Mahesh Dattani, an Indian director, actor, playwright and writer discusses how the pandemic has affected the theatre scene and how digital platforms cannot replace stage performance. In an interview with Outlook’s Lachmi Deb Roy, Dattani says that the fundamental difference between theatre and cinema is that in the theatre “we”--- the audience and the performer --- breathe the same air. The performers radiate energy through this air and their stories fill spaces in the halls and in the beating hearts of the audiences.
Dattani is one of the most well-known personalities in the theatre circuit. He has written plays like Final Solutions, Dance Like a Man, Bravely Fought the Queen, On a Muggy Night in Mumbai, Tara, Thirty Days in September, The Big Fat City and The Murder That Never Was. The Excerpts:
Q) How has the pandemic affected theatre?
The year 2020 was one of learning and lazing around for some, while for some like me, it has been a rather busy time. I have never directed two plays simultaneously in my life. And there I was working remotely with one group on the East coast of the US and the other on the West. And for others, they had to come to terms with the fact that the concept of time and space, something that we use as tools in the theatre, had to be redefined. Time, space, motion have always been a priority but now we say a disintegration in the very fundamental building blocks of the theatre. However, all things are born again in the art world and the same will happen to the theatre. This revisioning has been thrust upon us, but as theatre artistes, we must have an ongoing relationship with the here and now. The reality with all its surprises and twists is something we have always embraced.
Q) Digital platform cannot replace stage performance, what are you missing out on?
The fundamental difference between theatre and cinema is that in the theatre we --- the audience and the performer --- breathe the same air. We radiate energy through this air and our stories fill spaces in the halls and in the beating hearts out there. The magic of this undeniable presence of creativity, physical presence, and shared imagination cannot be undervalued. Nor can you put a price tag on it. It means the world to some people and to others it is completely of no consequence.
Q) How difficult has the situation become?
In my opinion, the question is not how difficult is the situation but rather how different is the situation. Can we handle the change? Usually, we have the ability to cope with change because it is slow in coming. The difference this time is that it came overnight. The winds of change swept us away with no warning. Like Dorothy, we have been transported to the land of Oz. Now we need to meet the wizard to find our way back home. But along the way, we will make new friends and sing new songs.
Q) How do you keep each other's hopes alive and push yourself forward?
Theatre people are resilient. When have we not kept our hopes alive? Yes, we may have our fragile egos and we tend to pull each other down but that has made us stronger. We have braved the endemic of petty jealousies, backstabbing, insecurities all along. We do it, others do the same to us. The pandemic is like a hiccup compared to what theatre people have to go through in the best of times! For those artistes less privileged, every normal day is one filled with uncertainties and deprivation. So, one good thing that has happened is that our true selves have come out during this pandemic. Artistes have helped each other this year unlike any time before! We are after all professional empathisers.
Q) The magic of stage performance…
As our lives grow more and more disintegrated with isolation, uncertainty, and void of human contact, theatre offers us every aspect of human connection, on the physical plane, the social plane, the cultural plane and the ideological plane.
Q) Will digital performance replace stage performance?
Digital performance is an art by itself. It can never replace theatre, just as theatre cannot replace what digital media have to offer. Theatre is the parent of every other form of storytelling. A parent is irreplaceable.
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