Ever since video killed the radio star, we’ve been moving towards a world that is more visual. A Facebook poast that is just text is not as popular as one with an image. And the Facebook posts with videos get even more “likes” than the picture ones. Everything about how we consume information is about how much “movement” there is in the visual. There is less focus on the actual words, and more on the pictures. The Internet, gaming, films, music videos, advertisements, hoardings, powerpoints, new channels are all screaming at us with dynamically moving images and visuals.
We have got used to the visual stimulation. Just words or voice are no longer sufficient to engage viewers. Since our world has become so dependent on rapidly moving images, our theatre stages have followed suit. In the last fortnight or so I watched four very different plays: Mule’s Foal, Shikhandi, Jannat Central, and Toxic. Each was unique and intriguing in both content and presentation, and yet they were united in their choice of physicality to further the narrative. Mule’s Foal and Shikhandi had picked very physical theatre styles, so that’s understandable, Jannat Central was about dancers so you could understand the organic leap; but Toxic was a “relationship play”. All four placed movement central to the storytelling.
The shift from “word” to “movement” has been gradually happening on our stages over the last decade. The clown versions of Shakespeare plays are probably the best metaphor for this. Shakespeare was considered “holy” and all about the word. He still remains the most performed playwright in India but there are very few productions that actually use his words. Access to Kalari and Contemporary Dance classes, have made movement accessible to actors. The accrual of these skills has naturally impacted how the stories are then told. Previously, classically trained dancers were discouraged from venturing into theatre. But people like Sanjukta Wagh have successfully broken those boundaries with very fulfilling artistic results. Another reason for this shift could be the influx of returning actors who had trained at Lecoq, LISPA, and the numerous other physical theatre schools from around the world. If the trainers are there, the training will follow suit. Physical theatre has been the recent buzzword, and suddenly there are scores of very accomplished actor training programmes. Such has been their influence, that even the newer drama schools have a larger focus on physical theatre.
Perhaps, the pendulum has shifted too far. Suddenly the words are no longer that important. We are creating plays that are visually stunning and dynamic but lacking in meaning and clarity. Words are being used only to communicate plot, and subtext, nuance or social comment is being lost. Actors are rushing through words and not investing as much time and effort in discovering how impactful a well spoken piece of dialogue can be. If the importance of the spoken word is reduced, then naturally the value of the written word is minimised. Therefore, a lot of the newer plays are slightly lazy in their dialogue construction and are, perhaps, not as poetic as plays of the past.
Maybe that’s why there are so many newer initiatives to re-introduce the importance of text. Sunil Shanbag’s Tamaasha Theatre is starting a new season of readings, as is Mahesh Dattani’s Playpen. Ramu Ramanathan’s two day playwriting workshop is spending a significant amount of time on simply reading and understanding from the masters. Even we, at QTP, have announced a weeklong intensive workshop called The Dark Art of Acting, which focuses on the understanding and playing of text.
The Text, written and spoken, is the bedrock of theatre. While Sound and Fury is appreciated, it is best enjoyed if it signifies something.
Quasar Thakore Padamsee is a Bombay-based theatre-holic. He works primarily as a theatre-director for arts management company QTP.