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Mar 27, 2019 | 3 min read

World Theatre Day Address 2019


For the longest time, but particularly between the 1990s and 2000s, one kept hearing doomsday predictions about the death of theatre. The earliest perceived threat to theatre was cinema. Then came video parlours followed by satellite TV. And now it is Netflix and Amazon Prime. But through it all, theatre has remained alive and kicking.

In one of my favourite plays, Vyankatesh Madgulkar's "Pati Gele Ga Kathewadi", a Maratha Sardar goes to Kathiawad to collect revenue. To set his mind at rest regarding her fidelity during his absence, his wife gives him a tassel of fresh flowers to wear in his turban, instructing him to take their continued freshness as a sign of her fidelity. The flowers remain fresh throughout his time away, driving his Kathiawadi host mad. "What? The flowers are still fresh?" he keeps asking. That is how it is with theatre. For as long as there are people who love it and are faithful to its first principles of mutual trust and the desire to communicate, the art will remain with us as fresh as the flowers in the sardar's turban.

Theatre survives because it is as close to being a human instinct as any art can be. We do theatre almost as naturally as we breathe. If we take mimesis or imitation by re-presentation as the root of the theatrical art, we might see the beginnings of it in a baby's imitations of the sounds she hears around her. As the baby grows older, a chair becomes a bus, the toddler the driver and her sibling the lone passenger crushed into the back of the vehicle. The toddler is re-presenting her reality. Allied to the urge to imitate, is the second reason why theatre is so vigorously alive. In the best sense of the word, theatre is a primitive art. It is entirely about the human body in space.

A filmmaker friend often tried to rile me by calling theatre a primitive art. But to me theatre's primitiveness was its strength. Thirty years on, this friend was weeping over the demise of celluloid and its replacement by digital technology which he believed to be the lesser image-maker. I did not crow then and say, "But look, our flowers are still fresh." I believe theatre's primitive quality is what Peter Brook is talking about in the opening lines of "The Empty Space". "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."

In reading these lines we tend to lay emphasis on the space and the walking body, forgetting the "someone else" who is watching that body walk in that space. Without that someone, there is no theatre. What theatre does for the viewer is unique, something no technologically driven art can do. It allows free rein to her/his imagination. Take an auditorium of 600 individuals watching an empty space. A man walks in and says, "Ah here is the forest", and all 600 'see' a forest. That is why we can take any empty space and call it a stage. An old studio, a pub, a club, an abandoned factory, anything will do. The less formal the space the more resourceful and imaginative theatre makers and audiences are called upon to be. That is how theatre keeps us fully alive, in communion with each other about things past and present, engaged in a revelatory process that allows us to feel and think our way to self-knowledge.


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