Breaking the convention
|Eklavya Uvaach at International Theatre Festival at Pasto, Colombia|
Dir: Satyabrata Rout
From the very beginning there is a quest continued to break the convention of theatre and its grammar. Time and again the directors and scenographers have tried to come out of the conventional spaces to an alternative theatre space in order to wipe out the strong line between performers and audience; to bring both of the team in one platform. The concept of togetherness is not at all a new phenomenon in our folk and traditional theatre which can be traced in the performance of [i]Ramalila of Banaras, or [ii]Dhanu Yatraof Orissa. We have a long history of integration in these ritualistic performances. But somehow our Indian urban theatre couldn’t adopt this total integration and audience participation easily. Our urban theatre couldn’t come out of the spell of British colonial theatre which restricts the possibility of interaction with the audience. This happens because of two major reasons;
a) There is a clear distinction of performance space with an aesthetic distance which easily separates the actors from the audiences. Active participation between these two groups is practically not possible because of this separation which sometimes enters into the nerves of the audiences who prefer to become a passive viewer rather than an active member of the performance.
b) Most of our urban performances still follow the concept of Proscenium. The conceptual imaginary wall; the fourth wall, which is the characteristic feature of a Proscenium theatre can’t be broken logically. The audiences only have to peep through this imaginary wall to watch what is going on inside the frame. Accordingly, a performer also shouldn’t associate directly with the audience by involving them in the dramatic situations. Audience participation can’t be possible in a proscenium performance. The audience only can watch a play, enjoy and appreciate passively.
Theatre remained as the most powerful communicative medium of the society. The Primitive Theatre, Greek Theatre, Roman drama, Indian Sanskrit Theatre, Folk traditions, Comedia del Arte, Noh and Kabuki theatre and all other kinds of performance cultures over the world have served the humanity as major community activities. One must have observed that in a traditional or folk performance, the performers are surrounded by the audiences from all possible angles; from three sides, four sides or in round. There is no restriction for the audience to participate directly or indirectly during the show. The audiences associate themselves with the characters, consider the feelings of the character as their own; believe it as a part of the happenings of their own life and enjoy the performance to the heart content which can’t be possible in an urban proscenium situation with a conceptual fourth wall in between the actors and audiences.
|A scene from Iphigenia at an open space near |
Theatre Dept. Univ. of Hyderabad
Dir: Satyabrata Rout
Attempt has been made to break away with this fourth wall concept which may be the reason why parallel and alternative theatre space exists along with the proscenium. Even sometimes the proscenium theatre has been re-modified in order to involve the audience as an active member of the team. In India, the Parsi theatre and other company dramas have attempted to involve the audience though they had to perform inside a proscenium. If we remember the performance culture of 16th Century Elizabethan theatre of England, we can understand how important were the audiences, who watched the shows by standing in the yard. How they appreciate the performance of certain actors and tease someone’s acting by pulling their costumes and even by climbing up the stage with enjoyment. Sometimes the actor had to repeat the scenes on public demand. But somehow with the passage of time and with the growing elite class audience in theatre, the distance between the performers and spectators increased.
But the visionaries across the globe have tried many times and in many ways to bridge the gap by involving the audience as active members than the passive viewers. Bartolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowsky, Badal Sircar, Augusto Baol and Richard Schechner are known to the world for deliberately encouraging the audience to participate in the productions psychologically and physically and allowed them to think critically about the social issues. Brecht’s theory of [iii]alienation, Augusto Baol’s [iv]invisible theatre or Badal Sircar’s [v]Third Theatre provides ample materials to break through the fourth wall.
|Skandh Gupt: Directed by: B.V Karanth at a dilapidated space inside |
Aater Fort near Gwalior-1985
The passion for explouring the Interactive space grew during the second half of Twentieth century. The American director and author Richard Schechner traced the root of his concept of [vi]Environmental Theatre in Ramnagar’s Ramlila where the performance can happen in specific spaces around. At the same time an audience can choose his own way of seeing the performance and move along with that. These kinds of spaces reject the conventional arrangements in the audience gallery and include them as an integral part of the production. The actor-audience relationship becomes so close to each other that sometimes they fall in the paradox of seen and seeing at the same time and space. The idea behind the alternate space for theatrical presentation is to offer a spatial experience to the audience as if they are the partakers of the happenings and not merely witness.
The performers in these conceptual performances interact with the audiences and comment on the social issues. In Dorothy Heathecote’s Drama- in- Education for the school children of England or Barry John’s Theatre-in-Education programme with National School of Drama, New Delhi, the children frequently are asked to carry out the project—an activity taken from their school syllabus-- somewhere in between the play along with the actor-teachers who allow them to interact the plot to lead them to a total education through the experience of theatre which can be referred to as Interactive Theatre.
I still remember the production of [vii]The Cherry Orchard directed by Richard Schechner in the year 1980-81 for National School of Drama repertory company. [viii]Meghdoot open-air complex was selected for the presentation. The main acting area along with the surroundings became the part of this memorable presentation. I can recall the space design of the play. The main location the house of Mrs. Ranevskaya was placed towards the rear left of the stage proper which was extended up to the nearby area with lots of trees towards the off stage. These trees around the performance space represented the orchard. A reception in the play was arranged in the coffee lawn at the entrance of the auditorium. The play opened with Schechner’s address the audiences who were searching for a place to sit (Our Indian audience was not habituated to this kind of performances before and there was no specific sitting arrangement as we found in other theatres.). He briefed the concept of the performance and told the audience to feel free in finding a place to watch the play, move around with the action, stand and even can participate in the action, the way they want.
|Alternative Theatre Space for|
Andhayug at Firoz Shah Kotla, Delhi/ Dir: E. Alkazi
Our contemporary Indian theatre was not exposed to this kind of experimental work in 80s. This was a life experience for audiences those who witnessed and participated in this production. Indian theatre entered into the new realm of experiment with the production of The Cherry Orchard. The space became the vital element of a theatre presentation. Though the integration of creative space and performance was already been initiated by Ebrahim Alkazi in mid 70s with his production of [ix]Andha Yug and [x]Tughlaq, it couldn’t be widely taken over by the next generation because of so many limitations. But Schechner’s concept of using the environment as an organic element of the production inspired many experimentalists to undertake space as a challenge. Thanks to Prof. Richard Schechner for providing us the opportunity to interact with this new idiom of theatre, the root which he found in Indian and Oriental theatrical forms.
i Ramlila is a Hindu ritualistic performance which is enacted from the epics of Ramayana during Ramanavami and Dasera festival. Ramnagar’s Ramlila at Banaras drew global attention because of its specific characteristics. It continues for 31 days and performs in different locations nearby the river Ganges. Richard Schechner found the root of his Environmental Theatre in Ramlila of Banaras.
[ii] Dhanuyatra of Orissa, world's biggest open-air theatre, is unique in much respect. It is a theatre having biggest assembly of actors that a play can ever have, with almost the entire population of Bargarh, a small town of Orissa state and its nearby villages making the cast. It is a cultural extravaganza where the same mythological play is enacted year after year but neither the audience nor the actors seem to get tired. In fact, it is a conglomeration of several open - air theatres, with the action taking place simultaneously at different stages and both actors, audiences moving from place to place according to the requirement of a particular scene.
[iii] Theory of Alienation: A concept developed by Bartolt Brecht where the actors alienate themselves from their characters and critically analyse the situation and social issues which they are presenting in the play. This became possible by soliloquies, songs and other theatrical elements used in Brecht’s plays time to time.
[iv] Invisible Theatre: Invisible theatre is a form of theatrical performance that is enacted in a place where people would not normally expect to see one, for example in the street or in a shopping centre. The performers attempt to disguise the fact that it is a performance from those who observe and who may choose to participate in it, encouraging the spectators to view it as a real event. The Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal & Panagiotis Assimakopoulos developed the form during his time in Argentina in the 1970s as part of his Theatre of the Oppressed, which focused on oppression and social issues. Boal went on to develop forum-theatre.
[v] Third Theatre: Badal Sircar’s Third Theatre deals with a social commitment which reflects in his plays time and again. Third Theatre was formed by imbibing ideas from the traditional and folk theatre with the amalgamation of urban theatre. At the same time it had an identity of its own. It creates awareness among the common people on many social issues. There is no concrete characterization in the plays based on third theatre concept. The actors play according to the situation. Even the audience can take part in the live performances. Further, there is the freedom of movement and there is no restriction of space. Body language becomes important than facial expressions. The play can be performed anywhere.
[vi] Environmental Theatre is a kind of performance which occurs in different places according to the scenes. The audience keep on moving along with the play in different locations. R. Schechner is the first to identify the potentiality of this type of theatre. His research on Ramalila of Ramnagar remained the most important materials on performance theory.
[viii] An openair theatre developed in 60s by E. Alkazi for National School of Drama. It is situated in the Ravindra Bhawan campus near Mandi house, N.Delhi.
[ix] Andhayug was written by Dharmavir Bharti and wad directed by E.Alkazi in 74 which was presented in a space created at Purana Quila ruins, Delhi. It was a quest for alternative theatre space.
[x] Tughlaq, a play by Girish Karnad was directed by Alkazi for NSD and performed in the ruins of Firoz Shah Kothla, Delhi in 1973.
Dr. Satyabrata Rout/Associate Prof. Theatre/ University of Hyderabad/India