all the world’s a stage

Theatre is moving beyond the confines of the conventional auditorium and reaching out to the masses through alternative performance spaces across the country. Nandini D Tripathy lists five worth a visit

“And all the men and women merely players.” When William Shakespeare wrote these immortal lines in As You Like It, he may not have foreseen the resonance they would acquire in 21st-century India. Breaking away from the conventional stage, theatre and the performing arts in general have been making their way to an increasing number of alternative performance spaces. From old bungalows and art studios to erstwhile factories and public parks, unconventional platforms for theatrical expression are finding more takers across the country, especially among members of the younger generation.   

1. Among the most recent establishments of its kind in the national capital, Black Box Okhla is an oasis of creativity at the heart of a full-blown industrial area. Set up within an erstwhile factory, it derives its name from “black box theatre”, a phrase informally used to refer to intimate and versatile spaces that focus more on human emotion and drama than on high production value and technical prowess.

Nikhil Mehta, the space’s founder and artistic director, calls it “a laboratory for exploration and performance” and adds that the very structure of the factory helps create an environmental experience that a traditional performance venue could never replicate. It allows performers to determine exactly the kind of interaction they wish to have with their audience, that is best suited to the stories they wish to tell. And given that they work with a makeshift setup, no two performances ever look the same! Talking about the concept of alternative performance platforms, he affirms: “Space is an integral part of theatre. Watching a story move through space is the fundamental difference between films and live performances.”

2. Having hosted over 100 cutting-edge theatre, contemporary and classical dance and music performances as well as independent film screenings and participative contemporary art exhibits, Harkat Studios is one of the first spaces of its kind in Mumbai. Housed in a modest bungalow in the middle of an erstwhile refugee colony, it brings together a diverse array of art forms. The bungalow has been divided into two sections: an indoor studio that can seat 70 people and a 400-sq-ft courtyard for outdoor performances.

Each performance organised here pushes for experimentation in form, while ensuring that its narrative is accessible and comprehensible to every kind of audience. It also provides a platform for upcoming alternative and experimental artistes, bringing their work to a broader audience outside the framework of conventional theatre.

3. Among the youngest spaces of its kind in India, the OddBird Theatre & Foundation was established in July 2016 as an initiative aimed at increasing public engagement with the performing arts in the national capital. With an informal and intimate setting, the space allows the audience to experience dance, theatre, music and other performing arts in unique, interactive formats. With an agenda to showcase works that are diverse in idea, spirit and presentation while being accessible to all, the theatre also facilitates conversations around each performance. Like all the other spaces of its kind now mushrooming across India, OddBird also seeks to generate dialogue around performance art pieces. Since each performance has something to say, the idea is to make the audience think and really engage with its spirit and message even as they come up with interpretations of  their own.

4. Mirzapur, in the heart of Ahmedabad’s Old City, is home to the Gool Lodge – the space that Conflictorium calls its home. Within it lie seven experiential galleries – all on the ground floor – each designed to provoke dialogue on the notion of conflict, external and internal alike. The first floor houses multiple gallery spaces, a 40-seater auditorium and residency rooms. Besides theatrical performances, the auditorium also hosts film screenings, book readings and exhibitions.

5. With a name derived from a Sanskrit word that means actor, dancer and performer, LshVa in Bengaluru has been playing host to several theatre companies, dancers and performing artistes since its inception. The aim of the space, as defined by its own mission statement, is to foster the growth of art “through collaboration, education, residencies and performance”. Showcasing engaging renditions in Indian classical dance, contemporary dance, kalaripayattu, theatre, yoga and various other performing and visual arts, it also provides space and support to visiting artistes on a rotational basis to create work, teach, choreograph or experiment with ideas. LshVa also offers a series of programmes, aimed at building a supportive artistes’ community.

As such, many in theatre circles believe that alternative spaces like these have the potential to bring about a deeper engagement with the audience than conventional auditoriums. To begin with, the number of people in the audience is smaller, allowing for a more intimate connection with the performing artiste’s process. The lack of stage infrastructure also pushes performers to approach their acts in new ways – in essence, physical limitations can actually free the imagination of the artistes and audience alike.

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