If the ‘Internet of Things’ has been the buzzword over the last five years, I would say the ‘Theatre of Things’ will be the next big thing in the coming decade! Well, at least, that’s the hope — a future where theatre finds meaning and presence in people’s homes and everyday lives, and not just on rare occasions and in auditoriums. Mumbai has proven that such a state is possible and I truly believe it will happen in the South, especially owing to recent developments.
Over the last few years, traditional theatre has started donning other avatars in our lives — think storytelling, stand-up comedy, improv theatre, playback, immersive theatre, corporate training, behavioural therapy and let’s not forget ‘theatre in education’.
Theatre has jaywalked into our lives and living rooms, and threatens to stay on and disrupt the way we consume performing arts in future. So here are my theories and predictions for the future of theatre in the South with its three key pillars in focus — the art form, the artistes and the audience.
THE ART FORM(ATS)
Making jokes, making art
Today, stand-up comedy is the most popular form of live theatre. One can debate if this is theatre or not — artistes claim it’s solo theatre, while critics call it a bag full of jokes and auditorium rentals get the last laugh — but the fact remains that ‘stand-up comedy’ has become the single most disruptive format to affect theatre in the last 30 years.
With over 50+ comics in South India’s metro cities and more emerging from tier-two cities, the future seems bright, especially considered that Comicstaan Tamil is soon to be launched. The next superstar of comedy is going to come from Madurai or Tuticorin, not Mumbai… just watch!
The internet of theatre
With the growing penetration of internet even in B-towns, the use of smartphone and mobile applications is only going to increase jio-graphically! Zee, Tata Sky and Cineplay, which captured live theatre and put it up online, have only gained lukewarm response. To engage the audience, this format needs to become shorter, more personal and maybe even interactive.
The Australian format of ‘10min short and sweet plays’ has created many new writers, directors, and actors who have been experimenting with innovative short-form content over the last 3-4years. Similar innovations with digital theatre is the order of the day. Artistes will have to see the digital medium not as competition but as an ally; not just to advertise live theatre but to create a new form of digital theatre. Imagine a Facebook live improv comedy show, or byte-sized sketch comedy videos available on your mobiles, or a VR-based play streamed in theatres… such innovations call for interesting collaborations too!
For long, theatre artistes have had costs as the biggest hurdle to create art, and costs are primarily about auditoriums. In Chennai and Bangalore, alternate spaces like someone’s living room, terrace or parks have been used for small cozy performances. In the future, cousins of stand-up — like improv comedy, playback theatre, immersive theatre, storytelling, etc. — will find niche followers. Audiences will opt for more personalised experiences, so artistes can feel free to add an exclusive touch like a post-show interaction.
The big show format will be reserved for ‘must see only in theatre’ experiences. Cirque’s Bazaar performing in Delhi, Disney’s Aladdin in Mumbai or Ponniyin Selvan in Chennai… these are an extravaganza because of scale or film actors
A promising path
The arts will entice more young people as a full-time career option and they will juggle the worlds of live theatre, film and digital in their work as ‘content creators’. For anyone willing to don multiple hats — they can choose from pure artiste (actor technician, writer), arts-preneur, arts-manager, teacher-actor, art therapist, etc. — the future has never looked so promising.
In 2018, a research conducted by Training Sideways across 30 corporates in India revealed storytelling to be one of the top five learning themes sought after in corporate training, vying with topics like ‘design thinking’ and sexual harassment prevention. Theatre is an essential part of summer camps organised for children in urban India, and one often opted for along with music and sports. Popular practitioners in the South, for their part, are running curriculums to share knowledge with trainers and teachers through established organisations like Ninasam, Adishakti and Ranga Shankara.
A challenging endeavour
Traditional theatre is a break-even to low profit business for a producer, and this is not likely to change in the years to come. Artistes will have to strive to be more relevant and engaging to connect to a millennial audience (who have low attention spans and love free content) — that will be the biggest challenge in the future!
Producers will have a hard time selling big shows unless they start partnering with venues or investing in spectacle shows with ‘must watch’ value! When Ranga Shankara became a venue-cum-producer a few years back in Bangalore, Phoenix Market City followed suite in Chennai.
What Aditya Birla Group has done for theatre in Mumbai needs to be replicated in the South by another arts philanthropist corporate. Most importantly, I hope for the rise of theatre-preneurs who will invest in audience development, so that they will also contribute to the sustenance of the theatre ecosystem.
Markets beyond borders
The South is gaining the reputation as an exporter of stand-up comedy to the world. Non-resident South Indians are an international market with buying power, internet connection and nostalgia in equal measure. A completely new market has emerged with Tamil stand-up acts becoming hits in the US, UK, South-East Asia and Australia, way more than just English or Hindi content.
Audience demands create markets, which in turn create opportunities for artistes to fine tune their own work to serve said market. Or, sometimes, artistes create audiences by focusing on certain segments. Like stand-up comedy has created the NRI Tamil segment, medical clowning has catered to hospital audiences and toddler theatre for new parents. So what stops us from creating theatre, across languages and formats, for senior citizens, the armed forces or single parents in the future?
The Cycle of Art
Michael Kaiser, former director, Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, came up with ‘the cycle’ — a framework for the arts. Great art, marketed very well, leading to more audience, leading to more income, invested back in creating ‘great art’ creates a cycle for the ecosystem. In the future, the world will no longer just be a stage; it will ‘also’ be a stage and we in the South will no longer be content in just featuring as a ‘special appearance’!