Musings on post-COVID era of theatre
Recently, someone reached out to me and asked me to imagine the future of theatre in the corona era for a piece they were working on. As I responded to their questions, I found myself writing a lot more than what they needed. A strange sense of resignation mixed with hope clung on to the words I wrote and I decided to share them below.
Negotiating our understanding of what it means to be "theatrical"
At its most rudimentary form, a moment of "theatre" occurs when there is a performer and an audience. This human interaction is paramount to create this moment and that's what a lot of practitioners fear will disappear in this socially-distanced era of theatre-making. Over the years there have been experiments that continuously pushed the boundaries of staging, immersion and the audience-performer relationship, however, the current situation is pushing theatre-makers to completely re-imagine what this exchange of ideas will look like in the post-COVID world. I don't believe the essence of the art will be affected, because the transmission of ideas, energies and emotions still happens, albeit less intensely, over digital or audio-visual forms. The real challenge is for artists to find something that works for them, adapt to the new normal and create a sustainable practice. For this, they'll have to unlearn whatever they knew before COVID-19 happened.
The practice of going 'virtual' and why we must accept it for what it is, not what it isn't
When the first lock-down was announced, I think a lot of us were anticipating to get back to business as usual within a couple of months. By the time the third lock-down came, I think the overwhelming realization was that this was here to stay and we saw a lot of practitioners going online with their work. At Kaivalya Plays, we've been consistently investigating the use of technology as a theme and a medium in our work. In 2019 we created a play called Aguebao that looks at connections between data and gender. Earlier this year, we moved our monthly improv for mental wellness workshops to a weekly online format and produced a play that was rehearsed, performed and recorded on the Zoom app. Truth be told, we have much more work on our hands than we did before lockdown because the online world just made our initiatives accessible to the entire world. A workshop that used to happen in a physical space in Delhi is now being attended by folks from Germany, Spain, US, UK and all parts of India! As artists we often lament the lack of visibility that smaller companies have, but the online space has been a great equalizer in that aspect. I think online theatre (or virtual theatre, as it's more commonly known) is here to stay for a while. The community needs to recognize this and create online-first work, rather than taking something they used to do before and simply, "put it online".
Stepping back into the space and reworking our mode of operation
As theatres spaces and performing arts centres begin to eventually open up, I think managing every point of human interaction will be critical. From replacing physical box offices with online-only tickets, creating a socially-distanced seating plan, introducing contact-less security checks, facilitating contact-less movement between the viewing area and washrooms, and finally, stagger the entry and exits of the crowd – theatres in India have to innovate the entire audience experience. An interesting example includes the Germany-based group Berliner Ensemble, who recently unveiled an auditorium with most chairs ripped out, but some left in pairs, for a socially-distanced watching experience. Theatres must also do right by their staff, giving them adequate safety equipment and training on how to handle social interactions. For groups and ensembles creating work, it should be easier to manage socially-distanced rehearsals with a few protocols in place – sanitize hands before and after every in-person session, move script analysis and text-based sessions online, ask performers to travel as less as possible and most importantly, plan out their production budgets realistically given they'll take longer to recover their expenses with a diminished audience.
The economics of theatre-making have taken a hit (and will likely be hit till 2022 or after)
The current pandemic has created a perplexing financial situation for all the different partners in the theatre ecosystems. While theatre spaces have had to cancel upcoming performances and refund the booking amounts, theatre groups have had to shelve upcoming projects. Performers have had to find alternative income sources to support themselves in this time. To summarize, the business of theatre has taken a huge external shock and I doubt it will get back on its feet before the end of next year. If I talk about spaces and performing arts centres, they have huge fixed expenses in terms of payroll, rent, utilities and maintenance that don't go away even if performances aren't happening. These expenses are currently crippling spaces as there is no revenue coming in from bookings or ticket proceeds. For theatre groups, the situation is relatively better since most groups operate at a project model, wherein the revenues from the current project feed the expenses of the next one. The hardest hit are the artists, especially those whose sole source of income came from performances. Being a performing artist in any of India's metropolis is already a tough bet and the current situation has exacerbated it even more. A lot of spaces and groups have now begun offering workshops online, which is good for the short-term but it brings the additional challenge of pricing lower than the usual amount for the diminished "online" experience. At this point we need to plan a little more long-term and think strategically about raising funds and finances. The National Theatre in the UK is a stellar example to look at which is running a crowdsourced donation campaign by live streaming its plays and still, paying the artists involved in the project. In the long-term, the business of theatre needs to adjust to this online shift and account for audiences to return to theatre not immediately, but perhaps by 2022.
We need to keep innovating (and how smaller, amateur companies will lead the way)
I think the current situation has had a marginal effect on the amateur theatre circuit because, to be honest, they didn't have it good to begin with. With lack of affordable rehearsal spaces, outrageously expensive auditoriums and a lack of institution support from the government, a lot of small amateur groups in the city have continued to create work in spite of these challenges. During my college days, as part of the dramatics society Fourth Wall Productions, we were given a fixed budget at the beginning of the year which wasn't reimbursed until the next year. This meant all the operating expenditure came from the pockets of students. This made us very resourceful in coming up with frugal, innovating stage designs and crowdsourcing just about every single stage property we used. Looking back I wouldn't change a thing because it's this crippling lack of resources, finances and support as an amateur theatre-maker made me realize the practical realities of a full-time career in the performing arts and pushed me to take the necessary step to safeguard my financial future. In the post-COVID world, I don't see university theatre being impacted significantly except for a lesser amount of opportunities to stage festivals as educational institutions are likely to take less responsibility for crowd-heavy engagements in the campus. If anything, university theatre has thrown up some of the most innovative work staged in the country over the years and I look forward to their experiments with digital theatre.
Did this post leave you with thoughts, questions or observations? I'd love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org