a reasonable amount of money, it will be gone.”

Rajesh doesn’t support the idea of ‘new normal’ of the virtual theatre as he believes that live-theatre has a perfect image of a human being and the online platforms makes it monotonous for both the actors and the audience. “In TV, the shows are a little dramatic, but a theatre play will convey the real emotions to you.”

Rajesh also went on to say that when an artist performs live on the stage, the emotions are clearly visible on his face, and the audience immerses itself in the emotions and react according to that, by seeing which, the artists get energised. “Even the applause plays a huge role in the life of an artist, it is the ‘greatest gift’ for artists. These are the things that are missing in movies or the other shows on OTT platforms. Even if we do shows online, these are the things that we miss,” he said.

The Karnataka Government had announced an allowance of ₹2000 for the artists who have an experience of over 10 years. “But I didn’t get the allowance nor did I hear of anyone getting it,” Rajesh says.

Madbeth is a one-man play by Rupesh Tillu that mimicks the famous Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth, which he performed in Rangashankara on February 21 and 22. Rupesh Tillu, who hails from Mumbai, is a known face in the theatre fraternity. Tillu has been performing Madbeth for the past 10 years. This was his first performance post-lockdown. “People knew about the show as I had performed it earlier in Bangalore, so the response was good; the other drama Shakuntalam: Agar Pura Kar Paye Toh was a bit low, but the people who came to watch the show really liked it. People are still scared to come to watch this,” he says, “Our show is an interactive kind of theatre, so it cannot be done online. Without audience, we can’t do it. When the lockdown started, we had almost 20-25 shows planned, including the international ones. Just an hour after Mr. Modi announced the lockdown, I got calls from festivals, invitees, and other people who cancelled the shows. We lost around Rs. 6 lakhs in about an hour.”

Theatre scene in Bengaluru

Theatre is not new to Bengaluru. It has been there since 1960s, and has been growing through the years. In the late 60s, the Bangalore theatre mainly consisted of the British people staying in Bangalore. This theatre was called the BBC Theatre—British Bedroom Comedy. The members of the group were mainly white, and the main performers were whites too. The Indians were given minor roles. The Bangalore Little Theatre, the oldest theatre group in Bangalore kick-started during this era. In the 70s, the Kannada theatre started to rise, and the English theatre started to garner its momentum. In the 80s, the English theatre started to rise. In 90s, Shankar Nag played a major role in shaping the future of theatre in Karnataka. It was his dream to establish a professional theatre in Bengaluru, which was fulfilled by his wife after many years, when Arundhati Nag started Rangashankara in 2006.

Now, apart from the government run Ravindra Kalakshetra, Rangashankara and Jagriti Theatre are two of the other major theatres which have reopened post lockdown, and are hosting plays every day.

 “We opened up in January 8, 2021, with half capacity. Some of the most famous plays such as Tughlaq and Mukhamantri attract the audience, and there is a full house when such drama groups perform here,” says Samyuktha, Programming Associate, at Rangashankara, “also special shows like the ones by Naseeruddin Shah, who performed in January 16 to 20, garnered a lot of audience. Now that we have opened up with full capacity, some dramas fill up the space, while some others don’t. The concern of the people is very genuine.”

Arpit Bhargav from YouAndMe theatre, Jaynagar, said that the theatre opened for offline events at half capacity from October last year. “The footfall has been not that great due to the pandemic, but the plays still go on. We also do stand-up gigs, which see a bit more footfall than the plays, because the youths are more attracted to stand-ups than plays,” he said, “the plays should be promoted more and there should be innovative ways in which the plays can be modified.”

 Arundhati Nag said to The Hindu about the virtual theatre, “I have been someone who has opposed the digital route. I believe that the real thing is the real thing. But I have come to realise that there is no turning a blind eye to technology. We could not resist electricity, nor could we do it to microphones. It is time again to get clever and manipulative and use this new medium to our advantage. That is what Rangashankara is doing right now, actively; it is open heartedly engaging with anything that looks like a possibility of connecting with the community.”

Theatre for the next generation during lockdown

Arjun Kabbania, from the Bangalore Theatre Company, conducted workshops for children and worked with underprivileged kids during the lockdown. “I having been conducting workshops for the children from the past five years, called Theatre Professionals, where they learnt mostly cultural theatre forms like Yakshagana, which have been a huge success. Just before the lockdown, we had come up with a plan of a play written and performed directly by the kids; the children wrote the script, we chose three actors, three directors, three music performers, among others from the children. The child has to feel like it is my script, then the love for the art will grow,” he said.

The drama that the children had written and directed was supposed to be performed on April 15 at MG Road, Rangoli Arts, but due to the lockdown, they were unable to do so, and they had to do shift to online mode for the same thing. Arjun was not satisfied with the virtual performance of the play. “Even though I know it was the only medium available that time, it was not satisfactory, as theatre is a huge canvas, it has to be seen and felt physically. Most of the people cannot connect with the virtual form of theatre.”

Bangalore Theatre Company tied up with NGO Hasiru Dala to work with underprivileged children in the slums around Bengaluru under Hasiru Dala’s initiative, Buguri. “The government schools that the kids went to were completely shut and they were forced to work by their parents. We have worked with families who collect waste and then segregate them, and, in absence of classes, these kids are forced to segregate waste with their family.”  Arjun indulged in teaching play therapy to the kids. “These children are so engrossed with money and business right from the childhood, that they forget to play. Play therapy aims at making the children enjoy the essence of their childhood, by allowing them to spend some time playing or being occupied by some activities such as drawing, making crafts, etc. every day,” Arjun said.

Arjun said that he had to discontinue that due to lack of funds, as he had to travel more than 60km every day for this. “There is a constant tussle between money and work that your heart tells you to do,” he says. He spent the remaining part of lockdown conducting a few workshops for kids.

Vinay Dhruvakumar, one of the directors at WeMove Theatre, in Jayanagar shared an interesting story of how they hosted virtual theatre classes for children called Big Steps. He said that the response from the kids was pretty good. They also hosted many virtual plays during the lockdown, which had a full house response from the audience. Now that the theatre has reopened in half capacity, he feels that people are not coming back to theatre as they used to, but he hopes that it will change, but the is still unsure about the future with the second wave hitting Bangalore. “We must upgrade with the generation,” he says, “there is no problem with theatre going online; we just need to move ahead with the generation. Of course, there is a huge difference between the physical theatre and the virtual one, but we cannot ignore virtual theatre; that’s the future. We should adjust ourselves and go forward accordingly.”

How Natana Rangashaale survived the lockdown

Megha Sameera, the principal of Natana Rangashaale, in Mysore, which is run by Mandya Ramesh, said that their theatre group had to attend three national festivals last year. But due to the lockdown, the festivals were cancelled, and they couldn’t go anywhere. “We thought it was going to be temporary, a week or a month, but we didn’t know it would continue for a year. When it continued, we were worried much about the performances.”

Thirty diploma students study in Natana and nearly 40 alumni and artists who perform in repertoire team are currently there in Natana, out of which almost 50 percent are from outside Mysore. When the lockdown was announced, they had to go back to their own villages.

In the month of April and May, Natana Rangashaale conducts summer workshops for kids, which is one of their major projects. The workshop, where usually 300 students used to take part in, got cancelled. Sameera said, “We used to do weekend shows in Mysore, every Sunday, it also got cancelled thanks to the lockdown. The institution had to be shut down, hence, the productions were also delayed.”

 After three to four months, Natana called the students back, shot the drama that they were supposed to produce, and uploaded it on YouTube. It didn’t get great response from the people but it is just a temporary approach, because theatre cannot be run through internet or virtual medium. “Virtual experience didn’t work well for us, we got some international audience, but the quality and experience one gets from live stage is not possible through online platforms.”

Sameera said, “We had many issues, the government had announced ₹2000 for artists who are registered in the Culture Department but how can one survive with ₹2000 per month?”

Sameera also pointed out that many amateur theatre groups have shut down due to the pandemic, they didn’t have issues, because they were working in some other fields and were doing theatre ‘as their hobby’. The professionals, the neo-professionals and the company professionals faced a lot of issues, as theatre is their bread and butter. “In Karnataka, there are 20-30 professional theatre groups, who perform traditional dramas, faced many problems, the numbers of neo-professionals (free lancers and working in theatre institutions) is very huge and cannot even be counted. We could hardly manage through the earnings of the last few months, we faced severe faced financial crisis due to lack of funds.”

Natana opened up for the audience in September last year. “The audience was overwhelmed on coming back to theatre after such a long break,” says Sameera.  Natana just staged Parihaar, and is now working on another production which will be satged in May if things go well.

Sameera said, “If we have to go to the virtual medium, will be difficult to go back to virtual medium, we have financial losses; we don’t have financial guarantee, we also cannot match the visual quality of the content on OTT platforms; theatre cannot be virtual, we have to communicate directly with the people in front of the audience. We are just recovering from the pandemic, and audience are gradually coming back here. In case of a lockdown, audience won’t come to theatre.”

How senior theatre artists coped up with the lockdown

Sridhar Ramanathan is a senior theatre member of the Bangalore Little Theatre (BLT), one of the oldest theatre groups of Bangalore. He has been associated with BLT from the last 18 years. BLT was all-prepared to celebrate its 60th anniversary last year, when the pandemic hit the country. “It was tough, a lot of professional theatre groups were mainly affected by it, but we being amateurs, were affected less than them.We had a great festival lined up for celebrating the 60th year of BLT, but we had to let go of that as the lockdown was announced. We have to shift our base to online platforms like Zoom and YouTube. We hosted an online play, The Anklet, for raising funds for city organization NGOs, which served food to the poor people.”

Ramanathan said, “Initially, the virtual theatre was really good, but then we went into ‘online fatigue’ after a while; we had a good response in the beginning, but then when Netflix and other OTT shows got shows for the Indian audience which attracted people, people migrated towards those shows.”

The BLT is now indulging in a new form of theatre called ‘courtyard theatre’. The courtyard plays are of one hour each and consists of only two actors. “We took some of BLT’s previously staged plays and converted them into 1 hour-2-member play version. We recently staged The Magic Drum, which was a collection of Sudha Murthy’s tales in Whitefield. The response of the audience was pretty good so far, we make sure that proper social distancing and sanitisation is maintained. Physical theatre is far better than virtual theatre and that is why so many people are coming to watch our shows.”

Ramanathan went on to add about the virtual theatre, “Virtual theatre could be the future, but it can never replace live performances; the difference between theatre and movie is that theatre is real, and that’s what we need to keep in mind.” He went on to say, “We have to wait, the vaccinations are there, work together with the society to get going. We will watch out for how it opens up and how safe it is, and then we will decide accordingly.”

 BLT didn’t cancel the celebrations of their 60th anniversary, they have shifted it by a year. BLT has also planned to stage The Anklet physically in May, ‘if things go well’. Now, with the second wave taking its toll in the country, the future seems uncertain.

Ranjan Kamath, a senior theatre personality and a director, said, “Online Theatre is not theatre, it is television. Physical Theatre is unique in the immediacy, spontaneity of the performance experience which remains incomplete without the presence of an audience in the same space. Performances online can never fulfil that.”

Mr. Kamath said that since he had refused to be a part of any online training/ workshops online, he faced tremendous losses, ‘with no signs of recovery.’

The way ahead for theatre world

Arundhati Nag said to The Hindu, “For Rangashankara it has also been questioning time. What are institutions like Rangashankara for? What is its role? Since I am driving the car currently, I think what are the signals of stability we can give the community? All that we have been able to do is reach out to groups of people, to ask them what they would want to do in a post-Covid world? Is there a new way of performance they are thinking of?”

Ranjan said, “If the audience is made aware of what makes the performance arts space different and special from the OTT platforms, then they will return back to theatres. OTT platforms keep you confined at home conditioned to receive which is unhealthy for a population.”

“Theatre can only survive on patronage. Theatre teaches you to laugh, you cannot laugh alone, and you will need some people to laugh together with. If we don’t come together, we will be sad, and violent, and we will create individualistic violent society. That’s the reason theatre is strong in most first world nations,” says Rupesh.

“In India, theatre is not only an art form, but a part of everyday life. Every festival that we celebrate, starting from Holi to Diwali; even the marriage ceremonies and funerals are a form of catharsis. We call rudaalis to cry at our funerals. If that is not theatre, then I don’t know what else is!” says Rupesh.


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