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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Hindu Festival Minus Metro

Blogging after a long time, but blogging because am internally impelled to write.

It has been a hectic but very edifying and entertaining day.

A chance brush, strange encounter and amusing meeting is more like what would sum up the day's events.

First I ran into an old-time acquaintance - Uncle Sudhakar as we call him! And what I consider to be finally an encounter with a person - an intriguing artist - whom I have met before thrice, but finally got to spend some serious personal moments with: Valsan Kolleri. Both happened at Lalith Kala Akademi as I went to visit Siva-Benitha-Prasan's exhibition TRILOGY. Some very amusing conversation resulted in disturbing me to think seriously! Valsan is truly a remarkable guy who prefers to create and believes he can't talk, but manages to pour out wise-cracks trois-ed with quick one-liners to quote in an interview as well as ideas that truly ring of seriousness. But more of Valsan and TRILOGY separately later, for they merit separate posts!

SO then... eventually to wind up the day: a call from a journalist friend of mine asking me to land up around 6 pm at The Screening Room, The Park - apparently a debrief meeting between the organisers and participant directors that ended up with more others than directors. One truth rang as I left the discussion which moved stolidly on to its ultimate watering session. For once I played an absolute silent spectator, literally sitting on the peripheries, the virtual last seat. What an Olympian view! But back to the truth before we go into the details: the closing lines from AMADEUS kept ringing in my mind through the d-elevation (going down the elevator from the venue!), "Mediocrity everywhere, I bow to you!" (or something to that effect). I bow not in reverence, but conceding defeat, at the mindset of 'most' gathered there to accept and quit that 'We indeed are celebrating the mediocrity of amateur theatre in Chennai and are content not to raise the bar truly'. I guess the only soul rebelling that refused to accept the concessions was Bala. Hang in there, am really proud to know you!

My question is, like Sunill of EVAM asked, what is the purpose? I ask: If this is a festival, what are we celebrating? Are we trying to do this to promote the theatre culture in Chennai? If so, are we trying to support the groups doing theatre in Chennai? Or are we doing this to raise the critical appreciative standards of the Chennai theatre going audience? If the former, then why this cynicism at local groups. If local groups do not get exposure, then how will they add that extra edge to their work? If they don't get to be featured in a festival of their own city, then who's it for? If they don't brush shoulders in the same festival with so-called qualitative groups from other parts of the country (that are supposedly better), then are they just to be reduced to mere ticket buyers who learn others by watching? I am under the presumption that the the more you do it, the better it gets. Correct me if I am under a delusion! Also, going by the feedbacks about this year's festival, it seems 3 out of 9 shows were rank bad - the firang, the mega-Tantric and the Kolkatta ones, 3 out of the rest 6 were from Chennai and acquitted themselves decently and out of the other 3 two were very commendable. About the Q show I don't have feedback, so I can't write! And this considering none of the 3 Chennai shows had a tech.

If on the other hand, the festival attempts to bring the best of english theatre in India, then the logic must be to provide the audience with quality entertainment on one hand and show them the difference between the good, the bad and the ugly so that the next time they watch a local show they know the difference and hence, we believe, the bar of aesthetics would be raised (if not... at least the aesthetics of their respective bars would be enhanced with better brands of booze!). Anyway, overlooking that unnecessary but irresistable aside, what the audience were treated to was a democratic levelling view of both sides. Going by the feedbacks, the green grass outside the bounds of Chennai theatre also had septic tanks underneath, only the packaging and the gloss kind of made the thought bearable. I guess the whole ferris wheel of the festival is aimed at some other agenda I am unable to fathom. I mean, the chief organisers anyway do not have presence in parts of India where the others came from and do not look to seek presence either. So why? Is this some kind of a masochistic attempt to proclaim the mediocrity of amateur theatre mentality???

The quality dished out only shows that we rank as equally in qualitative amateurishness to other parts of India and that at least we boast of more groups and more active stage-boarders than traditionally theatrical bastions such as Kolkatta where from the only active group had to be invited to complete the zonal quota! Either way, theatre in Chennai doesn't seem to have benefited and if at all anything the festival only brings to surface our embedded cynical attitude at our own selves. I don't blame such an attitude or the carriers of such an attitude. Everyone is entitled to opinions and have the liberty to grumble! We artists have not made any attempts to produce quality that just stuns the organisers into quit inviting outsiders!

One inspired suggestion that came to sort out the quandary we have led ourselves into went like this: combine the best or the cream of Chennai's acting talents, bring an outside director to direct them so that Chennai theatre could produce qualitative work! Are we now conceding our inability to be creative? True, someone remarked, groups won't come together. True true! Because, as I had said elsewhere, there are no groups. What groups? Just fancy names... only banners and brandnames. The oldest group doesn't have an artistic group, but only an administrative body, four ageing actors (the best perhaps in business) and no young artists to lead forward. The youngest group is not able to create fresh artists. And yours faithfully is fighting a losing war to create a recognisably individual identity for myself and my handful of believers. Perhaps the only group that has an identity of its own and manages to do its productions without borrowing heavily (well, we still are at the stage where older age group actors are to be borrowed!) and is self-sustaining is EVAM and kudos to them for that. Leave other things aside for the moment. I have not seen their actor training sessions so I cannot talk of it. In any case, they manage by themselves. And that is one of the hallmark of a group steering towards professional existence. (P.S.: It's not that am suddenly turning pro-Evam or anything, let's just recognise commendable things and criticise opposable things! I would still reserve my opinion on productions!!)

The problem with theatre in Chennai is that groups are mere names with no significant identity of their own. Like I said earlier in another post, one is solo performer, two is partnership, three still doesn't make a group (even if it's idiomatic crowd!). Until we evolve to that stage where groups are identifiable, no definitive style of work would evolve. The reason: if we don't have artists trained in a particular style or belief of acting, there is no individuality to the group. If actors are constantly horsed around fording every stream, they cannot develop acting. They are only moving from director to director, assuming roles and rehearsing lines as a routine. Directors in Chennai must decide to seek identifiable group of actors and work strictly inside themselves in order to evolve a strong approach to acting and performance. And then we would have a body of actors who are literate if not educated, in the essentials of performance. For, every strong performance evolves out of a cultural politics and understanding of the role one is doing and the holistic stance of the work being produced. The success behind OTHELLO by Royston Abel is mainly due to its interpretation. And interpretation cannot occur without analysing the cultural, social and sometimes racial politics. The point about racial politics was so well illustrated by Runa's VALLEY SONG. Of course, on the same count, it was also proved what overturning the fundamental idea behind a play such as MACBETH in order to make it entertaining could lead to! Am not saying this, ask the attendant public!

We all saw what a sad case of adaptation a recent production of BLACK COMEDY turned out to be. Peter Shaffer created the work and the characters out of a cultural milieu and social environment, just as much as AMADEUS was a play about racial discrimination and Germanic inability to accept foriegners. You see, every work stems from a cultural and social standpoint. By just changing the names and the location and moving to Mumbai the show (Black Comedy) elicited mere laughs at some caricatures. That is not respecting the audience. Merely giving them voyeuristic pleasure. So first the directors must show some purpose than just taking up works because it is amusing or witty or appealing to their passionate creative skills. Of course we need not, as directors, foist our process upon the audience. We can continue to produce slapsticks and farces and romantic comedies and entertain the audience and have our cash registers ringing, and can still have our work steeped in a deeper understanding of the needs of theatre. I wonder what it would be if The Theatre wakes up one fine day to confront the doers of theatre in Chennai, in a Pirandellian way! It would really either become Narashimha and tear us apart for the sacrilege we are committing in its name, or pull the cyanide capsule and die! This is why a director is a very critical ingredient in the making of a play.

A director trained (in an institution or auto-didactic doesn't matter!) in the craft and is capable of creating sensitised artists can go a very long way to creating a strong group that believes in its identity (a while back a very active Magic Lantern was just that. Pity they have gone less active!). This in turn can lead into a good production worthy of holding our heads about. It is time-consuming, but we need to build it brick by brick patiently. We need to create artists through training. That day Chennai theatre need not vie with morsels of slots in a theatre festival curated, conducted and organised by local patrons of that selfsame art!

Until then... we keep borrowing and bickering and reduce ourselves to the level of letting ourselves into depths of lack of self-belief. Is this a trip to unite the struggling and in-fighting artists of theatre in Chennai? If we have more than 100 odd people who do theatre in some fashion passion or hobby, can't they be trained? A trained actor is not restricted to roles. An actor who is just doing roles or hop-scotching amid directors and groups is not serious about the work, but is only diluting whatever meaningfulness that exists. Of course, there is nothing wrong in trading horses because most theatre is not livelihood theatre but serious hobby. But then, this can only lead to the status we seem to be in... the status of lack of self-belief to produce a quality work that walks into a festival rather than be condescendingly invited! Not for nothing goes the idiom VANDHAARAI VAAZHA VAIKKUM THAMIZHAGAM (the Tamilnadu that lets others live at the expense of its own!). The need of the hour is to be ourselves and create distinct identities before we even produce... be it good or bad. But who cares, let's fish around, because everyone's around for a good romp. But thanks to the organisers of The Hindu Metro Plus Theatre Festival for bringing outside groups to show us where we stand!

18 comments:

Srini said...

Dear Sir KK,

Good to be sitting here at CIEFL after two hours of phonology and read a passionate on-your-face wake up part - one that has come after a long time - in one of my favourite blogs. True, sir KK, much of Chennai theatre (for this is a feature or an idiosyncratic characteristic I can comment on as it doesn't per se involve theatric technicalities) is a question of people frog-racing on criss-crossing alleys. As you had elsewhere suggested, too (if not accrately as I explicate at least somewhat so) there seems to be much more fanfare surrounding the 'partying' frills of theatre and little that is'essentially' theatrical is present. But trust me, sir KK (and though I may not have your age and sagacity to say so) warriors even when alone are warriors.

Anyhow... hope life is treating you well. Shall try to comment maybe once a week!

Krishna Kumar said...

Thanks Srini, as always, for your views. The thing is, we stand poised in Chennai at the threshold of something that is changing, like it or not. And issues need to be addressed at this moment and we need to accept some bitter truths or else we may stagnate. Hence the statement. Keep posting and hope CIEFL treats you well!

Abhinav said...

KK,
That was a very interesting post, and i found myself reading it despite the daunting length (sorry for being so frank). I havent been in theatre for any significant period, but as a member of the audience, what i inferred from it is that chennai theatre is healthy if only in comparison with the rest.
i mean i managed to see a very british affair - which was mildly amusing, valley song - which was fab, and goa - which was balls.
and of course, the chennai plays, which i thought were all good, if not brilliant.
if the question is what is the point of this festival - as a member of the audience once again - its to give us 12 plays to watch. i dont care too much whether its from chennai or mumbai or whatever. on the other hand, i do care that 3 out of 9 were poor, and only 1 out of 9 was really outstanding. i dont think thats a great percentage.
but still, it was a great week, and it did create some buzz about town, which is always a nice thing.

None said...

hey,

i'm here after a long while. in fact i'm anywhere after a long while...
i saw four plays, one of which compelled me to walk out midway. I have done it just once before at a play - dance like a man by blt in chowdiah memorial - several years ago.
but i jump the gun.
a very british affair - had potential, but was more hype. certainly, the guys were good in parts, but the rest just sagged. after all, with vaudeville (which it most certainly resembled) you cannot afford to let your jokes die.
Othello, magnificient, intense drama, excellent treatment, though a little dosed up on the f word. It has its uses but i wonder if we could have heard a little less of the french. but yes, interpretation, that's what it hinged on. and a great effort at that.
Goa - sucked. Someone told me to be less intolerant as i said i was walking out during the interval, cos kids were performing. It was not just that they were kids, but also that they truly were not in the theatre groove. They could not SEE, if you know what i mean. Acting was bad as were use of stage space, symbolism and props.
As for lighting, it was pathetic, stereo-typed and did not help the play any.
The last play, Beyond Therapy was good fun. but of course, anyone even vaguely familiar with christopher durang could have anticipated the fare. Q's had great timing, best of all, some good sets and good actors though with a tendency to rush their dated-funny lines. still, i guess it could've been botched and Q dint. so Qudos to them!
that's two good plays, one so-so and one that totally sucked. that would be value for money?! At least at 100 bucks tickets! :)

cheers!
ramya

chandrax said...

Hi KK
perhaps inviting other troupes here is a good thing. insularity breeds complacency. Think we need to be shaken up a bit and forced out of our boxes. If we are to do dynamic, brave theatre, we need to stop feeling safe and comfortable.

Krishna Kumar said...

Abhinav...

I guess everyone seems to share the same opinion about GOA. In fact, it is one of my recommendations on my Chennai Theatre Newsletter, before the fest. It is a nice script. And it came from the legendary Bengal land and directed by none other than the daughter of the famous P.Lal. That must have counted for something. What I really liked about this festival is: all those hyped up names or apparently pedigree brands all took a beating. They may have run full houses like in the case of Alyque Padamsee or Singapore vellaikaarans! But the audience is waking up to reality. I mean, a certain discernability is dawning on the paying public, which is good. Not always comedy pulls the day through. Of course, I agree with you... it did create a great buzz! And any type of publicity is welcome at the moment, for theatre in Chennai.

Krishna Kumar said...

So Ramya... you did go only for the touring shows, eh? You must next time also remember that by staging all these plays at Music Academy they organisers preclude the possibility of local groups putting up more shows. Especially when only 400 ppl turn up to watch the local shows because it is local, there is still a lot of ppl missing them out. And the money that the groups get to stage, inspite of the venue light and sound provided by organisers, is still very princely. Especially in a production such as Amadeus. I happen to work backstage for it and I know that Mike put up at least equal amount of money as he got from the organisers. And he can't make it up unless he does his own public show and to replicate it, it costs 3 times that money! So please make it a point to support local shows too!

Krishna Kumar said...

Anu

nothing much earth shaking could happen in theatre in Chennai when the audience want only comedies whatever you try to give them. I guess you read my last line on the post. We always knew where we stood in terms of quality or where we lacked the power to reach out to ppl! It is only that the fest reiterated it clearly. As an insider to the scenario I know what happened. In any case, insularity breeds...whatever. I don't accept. A true artist has to look inward and not outward to create. Learning about other happenings may be helps to know the developments technology-wise. But tell me, what did you learnt that you did not know about Runa and Jagi from this? And what positives arose out of watching MACBETH or BEYOND THERAPY or GOA or Marc Waite? I mean... one took the audience for a ride with the Rowan Atkinson sketches we have performed here 1000 times in Chennai. Another took them for a ride through Tantra and Sivalinga! If that's call creative exploration and reinterpreting Shakespeare... well my sphere is not definitely shaken! And what was so different about the Q production? Agreed, they are full-timers, so they spend more time on the work, but I still feel any group that spends a decent amount of creative time on a production could produce that quality. They were missing beats and mangling words in their effort to keep up speed, I heard! C'mon, I know you worked with them, and that shouldn't be cause to support outside theatre. If inviting outside groups would help us brave theatre... we need to erect a statue and make the MEDIA MIX ppl pantheons of theatre in Chennai. They bring outside groups more regularly. Except for OTHELLO and VALLEY SONG what was worth about this festival with outside groups? And here we go around the mulberry bush saying Chennai groups... "It's so bad! It's so bad!" The Deccan Herald Festival never invites outside groups and supports Bangalore groups totally. Only once in its history was an outside group called and that was Madras Players. And I say we need to support local scripts. I mean, at least some of Mahesh's scripts were featured for the first time at The Deccan Herald Festival. And that has definitely contributed to his growth. So, let's support the global without negating the local. It is through these festivals that we can create newer audiences locally for the local groups, because, when there is a festival happens there are ppl who suspend their lives for just that 10 days to catch up with that and if we don't use that to leverage our efforts here, then that's hypocrisy! Talents flower only upon provision of better platforms. Mumbai spends that amount of money on publicity what some of us here spend on the entire production. Which is because there is local support, whatever language it is performed. And here?

Abhinav said...

kk,
i'm not sure i agree with you about the script. somebody else told me the same thng, so i went home and read through bits of it - and i found it very very literal. i mean this chick being symbolic of goa gettin raped by india and abandoned by portugal... i personally prefer something a little more subtle.
not that this shit doesn't happen, but just the treatment of it - a little obvious for my taste.

ramya,
hey, that was a nice summary of those four plays - two of which i didn't see. tho my only point of contention is with your opinion of the f word - i think its a beautiful word, can be used really well. no other expression can quite match 'oh FUCKKKK!'.
at least, thats what i think.

Krishna Kumar said...

Abhinav

I agree. One reason I always used to think Asif Currimbhoy was never as famous as other Indian playwrights inspite of having written a bit is he lacks subtlety. One of my friends and contemporary during my Ph.D days at Mad. Univ was working on Currimbhoy. I read them then. He writes with a delicate pen, but the anger corrodes the subtext. Yes, as you said, it could have been different. Still, I have seen averagely written but well-conceived scripts being brought differently alive on stage. I am not contradicting. The conception is good, but delivery is not sure of itself. With Goa, the metaphor doesn't work. But still give me the play and I can show you what I make of it. Make a copy for me, I can't access it now!

As for the F word... Abhu you're the expert! Not I.

Anonymous said...

all i ve to say is.. this blog raised a few eyebrows as most of them do.. a certain one directed at chapter 2 perhaps? people are learning though...

Krishna Kumar said...

ppl are resting before the next assault! and we don't respect anonymous s/he/it!

Abhinav said...

wow kk, i really must have made sense for you to agree with me. anyways looking forward to the play on sunday.
and about he vocab - what the fuck, man?!

None said...

kk,

o, i would, gladly. when it comes to plays/performances, i'm not at all elitist, quite a sucker for entertainment.
in this specific case, i wanted to go for ALL the shows. i do have a job though to keep and i happened to be free just those four days, two of which were sundays - my off days. was working late all the other days... :(

abhinav,

again, gladly i will admit to its uses, :) but i'm old enough to actually feel a surfeit! sigh! :)

Krishna Kumar said...

FEEDBACKS FROM ANUPAMA (aka chandrax above). Since she couldn't post as a non-blogger, am pasting her fb's from my mailbox!

Dear KK,

1. What did I learn from the festival? Well I don't know. Unfortunately, I do not have very many doogie howser moments when I can say clearly at the end of the day what I learnt that morning.

2. However, if I did learn something, it must be from Othello because I keep running the play in my head over and over again. Whoever scripted the adaptation deserves a standing ovation. (Yes it was a devised play, but I'm told that someone other than R. Abel put it all together. Whoever, whatever, the script worked.) This adaptation of Othello was a darn good play. It had its faults (especially in Desdemona-Kristen's motivations) but it was a good evening well spent . I enjoyed it thoroughly and I'll remember the play for some time.

3. What did I learn from Beyond Therapy? This I can safely answer: Nothing. However, I was entertained, despite the weak script. (Is it a crime to be entertained by a non-Chennai play?) And that was because ALL the actors fit their parts, and all the actors had good, if not great, timing. This is saying a lot because durang's lines are old and tired and the plot itself is very very thin. Frankly, as member of the audience, I demand very little: all I need is good acting and good script. Beyond Therapy definitely gave me the former.

4. BTW, I did not work with Nadir Khan the director of this play, but with Q, the producer. Nadir's theatre company with two other guys is called Industrial theatre company. I watched one other production of theirs – hayavadana. Didn't really care for it. But beyond therapy... I'd give it 2.5 stars out of 5. They lose marks because of the bad choice of script. Incidentally, this is a play that could have toured any other day of the year... Didn't think it was special enough to be a part of a theatre festival. (As an aside, I liked Q's interpretation of my play. I'd give that play 3 stars. Again, they lose marks for choice of play, he he).

5. The firang play... I wont call it theatre. How did that sneak into a theatre fest?

6. As for Macbeth and Goa, I deliberately missed them. I had a fairly good idea how these plays would turn out to be and I was right!

7. Will the festival have generated new audiences? I seriously doubt it. Most of the young things in the rows I sat on were busy with their cellphones. As for the older audiences, I see them every time a local play is done.

8. Which begs the question: What is the purpose of the fest? The deccan herald model is good in theory, KK. You mention particularly Mahesh Dattani in this context. Which is all well theoretically, KK. But tell me, how many Indian plays were put up by local groups at last year's fest? Or even this year? One out of three... if you count Delon's script as `Indian'. (I'm only talking of the Music Acad events). Three (Othello, Goa, Thicker than blood) out of nine in all.

9. Or perhaps a Prithvi fest model (only Indian plays allowed) is the answer. But is that what the organisers want?

10. So is there a kind of play that a festival must promote? I would say plays like Othello and Valley Song (which I had to miss for a mundane reason like having to earn a living), which otherwise we would never get to watch or would not find a sponsorship. Off mainstream plays. Unusual, bold and challenging plays. Local and global. But that's my take. And I'm glad we are finally getting to watch plays which the rest of the country has been talking about. I don't see anything wrong with that. But yes, this year they could have easily allotted two play slots to local groups instead of goa and the first play.

11. And YES, I agree. The organisers must be very clear about what they propose to achieve by promoting a theatre festival. Clarity of intent would dictate choice of plays as well as places of origin of the groups, wouldn't it?

Phew. I didn't set out to write this much. sorry, boss. But really, I like this discussion thingy whenever I am on the net -- which is not very often.

Anu

Krishna Kumar said...

Abhinav...

I guess some of you guys unnecessarily think I am one hyper-ubermensch sometimes because of my purported learning. I am like everyone... except I am too honest and critical (to the extent I hate myself sometimes not for the hurt I inflict on others, but because am unable to transcend my mediocrity to justify my honesty and strict parameters!). Sometimes non-sense makes sense too, if you think you are non-sensical. The problem with some ppl is that you guys are too humble and modest about yourselves. There are loads of ppl who claim all sorts of things and think it is their RIGHT that ppl consider them higher beings. I think you won't be wrong in accepting you do make sense. Does this make sense? The "F" word... as Ramya says above, sometimes it is like love and music (as Duke Orsino says in 12th Night), it is surfeiting. I get cloyed with too much of F word unless it ends in OOD!

Krishna Kumar said...

Ramya, then you're one of the lucky ones that could have afforded a season ticket! Poor some of us, we can't afford even if it is 500 bucks season. Well, there's nothing wrong in total entertainment that blowdries your brain. But it needs to be put together well, like Anupama says in the feedback below your comment: all i demand is a good script and good acting (goes without saying good production). Why do you think Super Star is unique? And what do you think is the success behind GHILLII type movies... they work within the context of what they attempt. So, no sin there!

Krishna Kumar said...

Anu

it's not even a crime to be entertained by Chennai plays, except, a good script has unfortunately come to be identified by our brainless audience who believes that spouting lines out of a good script becomes the group's virtue called good acting. Honestly... most are bad acting. Outside or here! People are crapping about Sharaarat! And would do so about Perfect Wedding. I guess if you retrospect Beyond Therapy, you may start picking holes. At that moment all entertainers keep you entertained. But is that the success of a work. May be at the galla potti level, but if money making is the bottom line, then I am going to organise a 10-day Item Dance Festival or bring all the sleazy Mumbai Hinglish bedroom facrces. Then why does one need to do theatre? It takes so much input and you get very little in proportion to what you put in, in the form of finance. I mean, you work for so many man hours and make telephone calls on mobile that never gets accounted for, and other form of energy and effort and time and all that jazz... you book music academy, organise logistics, spend nail-biting moments cursing the idiosyncratic right of these travelling prima donnas without losing your plastic smile... to sell all those seats and make a few ten thousands or a couple of lakhs? Is it worth the strain on the body? Instead you can spend a peaceful time reading The Folks Up the Faraway Tree!

As for your query... regarding Indian plays... that is the bane of our theatre. We believe only theatre from Firang land works. Why, there are convinced high priests of entertainment theatre in Chennai who believe that Indians can't write plays and after the Tendulkar Sircar Karnad trinity, there haven't been playwrights worth their salt! We are still colonialised. That is why NATAK. The other day someone said when I announced the dates for Natak 2007, I should not stipulate original scripts, but if we don't encourage at this level, then when? After they start getting hysterical about cobras and pythons? Or they go unredeemably beyond any theatrical therapy? The Festival we are discussing in this post is not about promoting Indian theatre or New writing, it is numbers game. But you need to explain what In Theory means. DH Fest was also not restrictive of script choices. But one thing they made sure - seldom outside groups. Madras Players were the only outstation group they invited, if I remember - three years. Once we start rooting local theatre and encouraging local works, the scenario will change. We realise this at Masquerade. That's why Natak, that's why 3@20, that's also why catch'em young working at grassroots level in schools and at Landing Stage level... so that, before they become exposed to stupid foreign works (I wonder why no one produces A Long Day's Journey or such serious works!) that are always comedies, we show them the need for cultural correctness!

I think, even if apolitical, the support Indian works attempt by MPlayers is laudable.