The annual theatre festival season has officially started and like every year we can’t keep calm! Just that, this time our reasons are slightly different.

The second half of each year is usually a massive celebration of theatre. The biggest venues are laden with ferry lights, auditoriums are buzzing with a throng of theatre lovers, awards are felicitated and theatre makers present their best work.

It’s also a time for theatre to generate revenue as festivals are usually backed by opulent, established organizations. Many theatre groups work round the year and schedule their shows as per festival dates. And this brings us to the big question- Where do we stand with this year’s season? COVID-19 has slammed doors of all venues, will it also eat away the pomp and glory of theatre? Or is there a Plan-B? Are we looking at different ways to ensure that the show goes on(line) and theatre stays a(live)?!

We spoke to some of the game-changers, the pioneers who have uplifted the theatre scene in the past. They have significantly added value and empowered the community and we hope they will lead the way this time as well. Here’s how each of them are gearing up for the big show(down)

Serendipity Arts Festival, 2018

Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META)

One of the biggest and most anticipated theatre awards in the country, META gives spark to healthy competition amongst theatre practitioners and pushes them to create award-winning performances. Suraj Dhingra, Senior Executive Producer at Teamwork Arts fills us in on what’s next with META, “We had to take a painful decision of postponing the festival. The awards were scheduled for mid-March and though COVID-19 wasn’t at its peak then, we felt the most responsible thing to do was to postpone the event.” 

“However, we have decided on an online award show. This way META continues to honor artists, award them with a cash prize and support the theatre community during difficult times.”

While the theatre world is still getting used to performing plays on Zoom, Suraj shifts our focus to the positives, “With an online platform, one is not limited to about 500 people. We can now reach a global audience and see more remote participation.’’

In India, we don’t have many government grants and theatre has often relied on the patronage of corporates, brands and art lovers. The pandemic has certainly infected the economy and the repercussions would be seen on art and culture as well.

“The Mahindra Group’s main domain is automobiles, and the sector has been affected real bad. This would most definitely impact funding and sponsorship for the arts. But there’s also hope that we will sail through this together.” says Suraj and we have our fingers crossed.

Suraj Dhingra announced META 2020 and few weeks later lockdown came into being

BookMyShow

India’s largest ticketing platform, BookMyShow has produced large scale theatre productions such as Aladdin, Peppa Pig and The Great Indian Theatre Festival. A big player supporting the craft is a welcome change but when in dire straits even ample budgets fail to help.

“Digital can never replace live experiences but until things settle it seems like the only way forward.”

said Jattin Gulati, Executive Producer at BookMyShow Live as we discussed the scope of taking theatre online. At the same time, innovative solutions have to be developed as and when live events come back to action. “The focus would be on proper hygiene, social distancing norms, and the box office experience will be all about safety and high levels of sanitization.” Jattin adds.

“The economy is suffering hence everything and everyone is on survival mode. Budgets stand affected because of a lack of revenue generation globally” said Jattin more from a personal and not company’s perspective.

With close to 100 artists, Disney’s Aladdin produced by BookMyShow is one of the largest productions of our times

Serendipity Arts Festival

One of the largest multi-disciplinary arts festivals of India, Serendipity Arts Festival brings together visual, performance, culinary and other art forms to the heart of Goa.

Smriti Rajgarhia, Director of Serendipity Arts Foundation and festival shares her insights, “What the future holds is beyond our control, however this pandemic has taught us about conservation and optimization of resources, among many things. In this global crisis, we had the opportunity to venture into completely new and unexplored ways of presenting the arts through, SAF 2020 x You, our new digital outreach initiative.” 

The foundation continues to aid artists across disciplines and the deadly virus does not seem to deter their efforts.

“We have been diverting our attention to see how we can support the arts through other initiatives of the foundation like the Serendipity Arts Foundation Grants and the Serendipity Arles Grants 2020 for artists from the South Asia region.”

The Serendipity Arts Foundation Grant 2020-21 stayed operational and accepted applications in three different categories. This included the Performing Arts Grant-Theatre, towards the creation of a new body of work in Theatre. The Visual Arts Research Grant, that aims to create a sustainable knowledge network to promote inquiry into contemporary art in South Asia. This year the grant will be offered to one researcher focusing specifically on lesser known archives. Finally, the Performing Arts Research Grant, that aims to create a sustainable knowledge network to promote inquiry into dance, music and theatre practices in South Asia.

Needless to say, even in difficult and uncertain times Serendipity Arts Foundation manages to give us some much needed hope and optimism. But would digital completely take over live experiences? Are performances going to be restricted to our screens?

“Digital festivals have always been around; our attention has just shifted to them now. The internet plays a very important role in our lives and to see it as a space that can host a festival is exciting for us. We are all in this together, and I hope that between the stress about COVID and our daily lives, we will take out some time to engage with new accessible form of arts on our screens to let art heal us in ways we cannot imagine and instill hope for the future in all of us.” said Smriti.

Smriti Rajgarhia, Director Serendipity Arts Foundation

Hyderabad Children’s Theatre Festival

Vaishali Bisht, co-founder of the largest and longest running children’s theatre festival of India, lets us in her world of curating plays for children. Connecting the past, present and future, she says “The need human beings have to gather around fire comes from the olden times. And as we saw in the worldwide protests, COVID or not there still exists a need to gather and be heard. We would always crave and desire a sense of community. We now have to figure out a new way to do that for children, such that their safety is not at risk.”

Vaishali suggests an interesting option of performing in open spaces like parks and playgrounds to defy the current limitations. “I have done this in the past. Scenes occurred in different parts of the park as audience walked from one section to the other. Exploring different models like these will retain the true essence of theatre.” And while theatre struggles, Vaishali points out the actual challenge we are facing, that of uncertainty.

“Every day we get new information about the virus, and unfortunately not all of it is very reliable. In order to reinvent theatre and work towards a solution, we first need accurate information. Once we have authentic health related data can we plan performances with the required parameters in mind.”

We couldn’t agree more! As much as you and I would love to walk into an auditorium, until all protocols are in place we are a group of anxious, scared artists and audiences.

HCTF reaches out to over 8,000 children each year

Ranga Shankara

Apart from being one of the finest performance venues of our country, Ranga Shankara has made unmatched contributions to theatre through various workshops, festivals, awards and other programmes. Not being able to watch a play on this beautiful stage is amongst the hardest things to cope with during the lockdown. Theatre veteran and Managing Trustee of Ranga Shankara, Arundhati Nag says “We have over three hundred seats, but with the new social distancing norms, barely hundred seats are allowed. How would the performing groups cover that gap?! We are looking at live-streaming, developing skills to adapt to the digital medium that would eventually lead to new writing.”

“Theatre would come back but the current times would leave a scar. A lot depends on how we theatre artists are going to reinvent and innovate the craft to keep it going. Our stories will change and we will have to adapt to new forms of storytelling”

A tiny ray of hope is that the pandemic comes at a point where we have access to the digital medium. But the real challenge as Arundhati Nag rightly points out is that “…we need to learn ways of monetizing ‘online theatre’ because its important that artists get paid.” As for the much awaited Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival she says “We are prepared, set and ready. The festival will happen when the government allows for us to re-open. Until then, I am hopeful that we will manage to survive. Theatre has survived for thousands of years, this too shall pass.”

Arundhati Nag captured at Ranga Shankara

Prithvi Theatre

It’s no exaggeration that the Prithvi Theatre Festival is one of the most popular and awaited festivals of our country. Theatre groups plan their calendars and premier their plays at this coveted gathering. However, despite several efforts to reach out there was no response from their team. We tried really hard and knocked different doors but were met with no reply. Prithvi Theatre has been a pioneer of many things theatre, and silence from a leader is discomforting, especially during such hard times. We hope all is well at their end and they share a plan soon.

Source: Prithvi Theatre

Amidst all the ambiguity there is a lot of positivity and a lets-make-this-happen spirit. While the common consensus is that theatre is a live experience and not virtual, it will have to live off a digital life for times to come. On a brighter side, this is an opportunity to connect with audiences across borders and introduce theatre to an internet user who has probably never seen a play.

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