In search of an audience

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

Theatre needs to recapture its participative quality and density of human experience in order to woo the audience back from television and films and attract funds.

`NOBODY watches theatre any more. Most plays attract relatively small audiences, and even those that have a large number of people coming to see them cannot really make anything like a realistic amount by way of profit.' This is a common complaint that one is bound to hear from all those involved with the theatre. Consequently, actors and directors, lighting and sound specialists, costume and set designers, all migrate to television or to films where they can make a decent living; those who still retain their love for theatre and return to it, can do so only for brief periods. It becomes a part-time activity for professional performing artists such as Naseeruddin Shah or Shabana Azmi; and the others who put together plays and stage them consider themselves professionals but for the most part have to do other work to earn a living. If there are any who live off theatre alone, they are usually the jholawallahs, living in barsatis or sharing tiny flats with others of their kind or as paying guests.

Oh yes, there are some artists in the commercial theatre world of Kolkata and Mumbai who do make a more or less decent living from their theatre work alone. But the kind of plays they present are usually a mixture of high melodrama, low comedy, laced with songs and often with `cabaret' numbers. In Kolkata the traditional jatra has been urbanised and tarted up to provide the audience with the kind of diversion they demand. These two centres do, indeed, have commercially successful theatre but many in both places also have now a foot firmly planted in television serials and keep both activities going.

This kind of theatre, the kind that comes closest to what Peter Brook calls the Deadly Theatre, is not the one which we are concerned with here, any more than we are concerned with a deadly bore. Every bore, as Brook says, has a head, hands, a heart - he may even have friends and admirers. But one needs to forsake his company if only because he is at `the bottom, and not at the top of his possibilities'. We need to seek out the theatre that is striving to find a new vitality, a new way of communicating concepts and ideas. And this is the theatre that is facing the spectre of dwindling audiences, and the concomitant dwindling of the funds necessary for it to continue.

Each art form has its own special economics, which is important, as those who are painters, or writers or performing artists need to and want to live as well as others do. The creators of visual arts, for example, do not depend so much on the numbers of people who come to exhibitions as on those who buy their paintings or sculptures, or those who commission them to produce a mural or art object for their offices or homes or buildings such as hotels. Of course it is important that people do come to exhibitions - how else would the artist be noticed or his work come to be admired and acclaimed? But the one is a means to something else.

Theatre does not work like that at all. It depends very greatly on large audiences, and some plays do get very large houses. The sad fact is that the plays get to be staged about six or seven times, on an average; a few may be staged more often but none of them has runs like, say, three or four continuous months. In London and New York plays often run not only for months but for a year, and many of the reasonably successful ones run for four or five months. And the tragic fact is that even with these long runs they do not make any money; most depend on sponsorships and generous grants from the Arts Council or similar bodies to break even.

In India the situation is much more bleak. As I mentioned, even successful plays are never staged for anything like even a month continuously; and even if they were they would never earn enough to break even unless they are, again, propped up by sponsorship and advertisements in their programmes or brochures. Funding by public bodies such as the Sangeet Natak Akademi is pitifully meagre, and can never, in any case, be relied on as the tortuous procedures to get even the scanty amounts released often mean that the funds do not, in the end, arrive. Generally, then, the productions are on a modest scale, with makeshift sets, borrowed furniture and clothes, and those involved rarely being paid anything like a reasonable amount. Most groups consist of people who give of their time and effort without any payment; they do it because of their commitment to theatre.

Playwrights who have written a number of plays over the years will agree that they cannot really hope to earn a decent living from the royalty they get from the staging of their plays; their income from their plays, such as it is, comes from the sale of the published scripts. And, of course, a number of them have also turned to earning from television and films.

IS theatre, then, a form that has ceased to have any relevance in the country, whether it is in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh or anywhere else? Has it been overtaken by television and films? Or, to put it differently, do films and television provide people what they would expect to get from theatre? Well, these questions have tortured those who still consider theatre a very vital form, but see row upon row of empty seats when their plays are staged, who have met with polite and not-so-polite refusals from corporate bodies or firms they have approached for sponsorship, and who have spent months and months in shabby government offices and the various arts bodies the governments have set up, pleading in vain for grants.

To any extent, the blame lies with the practitioners of theatre. They have failed to build on those unique strengths that theatre has, and which film and television lack. Chief among these is the element of two-way communication between the performer and the spectator, the element of absorption, response and participation that makes a play come alive with an intensity very special to it, whether the play is a comedy or anything else. Had theatre built on this great attribute, things might have been different. "A theatre experience which lives in the present must be close to the pulse of the time," Peter Brook says in his book There Are No Secrets, "Theatre art must also have a substance and a meaning. This substance is the density of human experience... " We have distorted this to present plays that harangue an audience instead of inducing their participation; we have given them political tracts and not the human experience. Politics has invaded theatres, and, inevitably, the audience has gradually left.

And still there are groups that persist with this, and hope to get some kind of funding from various sources. It is essential that the image of theatre changes, that theatre groups and playwrights realise that people come to see a play to get some kind of fulfilment, a fulfilment that comes from participation, and do not want to be hit on the head with ideology, and instances of injustice and oppression which are not very different from the old morality plays staged in England some 600 years ago. Restore its participative quality, bring back what Brook calls the density of human experience, and we can then look towards more sympathetic funding, as we can to larger and larger audiences.

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