Search This Blog

Follow by Email

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Dystopian popularity of Theatre in Chennai

Fine Print: This is a reprint of a CANDID interview I gave to one of the young writers on theatre. I am not sure now when I originally gave this. Must have been within the last year, surely. If you stumble on this, are from Chennai, fancy yourself a theatre artist or actor or aficianado and are aggressively defensively proud of its comic acts, WARNING! Rot Gut stuff of eye-blinding arrack ahead! Brace yourself, steel yourself, be honest to look at this objectively as well as the status quo and read on! I stand by my views. My name is Ahab!

What can you tell me about the evolution and the development of theater in the city?

Theatre in Chennai has around a century old history in the form of Tamil stage plays, Sabha-supported ventures etc. However, English theatre in Chennai started, as we all know, through The Madras Players in the 50s. Although around Six Decades old, I would say English theatre in Chennai has not really blazed any trails or has not set any benchmarks. Its development has been slow and in fits and starts, although we tend to notice a spurt of excitement every once in a while. There has been no evolution, if you asked me. Groups like The Madras Players, Koothu-p-pattarai, Theatre Nisha, experienced campaigners such as Mrs. Prasanna Ramaswamy, Mrs. Mangai, Mrs. Gowri Narayanan and many more individuals are doing their bit to give it a semblance of respect. Unfortunately, we keep falling back on the same muck and morass of comedy thanks largely to a lot of upstart youngsters who think theatre is for fun, theatre is just another - though live - enterainment tool like TV or Movie. Theatre needs to be entertaining, no doubt; but who says comedy is the only platform for entertainment. The most alarming and destructive trend over the last couple of years is the stand-up attempt. We do not have a stand-up culture and we will not have a truly organic stand-up culture because we have lost the ability to laugh at us in a seriously self-critical way. The trending word is 'intolerance'. Even the political and social satire of Cho Ramaswamy has gone out of fashion. As a result, any sleaze about beer and bedroom antics become the stuff of which stand-ups are these days. 

How different do you think the theater scene is today in the city compared to say a decade ago? And why?

Pathetic. Deplorable. For all the above-mentioned reasons. Another reason is... young kids who take to theatre these days are just theatre-illiterate. They do not know their basic ABCs of theatre literature. English is even bad. Talk to them in real time... after five minutes, they don't even pan colour, leave alone gold. Theatre artists need to be extremely knowledgeable about the history, theory and the practical areas of theatre holistically to understand its power and what it can bring to audience. There are people who think they can galvanise theatre by professionalising it in terms of economy. How can economy happen if there is no ecology? Theatre Ecology is all about getting knowledgeable people who respect what they do or training responsible individuals who understand nuances. What we have is wannabes for whom it is either fashion or an apparent stairway to moviedom. Also, grassroot level training of kids and teens must be done by those who are sensitive to the needs of theatre, not just anyone who think putting people on stage is about public speaking and confidence building! It is, in some respects, sad to notice that even houses of theatrical repute such as Koothu-p-pattarai have started attracting incumbents merely because KPP is a good visiting card to possess for anyone who is a minion and slave of celluloid. People pay to join any and every artistic versions of Registered Practitioners (aka quacks) who float entertainment training schools or training institutes for film aspirants. The only difference is that there have mushroomed a lot of these RPs, aimed at manufacturing consumable film entities. What is wrong in aspiring to get in to films, you may ask? My answer is: None... but respect theatre first for what it is, what it has achieved, learn its processes, your illustrious theatrical forbears, the role it played in social activism right from freedom struggle to workers' causes, master the craft, spend some years giving to it. Do not just look at it as a stairway.

From political drama to English slapsticks, which genre of theater do you think is more preferred by the audience of Chennai, along the years?

Chennai smacks and stinks of unintelligent comedy. I would blame it squarely on the younger generation of theatre makers, not the audience. The latter only can lap up what we give. If we give intelligent theatre, they'll grow to like it... at least live with it. Instead, the younger lot is content to make what gives them fun. Fun is misconstrued for happiness. Also, let us be clear: theatre is not and will not - at least english theatre - be a profession in Chennai simply because we don't and can't build the kind of ecology that European or American broadways are about! So let us not harbour hopes that bottomlines and cash registers matter. As though our current flop show will not ensure our next sponsor, the younger lot have always lived under the illusion of making theatre which will bring sure-fire audience. It is a myth. No sponsor funds theatre either out of charity or out of business acumen. It is only personal networking and tax write-offs. So why bother about box office? Why not do theatre that enriches at least the live experience!

Has theater garnered more audience along the years? Can you give me a comparison of the art's popularity now and then?

Nope. Audience is filial and cyclic. Probably 10-15% of a theatre show audience is general public. Mostly it is friends, relatives, family, etc! It is incestuous, really, if you looked at it truthfully. The faces change. Of course, when we have a Theatre festival that sports national names or international pale skins, we suddenly find a lot of well-dressed, tip of the tongue ungrammatical english audience climb out of their little flats like ants out of anthills at the break of spring after winter! The popularity has remained constant. Old Wine. New Vats.

Can you brief me about the differences in the style of playwriting in theater?

Playwrighting? Does it even exist in Chennai? Amateur Tamil groups rehash age-old themes and hackneyed jokes. Parallel and experimental tamil theatre uses a vocabulary that is inaccesible to majority of general theatre goers. English theatre lives on borrowed scripts. Of course, some recent groups such as Stray Factory have tried to devise shows. Anupama (Chandrasekar) and Shreekumar Varma write plays. There were a few years in the mid-2000 decade when Mrs. Gowri Ramnarayan came up with energetic original scripts, adapted or devised from novels and poetry. Beyond that? Groups have to realise a new vocabulary is required. I may not have been active the last two - three years in a quantative way I had been through 90s and early part of this century, but I have been watching this so-called development from the fringes. There is the S+S (Short and Sweet Festival) that strives to build new scripts. However, in the last three years the focus of the participants has changed from scripts to winning performances. Couple of nights of euphoria, a few previews and reviews, a lot of social media gabble... Nothing provocative, nothing risky, nothing challenging happens here! Our current younger generation of theatre is the equivalent of the belly-sore rot-gut arrack that American Frontier Western saloons have supposed to have peddled in the days of Frontier West evolution! Mean Pizen, as they say!

How has the style of playwriting changed across the years?

None, what so ever! As I said, besides Anupama and Shree no one writes original plays. Mrs. Gowri Ramnarayan evolves her own scripts. Tamil theatre adapts stories. Besides that? There have been some earnest attempts to start workshops on script-writing to encourage playwrights. But it is a tough, lonely, disillusioning life - to be a playwright. The economics simply just doesn't allow even the die-hard optimist to sustain life as a playwright. Some nascent attempts are noticeable with the Short and Sweet, but the quality simply cannot hold candle to similar attempts across the seas. The Hindu Metro Plus Theatre Festival attempts to encourage original playwrighting, but it is not restricted to Chennai. It is national.

How significant do you think a playwright's role is in theater?

Very. Can be. Abroad, there are in-house dramaturges and playwrights. Other parts of the world, theatre is a culture that is symbiotically community oriented. Artists create and entertain as well as edify and the community supports them through individual patronship, arts council awards, corporate house social arts funding, etc. Theatre is sensitive to the needs of society, artists are sensitised to keep abreast of societal needs. Here, we just cater to social needs. Sorry, if I sound too bitter, abrasive and negative. But it is the reality! How long can we keep patting our own back? Mind you... this is the town that nurtured Girish Karnad in his formative days. This is the town that used to feature Mahesh Dattani regularly on first-cum basis (when Late Mitran Devanesen was alive), this is the town that used to take up new and emerging Indian playwrights when Late Bagirathi Narayanan used to practise theatre. Now? There aren't even good stand-up writers. The playwright's role simply doesn't exist in Chennai, although without a playwright no theatre - moving or speaking - can exist.

Fine Print - II: Dear Reader, if you are here, I would like to delusively assume that you are here after reading through the bytes above; not skipping it after the first or initial two questions, like most of us normally do to the EULA and go ahead to click the 'I Agree to the T&C' when we install apps. Also, by this time, you must be thinking what kind of a rabid, frustrated, sex-starved, neurotic mongrel am I to spew so much venom unflinchingly! Or you admire my forthrightness. I doubt the second possibility. And you may also want to question my leaving out some good names in the pantheon of Theatre in Chennai. And also, you may want to question me what I have done or intend to do about this. Simple reply: That's a totally different interview. The writer, researcher, student has simply not asked my those questions. Hence, I haven't spoken about those. You can give it a try. Happy rehabilitation!

No comments :

Post a Comment