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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Community Theatre: or why I like to keep off big-budget mainstream theatre

This was an article I had posted on May 28, 2007. When I read through this, I feel vindicated after all these years. I find this true today as it was then. You're welcome with your thoughts.

This installation is from K-20, the 20th century Art Museum at Duesseldorf, Germany and titled End of the 20th Century by Joseph Beuys. Since I witnessed it, it has influence my thinking a lot. It's about the existential angst every artist goes through at some point of his career. Now on to the article...

Ever since the arrest of Mr. Chandramohan, an artist from MSU Baroda on May 9th, there have been hue and cries, and waves of protests, bandhs, signature campaigns across India from across the artists' community.

In Chennai too, on May 14th, a few artists gathered at Lalit Kala Akademi (on Greams Road) around 4 p.m to raise slogans and protest as well as to do a signature campaign. Only visual artists as well as some regional theatre artists, besides the omni-present press photographers, were present.

The English theatre community of Chennai was busy as usual with its whatever existence, preparing for a busy forthcoming season full of comedies. Need I say we are as far from reality as Pluto from Sun. And briefly a glimpse of the vandalising scene from my last year's production of Gautam Raja's WOOD appeared in front of my eyes. I felt proud. How truly inspiringly visionary can art be! How insightful was Gautam's play, even if it was called cliche!! Just to cite an example, I quote a passage from the play, an exchange spoken between The Artist & The Art-house Manager in the play: 

ARTIST: As soon as you know that others are going to participate in your process - it all suddenly looks like rubbish. The knowledge that people are about to see your work, talk about it, write about it automatically moves you on, matures you - and that really is the only way you can keep going. Past failures. Never successes.

MANAGER: So if you sell all of them you'll stop. Painting

ARTIST: Not that kind of success. That success is noisy, it involves everyone. I'm talking abou the quiet success - you alone with your work. Quiet success doesn't exist. Only in patches, phases. Never enough to make you happy. Only just enough to keep you honest.

MANAGER: I wish everybody would realise that.

ARTIST: Eventually they all do. How long can cheers echo round an empty hall? How long before all the ghosts leave and there's just you?...

I truly believe in Gautam's statement about cheers echoing round an empty hall. Hence I have stopped PRODUCING plays, like they do babies in some families. But, at that moment, I also felt a little twang and a tinge of irritation in me. I felt, for once, so disenchanted, disenfranchised and alienated from most of the manufacturers of English theatre in Chennai, of whom I have been a part the last 15 years!!!

It set me thinking.What does the word community mean to people involved in theatre? Is there a community theatre in Chennai? What is or must a community theatre like or do?

Asking a question such as this is to ask what a nation is or must do. At the foundation of a society is the community. It is the bringing together of individuals from various walks and professions of life. A profession, in turn, need not necessarily be always with monetary objective. A priest at a place of worship is an example. A priest is a service personnel who does not expect monetary or material reimbursement. When the fabric or web of society in a particular place is represented by a cross-section of professional congregation, we call it a society. And the best representation of each particular profession come together to make the founding fathers of a town, village, etc. Thus is a community formed. or so we are informed through history.

This community essentially needs entertainment. At times, beyond entertainment, the entertainers also become the moral voice of the people, reminding them when they go off the righteous track. Thus, theatre becomes the voice of the community. And this has been seen time and again throughout Indian, European as well as even American theatre communities.

Now if we take Chennai as our immediate and monumental example, we neither have community nor such a theatre. If you think I am being sweeping in my statement, remember, I am talking Chennai's English theatre. For there is no righteousness left nor moral guardians amid the fast exploding bourgeoisie BPOs of Chennai (since there is no morality there consequently need be neither guardians, in a city were DOKs and F&Gs and Dollar Shops have become symbols of culture).

As a result, all we have left of theatre here is entertainment. Rather, those who practise theatre mostly believe only in entertaining theatre. This belief that we are the decision-makers of what the public want is wrong. We must not drive the market in the wrong direction for our own personal ends. IT IS NOT REALLY A DOG-EAT-DOG-Survival world out there. Well, at least, dogs are not greedy. Anyway, we must, as practitioners and responsible decision-makers observe what needs to be done to keep the society on the right track.

Needless to say, we cannot change the society, as Brecht believed, by portraying the wrongs on stage. But theatre needs to voice out opinions. This is what happens in every part of the world where theatre is said to be alive. This is what WOOD is all about. This is what Theatre Nisha's recent show of SATHE was about. And this is what even Dummies' VISHWAROOPAM is all about. Holding more than a mirror to the society as it were!

Theatre as a voice of community may be marginal compared to the so-called mainstream theatre that receives more attention, attract bigger sponsorships and subsequently has the muscle to pull more audiences. But again as some C.S Neville (or is it C.A?) said in his treatise "Democracy and the Individual", it is actually all about the Might of the Right over the Right of the Might. Quantity or majority need not always be right. This is where the need for smaller theatre companies or what are called community theatres become important. This is also where works such as an Anna Weiss, Oleanna, Final Solutions, Sathe, Thus Spake Shoorpanakha, The Zoo Story, etc matter. They are not irrelevant to the consumptive public because they are art or they speak in a language different from what the entertainment-seeking juntaa understand.

The argument that these plays simply do not or cannot speak to numbers or satisfy sponsors' need for footfalls make them untenable or ill-required is stupid and corrosive in the long run for the existence of theatre itself. While mass entertainment 'speaks' offhand and shows an escapist illusion that their audience can consume alongside their Coke and Popcorn, in the same breath, without having to carry the hangover, these plays 'address' issues that are apparently irrelevant to a materialist consumerist society. These works are born out of a deeper need.

Artists who produce these works do so out of a deeply felt need to voice out rather than for money or fame or passion to perform in front of people. There is no exhibitionist narcissism of the number-theory booting mainstream commercial theatre here. This is perhaps why they are small. They believe that somehow the rot that is setting in the mindset of a McSociety can still be stemmed. If entire Chennai had only Spencers and Reliance Freshes or Cineplexes and Multiplexes, the city would get boring. The smaller neighborhood shops have their own charm and reason for existence.

What must be applauded of these theatrical oevures is their ability time and again to come up to the public viewing for less than the price of a cinema ticket at multiplexes and Mayajaals. Since their recipient audiences are equally smaller in draw, they are produced in smaller, comparatively lesser appealing theatre houses, knowing fully well they would not in Eight out of Ten cases break the red barrier vis-a-vis finance. However, they continue to break fresh grounds. And we would see in the future, that these minimalist but well-planned theatres would grow in numbers, especially among the youth. Of course, some youth subvert even that. There are weeds in every field of crop. But...

In Youth lies idealism, vision and energy. In youth does one discard the fear of the unknown. Whether out of curiosity, impulse, impetuosity or visionary zealotry, youth is what takes risk. These theatres are all about taking risks, not only financial, but also in several other ways. Hopefully, the Chennai youth would get out of the current malaise and veer towards a theatre that shows its disenchantment with bedroom farces and conservative trends; that fights against non-dynamic, safer form of theatre that does not provoke the audience into uneasy thoughts.

There does seem to be a mushrooming of newer groups. This is either due to a feeling of rejection by existing companies or disenchantment with lack of real opportunities, or even because of a certain need to be 'one's own'. Whatever the reason, the basis is that the founders often have their own ideas. Where there is idea, there is hope. Hence one expects and hopes that there is a certain hidden belief in the hearts of these young and idealistic theatre wannabes that theatre has an innate power to change, if not transform. After hope comes prayer.

We who believe in smaller and community efforts just have to pray these newer groups do not fall prey to the need to fill houses. Once one falls into the clutches of the need to have audiences to fill their seats, one ends up doing exactly what those who pay, patronise or sponsor want. Already a few such have been lost, am afraid, for good!

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