Is theatre relevant?


Theatre doomsdayers have often rung the ‘theatre is finished’ gong, only to realise that despite the craze for other mediums like TV, cinema and movie streaming sites, theatre has steadily grown in its quiet popularity in India. Nikhil Katara pooh-poohs those who denigrate theatre and says, the experience that theatre provides to its audience, is absolutely unique and irreplaceable.

The world today has many options. Content, which not too long ago was sparse, has become voluminous and has found its way into many mediums. Each medium has its own mechanism, its own processes, and its own consumption. The many people who consume this content become associated with, not only the thought that the content deals with, but also the medium through which they are conveyed. If one were to go back in time and see where all of this began, one might have to go to theatre. Cinema, television, YouTube, Netflix and other mediums followed suit to increase the possibilities of telling a story. But theatre finds its roots in ancient times, be it the Natya Shastra or the Aristotelian poetics. Greeks, Indians and all the world have associated with this medium right from the beginning of our journey as humans. But ironically, this medium is considered ‘passé’ for the millennials, post millennials, or generation Z, for there are so many options to choose from, so why would you go to the theatre, when you can lay down so comfortably in your couch, put the air conditioning on and watch Netflix and chill? After all, Netflix has stories, people are acting, it is way more fast paced, there is state of the art technology involved in telling the story, and all of this is available at the click of a button. So why would anyone want to look anywhere else?

A performance of Girish Karnad’s iconic Tughlaq
(Photo credit: Bengaluru city/facebook)

The questions, investigations and thoughts relevant to Netflix as a medium are applicable to Cinema and YouTube as well. Each medium is so different compared to the other. In the book titled And then you act, Anne Bogart deals with many questions, one among them is, ‘What are you tempting?’ In our attempt to achieve a particular end, we need to ‘do’ something that fits into our attempt like a puzzle. While encountering this question, Bogart raised some critical points. One being, ‘I would like to make theatre that would look ridiculous on film and television.’ Now that is a funny statement to make, isn’t it? How can that be possible? Isn’t theatre telling a story, why would that look ridiculous on television or film or Netflix for example? It is a story after all. The answer to that question is – ‘It can look ridiculous on film and television’. This is because the mediums of film, television, Netflix, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and all the myriad ways in which we share content these days is different, and the most important way in which an audience will get engaged in the content, is if they get it through the right medium.

Theatre as a relevant medium
So doesn’t that make the ancient medium of theatre still relevant? How is it different from the other mediums? Let’s examine:

Space: Theatre deals with a space that exists in three dimensions, literally, you don’t need to wear 3 D glasses to see the length, breadth and height of the stage. It stands right near you.

Time: There are no cuts of scenes in a play, though the experience of time can be altered, and a whole life time can be experienced near one’s eyes without a camera assisting you or a screen near you.

Imagination: The imagination of the individual, actor or audience is a fundamental tool in theatre to create the space in which the events of the performance occur. This makes the audience an active participant in the performance itself, and not distant observers. Theatre or ‘plays’ use the fundamental human instinct, i.e., to ‘play’ as a tool to create performances. The instinct is so undeniably in the genetic make-up of us as a species that it transcends the stage, and is a part of our everyday life. Wait a minute, so does that mean our life itself is an act on stage, and does it also mean that all men and women are merely players? I wonder who said that.

Looking at these one might assume that theatre or the act of ‘play’ is a fundamental part of life itself. We act our genders, our personalities, our emotions, and our experiences all the time. The performances are improvisations, and thus it makes theatre ‘a fundamental part of our lived experience’. How can that ever go out of fashion?

Even if one were to see the various other mediums and the way they unveil their content, every medium has its own method, and if one were to apply one to the other, it might not work. Let’s take Netflix for example; the entire idea of ‘binge watching’ a series of episodes of a single television show, is a method in which Netflix grew as a medium. In fact, Netflix regularly releases all the episodes of a given season so that the audiences could watch them all together. This method of engaging with content can sound ridiculous in cinema, or any other medium.

Plays like Death of a Salesman, give hope for theatre’s future
(Photo credit: Raell padamsee’s ace/facebook)

Theatre as a medium has many forms, and many devices. If one were to name a few, theatre of the oppressed, physical theatre, clowning, theatre of the absurd and object theatre are some examples in which the stage has expressed its ideas, which are unique to it. Many of these performances have moved people in a way that they did not know was possible. If one were to recreate them in the medium of Netflix or cinema, it would look rather ridiculous. Just like how certain books find themselves into being made into ridiculous movies. If one were to adapt the book into a movie one might have to rewrite the book in the form of a screenplay that suits the style of cinema. Similarly, what works for theatre might not work for film, or Netflix or YouTube. Hence the idea that theatre is ‘passé’ just because other mediums are available is rather ridiculous itself. It is a unique form of experience where human individuals come into contact using their bodies, with the environment and with other selves while being witnessed by other selves. Thus making the entire experience a ritual in itself, where human experience and life experiences are felt through the medium of our intelligence and our bodies. Isn’t that meaningful? Perhaps that is why a lot of India’s freedom struggle used the medium of theatre to express its angst. Even today, Mumbai is a multicultural, multilingual hub where hundreds of performances from various parts of the country are showcased. Would that be possible if it were not relevant?

So the question of whether or not theatre is relevant in this day and age of ‘Netflix and chill’?, is answered with a simple, unequivocal and definitive ‘Yes.’ And so it shall remain till humans walk the Earth.

Nikhil Katara

Nikhil Katara initiated his journey as a writer with his own production titled The Unveiling, a science fiction drama in the year 2011. To strengthen critical learning he initiated an MA programme in ‘Philosophy’ at the Mumbai university with optionals in Kant, Greek Hellinistic Philosophy, Feminism, Logic and Existentialism. His play Yatagarasu opened at Prithvi Theatre in 2016. He is a consultant facilitator at J’s paradigm (a novel performance arts institute) and writes book reviews for the Free Press Journal.