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Posted at: Jan 13, 2019, 6:41 AM; last updated: Jan 13, 2019, 6:41 AM (IST)

Theatre at your doorstep

Director Atul Kumar is turning unconventional spaces like homes and museums into stage

Swati Rai

An increasing number of experimentations are on in the space of contemporary arts, and theatre isn’t untouched by them. The focus is on increasing the footfall, heightening the experience and creating awareness. This is exactly what Atul Kumar has been doing in taking his plays to unconventional venues. One of India’s most successful English theatre directors, he has been staging plays at museums and restaurants.

He recently took his idea of ‘Theatre at Home’ to the Serendipty Arts Festival in Goa. A series of performances were done in intimate spaces like Goan homes and public institutes like museums, pushing theatre beyond defined boundaries. Atul was curating the festival’s theatre programming along with Arundhati Nag.

However, his experiments with space began in Mumbai way back in 2000 after he failed to find cheaper venues to stage his plays. He continued to do so till 2004 and took the concept to places like Baroda, Bangalore, Pune, Ahmedabad and Delhi.

As he once again moves away from the proscenium separating the stage from the auditorium, he also responds to and addresses pertinent social, cultural and environmental concerns such as homosexuality and gender bias.

Atul’s production No Place Like There is based on a Dalit soldier in the army of Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. A unique insight into the untold Dalit history, the play is an account of an individual’s contribution to what was the First War of Indian Independence in 1857. Another play, Jhalkari, explores the world of mythology, unravelling narratives of characters who try to overcome the inescapable impact of power, oppression and other constraining forces.

Criminal Tribes Act and Adrak, the two other productions under the project, explore the lives of marginalised communities, while challenging the notions of theatre craft, the performative, the performance space and the audience’s perception of the stage.

Directed by Sankar Venkateswara and performed by Theatre Roots & Wings, Criminal Tribes Act examines India’s inherited modes of social exclusion. Alluding to the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, a legislation imposed during British rule, the play looks at the hierarchical classification of people based on caste and status within the country’s social structure, which dictates that individuals belonging to certain castes are socially excluded, ostracised and alienated. Adrak, presented by Now Productions and written by Niketan Sharma, redefines the idea of conversation and conversations and dwells on immediacy of them.

Our tryst so far with open spaces has been street theatre and we wonder if this is somehow similar to that. Kumar doesn’t necessarily agree. He says the latter is more of activism while the main aim of Theatre at Home is awareness generation. “Though these plays also have powerful themes and texture, the grammar of both is disparate,” he says.

Performing in people’s homes and public places such as the museum is a major challenge for artistes. Rehearsals at the venue are rare. The artistes are just shown pictures of the venue and given a general idea. Atul says that there is a lot of adapting while performing. “Once there was a performance outdoors, but then it started raining and everything had to be shifted indoors. The artistes switched beautifully and spontaneously.” He says such performances are intimate and the audience connects unwittingly. The performance sometimes moves from one room to another, engaging and involving the audiences as the action moves towards the denouement. 

Does this intimacy translate into informality too, thus diluting the sanctity of a performance... “The ground rules for such performances are laid out right in the beginning. The hosts are informed of the ‘no eating and drinking’ rule while the play is on. The involvement of the audience is such that there is no question of them taking these plays lightly,” he says. 

The rehearsals for these plays do not change at all, keeping the spontaneity factor in the performance alive while pushing the boundaries of real-life experience in a world surrounded by virtual reality. Atul sees a growing interest in such plays with invitees pouring in through word of mouth of the hosts as well!

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