On an average, we humans spend 11 hours a day consuming technology. Technology includes – watching video, listening to audio, working on the computer, engaging with social media, video gaming, or online reading. For us, living in the 21st century, the digital space is one that we’ve come to naturally inhabit, so much so it seems strange that as theatre-makers one didn’t think much of exploring the theatricality of it, until the pandemic steered us that way. We live in an age where we can be anywhere anytime virtually – a collapse of space and time. It is the stuff of imagination; the stuff theatre is made of. So, we became curious about how we conceive of digital space vis-à-vis theatrical space.
During the pandemic, theatre-makers had to adapt to the latest available tools in order to showcase their stories. While we all witnessed countless Zoom pieces online (which one theatre director in Delhi described as a thing he hopes does not return ever), some pieces actually faced the challenge of the time head-on. We dive into three such offerings – from Chanakya Vyas, Ayesha Susan Thomas and Ben Samuels – which used the Internet and technology beyond just Zoom to create fascinating, groundbreaking work.
It’s More Than A Game
How can a simple video game urge players to think about the community and the environment they live in? Bangalore-based maker Chanakya Vyas’ work Once There Was A Lake is a virtual game, set up in a nameless neighbourhood, with limited blocks for land and water, where a single player is tasked to carefully place industries, houses, and other infrastructural utilities required by residents in the locality. All this has to be done keeping in mind the objective of reviving and preserving water bodies in a neighbourhood, and simultaneously ensuring long-lasting sustenance for the people inhabiting that land block. It’s an arduous task that invites the player to delve into the reality of urban planning and play a balancing act of configuring people, places, and resource pools so carefully that you start understanding the frustration and perspectives of an urban city planner.
For Chanakya, it was never supposed to be a digital game. “In my head, it was never supposed to be very production intensive. It had to basically be a series of cards, where 12 to 14 people could play and X number of people could watch. It had to be a pop-up event where anyone can join in as we did in a couple of trial rounds, starting with one of the lake parks.” Speaking about the genesis of the project, Chanakya mentioned, “The idea for the project started a year before we even started working on it. It started from a lake in my neighbourhood, where I found the story of how that lake was revived (thanks to a documentary made on it), which was technically not a lake in the past; it was a man-made water tank. The Lake Park is also a very interesting phenomenon to look at how they end up as an aspect of beautification.” Chanakya shares that in such cases, the water is never actually useful for the people who live by it because it becomes a recreational or a beautiful setting. He jumps in to point out that there have been studies where it has been said that the lake water is helping recharge the groundwater. That has been documented in some neighbourhoods where there is an active team of people working on water quality and conducting research (organisations such as BIOME) on what happened when there was no lake and what happens when the lake water comes in, whether the groundwater levels have gone up or gone down. “The point was that these other different communities in different neighbourhoods in Bangalore, came together to save/revive a lake,” he notes.
Speaking about how they had to adapt the game virtually during the pandemic, Chanakya said, “After the pandemic disrupted our plans to interact with audiences in a physical space, India Foundation for Arts (the grantor for the project) gave us an extension of six months to finish the project. I asked Dhruv Jani (Game Designer & founder of Studio Oleomingus) to start working on an online version of the game. Our first prototype got ready in October. Our second prototype was ready in December, and our final prototype got ready in March, which has the aspect of playing the game online and another aspect of a six-chapter audio story, which is what you actually see currently on the website.”
Chanakya also talks about how the digital version of the game is different from the physical version. “It’s like we did two projects in two years. The intent of the digital game is different from the physical version. In the physical version, what the other player in a group does is what drives the game. Digitally, since it’s a single-player game, the other player is a computer. While in the physical version, the game was about how a community would come together to solve a problem, in the digital version, it was about an individual reimagining a neighbourhood. So, in many ways, we lost that sense of a community playing as it was one person in their room critically thinking about how to solve a problem. But we wanted to keep the objectives of the two versions separate,” he shares.
But what does he have to say to the naysayers who might not consider it a theatrical play? “I was always clear that this would never be a play in the conventional sense that we are used to, or at least I’m used to in my practice. And I was very conscious about it from day one. The reason we also got the grant is because of the interactive nature of the game driving people to make decisions. The moment you would pitch it as a play, we would have to essentially make a play, which is about ecology and the environment. Of course, some plays do immense great work by talking about the environment and climate change. I felt like people in the theatre would come watch, clap, and say nice things about climate change. But through this, I wanted people to feel accountable for the choices they make in a fictional setup.”
The Amazing Adaptation of a Medical Satire
Ayesha Susan Thomas’ The Amazing Flabby-Breasted Virgin and Other Sordid Tales is a play about how the Indian medical textbooks talk about the female body. The outdated and unscientific interpretations used by the Indian medical community as well as the general public are highlighted in this sharp satirical take. Although performed digitally in 2022, the play was conceived for a physical space. Speaking about the idea of the play, Ayesha said, “The idea came from an article in Agents of Ishq by Dr. Suchitra Dalvie, who’s a Bombay-based gynaecologist and now runs Asia Safe Abortion Partnership. I started researching more into the texts after my conversation with her. As I started working on an early draft of the play, I wanted to take a step further and highlight the absurdity of the medical texts that I was reading.”
Adapting a script written for stage to an online version was a challenge in itself. “When the pandemic struck, I took a break from the script for a year. Dr. Dalvie asked me if we could create a digital version of the play. Kathasiyah, the theatre organisation we are working with, put out an open call for a technical expert regarding the adaptation of the script and that’s when the technical expert, Gaurav Singh Nijjer, came on board. The first thing Gaurav did was compile this massive list of what was happening digitally with theatre around the world before we had a discussion on what is interesting or what might or might not work,” shared Ayesha.
The question of how people can engage with content, especially content that’s a little bit academic was always going to be tricky. She said, “When the audience is at home, they have zero stakes. We’d start the show by getting everybody into a Zoom Room. Post the initial setup, which had live interaction with the audience and a pre-recorded video showcasing, we would send the audience to the website. On the website, we had three types of engagement: a text-based engagement in the form of poems, a filmed video engagement from Indian books of medicines, and finally a game where the audience would role-play as medical students and they would answer a few questions in a game show format.”
Would it have occurred to her to do this show online? “Honestly, I spent such a long time grieving the lack of a live audience,” she responded and added that as the show came up, she learned a lot. “Through our online shows, we were able to reach audiences we otherwise would never have reached. People from other countries who came and watched the show and stayed for talkbacks, some of which extended for almost two hours, post the show. A wide range of audiences, from resident/retired doctors to priests, came in to watch the show.”
Expanding the Theatrical Experience
Ben Samuels, the founder of Limbik Theatre, has produced some of the most innovative works in theatre. Always intrigued by the technical aspects of traditional theatre, from light to sound design, Ben’s work heavily fused the use of tech even before the pandemic began. Fatherland, released in 2019, involves real-time motion capture performance, projected as a virtual world live in front of a theatre audience. An audience member is invited to wear a VR headset and their point of view becomes one of the “cameras” for the piece. Ben, fitted with motion trackers, can become any character that the audience witnesses through the virtual world. Inspired by a daydream Ben had while taking care of his father, who suffers from Parkinson-induced dementia, Ben’s story shares a disconnected embodiment and disillusionment that we all feel in a contemporary world where there are multiple truths and realities.
Speaking of his interest in motion capture technology, he mentioned, “Though I’d always been interested in motion capture, I knew a little bit about it. And I always felt that as a theatre company that was grounded in physical theatre, it would be an interesting language and tool for us to explore, and probably one that wouldn’t feel too distant.” As he was conceiving the idea for Fatherland, Ben was home in California and thinking about it, and his dad who has Parkinson’s and dementia was having a nap on the sofa behind him. “I thought that that territory of Parkinson’s and dementia might be a really interesting one to try and explore through the medium of motion capture essentially because you’re taking the physical body and you’re transplanting it into a digital space,” he explained. That kind of transformation and play and ambiguity between presence and absence is something that is at the heart of both the experience of having dementia as well as at the heart of that technological form. “And when the form and the content come together, I think you’re often in a really fertile place of creativity,” Ben believes.
Speaking about the process for Fatherland, Ben said, “In the first few weeks, we found the basic mechanic of the piece – just from going in with the basic germ of a story and playing with the technology and asking the question: what can we do with this technology? His first breakthrough was what if they got people on stage and they wore the headset which projected the world. “The second breakthrough was if an audience member was wearing the headset, then they are inside that world, which means that they exist in it, which means they have a role in it. They’re not just voyeurs,” he explained. In the second phase of production, when Ben and his team decided to make it a full-length production, they mapped the story out, scene by scene, even before the text was written. For instance, in terms of digital assets, they were going to need a living room, a gas station, a desert, and so on. As the technical team was creating the assets, Ben wrote the text. “We would meet up and work on individual scenes and see what was working and what wasn’t.”
The biggest learning Ben took away from his VR-infused piece was the more quick-paced and clear you are about your idea, the better. He said, “Because iterating digital content is so time-consuming, the more you can conceive your process and your methodology in such a way that you can test your ideas quickly and cheaply, the more you’ll discover about your piece in the early stages.”
Elaborating on theatre-makers averseness to anything digital, he states, “The degree to which we are already extending our lived experience into digital realms, our own sense of ourselves and our identities into digital spaces, I feel at some level, it feels like a logical step that our art forms will reflect that journey of the human experience. It’s a separate question as to whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Theatre-makers creating work and carving out spaces that are free of any digital interference in order to reduce our dependence on it are absolutely justified in creating that kind of work and discourse. But, if you say that’s only what theatre should do, then you’re actually cutting yourself off from this whole other aspect of our contemporary lived experience, which is our relationship with all of this digital technology that is now everywhere in our lives.”
For interested folks, Ben Samuels recommends catching the latest audio drama The Dark Is Rising, adapted by Robert Macfarlane and Simon McBurney, coming in December 2022, on BBC World Service.