Thursday, March 09, 2006

Arvind Joshi, director, actor, producer - discusses the perils of theatre auditoriums in a city like Mumbai.

This article is from the latest issue of Seagull

'The theatre's full, the boxes glitter,
The stalls are seething, the pit roars,
The gallery claps and stamps, a-twitter;
The curtain rustles as it soars .'
- Alexander Pushkin

Arvind Joshi, director, actor, producer - discusses the perils of theatre auditoriums in a city like Mumbai.

The most important thing about a performing place for an artist is its compactness; and the ability to reach-out across the foot-lights to the audience. In this regard, Tejpal and Prithvi are the best. In Tejpal, for instance, the actor establishes a rapport with the audience in the first five minutes. This means, the audience is with the play right from the outset, and the actor does not have to make an extra effort. This helps the performance and the play.

Whereas with Bhaidas or Birla Matushri, this reaching-out to the audience becomes a difficult task, since these are huge, noisy auditoriums. Here - it is extremely strenuous to establish a harmony with the audience. Then there is the almost-impossible-to-perform Birla Matushri Sabagrah. It is perhaps more suited for conferences and lectures by star speakers. As a theatre auditorium, it is a failure, since it is not possible for the last rows to see the stage. Forget the expressions and nuances of the actors, since sometimes the main action is blocked due to pillars on the sides. Which is why, I'm very fond of Tejpal, or an auditorium like Prithvi. Because even whilst you're on stage, you're at the same time one among the audience, since the demarcations, the boundaries do not exist.

Another venue, I'm fond of is, Jai Hind. But this is largely due to my familiarity to the space, since INT and my brother; Pravin Joshi performed most of its plays at Jai Hind. I also enjoyed performing at the Bhulabhai auditorium with its jutting balcony. It required a special technique from the actor on stage to communicate to the audience who was seated in this balcony. This requires a subtle change in the performance. The actor has to look-upwards, or at least provide the illusion of doing so. Or else the audience in the balcony would leave left-out. Most of our actors ignore this and perform only for the front-row.

The point is, in Mumbai, very few auditoriums are constructed for the purpose of theatre. It seems, only Bhulabhai, Tejpal, Prithvi, NCPA have been constructed for theatre performance. The rest of the auditoriums lack intimacy. It's also very curious that during the construction of these auditoriums, the architects never consult theatre people. And so, the end-result is a building with good architecture, along with technical competency and good acoustics. However, the most vital requirement of theatre is neglected.

This does not entail great amounts of money or extra efforts. For example, the Bal Gandharava theatre in Pune is almost perfectly constructed. Even the Sahitya Sangh theatre (although not functional, today) is a good theatre. In fact I would rate it better than Shivaji Mandir.

The old Opera House was a brilliant theatre. It has witnessed all sorts of performances from operas to plays. It had a balcony with boxes - but the curvature of the balcony was well-appropriated by placing four seats in every curvature. This meant that the spectator in the box was also very close to the stage.

Another good old theatre was Daulat Talkies, which was located in the red-light area. This area was called 'pill-house' a corruption of the term 'play-house'. Around fifty years ago, there were innumerable theatre like Daulat Talkies, these were, Roshan Talkies, Alfred Talkies, Moti, Royal and so on, which used to stage Gujarati, Parsi or Urdu plays. There used to be long tin boards in front of the rows in the pit class. And so, the audience in this class would stamp their feet on this board, and create a din. This was their way of demanding an encore, or a once-more or applause.

Bangwadi was another fine theatre. It possessed all kinds of facilities, which included dwellings for actors, musicians and crew. There was also a company kitchen. Everyone was paid monthly wages; and the group was very much like a repertory company.

In those days, the stage was very sturdy. So much so, I've seen plays which have had an elephant on stage. Prithviraj Chauhan would ride (not canter) on a horse from wing to another. Further, there were trap-doors on the floor of the stage, this device was used to good effect. In one play, which I've witnessed, Prithviraj's eyes are being put-out by Mohamed Ghauri. Prithivraj is on the floor, and is trying to aim an arrow at Ghauri who is perched at a height on top of the castle-wall. On cue, Prithviraj takes aim and the arrow hits Ghauri, who falls-off the high wall . directly into a trap-door, and vanishes by sliding inside the stage. This extremely dangerous manoeuvre used to be executed not once - but four-to-five times due to a hysterical public demanding 'encores'. And so, the same scene would be repeated with clinical precision. In today's times, we do not possess the workmen or skill to produce such a scene. Our version of the above scene would end with a black-out the moment Ghauri is hurt.

Even with lights, we have to make compromises. Most auditoriums provide six to seven lights at the most. Overseas, the scenario is vastly different. Theatres there are equipped with 600 lights - at least. This means every square inch of the stage can be lit. This guarantees a better visibility - and a better 'feel' of the play. Moreover, in Mumbai, with our shift-system, and constant setting-up and dismantling of the set, we are not in a position to set-up too many lights. After all, how many lights can one set-up in an hour!

As a rule, the management are insensitive to the needs of the performer. These are usually tiny things - but they matter. For instance, the mirror at Bhaidas is distorted, and so, instead of a reflection, the artist ends-up seeing unusual shapes and contours. Then there are no bulbs around the mirror. Now, how can an artist apply make-up in tube-light? How does one get the exact texture and correct hue in tube-light? Further, even when the auditorium is air-conditioned, there is no air-conditioning in the green-room. This is insensitivity, nothing else. After all, the green-room is the most crucial place for a performer. The performer prepares for his role in this space. He concentrates, gets into character, goes-over the details, etc. In Tejpal, for instance, after repeated insisting, the management has installed a window air-conditioner in the green room.

In fact, once when I asked Pravin Joshi, as to what we would do when we are no longer actors or directors? He replied that with our knowledge of the theatres, we would easily get a job as booking clerk. After all, who can out-match our knowledge about the seats in an auditorium.

Another crucial thing which is not thought over is a small quick-change dressing room. This is for the rapid-fire exit and entries. This particularly true for women-artists, some of whom have to make the 100-metre dash from the stage to the green-room, change their costume, and appear on stage - unruffled, and totally composed. Why, there have been occasions when I've changed my costume on stage in a black-out or whilst the curtain is down .. But it is very risky. Of late, theatre groups construct a tiny, make-shift cubicle of canvas in the back-stage area for these quick-changes.

The point is, our auditoriums are built without the consultation of theatre people. Consider: the ambience and atmosphere of a theatre. The moment, one enters a theatre one should feel that one has entered the arena of entertainment. In Mumbai, no one pays attention to this. Consider Bhaidas, they have a huge foyer. And so much can be done in this space with a bit of attention and care. A few lights, photographs of plays and a few words about the actors who have made their reputations; all this would create a great atmosphere.

The old Bangwadi had a great atmosphere. To start with there was the labyrinth of lanes leading up to the auditorium. The soft sounds of music, of laughter. Then there were theatre-books for sale. All this made the experience of seeing a play truly wonderful. On my part, I've been speaking to the Bhaidas management to do something similar. After all, they have ample space.

The good news is, they are planning a Gujarati Cultural Centre - once they procure some FSI. They have already begun consulting theatre people. There is a plan for a library of scripts of performed plays, a video-centre with recording of plays for non-commercial reasons. Pictures and notes about sets and costumes. Interviews with theatre personalities can be recorded on video. There can be clippings of a director in a rehearsal which will help us comprehend his methodology. Even the traditional art forms can be preserved. For instance, at the moment only four groups are performing Bhavai, now before this form dies, we should do something about it.

Sometimes I wonder if our priorities are all mixed-up. We spend so much money and energy on constructing new temples, but we do not do a thing about institutions which matter like schools, hospitals, theatres .

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