World Theatre Day: Stage set for role of tech in theatre : The Tribune India

World Theatre Day: Stage set for role of tech in theatre

Modern technology is promising limitless possibilities in design and storytelling in theatre. However, the debate continues over how much is too much

World Theatre Day: Stage set for role of tech in theatre

Mythili Prakash's dance theatre is a melange of lighting, by Gyandev Singh, and projection. Photo Courtesy: lijesh Karunakaran

Sarika Sharma

IN Chandigarh, 12 years ago, Shabana Azmi was competing against herself in Girish Karnad’s play ‘Broken Images’. Her solo performance featured a conversation with a 45-minute previously shot video. A marvel of human precision indeed, but one where technology played an important role. This, says Sanjoy K Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts, is one of the earliest examples of use of technology in Indian theatre. Tech today permeates each and every nook and corner of life. Installation arts play big with technology. Why would theatre be left behind?

Grand Theatre at NMACC. NMACC

Roy says if you look at any major international production, be it ‘Lion King’, ‘Arabian Nights’, ‘Monsoon Wedding’ or ‘Bombay Dreams’, technology has had a primary role in “the way the sets come in, the way the sets move”. “Even‘Life of Pi’ was entirely done using technology. Not just at the back of the stage, even the floor of the stage was a projection screen, showing the characters drifting in the ocean, the fish flying.”

A still from Atul Kumar’s ‘Detective 9-2-11’. Aadyam Theatre 

Actor-director Shernaz Patel says the advancement of technology in theatre can be seen the world over. “Better lights, better sound, the use of hydraulics and projection are some examples. When used artistically, these can enhance the story and the theatre experience,” says Patel, who is also the artistic director of Aadyam Theatre, an Aditya Birla theatre collective adored by artistes for the kind of money it pumps in. She says Aadyam provides theatre groups with an opportunity to use technology as a character in their shows. “In ‘Twelve Angry Jurors’, for instance, the windows of the room turn into projection screens and beautifully merge with the set and the mood of each scene and thus enhance the action on stage. Season Four’s musical, ‘Sing India Sing’, saw stunning projection, set design and lighting,” she says.

Theatre design, feels actor Ira Dubey, who is also on Aadyam’s curation committee, has moved from classical to modern, with technology aiding the change. “I need not create a set, I can use a lot of projection,” she says, giving the example of the play ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, which she had seen abroad. Projections would change the setting of the play all the time. The character who once walked amid tall buildings was elsewhere the next moment. In India, Dubey sees director Atul Kumar using technology the best. “His play ‘Detective Nau-Do-Gyarah (9-2-11)’ is among the finest interventions of technology in India. In another play, he used live cameras that captured the actors and the action in a way never seen before. The cameras simultaneously projected a scene on stage, magnifying the actions and the actors. “The immediacy of theatre transforms when something like this is used,” she says.

Lighting is an important element of scenography and technology has been changing that too. While projections are seen as an increasingly important character of plays, lighting aids it like never before. “Technology in stage design is making us capable of controlling and manipulating many more things than we could earlier,” says ace lighting designer Gyandev Singh. In the field of lighting specifically, a lot has happened in the last two decades, he adds.

“From generic lights to intelligent lights, we have come a long way. Light can now move, change colour, we can have gobo patterns, change the style of the beam. That has given me more freedom and control about what I want to show on stage — how much light, angle of the light. You also have moving lighting bars; technology provides more artistic vocabulary to express yourself through light design.”

He feels that because there is technology on stage, we are looking at more lights, bigger stages and bigger trusses. There are controlling systems — called lighting consoles or controllers — that work just the way a sound fixer does. “Earlier, we operated lights manually, but these days it is computerised. What kind of light comes at what time, from which direction, it is all pre-programmed. This also means that most work happens backstage,” he says, adding that things are fast-tracked, convenient and time effective.

The use of technology has seeped into Punjab too. Theatre director Sahib Singh makes extensive use of projection and lighting. “We earlier had live music; today, it is recorded either in a studio or something can be picked from the library. Earlier depicting a murder or rape was not possible on stage. A point was created and dumped with some sound. But today lights and sounds enable us to depict it symbolically. We can shoot at sites and project it on the stage. We used technology extensively when we did a play on Guru Gobind Singh a few years ago. The battles he fought, the river he crossed were projected on screen. People don’t just want to see ideas today, they want to see how ideas are implemented.”

Writing about the use of technology in Abhilash Pillai’s play ‘Helen’, research scholar Himalay K Gohel writes: “In his plays, he …incorporates projections of films and newspaper clips, creates a muddy floor for an image of the filth, etc. The actor’s individual body disappears through this extravaganza. The use of excessive decorum and technology supports an experience where actors are now part of the scenography.” He points out, however, that an actor’s body is not always well-versed in responding to the required technology.

Ira Dubey says she has had massive debates on the use of technology with her mother, director-actor Lillete Dubey, and actors of the older generation, like Naseeruddin Shah, who are very classical in their thinking. “They say, ‘Theatre is theatre, a live art form, why should we get video involved? We are not watching a film, we are watching theatre,’” she shares.

We ask Dubey if in a bid to impress the audience, the play ends up becoming a spectacle, distracting the actors perhaps. Admitting that she herself is a classicist, she says the fear always remains. “I am always wary when I hear that a production is going to use projection. It is used for effects, to glamorise a production, but then it is about the way the director and the technical team incorporate technology without compromising on the real-life experience of the play,” she says, adding that theatre is catering to an audience that lives in a digital age. “Technology, when it serves the text well, can be magical.”

For both Dubey and Sanjoy K Roy, the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC), which is opening on the 31st of this month, is something that offers stupendous opportunities in terms of technology. “It is one of the most incredibly advanced technological venues that you will find. The roof-lighting system moves in different aspects and AI and VR would be creating a completely different sense of being,” says Roy.

The 2,000-seater The Grand Theatre is outfitted with state-of-the-art facilities such as an integrated Dolby Atmos Surround Sound System and Virtual Acoustic System, a specially programmable lighting system with 4K projection. A smaller 250-seater studio theatre offers a flexible space where one can forge intimate connections with the artiste, which, with its moveable stage, is poised to become an incubator for new and emerging talent and experimental art forms.

However, with the human touch missing and no room for improvisation, doesn’t technology bind as much as it offers freedom? “Technology can enhance an actor’s role, not replace it. You can use a 3D SRK, but you still need someone to smile, to have that charisma,” says Roy.

Gyandev does feel there is something we are moving away from because of technology and he is not sure if it is good for stage design. “Technology is becoming more computerised and less human. There is no room for improvisation. A show might end up becoming a technological marvel, but what happens to the spirit of the show? How do we use technology to connect people emotionally, that is the question we need to ask ourselves,” he says, but also agrees that the reason why all these big shows are happening is because there is possibility now. “Technology makes it possible.” A point to ponder as we celebrate World Theatre Day tomorrow.

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