Song of Surrender

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The return of English theatre

By Gowri Ramnarayan

Chennai’s claims to the title of cultural capital of India has only meant that it has been the stronghold of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. It is a city of sabha-s – private organisations conducting monthly and annual festivals of classical music, dance and Tamil mythologicals, “social drama” and plain farce. English theatre has rarely been part of mainstream Chennai culture.

But the last ten years have seen English theatre make its presence felt strongly and insistently, with theatre groups mushrooming everywhere. Old groups have been rejuvenated or have reinvented themselves in new directions.

Not every group has any particular aim beyond the staging of plays, or any idea of developing a character of its own. “Perform or die” could well be the motto of most theatre groups in the city. It is not unusual to see young people trying to patch up and mount a play of sorts, with nothing but enthusiasm to carry them through.

A new kind of English theatre came to Chennai with the professed goal of entertainment entrepreneurship when Evam (2003) devised market strategies for its packed shows. Young people began to find live theatre a cool place to be in. Chennai watched with surprise as Evam (with a core team of paid professsionals) found ample sponsorship, developing activities including event management, HR training models and corporate shows.

With the advantage of being headed by an actor/director who is also an expert in lighting and set design (Michael Muthu), Boardwalkers have cashed in on these technical strengths and event management.

Meanwhile The Madras Players, said to be India’s oldest amateur English theatre group, celebrated its golden jubilee (2005). This group produced, even premiered some of the famous New Wave Indian plays in the 1960s-70s, in addition to its regular fare of Shakespeare and Pinter. A remarkable change came with the declaration of 2000 as the Year of the Chennai Playwright. Since then, the Madras Players have found a different kind of energy and focus in staging Indian plays – original and translated scripts, welcoming collaborations with other groups, encouraging new writing in English. A couple of years ago the oldest amateur company joined arguably the youngest group, the Landing Stage, to showcase an enormously successful “Swami and Friends”, an adaptation of R.K. Narayan’s debut masterpiece.

Landing Stage attracts a large number of stage-struck youth through multifold theatre related activities, widening the circle of actors and theatregoers. Every group knows the importance of offering live theatre exposure to youth.

Krishna Kumar’s “Masquerade” has produced most of Chennai’s actors including Kartik Kumar and Nikhila Kesavan. His Natak competitons (sadly defunct) galvanised colleges into competitions with prizes for play, script and sets/lighting.

Freddy Koikaran’s (Stagefright) advertisement says it all: “Theatre, Music and more! Yup, that’s right! Hey, even if you’re just the “spectating” type, join us!”

Since 2001 Ajit Chitturi has been organising readings with newcomers, in the homes of senior theatre persons, or at youth-friendly venues like the Ashvita Gallery.

While Neil Simon draws full houses many groups have started looking for that “spicy desi touch”. But plays “we can relate to” are hard to come by.

Rajiv Krishnan (Perch) and V. Balakrishnan (Theatre Nisha) have tried to push the envelope in different ways. With his commitment to long term rehearsals and attention to detail, Rajiv has been able to create sustained work of quality in content and form.

Crossing boundaries has been a major impetus for Delhi-raised, National School of Drama alumnus Balakrishnan, with an Indian God, a biblical criminal, or an Iranian protestor. Bala’s work directing plays and conducting workshops in schools, colleges and corporate centres has expanded the reach for such ventures.

JustUs Repertory found its distinct character in melding classical music and dance into contemporary English theatre, struggling to find beauty and a sense of values in a world of mounting violence. One of India’s finest actors, Dhritiman Chaterji of Satyajit Ray films-fame collaborated with a journalist-musician-playwright and other friends to launch JustUs, which has won acclaim in metros all over India.

As good as it gets? So it sounds. But while Chennai theatre has come up with fine productions, every group is faced with disheartening problems. Sponsorship is always never enough, though groups have found creative ways of doing more with less.

The real problems lie elsewhere. The lack of rigorous, multi-pronged, years long training is evident in every department of theatre craft. Most groups work with actors of different levels – from professionals to debuting college students – resulting in unevenness in presentation. There is little sense of “repertory”, actors float in and out, and from one group to another, with no guide or mentor to give them purpose and direction. Barring a few, the interest seems to be on performance rather than achieving indepth, nuanced excellence. On the technical side too sound and light are often manned by untrained newcomers who do not stick on long enough to gain experience.

With everyone forced to script and adapt texts for the stage, the absence of sustained playwriting workshops – like Mumbai’s annual Writer’s Bloc (by Rage, in collaboration with the Royal Court Theatre) which helps aspiring playwrights by actually staging what they write – is keenly felt.

And yet, English theatre in Chennai is alive now as it never was before, with a growing audience eager to experience the live medium. They are accessed through generous previews in every English daily, while email and facebook have opened even wider portals. Interestingly, this ticket-buying theatre audience is far more disciplined than those at sabha events. The mobile phone remains a menace, but there is no sauntering in and out at will or exodus partway as at Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam recitals.

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