The World’s a Stage

Promenade plays are making a comeback in India,giving the audience a visual and experiential treat unmatched by proscenium performances.

Written by Dipanita Nath | New Delhi | Published: March 31, 2013 1:24:00 am

Promenade plays are making a comeback in India,giving the audience a visual and experiential treat unmatched by proscenium performances.

When a “theatre hall” is surrounded by bamboo trees,you know it’s going to be a different kind of play even if it is William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The hall has a thatched roof and no walls. Chairs are arranged in a circle around a central,brightly lit performance area. The arrangement is a well-thought-out theatrical device in this play by Tadpole Repertory and Wide Aisle. The hall represents the court of a maniacal king of Sicily and the audience,as they wait for the action to begin,do what lords would in a highly political atmosphere ― they watch one another. This isn’t the only twist in the Tale.

As the narrative moves from Sicily to the kingdom of Bohemia,the action shifts outdoors,playing out in various areas of the vast lawn where peacock calls echo in the evening air and one can spot ducks in the ponds. Promenade plays such as this have the audience walking from one location to another and the frequent changes in venue are both liberating and interactive.

“Though I have done promenade plays before,this was my first time outdoors. It seemed right for The Winter’s Tale be staged in a natural landscape where the imagination of the audience could find a parallel with the environment,” says Neel Chaudhuri,who has directed the play with Anirudh Nair. One of his impulses,he adds,came from realising how limiting a regular auditorium can get after a while,as well as how expensive. “Renting a major hall in Delhi can cost around Rs 1 lakh,” he says,“ Moreover,a standard hall offers the audience just one vantage point while a promenade piece challenges one both creatively and aesthetically.”

After the court scene in The Winter’s Tale,the audience assembles by a pond where a baby is found abandoned in a basket by a shepherd and his son. Their joy breaks the grim mood of the court and prepares the audience for the next scene ― the music and merrymaking of Bohemia ― and the next performance area ― an earthy cottage-like space at the bottom of the garden,where the seating is casual and relaxed.

The Winter’s Tale is among several promenade performances to be staged in recent months. As part of Bonjour India,Gates to India Song,a story about a former French vice-consul who falls in love with the French ambassador’s wife,was held at an unusual venue ― the house of the French Ambassador in the diplomatic hub of Chanakyapuri in Delhi. As the audience made their way from room to room,it was difficult to ignore the juxtaposition of the fictional story and the real surroundings. In December last year,final-year students of the National School of Drama (NSD) had staged Dr Jekyll and Hyde stringing together venues such as a godown and a photography laboratory on campus to create a Goth impact. In 2010,University of Hyderabad students had presented a complex retelling of another Shakespeare play,Romeo and Juliet,on the campus.

Despite its recent popularity with directors,promenade theatre in India is as old as the country’s folk theatre tradition. A famous example is the Ramlila at Ramnagar near Varanasi,where the life of Rama is enacted serially at various locations,turning the entire city into a grand open-air auditorium. Permanent and temporary structures represent locales such as Ashok Vatika,Panchavati and Lanka and audiences of several thousands walk with the larger-than-life performers from one location to another as the epic unfolds over a month.

“It’s not a new thing but in the contemporary context,directors are seeking to make plays more interactive,” says Deepan Sivaraman,assistant professor,Performing Art,School of Culture and Creative Expressions,Ambedkar University,New Delhi. In a regular auditorium,the audience is a passive participant. “In a promenade play,the audience has a partial ownership of the play. As an audience member,you have to move around,find your own vantage point,you may eat food offered to you by the actors,pick up objects,interact with the actors or engage with the action in some other way. It is a personal journey,” says Sivaraman.

Romeo and Juliet,in which he had collaborated with London-based performance designer Jane Collins and students of Hyderabad university,begins with the audience being stopped at the gate by the campus security guard. “One of the four narratives of our version involves a security guard who is like a master of keys and hence feels that he has authority over the others,” says Sivaraman. The play has the audience climbing a terrace to look down at the action below,walking down corridors,partying with Romeo and Juliet,peeping into rooms and on hearing a noise from the toilet,rushing there to find two dead bodies,and blood splattered on the floor,walls,doors and the washbasin. In a space,which is controlled yet open to possibilities,the audience feels a part of the show. Sivaraman has helped create two other plays ― Erendira and her Heartless Grandmother and the aforementioned Dr Jekyll and Hyde. In Erendira…,audience members take shots with rifles and rubber bullets at a woman strapped to a wheel and in one scene in a chapel — representing the prevalent Church practice of marrying off “sinful” women to other offenders — are handed plastic bags with pieces of raw meat. “My plays aren’t for the weak at heart,” says Sivaraman.

Actors find that the shifting space offers a different set of challenges than a static stage. Anuradha Kapur,director of NSD,says that in Dr Jekyll and Hyde,actors had to modulate their voice according to the venue. Outdoors,actors not only have to project their voices but also amplify the energy,adds Chaudhuri.

Theatre directors acknowledge that in such diverse settings,a million things can go wrong. One must account for factors such as the synergy between text and space,the possibility of an accident and answer the vital question,“How much can an audience walk?” Madhav Raman of Anagram Architects,who designed the sets for The Winter’s Tale,says,“First,we have to imagine how the audience would enter,move and what they would see,” he says. The space for the last scene was changed a few days before the opening day because,after the play,the audience would have to cross “the debris of the performance in spaces that represented Bohemia and Sicily. It would be a long and lonely walk back”. Instead,he made a tight circuit that ensured that the spirit of the play was undiluted even after the last bow.

Kapoor recalls that the NSD students “tried many rooms before we found those that could accommodate 40 people and developed a route that wouldn’t be uncomfortable,” during Dr Jekyll and Hyde. A cramped godown was converted into

Mr Hyde’s room,and characters die right at the feet of the audience,stopping many heartbeats for several minutes. The next scene has a burning figure in the lawn while the finale unfolds in a room with 17 characters sitting in front of their distorted reflections in mirrors,forcing the audience to encounter the dualism in themselves.

Kapur is bullish about the survival of promenade theatre alongside the dominating proscenium. “In one way,a promenade play is easier as you don’t have to make a set but there is also the challenge of creating a space with found objects. Imagination is more important than money.”

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