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Thursday, July 29, 2021

As Covid downs curtain on stage, TheatreDost helps Mumbai artistes, backstage workers

Many theatre actors, who had shifted to Mumbai for opportunities were stuck, and backstage workers, dependent on their per-show income, were badly hit by the pandemic.

Written by Alaka Sahani | Mumbai |
July 17, 2021 8:50:20 pm
The closure of theatres for an indefinite period made a group of city-based theatre personalities set up a resource centre to support these theatre artistes and workers. (File/Representational)

Most Theatrewallas swear by the phrase “the show must go on”. So, when Mumbai’s performance spaces shut down in March 2020 and about 40 running plays had to cancel their shows, it was a major setback for one of the vibrant theatre hubs of the country. Many theatre actors, who had shifted to Mumbai for opportunities were stuck, and backstage workers, dependent on their per-show income, were badly hit. Though reopening of some of these spaces in November 2020 raised their hopes for a while, since April this year curtains have been down.

The closure of theatres for an indefinite period made a group of city-based theatre personalities set up a resource centre to support these theatre artistes and workers. “In mid-April, we created an informal body — TheatreDost — that the theatre community can identify with and approach in time of need,” says theatre writer-director Sapan Saran. Many came forward with their support and donations. On a priority basis, TheatreDost reached out to people who needed ration and medicine. “For more than a year, many theatre people have not worked and savings have run dry,” says Saran and adds that the help they provide is going to be “cyclical”.

Sunil Shanbag, theatre director and co-founder of TheatreDost, gives an overview of what the community has been grappling with during the pandemic. “Theatre people are generally invisible in society. Even though we are connected to many theatre artistes who perform in different languages, we don’t have a clear idea about the ground realities. Last year, the lockdown was sudden. So, those who came from outside were stuck in Mumbai. This year, we had an inkling about the lockdown in advance. Those who had returned to Mumbai left again. We decided to help those who live in Mumbai. They belong to the sections of theatre workers who are less talked about — gatekeepers, usherers and backstage workers, among others. “They keep the system running. Slowly, our search took us to those people,” says Shanbag. They also reached out to Tamasha and Loknatya performers.

TheatreDost found out that many had no money for medicines and adequate food as they grappled with. “Most of them are not part of any social media. So, we had to tap into our personal network to locate those who needed help,” says Shanbag. Over the last couple of months, TheatreDost has been sending relief packets to 13 theatres across the city. From there, it has been given to the beneficiaries.

Many of those employed in theatre depend on per-show payment. Backstage workers generally get Rs 600 per show while lightmen earn Rs 700. Those in charge of tickets, known as ‘booking clerks’, get around Rs 250-300 per show. Mostly elderly and retired people take up the job as gatekeepers and usherers. They earn an abysmally low wage of Rs 50-75 per show. Even though artistes are entitled to government pension, these workers enjoy no such benefit. “In the case of theatre, it’s mostly the community that steps in to help each other,” says Shanbag. Other core members of TheatreDost are actor Kalyanee Muley and Manjiri Pupala.

Ratnakant Jagtap, spokesperson of Rangmanch Kamgar Sangh, said they have repeatedly sought help from the state government without much avail. “Last year, we had a meeting with the Chief Minister through video-confernencing and we asked for Rs 10 crore aid. No government help has come in spite of us writing to them again this year,” he says. Jagtap has been applying for jobs with any success. Lavani dancer Sujata Pawar, 52, has not done a show for more than a year.
Musician Sada Mulik, who performs in plays and accompanies singers, did a few shows after theatres opened in April. But he is unsure about when his next show will be.

The pandemic has forced theatre people to rethink their performances. “When the theatres reopen, the 50 per cent occupancy rule won’t help the business,” says Shanbag.

The nature of the pandemic has led to another major concern. “How are we going to survive if we are working in spurts?” says Saran hinting at apprehensions regarding another wave. Shanbag agrees. “If you can be adaptive, you will survive. Those who perform for 30 people in the audience will survive. A theatre that can take place in a living room or terrace will survive. A play that needs a big auditorium will find it very difficult,” he says.

Many theatre people have experimented with online shows since the first lockdown. “People paid for online shows. They engaged with after show interactions. After a while there was a dip in the audience. Theatre people, however, kept trying a lot of things. We put up readings and podcasts online too,” Shanbag recalls.

However, streaming just any show online doesn’t work, believe Shanbag and Saran. “It is three times more work as an online show involves recording, editing and working on the sound. As we wait for theatres to reopen, we have been trying to figure out how to stay relevant and financially sustain ourselves in the long run,” says Saran.

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