Drama theatres will be telling a new story, in newer ways

Ambika Shaligram
Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Shubhangi Damle, Honorary Jt Secretary, MCC, says, “Once the lockdown is lifted, we plan to have meetings with the representatives of groups and artists who are doing experimental theatre and have performed either at Sudarshan Rangmanch or Jyotsna Bhole Sabhagruha of Maharashtra Cultural Centre. Some of the points that we will discuss will include the way ahead, how can we continue to perform on stage keeping in mind social distancing and sanitisation guidelines, etc.

When the drama auditoriums open in the city, they will come with a disclaimer – ‘The very act of the travel to the theatre may increase your exposure and risk’. And, yes, if any members of the audience come late, show symptoms of flu or cold or have higher body temperatures, they may not be allowed in and in such a case, only an online refund may be provided.

These are some of the measures that the experimental theatre and intimate theatre performance spaces are discussing. Pradeep Vaiddya of Expressions Lab, who has come up with Covid Compliant Performing Arts (Theatre), Phase I guidelines, believes that the intimate theatre might be able to stand up on its feet sooner than the commercial theatre.

 Challenges ahead

When asked how much the intimate theatre and experimental performances will be affected, Vaiddya replies, “It will be affected in some ways, but in fact, experimental and intimate theatre will get back on its feet sooner than the commercial theatre. The commercial theatre has got far more monetary considerations. If instead of the regular 1000-member audience, only 300 viewers are let in, the organisers will have to sort out the ticket pricing, how they will pay the actors and so on. They will need some assistance.”

In Pune, Maharashtra Cultural Centre’s (MCC) Sudarshan Rangmanch, Jyotsna Bhole Sabhagruha, Vaiddya’s Expressions Lab, Sanjay More’s Dramalay School of Acting and Theatrical Performances are where experimental plays are performed. “The format that Sudarshan will follow, will be replicated at E-Lab and Dramalay,” says Vaiddya.

Shubhangi Damle, Honorary Jt Secretary, MCC, says, “Once the lockdown is lifted, we plan to have meetings with the representatives of groups and artists who are doing experimental theatre and have performed either at Sudarshan Rangmanch or Jyotsna Bhole Sabhagruha of Maharashtra Cultural Centre. Some of the points that we will discuss will include the way ahead, how can we continue to perform on stage keeping in mind social distancing and sanitisation guidelines, etc. All this while, we have been talking on phone and by and large, we have thought of having 50 per cent occupancy for the auditoriums, and go for online ticket sale. So far, Sudarshan has had an on-the-spot ticket sale, half an hour before the show.”

Damle and MCC team have also planned to rent out rehearsal spaces to more and more groups at subsidised rates. “Right now, people don’t have lots of money. And, if they have to work on their projects, then it would prove to be an expensive affair. We can’t expect audience to turn up in huge numbers. At the same time, we have to keep the theatre activity running. So we can at least have rehearsals, even if we can’t have shows for the next two-three months,” she adds.

Changes in store

The onus of ensuring social distancing and other government guidelines rests both on the performers and the theatre owners as the predominant feeling is to ensure everyone’s safety and health.

“Those who are going to work on new projects, will have to take precautions. In view of social distancing, we can have just four actors on stage, at least in Sudarshan. Or maybe we will have more shows at Jyotsna Bhole Sabhagruha because it has a bigger stage and 60-70 people can sit easily, even maintaining six feet distance. It has three entrances, so the audience can be staggered. But we need to explore more options,” says Damle.

Since revenue may be scarce, Vaiddya believes that theatre auditoriums and performing groups can also come to an agreement to a revenue-sharing model and this can be done quickly on a smaller scale. “The owners have to arrange for masks, visors, sanitisation, cleaning and also for volunteers to take on this responsibility, so the major chunk of money can go in for Covid Compliance measures and the rest can be shared between auditoriums and performing groups,” he says.

Considering the prevailing situation, Damle believes that they can open for bookings from July 1 and performances can start from mid August-September. “There is Purushottam Inter-Collegiate Drama competition in August, followed by Rajya Natya Spardha. So hopefully, we should be up and running by then,” says the noted actor.

New subjects, new formats

May is also so the period when MCC organises GRIPS theatre festival or invites other groups to be a part of a children’s theatre festival. The activity couldn’t be held this year. Is there any scope for conducting it later this year?

Damle responds, “We might have a GRIPS festival after Diwali or Christmas vacation, because I think many people will avoid travelling this year. Our new play was ready, so we might perform it during the festival. But it’s still too early to take a call.”

Vaiddya opines that most of the festivals and competitions would be rescheduled, take a gap year or perform without audiences – the latter is for competitions. “It will impose certain limitations on the artists for sure,” he adds.

According to him, the first phase of performances should have solos because that will have one actor on stage and two people on backstage and three or four people can be assigned the task of masks and sanitiser disbursement.

“We can have solos, dramatised readings to begin with. The multi-cast plays will take some time,” says Vaiddya.
Will the pandemic serve as a muse to the writers, actors? “Certainly,” he says, adding, “Authors react, respond to what is happening around them, in the material that they present. But this will take maybe around four-five months. You can find references to the pandemic and lockdown in slapstick comedy, for instance. I am also thinking of having a new form, in which we will have a live feed of Zoom chat with two or three actors chatting. Let’s see how it turns out.”

The people concerned also hope to meet the PMC authorities with a memorandum, including the guidelines they have formatted

Phase I of guidelines formulated by Pradeep Vaiddya

1. Venue & Audience-Related

A. Do not spray or fumigate insecticides or disinfectants (as newly prescribed nd cautioned by WHO)

B. Clean all chairs thoroughly with alcohol-based solutions (recommended). Clean all surfaces, all floors with recommended cleaning solutions twice after the previous show and before the next one.

C. Allow one third of the routine allowed or acceptable capacity of the venue and strictly follow the physical distancing rules while making the seating arrangements.

D. All ticket sales to be done online. Send a password / code word instead. The audience member has to disclose the password or code word at the gate. They can show the m-ticket at the entrance. Audience should be allowed to enter in separate batches to avoid crowding.

E. Temperature check and hand wash should be made compulsory for the audience.

F. We must provide the visor or face shield to each member of the audience. We must provide fresh/clean masks. As far as possible, they should be unpacked by them before putting on.

G. Toilets may not be used after admission to the theatre / after putting up the mask / face shield etc.

H. The audience should be allowed to exit exactly in the reverse way of their admission and the protective material should be gathered in a waste bag directly. The protective shields should be sent for cleaning and the masks be sent to garbage disposal. Make sure that the audience doesn’t carry the masks home.

I. Any kind of feedback should be accepted online only.

2. Artists-related

A. Regular medical checks of the artists and the entire creative, administrative and technical team will be necessary and mandatory.

B. All the team members, ushers, backstage team and technicians/staff should be provided with appropriate Covid Insurances.

C. Programming to be considered.

(In the second of its Reopening Strategy series, Sakal Times explores how experimental and intimate theatre groups from the city are working out their comeback programme once they receive the green signal from the authorities. Other businesses too are working on their revival strategy. Right now, there is no definite date when things will go back to normal but we have to gradually overcome this challenge. In the coming days, ST will bring more such stories)

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