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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Quo Theater 2: The Storm in the Soup Bowl

This post has been necessitated - rather precipitated - due to the views, opinions and comments expressed at me or levelled at me in response to my previous post on theatre that came down pretty critically on a certain comedy show performed in the city recently.
I was told telephonically that I was not disinterested in my critique; I was accused of impulsive writing via short messaging; and I was commented as being unfair on the audience (see one of the comments to the previous theatre post). I am not going to retract any of my views and I stand by it, because what I failed to experience that night that prompted to react strongly was born out of my conviction as to what comprises acting and the act of putting theatre together as a performer.
My reactions have nothing to do with the set design or the stage design or props or editing of the script to suit the production ends or any other facet. It has purely to do with the failure of the producers to adhere to the basics. By basics, I do not mean to any of the tenets or schools of acting that I subscribe to. I do not refer to any names of pantheons of theatre who have come up with theories and methods of acting or actor training. I do not quote any specific approach to acting from across the world. It is the very basic essence of what theatre is, drama is, acting is, narrative is and lastly, performance is. These are things that could be gleaned upon spending a little effort at analysis. I shall expound them here for the benefit of those who have stepped into theatre because it is cool to do it or there is money for their pre-paid recharge or for other divine purposes that justify their youthful hormones.

It's a small theatre world, the English theatre circuit in Chennai is! Then there must be a cohesive community. Naturally then, there must be a certain common face to it. Wrong! There are very few people and too many brands to accommodate them. In this scenario, groups hardly have a face thanks to the actor types who are the culprits. No sense of affiliation and constant horse-trading from stable to stable without any ethics to the trade. And there are many who just want to flit from production to production, churning out role after role from production after production. These people are neither trained nor educated in the fundamentals of theatre. It is one thing to expect a critical theatre culture among the audience (who need not be trained to watch entertainment) and it is another to not expect a certain standard and quality of performance that would help the audience get the critical faculty, in a culture where the concept of proscenium theatre - leave alone western theatre - is non-existent and borrowed. Yes, we are doing borrowed theatre of box sets from the west in the english theatre circuit. Mostly. And only very very recently some have started either designing performances or adapting Indian stories to stage or writing original plays in English.

I recently had the opportunity to be invited to present a paper in a theatre symposium in the city. I had taken that opportunity to talk about the malaise that besets English theatre in Chennai. It was titled Narrative Performance and Audience Interaction in Theatre. I quote some parts of it to facilitate this post:

"A lot of performance pieces being created are by the performing artists themselves. Especially in the area of non-English language theatre. My observation comes from having watched and still watching works written, produced and performed by the actor artistes over the last three or four years... In this sense, theatre is starting to coalesce boundaries with dance and dance theatre forms too.

Of course, English language theatre still seems to be trapped by and large in producing existing modern plays. Most audiences are comfortable sitting in the dark and share the private lives and worlds being shown on stage. Western concept of theatre and movie tradition, after all, evolved from the "Punch and Judy peep-show", where the audience would prefer to remain voyeurs of art. And it extends to anything western we imbibe, embrace or jolly well adopt. It is in this sense we are trying to draw attention to the specifically evolving trend in the contemporary Chennai and local language Theatre, where the audience is inclusive. Unfortunately the English theatre in India seem to be urbanized and exclude the audience in a non-participant way. Somehow the amount of immediacy and proximity between the actors and audience in a non-English theatre is not to be found in English language Indian Contemporary plays. They are no different from the non-Indian plays from English speaking world. By non-participant is meant that they are not inter-acted with.

One of the key factors in Indian performance ethos is the inclusiveness of audience as a myth-legend-tale-background knowing spectator who can respond to a question or query or a friendly jibe about the facts in a subversive way by the actor-narrator-performer; to whom direct address is possible. This attempt on the part of the actor-storyteller-narrator is what we term here in this presentation today as Narrative Performance. Let me explain three basic terms we are dealing with here.

Narration - a form of direct address to the audience; seminally drawn from narrative fiction form, where an author goes descriptive.

Performance -
as a form where people enact lives and situations as role-play, something similar to your direct speeches by the characters in a novel.

Narrative performance - actor as a story telling narrative performer who can switch in and out of persona.

Hereby the actor becomes at once endowed with the capability to role-play any roles in the plot, as well as remain conscious of the politics or discourse behind the text being performed. Herein lies the crux of theatre. The live performance mode presents with the distinct possibility of being in direct touch with the audience whereby we can not only tell or enact stories but also bring about why it is being done. Theatre has the ability to transcend being mere entertainment, address issues proactively.

Sadly enough, most modern and contemporary theatre have become like movies. No interface whatsoever with the audience. Because we make them too comfortable by placing them in dark halls and nice cushion seats that most times creak to remind us that we are playing in front of live audience. This also brings about a selfish smugness in the audience who is taught to take and not give back. But put a bit of light on them, and the story-teller as the subversionist who can twist tales to take you into the other perspective becomes possible in a very confrontive manner. Without confrontation there is no conflict, with this element of discomfort and consciousness, we cannot say theatre is a tool!"

Now you can see what my angst with Evam's productions is. They try to cater to an audience whose taste they have "cultivated" and have destroyed. They have created a certain smug audience whom they try to entertain (stress bust, as they have begun to call it these days). Noble and lofty ideals! but whoever said entertainment is only hall-fulls of ripples of laughter. By choosing plays they are comfortable in handling 1) they are limiting themselves to no-risk art, 2) they are precluding the audience from becoming knowledgeable about the variety of entertainment possible, 3) they just remain a clearing house of packaged routine diet of fast-food that is neither good for digestive system (here intellectual) nor profitable for the purse-strings that sees a wear and tear not worthy of the paper the currency is printed on. They claim their attempt is honest. If honesty were to be the blue-chip product of human beings, then why delude the audience by making them believe that the be-all and end-all of life is to make them be seen among contemporaries who all dress alike, drink alike, spend alike and smile alike, like automatons. Yes, they are swindling the intellectual layer of the Chennai theatre audience, who do not realise this. It is an insult. Even if the acting was genuine, it still is only bedroom comedy at the end of the day. Don't we deserve more than that in our lives? Aren't they living off our money? Our footfalls are what their statistics are made up of as they annually make their haj to the sponsors. We are being used for their commercial pleasures. At mid and late 20s they still cannot not claim ownership to responsibility. The trouble is with the minions they are sorrounded by, who again are picked by them. These minions are still in college or schools or in early-20s and do not know what it is to earn something.
TO EARN is to work hard, not hanging around a theatre house wearing t-shirts and lifting a couple of books that go into a shelf and claim money for backstage work or hang around FOH distributing fliers. These two guys slog their butt and waste their energies on people who are willing to hang in and chip in for a few bucks and some pretty belle's momentary company or vice-versa. In a sense, my respect for the generation preceding me goes up, and now I see the worth in the few paisas that our parents used to give us as pocket money. Every bit was well-spent and not casually thrown away at B&B or Coffee shops and we never could have a huge cast-party nite-outs at someone else's money. Things come so easy that the channel has no importance or what it stands for. What does it stand for? And inspite of a full house performance of Sircar's Indrajit, they have gone back to their Simons and Woody Allens! Without risk art cannot exist, because art attempts to go where life stops! To push boundaries, to cross thresholds, the discover lands beyond the horizon, that is what the metaphysics of the art is. And if this is possible in the West without compromising on the dynamics of commerce, why not? Commerce and one's own enjoyment alone cannot make art. Art is for people and the key purpose, I reiterate as I had done earlier, is to endow a certain sense of quality to the aesthetics of our lives!

Theatre stands for many things. We would not go into that philosophical rambling of it. Let us look at it on the surface. Theatre is the art of bringing alive "as if by magic" a certain world and transport the audience so unconsciously and unsuspectingly into a world of illusion, where they get born, grow, live, laugh, play, fight, cry, die... with the characters that come alive on stage". But what is happening here is that we are conscious of who does it. Theatre is magic. Once we enter the world, until the lights die out and come back for curtain call, we must not be aware of ourselves. Theatre in the hands of these and several other new people has just become like film. I am not indicating these guys have elevated the art to the level of successful mass-market commercial celluloid status. But that they have degraded it to just a non-inclusive peep show where we consciously laugh at someone regurgitating some written lines (without a certain internalised ownership feeling of the emotion) and remain themselves. There is no transformation of the artist into a role. Hence there is such an amount of pushing the humourous act when the gallery responds. Just by getting into different clothes from different culture or making-up with a different type of face-do from one's own or chaning voice or giving the acting a certain gesture patterns does not become character-playing.

I am not going to puke words like "getting into the skin of the character, etc" or "method acting" or say "Stanislavsky this, Stella Adler that, Brecht that too, et al". Very simple. Only if you are consciously telling stories to your audience to you face them, look into them or look in their direction and talk. How can one face the audience all the time? If you say there is an invisible fourth wall at which the character is facing and not the audience, then pray, why should the fourth wall always be in the direction of the audience? Or in real-time would you turn away from your partner and talk every time you speak? In theatre there is story, story telling, narrative performance and role-playing. In story telling, you plainly tell the audience something. In a narrative performance, you bring in performance aspect of gestures, emotions, inflexion, a bit of histrionics while you still retain the aspect of narrating something. In role-playing you become somebody and then be that person. The process of becoming somebody is called rehearsal. The training to cultivate the process is called workshopping the essentials of trying to rehearse. Then when you have arrived at becoming somebody, you get on stage in front of the audience and be somebody so much so that the audience lose consciousness of your presence. The current generation of actors in Chennai's English Theatre are always themselves, like all those Kollywood and Bollywood stars who are always themselves... who just keep changing costume and names of characters and dance locations from movie to movie. Star-branding is not acting. Acting is living out a life there on stage. That is why Hollywood makes stars and British Broadway makes actors.

To conclude, this production I am talking of, like many others (there are exceptions) by them as well as a couple of groups in the city, smacked of star-syndrome. Pushing their personalities and preferences on the characters created by someone who doesn't probably know his work is being performed in some other part of the world! And I was talking to some people in the aftermath of their second week of performance. These people didn't even know me, these people are not even regular theatre-goers... and they had visited the show. They weren't much off my wavelength of response to the production. The problem is in the bowl that contains the soup and the atta noodle!

12 comments:

Anand Ramamoorthy said...

Dear KK,
wow...such intensity..I feel the same way about science...not that it is relevant here..but I guess I cannot comment on a topic I am not qualified to comment on...lol

SARVAM SRIKRISHNAARPANAMASTHU!

antickpix said...

ah, this makes your point clearer. part one was a bit muddled IMO.

this i agree with completely, but i ask..what are you doing about it? not meant to sound challenging. just, are you staging plays that go beyond what you've outlined?

was oleanna meant to do that?

Krishna Kumar said...

Oh well.. all my productions are meant always to go beyond mere entertainment. Sometimes the script is politic and ideology dominant, sometimes humour dominant, but the subtextual discourse is always made aware for an observant audience. And without training of mind we don't do theatre. Often due to production constraints and bandwidth problems we may not train production-centric, but there is always training and workshops as Masquerade. Both the lead guys of Evam have been through enough of that in the past, and that is why it is disconcerting to see them theatre without Theatre.

antickpix said...

true..never seen any ads for Evam theatre workshops (though they might hold it privately for 'Team Evam'. i'm not in the know) unlike Landing Stage.

Krishna Kumar said...

Oh, it's not so much about conducting theatre workshops for outsiders, but the schedule it looks like don't allow for internal military drills. And that is what happens if it goes on the commercial look-out rather than livelihood gleanings because, art can be a career or even a profession, but not a business, then like those art-houses that store and sell artworks of popular artists, we just become clearing houses for various sort of escapists. Landing Stage is another thing, though. LS was conceived as a niche platform to initiate teens and youths, not to mention adolescents, through chanelised creative route.

Srini said...

Dear Sir KK,

I am not in the least a theatre person, but part of the post is also a cultural or shall we say a generational allusion, I quite liked.

It is all right to say we are a different generation, and let's say shalom to our past and reminiscences are useless... that sort of a thing. We have fallen to a synthetic culture - even I too at times tend to fall into the mainstream albeit I keep myself out of water most of the time - and I find myself a kind of misfit anachronism in this world.

And this was my favourite part in your post. Kudos!
"
TO EARN is to work hard, not hanging around a theatre house wearing t-shirts and lifting a couple of books that go into a shelf and claim money for backstage work or hang around FOH distributing fliers. These two guys slog their butt and waste their energies on people who are willing to hang in and chip in for a few bucks and some pretty belle's momentary company or vice-versa. In a sense, my respect for the generation preceding me goes up, and now I see the worth in the few paisas that our parents used to give us as pocket money. Every bit was well-spent and not casually thrown away at B&B or Coffee shops and we never could have a huge cast-party nite-outs at someone else's money. Things come so easy that the channel has no importance or what it stands for."

Krishna Kumar said...

Dear Srini

am not at all angry or irritated at these people. am only sad that with their possible reach they are not bringing extra specialness to their shows. hope they get to read this and mend. am very passionate about my theatre and i have literally had to work my way through from arranging the furniture and pasting posters to an actor-director that i am today. and i really have gone through the whole curve, although my learning is not complete. I just cannot stand it when someone takes something so lightly.

Srini said...

Dear Sir KK,

My knighthood (with a small k, a humble gift) is not badly placed I surmise. Well sir KK, I have always realised - and recognised - without your uttering so that you have come a distance not out of the blue, but right from scratch. And... I did fathom the fact that your love of theatre - and not any cheap intention at offence or empty castiation - is what made you come out with such a passionate post.
Having said that I am totally furious about some of the practices of our age - or shall we say my age; not to make you old sir KK (lol) but then I am still at my tenterhooks of adulthood as part of a noxious era - and do not mind admitting it. To list some of them might mean devoting a whole blog with a title somewhat similar to your chain of blogs!
"A Little Shop of Pent Up Volcanoes..." Well... for the title... not for the repulsive mood... I shall say: courtesy sir KK!
Kudos again! Goodnight!

eyefry said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
eyefry said...

Wow. I just read both the controversial posts that everyone's been talking about. Two thoughts:

(a) I very much agree that our revitalized Young India (and even most of Old India, for that matter) have forgotten the spirit of Avant-Garde. We screech and clamour and imitate (much like the simians in your favourite analogy) those damn Yankee sitcoms and their tepid morality - it's fun to watch, but hard, for any person of average intelligence, to emulate. As an artist, I see this most obviously in the kind of prices that people like M.F.Hussain and Souza and god knows how many others of that sort command in the domestic market (read 'among yuppie idiots'). What Hussain&co. continue to dish out is a jaded and infinitely inferior duplication of what the European masters innovated nearly a century ago. Nothing path-breaking, nothing indigenous, nothing truly self-reflexive, and nothing really stimulating. But, of course, McIndia seems more keen on the primary-coloured-shitty-shinola of packaging and Trends (that most hated buzzword) than anything remotely apperceptive. And the same goes for any other artform, be it writing, cinema, music or theatre. So I say, yeah! Screw the bastards for all they're worth! God knows they need the odd jolt or two from the true blue...

and (b) You are a very brave man. We need more unambiguous critics like you.

Cheers,

V.

Krishna Kumar said...

Hey vinayak,
what was the post you removed? Put it back. We are talking avant-garde, you can't back out now.

Ok, regarding your latest comment, I am not against them as a person or human being or anything. On the contrary. Only, if it had been anyone else it still would have been the same - my reaction. I just can't take bad theatre, that's all. Honest or not. It's the same way that how much ever dialectics or politics or discourse Mahesh and Mukesh and Pooja Bhatt may come up with in their movies... it still doesn't justify the commercial intent. At the end of the day people may say "Talk is Cheap, takes money to buy whiskey!". I agree, but one of these days they gonna get too much of whiskey that blood transfusion would become anathema to the streams and veins that experiment, and artistic freedom to take risk with art than doing risque art is going to be repelled by their body. And they are going to run around in circles. The other day I was talking to someone close to them who grudgingly agreed to my points, but tried to save ass by saying "give them time, just year and half they been here" and I said if you don't build a guts to try out from the beginning you're sure gonna chicken out once the brand has been built, once the financial stakes are high! I guess what goes for the Hussains and Souzas also hold good for the Araikals and the Bangalore breed of artists. And that's the way most english theatre in Mumbai and B'lore, now in Chennai seems to be headed. I am pained.

eyefry said...

In the immortal words of the eminently-blinged Mr.T, "I ppppity the pooah foohs! I do! I do!"

p.s. All my commentry is addressed purely to the spirit and principle of your argument for artistic integrity. As for the actual objects of your many-splendoured-ire, I have a small confession to make: I'm yet to see an Evam play! Every time they put up a production, something or the other comes in the way of my watching it - work, illness, travel, you name it. I do, though, have the unique distinction of being part of their first ever public event a couple of years back - a Harry Potter book launch at the Goodbooks store. I was interning at Tulika then, and ended up designing all the sets and banners and badges and stuff for the launch. Evam back then was just Karthik, Sunil and Preethi - all fresh out of college and roiling with heady dreams of making it big and changing this city's cultural climate in the bargain. We were to remake Goodbooks in the image of Hogwarts. Ah, Optimism, that bounteous source of laughter and mild embarrassment! I shall refrain, modest as I am, from commenting on the end result. I can say this much - we tried hard, we really did...
The final event, as I recall, was a wild maniacal soiree in a small sweaty space stuffed beyond capacity with a massive army of screaming frustrated kids chaperoned by a tiny garrison of screaming frustrated adults. Man, those were the days...