It is large, full of stories and black all over. On Thursday, as halls switched on their lights in Maharashtra for the first time since the lockdown began, an unusual landmark opened its doors in Pune. Called The Box, it is a black box theatre, of which there are only a handful in the country. The opening also marked Marathi Rangabhoomi Day, the anniversary of a show on November 5, 1843, of Sangeet Seeta Swayamvar, the first-ever play created in Marathi, by Vishnudas Bhave.
Black box theatres came to India from the West, where they had fired avant-garde ideas in performing arts in the 20th century. The Box, on Karve Nagar, is the brainchild of Pune-based theatre practitioners Pradeep Vaidya and Rupali Bhave. It used to be an industry shed and has high ceilings and vast spaces, enabling artists to create experiences unlike those in conventional auditoriums where audiences sit in rows and watch actions on a faraway stage. Here, complex human stories could unfold around the audience, who may be standing, moving or sitting, with powerful and immediate effect.
The Box was still a plain hall, with three-quarter of the work remaining, when the lockdown was announced. “We lost several lakhs in four months,” says Vaidya. He used the lockdown in writing what experience he wished to create for actors, producers, directors and audience at The Box.
“I have detailed notes on how I want an actor to feel on arriving here, entering The Box, preparing and working here. So, also about each of the would-be beneficiaries. That was a great amount of work. It kept me busy and, finally, when work resumed in June, I had no confusion while making choices,” says Vaidya.
He is an expert in creating plays in which characters play out their lives on either side of the audiences and, sometimes, where they are seated. “I feel that demystifying theatre by bringing the actions close to the audience will create a greater human experience. You will be able to hear the protagonist’s heartbeat, feel their breath and almost be a part of the scene. People will be forced to think more as things are happening in front of them instead of being framed as on a proscenium stage,” says Vaidya.
The opening play was HyperBola, performed as a dramatic reading, which revolves around a couple that has everything they could want — usually delivered in Amazon boxes — and are spending their days with nothing to look forward to. Their ennui would be lost in a regular hall but The Box presented it to a small group and recreated the intimate experience of personal stagnation.
Bhave, who works extensively with children’s theatre, among others, adds that the theatre made her think of different possibilities of using entries, exits and the mezzanine spaces. “We could have children running about and create very different content. I might want to seat the audience in a fashion that allows multiple acting areas,” she says.
When the doors are shut, The Box becomes a distinct world that is shaped by the imaginations of artists who are liberated even from the pressure of creating attractive stories to fill the seats. The Box is expected to give fillip to experimental ideas and new performance styles.
“When we are creating any theatre piece, we are always thinking of the dimensions of the stage. The limitations, thus, come from theatre. We have been facing such creative problems that have existed all through the 20 years I have worked in theatre. I have worked in black boxes in other places, when I have felt liberated as a creator. Since Pune has a talented and vibrant theatre scene, I wanted to have a black box here,” says Vaidya.
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