Upstaged by the pandemic : The Tribune India

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Upstaged by the pandemic

The migration of theatre from physical space to digital space changed something that was intrinsic to the basic nature of this art form. The forced shift from stage to screen has disturbed the natural order of what performance-making and performance- sharing is all about

Upstaged by the pandemic

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry

At what distance should I keep myself from others in order to build with them a sociability without alienation and a solitude without exile?
Roland Barthes, How to Live Together

Democracy and theatre were inextricably linked in Greece during the 5th century, and it was considered mandatory for the citizens to attend theatre, share stories and engage in socio-political issues. The citizens were expected to collectively consider, through metaphor, and, through storytelling, a way to understand their daily problems. Theatre was the space for collective thinking and collective problem sharing, almost like a confessional, where issues were discussed, analysed and, perhaps, resolved.

March 2020 created a seismic shift in the way we functioned and lived. Suddenly, it dawned on us that one’s life is not only unpredictable but also insecure. Confronted with challenges never previously encountered weighed heavily on our notion of ourselves in the social space, creative space, domestic space, political space, and may I dare to add, our religious space. Our humanity is being tested every day, while we falter, seeking hope and affirmation, while sitting on a pile of debris. Each one of us is struggling desperately to adjust to the liquid environment, with a fluid sense of change.

What makes us ‘alive’ is the recognition and belief that every single individual can make a difference. That art can make a difference. That art can humanise, help one survive, no matter how adverse the situation may be. The blips and beeps of our existence are transformed into stories, as a witness to the times, as well as a documentation of its history.

But who will support this barrage of images that are waiting to be told, and shared? In such a scenario, what does one do? You gather all that you believe in, wrap it around your body and forge ahead.

Theatre has been impacted in unprecedented ways during Covid-19. Theatre, as we know, is ensemble work, where actors, in a rehearsal space, feel, respond, touch and share. Breath on breath, sweat on sweat, it is an intimate space that questions time-tested assumptions and dilemmas, about life and humanity, the ebbs and flows of living.

The migration of theatre from physical space to digital space changed something that was intrinsic and basic to the nature of this art form.

Necessity creates strange bedfellows. The available platform was digital. You either jump into virtual reality or perish, was the anxiety.

Isolation, sanitisation and physical distance are not conducive to making a performance. This forced shift from stage to screen has disturbed the natural order of what performance-making and performance-sharing is all about. One live actor, one live audience and the connection that transpires between them, is the basic ingredient that cooks the performance.

The actor waiting in the wings, the excitement of the first bell, the crush of people thronging into an auditorium, the entry, the exit, the adrenaline rush, were missing in this virtual reality. Try performing in an empty auditorium, and you will get what I am trying to say.

An actor from Amritsar, rehearsing with a co-actor from Pune, with the director ensconced in Mumbai, creates unusual dynamics. No smell, no touch, no feel, no taste. Through Zoom, a play gets made, and then digitised and showcased.

Theatre for me is sweat and blood, savouring the tears and joys of the actor, a shared space in a segregated world. Where the unsaid is said and the invisible is made visible.

Theatre is also about community, and to see it transformed into a space of isolation, a space of sanitised safety, contradicts the very nature of performance-making. Rehearsing alone, going solo, has become the new norm, upending the entire notion of a ‘live’ theatre with a ‘live’ audience. This digital interface, which is the screen, is a distancing agent that separates what it seeks to unite. Yet, it is the only available means of communication during the pandemic. Ironical and contradictory.

Art is not technology. It is useful but not vital. I suppose it’s a bit crazy to be romantic and stuck in nostalgia, lamenting on the way things were, in the face of a fast-changing reality.

This is not in any way to trash what is happening. Exciting works have emerged, and I, too, have been a participant with my play ‘The Black Box’, which was not only performed ‘live’ but was also streamed through a digital platform. A dual existence, a dual vision, a dual way of being viewed was the outcome. I found that a play meant to be viewed frontally, through the invisible fourth wall, once filmed, allowed for multiple viewpoints. Was it the play? Or did it take a life of its own, not exactly envisaged during the making? Questions that assailed but had to be shooed aside for expediency. Previously, a play was filmed for documentation, but ‘Black Box’ was filmed as an intersection between theatre and films, with an attempt to not lose out on the values of it being a theatrical production, and not viewed as pure documentation.

The pandemic, it seems, will determine future directions — in the choice of narratives and subject matter, based on the technology gaze.

Initially the digital space was welcomed as an alternative, an interim space, an interruption in the natural order of things until theatre houses open and we are lured back into its seductive charms. The way the virus is rampaging, I fear it may be here to stay, for longer than one imagined.

As a theatre director, I know that I have to un-define all my conventional beliefs and habits, and turn this new encounter with technology into an adventure. Free my imagination from the definitions accumulated over time. Yet, do we have the methods, the expertise, and the funds to enter the new world? Questions that are philosophical, pragmatic, creative and rhetorical!

Welcome to the new world. A world without shadows, a world without applause, a world without noise, a windowless chamber in which fear lurks and echoes in a cacophonous silence.

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