What Dreams May Come
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What Dreams May Come

Why theatre survives and thrives despite the advent of film and television

By Shankar Arora

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Theatre in Delhi sucks. It’s an unfortunate and harsh reality, but those of us who have spent long enough around it, know this to be an inescapable truth. With a few notable exceptions, very rarely is there ever any money (actors will often be lucky if they can cover their transportation costs), venues are ludicrously expensive, audiences are stingy and cynical and the facilities available are appallingly poor. The best directors are rarely the brightest or most talented, but are the ones who can actually raise money to get a show off the ground. Those unlucky few who decided to make a career out of theater inevitably found themselves having to move to Bombay just to make a decent living. The arty-farty types seem to manage somehow (don’t ask me how, I haven’t a clue) from the culture scene, but for us ‘commercial’ types, it’s a different story altogether.  Why then, you ask, do we do it? Pertinent question, admittedly.

A few of us, though, get genuinely lucky.  For me, I hit gold back in 2005 when just as I had reached the end of my tether with my nine-to-midnight television job, a call from my erstwhile employers brought a ray of hope. Would you be interested, they asked, in working on a collaborative theatre project with Indian actors and a British director. I would at that point have taken a job cleaning toilets, so needless to say, I said yes right away.  But I remained somewhat skeptical and the whole thing seemed far too good to be true. I would actually get paid (and paid well at that) to work on a theatre production?? It boggled the mind.

Within a couple of months, the British Council-funded A Midsummer Night’s Dream had officially begun. What followed was one of the most terrifying and yet enriching experiences of my life.  It started with a dizzying three week, 10-city audition tour of India and Sri Lanka where me met and auditioned almost 300 performers, from which we chose 23 for the final cast. This was followed by a solid six months of preparation before we met in Pondicherry for the first rehearsal.

I was pushed so far out of my comfort zone that I spent the first two weeks of rehearsals unable to sleep. A brilliant, but ever-so-slightly crazy director, Tim Supple and a cast of 23 lunatic actors and musicians from all over the subcontinent, a set made of brick, mud and wood that took six days and nights to install in venues that we would build from the ground up, and last but by no means least, a budget that would make me soil my pants every time I looked at the total. Add to that the director’s decision to have the performers perform in their native language with only about half of the dialogue in English, it was definitely not an experience for the faint of heart (or bladder).

A hop, skip and a jump (and by that I mean a four-city, month long and wildly successful tour of India) later, I found myself standing inside the Swan Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford-upon-Avon, where we were invited to perform as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival.  Unlike a few of my colleagues, I think I was far too lost or too tired to appreciate the magnitude of the occasion. There we were. A ragtag bunch of performers and crew from all over the Indian subcontinent in the home of the great bard himself.

It was a tense time for all of us, but most of all for our director, Tim Supple, for whom this was home turf. How would this audience, raised on Shakespeare, take to this weirdly exotic show in seven different languages, six of which were completely alien to them?

I was in the audience as the first show was drawing to a close, something which would become a daily ritual for me wherever we performed. As I looked around at the enthralled audience, it became abundantly clear to me that we had nothing to worry about. The show was a resounding success in every way. Audiences and critics alike loved it.  There were some spectacular reviews, including a five star review by respected theatre critic, Michael Billington in the Guardian. Over the next few years, we were invited to perform not only across England, but Italy, Australia, the US and Canada as well.  But for me, the memory that stays with me after all the years was from inside that small theatre in middle England.

It struck me then how unusual the theatre was. Logically, the advent of film and television should have killed the theatre, but yet it survives, and in some conditions it thrives.  Technology hasn’t yet, despite its best efforts, been able to replicate actually being there. Of having the character living and breathing in the same room with you. Of being able to go on a journey with the character, not as if you were there, but because you are there. It fulfills that most powerful yet elemental human desire of connecting with another human being.

As the show finished and the cast broke into the curtain call song of simple syllables and an inescapable rhythm, the audience, somewhat reluctantly at first, stood up and slowly began to clap along to the beat.  As what we had thought would be a stuffy old English audience began to sing, dance and cheer wildly with the performers, it occurred to me that this, my friend, is why we do it.

What Dreams May Come
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