“We almost forgot how to speak. When we had to utter the first line wearing a mask, we realised we had forgotten how to talk. It was a nightmare”, says Ila Arun, as she describes returning to the stage after almost two years.
After what has been a painstakingly long, woeful, and emotional journey for the theatre industry—as has been for the rest of the world amidst the pandemic—the slow but resilient leap to normalcy has begun.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took over the world, the theatre industry was one that suffered not only huge losses but a clear suspension from their place of work with no alternatives to depend on for a long time. All live performance arts—including music and dance became were terribly affected. The stage went dark, the stories were put on hold.
Live theatre has triumphantly resumed in the city of Mumbai and enthusiasts cannot wait to get back. The Quint spoke to Kunal Kapoor, Trustee of the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, about the reopening of theatres. We also chatted with actor and writer, Ila Arun. Her theatre group 'Sunarai’ jumpstarted the festivals at Prithvi Theatre again with a four-day fest lined up with seven shows. From the stand-up comedy circle, Aditi Mittal told us about the plight of stand-up comedians during the pandemic and the resurgence to the new normal.
Ironically, Aditi Mittal was performing at a show in Malaysia, sponsored by a hand sanitiser brand, when the COVID-19 pandemic was just about to hit the country. It was the second lockdown that made her and most of her colleagues realise that the only way to go about work now is online. Now that comedy shows are returning physical spaces, Aditi points out that “Zoom shows” are here to stay in some capacity and that the way forward is a combination of the two.
The announcement by the Maharashtra government to reopen theatres and auditoriums from 22 October 2021 brought about a cheer amongst the theatre community in the state. The rehearsal halls were filled with life again, and thus the entire industry—from a dreadfully long Act 2—transitioned to Act 3, the return to the stage.
When asked about what preparation went on to gear up for the reopening, Kunal Kapoor explained that the repairs and maintenance had been going on in anticipation. “The announcement simply gave us a deadline to complete as much as we can”, he said.
Online forms of almost all performing arts became common as the pandemic passed through its many waves and shades. But can online mediums, even when they hold the capacity for a larger reach, replace something as collective and social an experience as live theatre?
Kapoor answers, “Human Beings are social, pack animals. The collective experience of live entertainment cannot be replaced."
"Online entertainment and social media have a bigger role in information and education—bringing you information and knowledge previously difficult to come by. This will add to the demand and appreciation of the live performance. Remember radio, films, TV, 70mm, Imax, Dolby sound, OTT… live performances have not died but grown."Kunal Kapoor, Trustee, Prithvi Theatre
When the shops shut for almost a year and a half, multiple variables were directly affected—actors, technicians, staff, maintenance costs—which made it difficult for the theatres to stay afloat. But Kapoor is hopeful as the audience is already coming back, as witnessed worldwide. He expressed that the governments and local governing councils need to be a little more supportive for the theatres in the city to bounce back.
While Prithvi Theatre is a legacy in Mumbai and its reopening is bound to be a celebration, many smaller theatre collectives and auditoriums have suffered losses that, I fear, have pushed them beyond recovery by the pandemic. While Kapoor agrees that some parts of the industry may have faced an unfortunate ending, he is optimistic that new ones will spout.
Ila Arun has been running her theatre company for 40 years now and describes the last year and a half as a nightmare. For theatre artists, the live physical connection with the audience is irreplaceable.
Talking about the preparation for the festival, she explained that the first step for her was to bring people together. Many members of the theatre industry were economically pressured and had to return to their hometowns.
"Once we got to know that theatres might reopen and that Prithvi would be able to host us, the biggest investment I made was to book a theatre hall with whatever little money I earned from my films, so that we could be under one roof to prepare a full festival in a month. We initially started doing readings on Zoom with people scattered all across the country. We also had a change of cast. It was a big challenge."Ila Arun
The four-day theatre festival from 11 to 14 November comprised of Ila Arun’s play Hardit Kaur Gill, directed by KK Raina and a Hindi adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gable. Along with an original play Yeh Raste Hain Pyar Ke, the festival also saw Miracle on Matunga Street, an adaptation of Tom Dudzick's American play Miracle on South Division Street.
Explaining the process of putting together the plays, she said, “I got the writing done during the lockdowns. The director took over and my job was then of an actor. Well, a producer too, but the producer tag doesn’t go too well with theatre. My kind of theatre doesn’t really have money. So, I’ll just say I’m a person who tries to bring like-minded people together.”
Senior theatre actors and workers were amongst the worst hit in the industry. Ila Arun explained that there is no pension for theatre artists. “Our government doesn’t protect them. We have our cultural department which is limited to very few people. My company will be completing 40 years next year. I'm not on the repertories of the government; it has been difficult to sustain. Each time I have a begging bowl ready”, she said.
While we lost some senior actors, some reconciled with the situation with an untimely retirement. Ila elaborated that the independent career of a theatre artist takes time to take off. And when senior actors were forced into the house by the pandemic, it shortened their careers by years
“We theatre artists have no retirement age. AK Hangal died at the age of 90 and was still doing theatre. Theatre is such an enriching job; nobody can throw you out of it. But the pandemic suddenly took away two years from all our lives, she added.
Despite the woes of the pandemic, art and applause have found their way back to the forlorn stage. When asked if we should be expecting a bustling spree of theatre festivals again at the premises of Prithvi Theatre, Kunal Kapoor cheerfully exclaimed, “We are already bustling—at a painful 50% capacity—and will continue to do so!”
Stand-up comedy, a thriving division of the performance arts in India was among the first few forms to adapt to the virtual route.
Although stand-up comedy shows were amongst the earliest to adjust to the new medium in multiple ways, she explains that it is one of the most interactive live formats and receives immediate feedback and gratification. With online shows, it became difficult to gauge the audience as timing is one of the most important attributes of comedy.
The second wave in March this year crushed all hopes of normalcy sprouting at the beginning of the year. “We had a glorious 15 minutes between the first and the second wave”, chuckled Aditi.
Before the second wave when offline shows had begun, the entire experience of a comedy show had altered. "We were doing shows at two in the afternoon. Stand up is more of a nighttime event. As a collective, it has taken us time to climb back and realise what new social behaviours are, even at a show”, she added.
Online shows also brought audiences from across the worlds and condensed them to a single screen. When asked if the diversity was refreshing or a limitation to performance, Aditi told us, "I don’t think people were as difficult as the troubling internet connection. I was doing a show and my computer collapsed right after a tech check. It’s the variables more than the people.”
Besides online shows, comedians were present on social media in a larger capacity due to the pandemic.
“The pandemic led to a lot of us saying more things online. We are living in polarising times; there was a lot more abuse, with a lot more people getting offended and participating in outrage and hatred online. Although comedians saw high engagement for their content and an increase in followers, we had an equally overwhelming increase in online trolling and targeting”, Aditi elaborated.
Talking about whether the pandemic helped expand the scope of stand-up comedy in India, she said “The immediate effect of it all is that the form has changed hugely. I am a creature of the live medium and made my money from touring. You germinate lesser with the material now and go out with it faster. But to see if online shows have helped flourish the stand-up comedy space in India is yet to be seen.”
Aditi believes that now there are more people than before who are eager to experience live entertainment and new audiences to discover. To bring back people to live shows should not be difficult. She believes that the audiences want physical shows and to be among people now more than ever.