One day after April Fool’s, three theatre artistes from England landed in Delhi with a play, and nowhere to stage it. “We had a couple of contacts in India; by ‘couple of’ I mean one email address and two phone numbers. But, we wanted to come to India, so we said ‘let’s do this, let’s make this happen’,” says Kat Redstone, 33, the creative director. As a plan, it reeks of garbage but to be more practical, the group would have to be a very different sort.
Called Vacuum Theatre — after their debut production Vacuum Cleaner, whose monologue contains the lines, “I am a vacuum cleaner, I have three nozzles and gather up dust and animal fur” — the group will debut in India today at a private venue. “Two more shows are planned at Bakheda in Said-ul-Ajaib over the weekend before we travel to Kolkata for shows next weekend,” says Redstone, across whose chest is splayed a tattoo of Dionysus, the Greek god of theatre.
Since its inception in 2012, Vacuum has existed on the edges of London’s theatre scene, one of the frays that attempt to shake up the centre. “It’s not a promising world out there for theatre that wants to experiment with form, take risks and make the audience experience something new. Primarily because London has always had such a rich tradition of theatre, there is a reverence surrounding it,” says Redstone.
The team is wiser now about Delhi, where auditoriums are rented for a pile, show dates are booked months before, and artistes pool in money to fund theatre. “We love Tadpole,” says Redstone, about the Delhi-based repertory whose members reached out to Vacuum and ensured they don’t return without showing their play.
Something out of Nothing, which premiered in London in February, is, “in basic terms, about three performers trying to tell a story and facing obstructions, which are their own limitations, on stage”. “The limitations are also in terms of what we don’t have. There are only three chairs and one kettle on the stage,” says actor Oya Bacak. Co-actor Alexander Raptotasios adds, “There are times when we have to sing or dance and we cannot. We have a song that goes We don’t know why we’re singing/we have no reason to sing/ we only know it’s thrilling/to hear performers sing. The dance is choreographed but ridiculous all the same. Its only purpose is to shake the audience out of their expectations.”
In this Alice in Wonderland-like absurdist, surreal world, Raptotasios stands on stage from the beginning wearing a teddy bear head and is unwanted by the other two actors, who ask the audience to ignore him. Bacak narrates the first story, about Alex (Raptotasios), a boy who wants to be a performer but is no good. “He tries very hard but nobody wants him, he has no connection with the other actors, until the day he creeps in and stands on stage wearing a teddy bear head,” she says. Another story has Oya lying on the floor as Redstone talks about an actor who has fallen asleep and dreams that she has woken up to find herself on stage, surrounded by an audience that wants her to “do something”.
In another segment, there are no actors on the stage at all. Redstone, who writes the texts, explains, “A line from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock resonates with me – ‘Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?’ I ask, ‘Do I dare, leave the stage?’’ But, underneath all the actions that break theatre convention, Something out of Nothing is a story about a performer who badly wants to be a part of something, and grows into it bit by bit.
Vacuum’s signature is making and maintaining eye contact with the audience and this can be as intense as disconcerting. Raptotasios looks pure, beautiful and innocent, Redstone stares confidently and Bacak has a mysterious gaze. “It’s about building a relationship with the audience, whatever the relationship is. We are not going to pretend you are not there,” says Redstone.
Talking to them, it becomes apparent why this fledgling theatre group has acquired groupies and why their shows have opened to empty halls and closed to a full house. “A lot of our work is about ‘what if’, what if we dare to turn a corner and do something unexpected? Of course, we don’t do it randomly, we anticipate how something will affect the audience but we always ask ourselves what if we dare to shake things up?” says Redstone.
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