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  • Quasar Thakore Padamsee

Shattering the fourth wall

First appeared on May 31, 2017 in The Asian Age.

Quasar Thakore Padamsee is a Bombay-based theatre-holic. He works primarily as a theatre-director for arts management company QTP, who also manage the youth theatre movement Thespo.

Perhaps due to modern theatre roots in religious Western rituals, there has always been a sense of sanctity to it. Actors (earlier priests) were kept on one side, and audience on the other. The auditoria too began to reflect this relationship, with large elevated stages at one end, and rows of seats spreading away from it. These were referred to as proscenium theatres.

However, with the advent of each new entertainment medium, theatre has had to adapt, and though many people have rung the death knell for live theatre, it has somehow endured.

Cinema began to own the “proscenium” experience of actors elevated on one side and audience on the other. They were able to take audience to large and magical locales. Theatre adapted to hyper realism and created naturalistic plays that were usually confined to one setting like a living room and the theatre experience became one of the audiences looking into someone’s lives.

But television soon adopted this technique and the soap operas were able to give people unfettered access to the drama in people’s homes. As television became more heightened and melodramatic, theatre began to become “real” and gritty. But recently, Web series have arrived and taken that role. So where does that leave live theatre?

Interestingly, the one area that theatre scores over its electronic counterparts is the fact the actors are actually 3-dimensional (not that dark digital rubbish) and that you can touch and feel them. As a result, over the last few years, many plays have been developing incredibly interesting stagings that cannot be replicated in electronic formats, particularly in the non-mainstream theatre. Commercial plays continued to be staged in the more formal “us & them” fashion. However, recently in Mumbai, there has not only been a breaking of the fourth wall, but a shattering of it.

Beauty & The Beast, one of the most lavish productions ever to come out of India, used ramps that divided the audience into four quadrants, and suddenly the action was happening all around you, and you needed to swivel your chair scene by scene.

Even Gandhi: The Musical used a large conventional proscenium venue like Jamshed Bhabha Auditorium, in a non formal way. Gandhiji’s Dandi March went through the audience, and rioters and more magically appeared in the aisles.

Shikhandi has been heralded as one of the most exciting pieces of theatre in the last few years. While the text and stylisation had a lot to do with it, the staging with the audience on all sides definitely added to the heightened experience.

Perhaps the two latest examples are more telling. Both are part of Aadyam’s latest initiative to embrace smaller Black Box Theatre. One was Guards at the Taj and the other Gajab Kahani. Both were staged at the tiny but beautiful G5A. And each used the space in a completely unique way. For Guards, the action was at opposite ends of the room.

The audience was raised on the sides, while the ones on the floor in the middle had to physically turn their chairs 180 degrees between scenes. You might think this was a cumbersome exercise but it worked remarkably well. For a modern audience hungry for the next unusual experience, this ticked all the boxes.

Gajab Kahani, went a step further. The phrase “theatre-in-the-round”, normally implies that the audience is seated in the round while the action takes place in the centre. Mohit Takalkar turned that phrase on its head. So we have an audience seated on swivel chairs in the centre of the room, with a raised stage surrounding them.

This resulted in an even more unique experience, where you were sometimes “in the action” when people spoke across the space to one another, or you could choose which character to watch. For example, I was mesmerised when Gitanjali Kulkarni’s Solomon The Elephant simply and ever so slowly and silently let the tears form in the corner of her eye and roll down her cheeks. All the while, the other actors were conversing on the other side of the room. So their words served as a “voice over” to her weeping. I chose to watch her. I could just as easily have watched the speaking actors.

This reminded me of the same feeling as having many browser windows open and shuttling from one to the next, based on what I fancied in that moment. The production, with its twenty strong ensemble, gave you enough to choose from and enjoy, even away from the main narrative. So, maybe, now it’s time for payback: for theatre to borrow from other media and own those experiences?


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