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Losing the plot so completely

If you don’t consider the audience at all while staging a play, you’re more of a fraud for selling tickets

Gulf News

About three-quarters of the way through the performance, one that showed no sign of coming to an end, my wife stopped watching and turned to stare fixedly at me. Though she said nothing, I could almost hear: “What is this rubbish and why have you brought me to it?” She eventually turned back to the stage, but sadly, things hadn’t looked up for her in that direction. The “devised performance” was still unfolding in its obtuse way. Every time an audience member got up to leave, she’d turn again and look at me meaningfully (or was it menacingly?).

Me? I didn’t hate it. I did at the beginning, when they started to trawl up every “intense” visual cliche you can think of: Shadowy spotlights, wooden frames, badly spoken lines about destroying oneself, putting things into cardboard boxes, taking things out of them, cutting out shapes from paper, eating them and then pulling them from abdomens. I started to get very worried about how the next hour-and-a-half would go.

But after a while, I started to enjoy some of the images — especially when they started to get disturbing. I managed to get a little more involved (in spite of the wriggling and staring beside me) and found it in myself to even be slightly moved towards the end. I’m generally quite a tolerant audience-member, ready to give a piece the space it needs. I don’t believe that we should always sit back and have entertainment wash over us. I’m perfectly okay with performances that make me work — even work hard. But that in itself is not enough.

My problem with this particular piece is that it took itself so seriously. I don’t mean I needed comic interludes, but there was not one moment of lift, of magic. There were no metaphoric smiles or shrugs, or moments of self doubt, it was just calculated intensity from beginning to end. It came through merely as intensity for intensity’s sake. It seemed to say: “We need to show people the depths that reside in our souls, for we are serious theatre people who don’t have time to mess around.”

Whenever I meet people who create this stuff, I find they take themselves very seriously as well. Oh don’t take this the wrong way — I believe in passion. People who set out to do anything should be driven and focused, but the magic of theatre lies in the gaps, in the untouched and unsaid. You can’t beat everything down with a hammer and expect it to have wings. There’s also a strange disdain for text in these circles, even though everything you say on stage is important, whether with your body or your voice.

I also think that the mark of a brilliant piece — no matter how short or long, how disjointed or non-linear — is that there is some sort of arc from beginning to end. It’s easy to create non-connected episodes or images and just bash them out one after the other, but finding a journey (even if this journey is a non-journey) needs you to step out of your own importance and see things from the auditorium seats. Sadly, this is looked at as selling out in certain circles — considering an audience is to somehow be a fraud. But if you don’t consider the audience at all, you’re even more of a fraud for selling tickets, creating publicity and renting auditoriums. Pushing an audience, testing them, challenging them are all wonderful goals for the performing arts. But shrugging and saying: “We don’t need you, but we’ll deign to perform for you”, that’s just self-absorbed disrespect.

Gautam Raja is a journalist based in Bengaluru, India.