Point of Q: Building of Context

Posted on 21 March, 2017 by Team Wishberry

Image Source: TOI

Bombay is an exciting city for the theatre lover. Every night there are shows happening in little grottos of this cement jungle. Often there are numerous theatre festivals on, which means for extended periods of time, you can binge watch, with a new play every night. But recently, I discovered a new trend in the city… you can actually make your own festival. So that’s what I did recently. My only criteria it shouldn’t be at places where I normally watch work (i.e. Prithvi, NCPA and Andrew’s). So here is what my itinerary looked like:

Thursday 26th: This Will Only Take Several Minutes at Sitara Studio, Elphinstone.

Friday 27th: Dead Poets’ Society at Sophia College

Saturday 28th: The Manganiyar Seduction at Phoenix Market City
Sunday 29th: Outrageous at Sitara Studio

In all of this I did miss Crumpled at Cuckoo Club because of traffic.

Each performance was in a different venue (even the two at Sitara used the space differently), and of a completely different genre. Several Minutes, an Indo-Japanese collaboration, was a series of short stories all connected into one larger narrative about people on the fringes of a city. Dead Poets Society is a straight play adapted from the film, ably staged by students of Sophia College in a very formal theatre. The Manganiyar Seduction was a folk music concert, with incredible stage design, but staged in the large cavern that is the almost outdoor atrium of the mall. And Outrageous was a showcase of small work ten- minute pieces all around themes of alternate sexuality.

All performances were non-mainstream in some way, including Dead Poet’s because it was being staged by college students. Therefore, the expectation of the audience and the creation of the right vibe are of paramount importance. Places like Prithvi or the Tata Theatre have an inherent atmosphere and create a certain comfort for an audience member before they enter the theatre. There is an expectation of quality, but more importantly a guarantee of quality which allows the audience member to appreciate the on-stage happening with a greater generosity. In non-formal spaces, this is harder to achieve. Part of the trouble lies in the fact that the audience coming to these spaces are not regulars. They have had to search and look for the venue, and once there it’s much harder to switch off from the trials it took to get there. Phoenix Market City for example had absolutely no signage about where the show was. And it’s a huge mall. So the journey from vehicle to venue was a good ten-minute walk of meandering and ‘not knowing’. Once in the space, it was only functionally lit, and didn’t create any real atmosphere or vibe. It is to the credit of performers and creator Roysten Abel that the show blew everyone away in spite of the terrible acoustics. However, for the first five or seven minutes of the performance, the audience really struggled to engage with the musicians. This would have been avoided if the right context had been built. The two emcees were of absolutely no help, telling us that the show was fantastic, rather than letting us discover the power of it for ourselves.

Contrastingly at Sitara Studio, the vibe before Outrageous was an informal one. Yes, we had all come to see a show, but it felt more like a sharing. Tea and snacks had been organised. Performers milled with the audience, and the friendliness of everyone involved, completely negated the late start or even the uncomfortable waiting arrangements.

At Sophia’s, a place used to formal performances, the entry doors were flanked by students carrying pennants of the various houses that featured in the school in the play. It meant the play had begun, even before the first lighting cue. This added anticipation, and also made one forget we had come to a play, but rather that we had come to an educational institution (though not the college we were physically sitting in).

This building of context is very important. Recently at Ranga Sharda, a popular proscenium venue in Bombay, the hall management demanded that Piya Behrupiya play the national anthem before the start of the play. The producers refused, because there was already a particular mood and tone that the play was creating with their own music thereby inviting the audience into the ‘nautanki’ world while they waited in their seats for the third bell.

Human beings are fickle creatures. Managing expectations is incredibly important. Creating a particular context so that they can fully appreciate the show on offer is very important. Diktats, like the aforementioned one, are a danger to artistic and creative freedom but also become an impediment in the audience's’ enjoyment of a show.

About the writer:

Quasar Thakore Padamsee is the Artistic Director and Founder of QTP. He is also a founder of Thespo, an annual youth theatre festival. Quasar has directed and produced many a plays since the late 1990s and has been on the forefront of bringing in something new and fresh to the theatre scene.

Quasar Thakore Padamsee is also a theatre columnist for a variety of publications. For the Wishberry Blog, he writes a monthly column called 'Point of Q'.

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