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World Theatre Day: Pandemic And Its Effects On The Live Stage

This World Theatre Day, we spoke to theatre veterans—from Naseeruddin Shah to Manav Kaul—to get their perspective on how the pandemic has changed stagecraft.

Debarati S Sen

For stage artistes and live performers, the last few years have meant multiple challenges and changes. The pandemic altered realities for everyone and there have been some striking developments across the globe. On World Theatre Day, which falls on March 27, Zee Zest spoke to some theatre personalities about this and more…

For me every day is theatre day, says Naseeruddin Shah

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A still from Einstein Naseeruddin Shah's play - ‘Einstein’ | © Facebook/Motley Troupe

“The most striking thing is the infusion of so much young blood into theatre in the last few years, in every department—writing, directing, and acting. I think Indian theatre is in safe hands with the next generation. The pandemic didn't change a thing—Prithvi theatre is overflowing during every show and I hope so are the others, all of which faced acute financial crises during the lockdown. Performing online was very stimulating for me because it taught me (and others too I hope) that the quality of your performance must not depend on the audience's reactions. And for me, every day is theatre day!”

Stagecraft is going to be simpler now, post the pandemic, says Makarand Deshpande

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A still from Makarand Deshpande's ‘Dude Bhagwan Zinda Hai’

“What the pandemic has done is that it has changed our outlook towards life; you are now present and the present is being valued now. The stories have become far more humane and there is consideration, empathy, and awareness. It is no more just entertainment—if you want to laugh, laugh; but you know what the situation is, there is no more escapism. So, theatre is changing. I wrote Gandhi, Krishn, Ram, Buddh and they are all products of the pandemic. Stagecraft is going to be simpler, more involved and more interactive with the audience. The audience has also changed and the interaction is now more about being wholehearted. It is a new era. Everything is humane and human. Nothing will be trivial anymore I think—everything is going to be of substance and matter. And that is going to be interesting as we are going to value life more and value entertainment more. As an actor, I am more truthful and more compassionate, as a writer, I am voicing my opinions more clearly, and as a director, I am reaching out to the audience.” 

What I am looking forward to the most now, is to perform live, says Juhi Babbar Soni

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Juhi Babbar Soni in ‘With Love Aapki Saiyaara’ | © Instagram/Aapki Saiyaara

“I love the way theatre has adjusted and accommodated with the new normal. People say that theatre is not meant for online and yes, definitely, theatre is a live art—but we can’t let the pandemic stop us. Why deprive your audience and yourself as a theatre person? There is always some sort of midway, some sort of novelty that can come out of every situation. I performed a short online version of my play With Love Aapki Saiyaara online in 2020, and that is what inspired me to turn my online performance into a full-length play. The pandemic has definitely shown me more ways and I know it has given me the confidence that we can move on and we can find new ways of portraying our art and taking it to our audience. While I think we should really embrace online alternatives with open arms, what I am looking forward to the most now, is to perform live!”

Theatre really came to a standstill and it was painful to see people losing everything, says Manav Kaul

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“Theatre has changed in the last few years. It got hit really badly during the pandemic, especially in places people rely on to earn money through workshops, plays, and theatre. They were hit hard as there was no support for them at all. It was like a wake-up call for all theatre people and they realised that they have to think about theatre differently. Hum log sirf woh wala theatre nahi kar saktein hain where you just book a place and people come to watch, rather we should start considering alternate spaces. Recently, in Delhi, I saw a play that was happening in some building at someone’s garage. What a wonderful play that was! I think these are the changes that will make sure that theatre is done consistently. In the pandemic, it came to a standstill and it was painful to see theatre practitioners lose everything. These days I’m trying to tap all youngsters and young actors, trying to produce their plays, and give them spaces to perform. I think my role from now on will be more of a producer than a writer-director or actor on stage. So, I’m very happy with this new development and I want to produce a lot of plays!” 

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Live performance is more than just entertainment, says Bruce Guthrie, Head of Theatre and Film, NCPA

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“Someone once described the pandemic as not so much all of us being in the same boat, but being in the same storm. As we come back to a sense of living in the city again, we aim to build new relationships with audiences. Live performance is more than just entertainment; it's an enriching experience for the senses and the soul. We may not remember what people said or did, but we remember how they made us feel. We want to create experiences that will live long in the emotional memory of our audiences. We are more than just a play, event, concert or gig; we deal in innovation, inspiration, and interaction. After two years of isolation, coming together is more vital than ever. We have huge plans for productions, festivals, and education initiatives going forward. We are working with local and international artists on a vast array of plays and workshops that will benefit the theatre community as well as our audiences. Highlights include A Small Family Business with AK Various (May 2022), Lungs with QTP (June 2022) Pratibimb Festival (May 2022), and the Summer Fiesta children's festival (April - June 2022). It's going to be an exciting few months, with more to come in the year ahead.”

The shared, collective experience of theatre is valuable for human beings, says Zahan Kapoor of Prithvi Theatre

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Zahan Kapoor in-between rehearsals | © Instagram/Zahan Kapoor.

“The most striking thing since the pandemic has been perseverance—how theatre-makers and loyal audiences alike continued to engage with the performing arts. At first, the only option was online live streams, but that quickly became insufficient in terms of economics. After the first lockdown that was all the rage, but slowly it lost its momentum. Then once things began to open up it was a wonderful surprise to see the audiences throng back! Without much hesitation they obeyed the SOPs and came for shows… even at 50% we were happy to see Prithvi sold out repeatedly. Innovation was also happening as makers tried to collaborate using new formats and techniques; some worked, others didn’t—but that is part of the journey. So there are always things to learn from such situations. Undoubtedly the lockdowns have hit venues and artists very hard, the live arts were the first to close and the last to open up… we could only keep our head above water because of the generous contributions from our supporters. We must remember that the arts kept us sane when we were isolated from one another and now that we can gather again we must remind ourselves of how precious live performances are in an over-saturated digital world. As an actor, this time has taught me patience. To be back on stage, even to 50% of the audience, was pure joy. It is a reminder as to how valuable a shared, collective experience is for human beings.”

Photo: Shutterstock and featured personalities
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