A lot of lament is there on the sad stage of theatre in Kochi and Kerala in general. It is a fact that theatre scene is not much inspiring as compared to other parts of the country. We need a better and more vibrant theatre and we have the potentials to be so.
At the same time we have to look into the basic conditions where our theatre works in. What are the essentials and pre-requisites for good theatre?
Of course, the artists are the first - Actors, technicians and directors. Those who are closer to the performance scene of the city of Kochi cannot say that there is a big dearth of artists. There are many trained directors and very enthusiastic actors, both men and woman and skillful technicians too. My theatre group Lokadharmi itself has produced a lot of artists who are keen to perform and produce plays. And there are visiting directors and actors who would liker to perform their plays in the city.
Then of course is the audience. I feel we have that too in the city. For example when a play is premiered we have almost a houseful audience. Even in fine arts hall - which is the usual performance venue - we have the hall full.
But what brings the audience in? It is the quality of plays and the quality of the show itself. Sometimes the hall defeats the show with bad acoustics poor air circulation, and heat, even if the quality of the play is good and the audience may fall short to sit through.
Producing of a new play has turned out to be very costly and laborious activity in the city. The cost of renting lights, sound along with the hall rent, put together will be at least 15,000 rupees, which the group has to find from its own pocket. Overall the cost of production for a Lokadharmi production is around 50,000 rupees. (We minimize our production expenses since the artists of the group do almost all the work, - creative and physical – and are not paid for that. Other groups spend around one lakh or more for a play. The group has to spend this much money mostly for just one show. This is besides the long rehearsal schedule that may run for an average of 3 months. And what we get back? Of course the artistic pleasure in creating and performing. We feel that we have done our part of the work.
The basic question is that whether this passion can sustain the theatre momentum and be able to cater the demand the whole populace of the city. If the group is not in a position to have a second or third show how can the theater get better? It is a fact that a play falls into its rails after 5 or 6 performances. Only then the artists and technicians are ‘inside’ the play; in tune with the inner dynamics and energy flow of the performance.
The most important and tough thing to do in our city theatre is the technical. It is a fact that for most of the plays there is no technical rehearsals. No group has a real rehearsal space to do the technical rehearsals. Also they are not in a position to afford the cost of the sound and light hiring. And no theater in the city including the Fine arts Hall has proper provisions to fix the lights. This hall which is considered to be the ‘best’ in the city, do not have even an FOH lighting provision or lights bars. It will take a minimum of 6 hours of intense physical labor, to erect light and focus them for a play. And that involves the risky job of climbing over the non-existent supports on the roof. Nowhere in India outside Kerala, is not more than 3 hours needed to erect, focus and patch lights.
And what we have left other than this, are the non performance spaces like the open space in Changampuzha park Edapalli, which is a lovely place to put up a play. But theer too the technicals are mostly impossible. We have to convert a non perfromace pace to a performance space. The quality of the audience we get there makes the performances a success. There also we have to work with poles and bars of bamboo to fix lights and have temporary curtains of tarpaulin to be fixed and protect the performance area from the traffic lights and the street lights.
I feel that it is such a bad atmosphere that makes the theatre almost impossible in the city. Even so, groups produce and perform come out with good enterprises. We are really proud that we were able to produce a play that can get the covetable Mahindra award where the aesthetics of the performance is equally important with the technical exposition and mastery over the form and that we made this possible working in such a crude situation.
And audience is there enough. I have never felt a shortage of audience. Parallel theatre has its own audience here. Our Karnnabharam was able to drag at least 200 audiences when we performed it again Changampuzha Park on last 12th, even if we had done the same play more than 20 times in the city over the last 15 years.
And our Pattabakki when performed in Changampuzha Park, fetched an audience of 1,500 over three days. Each show could accommodate only 500 people and on the last day we were forced to open the enclosure and let people stand and watch.
It is a fact that people will come to watch the shows if they are convinced that the play is good. And people should have a habit of coming to the theater again and again, for the theatre culture to flourish further. For people to develop that habit they must be able to come back to watch shows they liked or recommend to friends about the good plays that are being staged in the city. And in the present situation theatre groups cannot afford to hold many repeat shows. It is this lack of infrastructure in the city to sustain the movement that hinders the growth of theatre.
And it is a pity that this great city which is flourishing to a metro does not have a performance space. What is needed is a small theatre that can hold a capacity of 300 audiences with good acoustics, and facilities to mount lighting and should be made available for an affordable rent. The theatre groups can try out repeat shows with selling tickets and try to survive. It is the duty of a culturally healthy society to provide this amenity. I have been astonished by the performance spaces all around India. Even Bihar which we think to be a backward state in terms of education, culture, development etc, have a good and endearing performance space in Patna- the Kalidas Rangalaya. It is a highly indigenous performing space, built with minimum paraphernalia and decorum, but is a very luminous space to perform.
It is only intimate performance spaces that will promote theater innovations - the changing trends and new ideas in theatre. For example, stages in the city are tailored for a large audience and for a time, years ago, when theatre was dialogue driven. And many are not made for theatre but for holding meetings and are now getting converted into marriage halls!
The present day theatre is more an intimate experience and is meant for a smaller audience. My plays have been optimal for audiences of say 200 or 300. So I have to stage them five times if I have to show to 1,000 people. If not, the impact of the play will be diluted, if not lost.
I have no doubt to say that Kochi should follow the example of others like Bangalore and Kolkota. There they offer the sound, lights and the stage and a hall for a rent Rs 2,000 to Rs 2,500 a day. The rent for Rangasankara the prestigious theatre space in Bangalore is 2500 per day that includes sound, lights, and the air conditioned hall. And you can sell tickets too! It is not just a joke that if the theatre group from Kochi travels to Bangalore to put up their new show there and travel back, it will be much cheaper than putting it up in Kochi!
I know fairly well that there are enough spaces left in the city limits suitable for constructing a theatre. There is enough money too. But somehow we don’t think about it today; we postpone it for tomorrow, since we have other priorities for today...
And we lament for theatre…!!!