Playing away pandemic blues
The lockdown gloom was slowly forcing them to move into darker spaces… the constant reverberation of rehearsals, an essential part of their everyday existence, was fast being replaced by a stunned silence.
And then came a time when Mumbai-based theatre director Atul Kumar and his friends could take it no more. “The pandemic was wreaking havoc with the isolation it brought. We simply wanted to get up and start making theatre work and to create a sense of purpose. Since congregating was not a possibility, and our desktops were the only playground, we set out to keep the idea of both theatre and film together and explore possibilities. It is then that along with my colleagues Mallika, Vara, Anupam, Sonal and Baani, I decided to invite young film directors to make short films derived from play scripts from around the world,” says Kumar about ‘Theatre-Film-Theatre, Festival of Shorts’ that premiered on August 30 on The Company Theatre’s YouTube channel, and will witness a new film releasing every second day.
Interestingly, the entire process — ideation, scripting, shooting and then post-production was carried out through remote collaborations and Zoom meetings.
With the prerequisite that stage actors be cast in these films, what started as a random idea became a coming together of not only exciting content and form but (initially) people who just wanted to interact, mix, collaborate and most importantly simply talk to each other. Kumar, who founded ‘The Company Theatre’ in 1993, adds, “It was a great way out of the isolation that was settling in for a lot of us. Also, since this project was also entirely pro bono, the goodwill within the community saw the exchange of equipment and other resources.”
For this recipient of the Chevening Fellowship, Charles Wallace Scholarship and French Cultural Fellowship, who never went to a drama school or followed a formal pedagogical system, it was working with different directors, diverse styles, in varied environments that has been instrumental in shaping him.
Kumar, who worked with ‘Chingari’ theatre group in the capital and spent three years down South learning Kalaripayattu and Kathakali before working with Philippe Gentry in France and associating himself with a theatre company in the US, says, “My skills might have been collected on the way through encounters in different parts of India and abroad. I am so glad that I could assimilate was the constant desire to learn more, question one’s own work and never settling down within a comfortable mould of theatre-making. And within that struggle and process lies the fun of making theatre for me.”
Known for his experimental work including ‘Theatre at Home’ and taking a musical comedy (‘Piya Behrupia’) to the World Shakespeare Festival, not to mention the clown plays with Rajat Kapoor, Kumar says that the research, process and making performing such experimental pieces bring deep joy and human understanding. “They keep us awake to the very reason why we were in the field of theatre or in the arts in general. If the purpose of the theatre was not to unsettle, to disturb, to question, to delve deeper, find answers, and then turn them into new questions, I perhaps would not have entered the field of arts.”
Talking about his theatre residency in Kamshet, which could be considered as one of the first and most successful examples of crowdsourcing for which major artists like Riyas Komu, Bose Krishnamachari, Atul and Anju Dodiya among others contributed, Kumar says, “The Company Theatre Workspace will forever be grateful to so many Indian artists, gallerists and curators from the visual arts world to have supported our dream of creating an International Residency for Performing Arts. It was a very grand gesture on their behalf. Bose already knew me, but so many other esteemed artists had never even heard my name, let alone known me or my work. It’s just that artists helped artists and they believed and trusted me and my resolve and did not hesitate in becoming a part of this creation.”
Though he may be based in Mumbai now, performing in Delhi has always held a certain charm for Kumar. “I was born and grew up in the capital. You just can’t take Delhi out of me for it sits deep. And yes, it is an extremely romantic city for me — very aggressive and violent but most poetic too. Delhi has also evolved over the years and some of the best experimental theatre work comes from there,” he says.
Forever excited by the unexpected and propelled by the unknown, Kumar does feel unhappy that The Company Theatre doesn’t really have a business model and now has money only to survive for another three months, Kumar says, “We have been fools really, for not having a business model in place or saving monies to create a corpus for a rainy day such as this one, now. There has been absolutely no income since February,” he laments.
Presently working on ‘Parables of Sinister Misdeeds Committed in this House’, a devised piece with much writing from Pallav Singh, which will bring together more than 50 artists from around and will be streamed digitally, the director adds, “I also want to perform myself lot more, guess explore acting in the medium of cinema more — something I have postponed forever.”