Over my years of working in the theatre scene in Mumbai I have realized that practitioners as well as the audience can be extremely myopic about quality. While on one hand, a healthy bunch of new theatre companies have come up in the last four-five years, actors and crew members interested in production still gravitate towards older and more reputed companies. This thought process sprouts from the deep-rooted Indian belief that youth is not to be equated with quality -- age is.
I cannot remember the number of times I have been asked, "Do you do your plays at Prithvi?" Hey, you cannot do every show of every play in Prithvi.
Younger groups in Mumbai and beyond are doing excellent work these days, but are not enjoying due publicity and footfall. Why, you ask me? Because theatre audiences pick plays based on two parameters -- 1. Is there a famous person in the cast or is the director renowned? 2. Is the play happening in a venue I know of? While I might grumble about it, I can still understand why reputed companies and actors bring in more audience. What I hate is when people equate the quality of a play with the venue it is playing at.
More often than not, when I meet people for the first time and they come to know that I am a theatre practitioner, they ask me "where" I do my plays. The question never makes any sense to me. How does the venue matter? You could ask the name of the company I own, the productions I have done, the number of shows I have run -- heck, you can even ask me how much money I make per show. How is the venue relevant? Recently at a workshop I was conducting in a city college, I asked the students which was the last play each of them had seen. One of the students said that she had never seen a professional production and is planning to see one at the NCPA (National Centre of the Performing Arts) soon.
"Where do you reside?" I asked her.
"Borivali," she replied.
"Then why do you want to travel all the way to the NCPA?" I asked, surprised.
"Because that is where all the good plays happen," pat came the reply.
I cannot remember the number of times I have been asked this question -- "Do you do your plays at Prithvi?" Hey, you cannot do every show of every play in Prithvi. And Prithvi is not the only performance space we have in this city. Yes, Prithvi is a respectable stage with a professional technical set up and excellent acoustics, but performing there is hardly the stamp of quality or fame. Tons of weak productions have happened on that stage. And anyone who has staged a production at Prithvi will know that there is no quality control on which productions can go up and which can't. You just send in an application to the management and they arbitrarily decide. I have had plays of mine that have been staged at Prithvi and there have been times when I got the "rejection letter" mail stating that I didn't get a slot. No reasons are ever furnished.
Different stages are meant for different kinds of productions. Just like musicals can't happen at Prithvi, it makes no sense to stage a two-actor play at the Tata Theatre...
Then what does a company do? Wait at the mercy of Prithvi to do theatre? Also, a lot of young companies might not have the money to pay rentals at NCPA or Andrews or Sophia's? So, if these companies are not performing at these well-known stages, does it mean that they are not good enough? That they don't deserve an audience?
What audiences, critics, the press and theatre enthusiasts need to understand is that, primarily, theatre is a live act. That means, among other factors, the performance space has to complement the kind of production being put up. For example, you cannot do a Broadway musical like Chicago or Phantom of the Opera at Prithvi. Veer Savarkar Auditorium at Dadar will be more befitting. So, if I used the Prithvi=good theatre logic and turned it around -- given that we already know how renowned both these musicals are -- does that make Prithvi Theatre an insufficient theatre space then? If you judge the quality of a play by the stage it is being performed at, does that mean you also judge the insufficiency of a stage if it cannot accommodate an acclaimed production?
You do not. Because different stages are meant for different kinds of productions. Just like musicals can't happen at Prithvi, it makes no sense to stage a two-actor experimental play at the Tata Theatre in NCPA. You can, of course, but that play will have a better impact in an intimate space like the G5A or the Temperance Studio or The Cuckoo Club. I am a huge fan of classical old Marathi stages like AN Bhalerao and Sathye and it is such pleasure staging my productions there. On the other hand, I love studio spaces for informal theatre evenings, one-acts and monologue pieces. One of my earlier productions, Murgistaan, is coming back in one such intimate space, Temperance Studio, this month.
Everyone, anyone can do theatre anywhere. They should be critiqued on their craft and not judged based on where the piece is being staged.
Theatre is so malleable -- if theatre makers stopped running after fancy stages and tried to think laterally to figure out unique ways of staging the same production, we would be able to figure out fascinating ways of doing theatre in the city. Also, that way, theatre would reach out to more people. We would be able to take it out of the confines of unnecessarily denoted physical spaces and make it easily available wherever possible.
Everyone, anyone can do theatre anywhere. They should be critiqued on their craft and not judged based on where the piece is being staged. That is an unhealthy kind of artistic autocracy which leads to the poverty of imagination, forcing young minds to fit into the construct of the system.
There is no system. All the world's a stage and men and women merely players...