The proscenium is a legacy of the British, which we inherited after independence. The idea was that the privileged would sit in the front, while the less privileged would be provided back seats. The rates of the tickets were also dictated by this, when ticketing became the norm. By adopting the proscenium stage, we ignored our open spaces like temple courtyards and village squares, where our traditional, folk performances were held
If you have no objection to a bunch of theatre enthusiasts sauntering through your home, you could perhaps offer it to an enterprising drama group which will be happy to stage a play there. Theatre is now opting out of proscenium spaces and hunting new and real locations for their staging. Garages, promenades, private homes, community centres, art galleries and public parks are now seeing theatre activity that they have never seen before.
One of the reasons for this is the limited number of auditoriums in the city and the exorbitant fee they charge. They have become commercial establishments, rather than supporters of culture, as they had initially claimed to be. Tutorial classes, school shows and business symposia are preferred over theatre shows, because they earn thrice the money.
The other reason is that young directors themselves are experimenting with styles, seeking an immersive experience for their audiences. They are no longer interested in a 500-plus audience in a closed space that rigidly draws a line between the actors and the audience. They prefer a dynamic relationship between them. The audience goes to the location, rather than the location coming to them, says Anuradha Kapur, former director of the National School of Drama (NSD), currently visiting professor in theatre studies at the Ambedkar University, Delhi, and a veteran director. “This becomes a mix between the real and the constructed, and connects art to life”.
During the performance of her play Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde at the NSD, Kapur had the audience journey to seven locations, including a truck, to witness scenes. “The ultimate aim is to make the audience participants and make the viewing a process rather than present it like a product”, she says.
Deepan Sivaraman, who was her scenographer, does much the same with his productions that have become iconic for this reason. In fact, he goes a step further...he also plays with the viewers’ sense of touch and smell (Erendira And Her Heartless Grandmother). Cinema is huge in this country, he says, and one way of bringing audiences back to theatre is to make it experiential.
Sivaraman, in fact, chose to perform in open spaces, even when he had a choice of proscenium theatres. It is the unconventional spaces that are fewer in number and not the other way round, he says. The proscenium is a legacy of the British, which we inherited after independence. The idea was that the privileged would sit in the front, while the less privileged would be provided back seats. The rates of the tickets were also dictated by this, when ticketing became the norm. By adopting the proscenium stage, we ignored our open spaces like temple courtyards and village squares, where our traditional, folk performances were held. Europe too saw a decline in these natural and open performance spaces when the proscenium emerged, he says.
According to Kapur, the grammer of the production decides the location, whether it is to be in an open or closed space. Neel Chaudhuri, a young playwright and director, agrees with this view. His production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale had many performance areas. And he decided to replicate them, instead of sticking to the rigid and “boring” space of the arched proscenium. He chose an open, landscaped garden in Ghitorni, Delhi, called Zorba The Greek, which would bring alive those locations. “The promenading of the action worked very well for us, allowing us to quite literally take the audience on a journey”, he says. It was also the traditional way that Shakespeare’s plays performed, four centuries ago, says Anirudh Nair, his co-director. “It placed the audience and actors both in the same light, so actors could see and speak to the audience just as clearly as the audience could witness the action”, he says.
In his own, recent production of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, called Sonnets c. 2017, young Nair sought to capture the “extremely private, intimate and terrifyingly confessional” poems within the intimacy of a house and a limited audience. “We actually have the audience split up further and moving about voyeuristically, intruding into different scenes simultaneously in bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens and living rooms. So in all honesty Sonnets was not really driven by a pragmatic or logistical need but much rather an artistic one”. The idea was to place the poems in the context of “the grizzly urban life we live in our beloved metropolis”, he says.
Traditional theatre, like Shakespeare in the UK and the Ramlila, Purulia Chhau, Theyyam, Jatra etc in India, are immersive and experiential by nature, says Kapur, who has written a book on the Ramlila of Varanasi (Actors, Pilgrims, Kings & Gods: The Ramlila of Ramnagar). The audience becomes the pilgrim and therefore a participant or actor, in a performance. Different scenes are played out in different locations, spread over a four km range, across the Ganga. “The geography of the town is incorporated in the sacred geography of the play”, she says.
And this is what modern, site specific theatre is about. It incorporates a dynamism that is perhaps lost in the proscenium, even though some of our greatest theatre classics have played out there. Sivaraman give the examples of E. Alkazi & Ratan Thiyyam, Indian directors who have used the proscenium to great effect, but he personally finds non proscenium theatre more engaging.
The four directors, who come from three different generations, concur that theatre will remain sustainable and dynamic if it adapts itself to a new and younger audience, which they are helping cultivate; people who look for participation, rather than mute viewership. Their styles are different. Sivaraman, even though he espouses the cause of intimate theatre, has performed a spectacle before a thousand strong audience (Khasakkinte Ithihasam), consistently since 2016; Chaudhury and Nair believe in small productions (Sonnets, Quicksand) with audiences as small as 15 people, that can be controlled.
But immersive theatre, for all of them, is the future. And their efforts have coincided with the opening up of small spaces around the city like the Akshara, the Attic, the Oddbird, the Black Box, and the newest entrant, Barefoot, which have emerged as alternatives to proscenium spaces in Mandi House and the India Habitat Centre. They are supporting young directors in their experimental work and showcasing them to niche audiences that are growing each year.
Dr Anuradha Kapur, the most experienced of them all, however feels, that there is space for all types of theatre, including the proscenium. The traditional should and will go hand in hand with newer and more experimental work, she avers.