Theatre, one of the oldest art forms in the world, is either dying, or evolving, as per the millennial audiences, or is getting bigger and better every passing day in India. It’s all depends on who you ask. There is no one single truth. We cannot deny that small troupes have to perform multiple shows a month to earn enough to survive, and it’s also true that the backing of a government or a company could make all the difference. 

Aahana Kumra, who started her career as a theatre actor attests to this and tells us, “I don’t think it’s lucrative in India because here, theatre is not taken too seriously. Theatre, I sincerely feel, needs State support as many young enthusiasts want to pursue it but there is no financial incentive to do so.”

She also feels that lockdown changed the game after plays went online. “Even when Sir Sir Sarla was being shot for Zee Theatre, I was not convinced about digitisation, but during the lockdown, I realised that we have to move ahead and flow along with time. I did a play online in the lockdown which was brilliant as well as challenging because you can’t see the audience and you don’t have a live reaction. A play comes to life only when you get to see the reaction of people to a particular scene or dialogue but in the post-pandemic world, one can’t deny that digitisation is helping theatre to grow.”

We also witnessed Broadway-style plays recently when Disney India first tested the waters with runaway success Beauty and the Beast. It then released Mughal-e-Azam and Aladdin for the Indian audiences. 

Explaining how there is an audience now for a monologue, musicals, Broadway plays, and classic theatre, actor, writer, and director, Makarand Deshpande says, “Performance has always been the basis of theatre and over time technology has helped us improve lighting, sound, and effects. And now technology is helping theatre to be borderless through digitisation. Theatre is unfolding online because of COVID-19 and there are parallel spaces where people are performing. You don’t need an auditorium anymore to perform and people are also performing in black boxes. The frequency of performances is more. We see posters of people performing in garages, living rooms, and terraces.”

Theatre is evolving, no doubt. Initially, there were five-act plays, then it moves to three-act and two-act plays, and now there is the ‘ekankika‘ or a one-act play. Sonali Kulkarni who is known for her roles in Doghi, Deool, Gulabjaam, Dil Chahta Hai, Singham, Taxi No 9211, and Bharat says, “Even in one play, we have a variety of themes. There is no language bar and actors can be talking in different languages. When I produced White Lily and Night Rider, I adapted it in English and Hindi from Marathi to take it to a wider audience while retaining the regional technicians and the original actors.  Now as a confident team, we can perform the play in Marathi and in the next few hours, switch to Hindi or English. So, theatre is breaking rigid boundaries and becoming more fluid and adaptive to change.”

The uniqueness of theatre is that even as it modifies its mode of expression down the ages via technological advances, it still remains at its basic best. “The foundation of theatre is a live performance and the interaction with the audience. Its purpose is to entertain while it stimulates your mind and raises larger questions and therefore elevates your consciousness. So, while remaining true to the live interactive experience, to entertainment, to raising consciousness, theatre tends to modify its expression according to the ages. It brings in newer issues, ideas, characteristics of society and tries to focus on the conflicts which are prevalent in our times. It may use new audio-visual technologies but it doesn’t matter as the essence of theatre remains embedded in the pure, raw, live interaction with the audience,” actor Joy Sengupta mentions.

With the advent of streaming platforms that allow users to access shows and films sitting at home, people have once again started the debate around the end of theatre. There’s no answer to it. However, one thing is certain: Theatre is evolving to match an evolving audience. And from what we hear and see, perhaps the best is yet to come?

(Featured Image Credits: Instagram)