Back when we were younger, we have all been punished in so many ways – some of us were locked in a room or bathroom, or were forced to stay at home and not be allowed to go out and play.
Unable to visit the theatre during the lockdown, that is exactly how I feel.
Many of us can work from home or attend classes online, but theatre requires a physical workspace. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, theatre artists haven’t been able to do stage shows at all for the past nine months.
I am part of a theatre group called ‘Imagination’. It is a group run by a few college graduates from different colleges of Patna, Bihar, who aim to revive the state’s cultural heritage and enhance the overall quality of performing arts. The group has grown in size from nine members in 2016 to 52 members in 2020. It includes not only college students, but also school children from different age groups.
Online script-reading sessions
Before the pandemic, we had planned to perform a play on a book written by Swadesh Deepak called Court Martial. We were doing reading sessions and attending body movement classes. I even took sword fighting classes from my seniors.
But as soon as the lockdown was announced, we had to put a pause on rehearsals. Soon after, our sponsors withdrew their financial support. The biggest challenge for us was to continue with our script-reading sessions at least. We planned to do it online but, there are some group members who don’t have the technical know-how to operate social media. This ended up affecting our reading sessions. Besides, there were many things we couldn’t practice at all. For instance, it is not possible to do fighting scenes and group dances over the internet.
Several groups in Patna have been facing these issues, especially those with members who are in their 40s – many of them don’t know how to use WhatsApp, Facebook, Zoom and so on.
But, out of all, the biggest issue we have all been struggling with is funding. In a country like India, theatres are not seen as a leisure activity. People like to spend their money on buying tickets for a film, but rarely for a play.
Hence, most theatre groups are dependent on charity funding or sponsors (which is also very difficult to get). Else, they contribute from their own pockets.
After the sponsors backed out, many of the group members, who were entirely dependent on theatre, haven’t been able to pay their house rent, food bills, and have had no choice but to ask their parents for money. As many of the artists are students, they are uncertain whether they’d be able to pursue theatre as a career option.
However, it is not all doom and gloom.
Our theatre group, for instance, performed one show via Zoom, which had over 700 viewers – something that might not have been possible if we had performed the same show in an auditorium. Although we had limited resources, the show was a success and received a lot of praise.
“We asked people over social platforms to buy tickets for our show. But very few people showed interest, even though the cost of one ticket was only Rs 50,” said Kundan Kumar, secretary of Imagination.
Initially, we sold 63 tickets, which was not sufficient to pay for Zoom’s premium version. Then we decreased the amount to Rs 30 but even then, we were able to sell only 48 more tickets. Finally, we allowed free entry. “And then we saw the sea of individuals asking us about show details and login credentials for our show,” added Kumar.
And that’s how around 700 people joined.
‘I just want to perform’
But, many theatre groups at Premchand Ranghshala (the place where most of the theatrical activities of Patna take place) located at Premchand Golambar, Rajendra Nagar, are struggling to survive this pandemic era. Many of them are not connected to their audience via social media or have proper funding and support. These are also groups that have thousands of would-be artists.My own group, Imagination, has trained more than 500 members.
More than anything, we are all missing the stage and the environment of the theatre hall filled with people cheering for artists. That cheer I used to get after a good show from the audience, and that appreciation for continuing this art is what I miss the most.
That adrenaline rush in my blood just before I walk on the stage, those goosebumps after applause from the audience is something which many artists like me miss.
I remember what Biswajeet Guru, my Thang Ta (Manipuri martial art form) teacher, used to tell me: “Arpit, when a maulana cannot forget to offer prayers five times in a day, and a priest of a temple does not forget to clean the premises of the temple in the morning, then how can an actor forget to act.”
And now, I just want to perform. Even if it is some backstage work, I just want to work with my team.
Arpit Parashar is a theatre artist based in Patna, Bihar and is also a student journalist at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.
All images provided by the author