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VOL. XXII NO. 3, MAY 16-31, 2012
English Theatre returns
By Gowri Ramnarayan

P.C. Ramakrishna


Freddy Koikaran


Michael Muthu

Chennai's claims to the title of 'Cultural capital of India' has only meant that it has been the stronghold of Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam. It is a city of sabha-s – private organisations conducting monthly and annual festivals of classical music and dance. The past saw the sabha-s promoting Tamil drama on a large scale – mainly mythological spectacles, 'social drama' and plain farce. English theatre has rarely been part of mainstream Chennai culture.

In the last ten years, English theatre has made its presence felt strongly and insistently, with theatre groups mushrooming everywhere. Old groups have been rejuvenated or have reinvented themselves in new directions.

Not every group has any particular aim beyond the staging of plays, or ideas of developing a character of its own. "Perform or die" could well be the motto of most theatre groups in the city. It is not unusual to see young people trying to patch up and mount a play of sorts, with nothing but enthusiasm to carry them through.

A new kind of English theatre came to Chennai with the professed goal of entertainment entrepreneurship when 'Evam' (2003) devised market strategies to promote its packed shows. Young people began to find live theatre a cool place to be in. Chennai watched with surprise as Evam (with a core team of paid professionals) found ample sponsorship, developing activities including event management, HR training models, and corporate shows.

With the advantage of being headed by an actor/director who is also an expert in lighting and set design (Michael Muthu), 'Boardwalkers' have cashed in on these technical strengths and event management.

Meanwhile, 'The Madras Players', said to be India's oldest amateur English theatre group, celebrated its golden jubilee (2005). This group produced, even premiered, some of the famous New Wave Indian plays in the 1960s-70s, in addition to its regular fare of Shakespeare and Pinter. A remarkable change came with the declaration of 2000 as the 'Year of the Chennai Playwright'. Since then, The Madras Players have found a different kind of energy and focus in staging Indian plays – original and translated scripts – welcoming collaborations with other groups, encouraging new writing in English. That is how the oldest amateur company joined the youngest group, the Landing Stage, to showcase an enormously successful Swami and Friends, an adaptation of R.K. Narayan's debut masterpiece.

Landing Stage itself attracts a large number of stage-struck young people through multifold theatre-related activities, widening the circle of actors and theatre-goers.

Every group knows the importance of offering live theatre exposure to young audiences. Krishna Kumar's 'Masquerade' has produced most of Chennai's actors, including Kartik Kumar and Nikhila Kesavan. His natak competitions (sadly defunct) galvanised colleges into competitions with prizes for play, script and sets/lighting.

Freddy Koikaran's ('Stagefright') advertisement says it all: "Theatre, Music and more! Yup, that's right! Hey, even if you're just the 'spectating' type, join us!" Since 2001 Ajit Chitturi has been organising readings with newcomers, in the homes of senior theatre persons, or at youth-friendly venues like the Ashvita Gallery.

While Neil Simon draws full house, many groups have started looking for that "spicy desi touch". But plays "we can relate to" are hard to come by.

Rajiv Krishnan ('Perch'), and V. Balakrishnan ('Theatre Nisha') have tried to push the envelope in different ways. With his commitment to long- term rehearsals and attention to detail, Rajiv has been able to create sustained work of quality in content and form.

Crossing boundaries has been a major impetus for Balakrishnan, whose plays and workshops in schools, colleges and corporate centres have expanded the reach for such ventures.

Dhritiman Chatterji of Satyajit Ray films fame collaborated with me, a journalist-musician-playwright, to launch 'JustUs Repertory'. We tried to shape its distinct character by melding classical music and dance with contemporary English theatre, struggling to find beauty and values in a world of mounting violence.

As good as it gets? So it sounds. But while Chennai theatre has come up with fine productions, every group is faced with disheartening problems. Sponsorship is always never enough, though groups have found creative ways of doing more with less.

The real problems lie elsewhere. The lack of rigorous, multi-pronged, years-long training is evident in every department of theatre craft. Most groups work with actors of different levels – from professionals to debuting college students – resulting in unevenness. There is little sense of 'repertory', actors float in and out, and from one group to another, with no guide or mentor to give them purpose and direction. Barring a few, the interest seems to be on performance rather than achieving in-depth, nuanced excellence. On the technical side too, sound and light are often manned by untrained newcomers who do not stick on long enough to gain experience.

A major problem is the lack of good theatres like Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre and Bangalore's Ranga Shankara. Imagine what a boon it would be to have a theatre space in Chennai, with two halls to seat 600 and 200 persons, equipped with a good (if not state-of-the-art) lighting and sound system, specially designed for mikeless productions! Not to forget the friendly café, theatre bookshop and, yes, parking space. Theatre standards will rise by leaps and bounds. And if theatre offers a professional quality and sustained variety, the same Chennaiites, often blamed for lack of interest or discernment in drama, may become as theatre-friendly as Mumbaikars, Kolkatans, or Bangaloreans.

Another problem is that everyone is forced to script and adapt texts for the stage. The absence of sustained playwriting workshops – like Mumbai's annual Writer's Bloc (by Rage, in collaboration with the Royal Court Theatre) which helps aspiring playwrights by actually staging what they write – is keenly felt.

And yet, English theatre in Chennai is alive now as it never was before, with a growing audience eager to experience the live medium. They are accessed through generous previews in every English daily, while Email and Facebook have opened even wider portals. Interestingly, this ticket-buying theatre audience is far more disciplined than those at sabha events. The mobile phone remains a menace, but there is no sauntering in and out at will or exodus part-way as at Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam recitals. – (Courtesy: Sruti).

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In this issue

Heritage legislation at last
What should be done to space beneath flyovers?
Endangered historic site
Tiger, Tiger, burning bright (in Madras)
Birdwatching Notes
A post-box out of the past
The historical legacy of an engineering marvel
English Theatre returns
DRAVID – He fought the good battle every time

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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