Theatre has had to morph into a new avatar: Shernaz Patel  

As auditoriums lay vacant, digital theatre is what stage veterans like Shernaz Patel say will keep makers connected to the audience

Film and theatre actor Shernaz Patel
Film and theatre actor Shernaz Patel
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IANS

As auditoriums lay vacant, members of the theatre community struggle to make ends meet, and audiences are snatched off of a popular form of art and entertainment, digital theatre is what stage veterans like Shernaz Patel say will keep makers connected to the audience.

Patel, who is the returning Artistic Director of Aadyam, the theatre initiative by the Aditya Birla Group that came into being in 2015, states that theatre has had to morph into a new avatar the world over. "The talent is still there, the desire to tell stories, to communicate -- that is not something that has diminished. Theatre makers globally have found innovative ways to make theatre a reality - from zoom plays to recording monologues, to collaborating with visual artists, to phone plays, audio drama, many fascinating and innovative projects have emerged."

While she acknowledges the argument that the essence of theatre is that it is life, the film and theatre actor says that necessity has made us embrace new forms of communicating with audiences. "Other countries are slowly returning to performing live...socially distanced, outdoor shows for the most part. For us, unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen in the immediate future."

"This is a tough time for theatre very tough," notes Patel.

"We excel in the live, we thrive on the immediate and tactile communion between us and the audience. This love, passion, need - call it what you will - brings us back to the stage year after year, even as sceptics debate if theatre is dying. Theatre has survived centuries. With every catastrophe, we have found ways to reinvent ourselves. Death has never been an option for us. So, in 2020 if we have to perform in 920 x 1080 pixels, we will. We accept the challenge. Because this is what we do. We will find a way to share stories, to entertain and inspire."

Redefining a new season with the arrival of 2020's digital theatre opus, Aadyam has embraced change by creating a world-class showcase with Aadyam - The Digital Edition.

Featuring three plays from Aadyam's repertoire built over the last 5 years, the new season spotlights an unusual debut in the history of Indian arts and culture. Streaming via Insider.in will be 'Bandish 20-20,000 Hz' (Hindi), 'I Don't Like It, As You Like It' (English) and 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (English), starting October. A virtual audience room, pre-show activities, live polling and mini quizzes and post-show virtual meet-and-greets is how the initiative plans to curate an authentic theatre experience online.

Starting September 8, Aadyam has launched a community platform for theatre lovers - Theatre Ink. Featuring original content written and presented by theatre practitioners and reputed writers from the across the country, Theatre Ink will serve as a hub for all things theatre. To be presented in a blogging format and edited by Shernaz Patel, it will feature interviews, insights, articles, advice, tips, news, behind the scenes snippets and much more, catering to both the industry and the audience.

Asked how the pandemic has impacted the theatre community, Patel shared over email: "The pandemic has hit us hard. Commercial and amateur theatre has come to a grinding halt. Many artists have gone back to their hometowns. Not just artists, but every single department - technicians, make up men, set builders, designers, suppliers - are all struggling to stay afloat. Auditoriums are lying vacant. The only funds that are being generated are from within the community itself. It's a very difficult time for us all over the country."

She also takes us through the making and staging/screening of a digital play.

"When you sit in an auditorium and watch a play, you see the stage either in a wide shot or else you decide as an audience member who or what you wish to look at. When you record a play digitally, especially with a multi-camera set up, it is the camera that decides that for you. Therefore the theatre director needs to work in sync with a film unit so that, moment to moment, his vision is in no way compromised. But at the same time the play needs to work for the screen. It's a delicate balance. The play is still rehearsed and performed as a piece of theatre that does not change. It is the shooting of it that has to be very cleverly done so that the play communicates perfectly to an audience. For Aadyam we will be shooting our plays with a multi-camera set up so that the audience gets to watch a professional product, with great production and technical qualities."

Just like a reluctance to enter movie halls, does she anticipate some hesitance in turning up for live theatre now? The answer is an affirmative.

"Till we have managed to beat Covid or till there is a cure, I think Indian audiences will be afraid to go to the theatre, especially closed auditoriums. Perhaps we will slowly start with outdoor shows, like they have done internationally, where social distancing can be maintained. Or some theatres may experiment with selling 300 seats in a 1200-seater. Who knows? It's so hard to predict this."

Does she see digital theatre surviving after normal operations resume? "Yes, I do. It is an opportunity to reach a far wider audience, not just within the country, but internationally as well. It has been such a pleasure to watch some excellent work from other countries during the pandemic. That's the advantage of having a well-produced archive of shows. In fact, I feel that in the future auditoriums should invest in multi-camera fixed set ups that theatre producers can avail of to record their shows. But it needs to be slickly done. We have all been used to archiving our plays with a one, maximum two camera, set up. That's fine as a record of the show, but not something that one can market to a consumer," Patel signs off.

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