Broadway, glamour and beyond

Dr Ajay Joshi
Tuesday, 9 July 2019

For theatre aficionados, Broadway holds a special place in their hearts. Here’s a tour of the mecca of theatre

Winding up a series of ‘sharing’, when you know that your bag of experiences is still half full, is an arduous task— four months of packed activities as a Fulbright scholar, everyday a time to remember and collect as a souvenir. How does one conclude, wind up, and move on? 

New York was literally in the backyard of where I stayed in New Brunswick — a pleasant, short train journey from the hinterland towards the famous NY skyline. For any theatre buff, this was the mecca, the house of the very own Broadway. Being in central Manhattan, standing at Times Square, amidst the flashy neon lit advertisements, chic upmarket shops of the likes of Macy’s and Gucci, nattily dressed folk, punks, cartoon characters and dozens of eateries, was an overwhelming experience. This area spelt style and glamour.
Off the main square, you had an entire area, lined with theatres, where grand shows were staged, elaborately decorated with the theme of the plays, some running for years, to a packed audience — Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pretty Woman, Phantom of the Opera, Lion King. A central ticket booth sold concessional tickets to visitors, where often, characters from the plays, would mingle with the playgoers and invite them to buy tickets for their shows. 

If this was the queue for the larger productions, smaller theatres were tucked in the lanes and by-lanes of Broadway. They too had their share of viewers. From the crowd it was more than evident that watching theatre was very much on the platter for Americans.

At the Playwrights Horizons, I saw I Was Almost Alive With You. The presentation was fascinating. The larger plot enacted on the main stage was the story of a dysfunctional family with all the possible disasters befalling them — disputes between parents, a runaway daughter, a gay son and much more. As this family drama unfolded on the main stage, another balcony created on a higher level, had other actors, standing right above each blocking, enacting the dialogues below, in American Sign Language. It was very interesting and the crowd had a sizeable number of hearing impaired amongst them. Many shows are inclusive — catering to the differently abled.

An invitation to a student’s production took me to an abandoned building and I was ushered to the basement — a place which was originally housing the community washing machines, but now in disuse. It was modified for a performance space, housing barely 25 to 30 people. They enacted an improvised piece, and seeing it up close was an entirely different experience. Innovation in performance space, theme, form, design, creativity, technology, seating arrangement, added to the magic. I was also fortunate to see theatrical pieces or entire plays done in museums, art galleries, and parking spaces, at the roadside, modified foundries, water stations and parks.

A commonly used term amongst fresh graduates of theatre and film in India is ‘strugglers’, a time when aspiring actors troupe off to tinsel town and bigger metros, auditioning to every call, waiting for the ‘big break’. This period is very demanding and could be endless. Many are not even aware of how to go about starting their careers. And most universities in India do not really cater to this part of the actor’s struggle period.

While teaching at Rutgers and at some of the universities in the US, I was surprised to experience a new pedagogy, to ease the transition of these youngsters into the glamour world. Of the three years of training, the last semester, before they graduate, is devoted for this. They are guided to the business of theatre, the financial implications, how to write job applications, facing the interview panels and casting schedules, managing personal finance, sharing experiences of survival during the ‘wait’. Besides, the alumni, industry professionals, casting directors and others from Broadway are invited to interact with the students. Not that it guarantees work, but paves a path for acceptance of what to expect.  
Not all systems fall in place, but there is always a point to start. Seeing such varied theatre and different models created to address issues, which we are grappling with here, was an eye-opener. 

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