“In public nobody can escape from it; everyone is forced to be either spectator or performer. Some performers perform their refusal to perform. They play insignificant “little men”, or, if they are many they may play a cohort of “the silent majority”. The change-over from performer to spectator is almost instantaneous. It is also possible to be both at the same time…”
John Berger, Theatre of Indifference, written in 1975, collected in The Sense of Sight, (edited by Lloid Spencer, Vintage International, New York, 1985) p. 68-73.
We, in the name of Kankhowa, an informal group of creative people from various disciplines, are doing performances and performative activities in recent years what we deliberately termed as the Disposable Theatre. Here we got a space to speak a bit about the practice we are involved in and to re-examine the ideological premises upon what it took up a shape. In many places we tried to define and explain the Disposable Theatre in different terms. Hope here we could figure out a concise note on it without going to any particular spatial experience.
Being practitioners and researchers at a time it remained an intemperate task for us to define the term itself for multiple reasons. The very first question rises as, who am I to define it? The Disposable Theatre takes place at a juncture of a live and direct communication of the ‘spectator’ and the ‘performer’ and moreover instead of appearing as a ‘creation’ it emerges as a ‘happening’ of a particular time-space. The changeover of a spectator to a performer, or the vice-versa, is so essential to it that no one remains authorized in due course. So in this case, even if I initiated this particular event, I myself might not be credited for whatever is happening or taking place. Where the spectator is privileged over the actor’s side, the spatial experience is counted over the pre-designed text and the linearity of experience is deliberately hampered, there the power is not concentrated any more.
Secondly, for whom I am writing this piece, for an Art-Magazine, or for a Theatre-Magazine? Disposable theatre explores the scope and limitations of the interdisciplinary practices. Kankhowa, the working group of Disposable theatre, is always active in the “interfaces”. It works in the Interface of the institutional space and the larger public domain, the Interface of the public and the private, the Individual and collective, the interface of the conventional and the radical, the ‘mainstream’ and the ‘alternative’, the ‘local’ and the ‘multicultural’, and definitely in the Interface of theory and praxis/practice. Working with the interfaces we suffer from a constant shift in our works. This constant shift leads us to the pathos, agony (and ecstasy) of the performer and simultaneously to the contradictory conceptual locations of the ‘spectator’. Preventing the ‘narcissistic disorder’ of ‘the wound actor’ it offers us a mental state of Diaspora/exile, a state of restlessness due to the ‘shifting spaces’.
However, the idea of a Disposable Theatre is rooted into some discomfort with the ongoing cultural practices and on some disciplinary queries. These works reject the notion of a “product” to deliver from a creator’s side to the spectator’s side since it constitutes a give-and-take power relationship. Not an idiom but it is a language that can adopt varieties of idioms according to the circumstances. An actor of disposable theatre simply rejects to enact. S/he mostly prefers to confront, but not with an imposed ego, mannerist method-acting or masculine showmanship, but with the ordinariness and helplessness of our ‘everyday’. Disposable theatre can be done with any literary text, or without any written text. It can take place anywhere, inside an academic institution, an art gallery, a market place, a village fair, a national auditorium and so on. It happens or takes place with the presence of the spectators, with a lot of instant improvisations, and hence can be repeated neither in the same space, nor in any other space. Thus more of an act of “doing” it is a “happening”, and always site specific. Audiences are not asked to switch off their mobile phones, neither are they restricted to any definitive seat-arrangement. They are always free to move around, take a physical position, and have a perspective, from where s/he can have a look. A yawn, a hiccup or a turn-around-just-for-nothing of an “insignificant little man” makes an account in the circumstance. The performance and the circumstance turns to the text, as the performance gets over, the text is collapsed. Everything is disposed; only a memory remains, perhaps maintaining the true ephemeral nature of a live art form.
The available methods of dramatic research always privileged the creator/author/actor thus ignoring the reader/audience/spectator. If at any point we try to privilege the “conceptual spectator” it actually can dismantle so many norms at a time. Performance’s nature is ephemeral. Theatre cannot be limited to a mere literary text neither to something phenomenal. If we consider John Berger’s sense of theatre in his Theatre of Indifference or the sense of myth used by Roland Barthes, then theatre could exist in “everyday”. Theatre can emerge everyday and collapse down itself. Just unlike film and other electronic mediums theatre cannot repeat itself. Neither the literary text nor the performance as text can be duplicated. The creator-author-artist-centered modernist discourses maintained a hegemony which so far exiled the spectator from its location. Only a disposable theatre, a theatre that takes place in between the ordinary everyday and the phenomenal one, a theatre that is built up with the “body of the spectator” instead of the actor can claim itself a theatre of our times.
We started working in search of the best possible way where we can continue our zeal with performative forms in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual arena, in a conceptually as-well-as physically shifted space, and eventually the idea of the Disposable theatre turned around as a critique of the mainstream nationalist theatre.
Now let me look back to clarify the circumstances under what the Disposable Theatre, the theatre that cannot be repeated or staged twice, forms a body. In Santiniketan a theatre group Sanko took birth after Bidal Sircar’s ideologies in 1997, and with name of Samakal this group worked for near about a decade. For five years I was a part of this group and being inside I realized a sort of alienation within the form itself.
Badal Sircar’s intervention with the third theatre and attack to the proscenium-stage brought immense possibilities for us to disturb. But time is changing rapidly, a little modification of Badal Sircar is also not going to help any more. A lot of modifications, radical steps could not make me satisfied and that led me to search for another language of theatre. I am saying language of theatre in the way Sircar himself was trying to say. However, we saw recently the practice of third theatre appeared as just any other form of theatre losing its content hidden in the form. The problems behind the national theatre remained the same. So we were bound to search for some other language. Here we can make a counter discourse of Sircar’s Third Theatre, or if not so, a critical re-vision of course.
Precisely what Badal Sircar proposed in theory is he rejected the proscenium stage since:
a. Proscenium is an European structure and hence not our own.
b. It is only accessible to the economically well-being ones. Only the rich can afford the cost of doing a theatre and the rich only can buy a ticket to see it.
c. It marks distinct divisions between the performer and the spectator, causing damage to the performer-spectator communication that a live art demands.
Sircar analyzed the ritualistic practices in common, and stressed on the general characteristics of the folk performances to develop a theatre of our “own”. In that sense perhaps we can say it as a neo-revivalist effort. Thirdly he was in a search of a theatre accessible to the common, to poor, the laborer, and to the everyday. Most importantly Sircar was perhaps the foremost in India to privilege the performer-spectator-relation in a live art after Richard Schechner and Eugenio Barba.
As a promise Badal Sircar’s third theatre came down to the open air, where spectators could enjoy the play from all the sides, with a multiple perspective. Spectators were no more buried in darkness in contrast to the actors highlighted on the stage. Characters rejected costume-make-up-light-detailed props and finally strict characterization also, against the way the conventional narrative theatre did. Thus the Third Theatre achieved a nature of portability, a budget with no cost.
Now let see where we got problem with the continuing practice of the “third-theatre”. There was a performance of Pathasena’s Raktakarabi, which fortunately we enjoyed in the Bharat Ranga Mahotsava, 2009, and unfortunately we realized that the practice has departed from Sircar’s own theory. It was January 11, 2009, we went to NSD campus, bought tickets since “I had money for that”, and entered to the open air performance space through two “checking posts”. It was against Sircar’s theory. Though it was open-air by name, audience’s seat arrangement was properly defined. Actor’s space was a raised platform, spotlights were there. When the performance was on, we were buried in darkness, we were detached from ourselves, we were not seeing the neighbor audience’s face and we all were looking at one particular direction: that is the actor’s side. We were not allowed to speak, by the circumstance, neither were we able to move around from a particular space. Everything was going wrong since it made no critique of the structure.
Performance was brilliant, all the actors were matured, well rehearsed to that extent that we got no space to “take a yawn, a hiccup or a turn-around”. No physical contact, therefore, between the performer and the spectator took place, other than an aesthetic or ideological contact. A note by Rabindranath Tagore, the playwright, was pronounced at the outset as a part of the play, but it was also so-much-into-the-play that the most obvious communication of an announcement was even not there. All the physical movements, ironically, appeared to be a mere choreography.
Again, if I can afford to manage spotlights why should I reject the use of light or costume? If I am an artist, I should use those elements I need. Why should I pretend of being ‘poor’ only to show that I think about the poor people? What went wrong with Badal Sircar is, he took the “proscenium” as the central object for objection where as his critique had a larger promise.
Now let me mention why we are critical about national theatre, and how the Disposable Theatre works out. Firstly, the grandiosity and the phenomenal nature of the national theatre take us aloof from our every-days. Instead of internalizing a character from a day-to-day life, the method-actor by circumstance, copies other copies of acting available to him or her. Finally we got to see no art of acting, but some repetitive mannerisms. Secondly, it produces the “narcissist actor” in the actor’s training in the mainstream theatre. The training through its process alienates the actor from the surroundings, developing mannerisms, focusing the singularities provided by the spectacular aspect of the grandiose theatre. The actor speaks a lot of things on the stage, but he is not allowed to speak about himself, it causes a severe psychological disaster inside him. The actor remains in an endless search for a conceptual spectator to speak about the self.
Thirdly, the national theatre mostly believes that we should show our rich cultural heritage in front of the nation. In the process, due to some early modernistic tendencies, mostly the theme goes for the past, with a notion of “old is gold”, and finally the execution turns to so problematic that we only see a synthetic/artificial festival similar to the parade of 15th August or 26th January. In that national showcase everything is a product. The National Theatre still beliefs in some value structure and remains a mere tool for defining values in the society where as the recent social situation deny a centralized value structure. The Nehruvian model of developmental strategies of a nation creates an exile inside the nation itself.
The transformation of a ritual to a “performance” contains the similar phenomena with the transformation of a performance to a “theatre”. Both contain the same politics behind. When a ritual turns to a performance it shifts from its context, and when it turns to a theatre it enters into another domain of nationalistic strategies.
In Disposable theatre the performers are available on the space with their own identity and engaged to the space with the everyday habits, having a cup of tea, roaming around, marketing, seeing-speaking-walking everything turns a part of the process. It makes its mise-en-scene in the form of an installation art with the found objects in the space. The process of taking place remains more important than the play, and there is no distinct way of starting a play or concluding a play.
We need a theatre what will not turn to a product to sale or display in a mirrored-showcase. Only a one time theatre, that is not repetitive, that is built up with continuous improvisations and dialogues between the spectator and the performers can satisfy our need. That is why disposable theatre takes place like an event. It enjoys no curtain call. It expects no big hand from the audience. One cannot do it; it takes place according to particular circumstances. Yes, those particular circumstances one has to figure out.
Karengar Ligiri: Defining spaces into spaces as a part of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala's Birth centenary celebration in Rabindra Bhavana, Guwahati, 26th Oct 2003.
“Instant Improvisation” as tool to Disturb:
Instant Improvisation is the most effective tool for Kankhowa to make the Disposable Theatre in force. In a much easier understanding improvisation is a method to appropriate an object or a situation to some interpretation(s). When the been (musical-instrument) of Tejan Bai turns to the bow of Arjuna or to the Weapon of Bhima in her Pandavani performance, it is called improvisation. Improvisation is always a potential method in actor’s training where a singular object stands for multiple meaning or significance. A rope could be convincingly interpreted as a snake. A simple straight bamboo-stick can be a gun, a binocular, a stick for the policeman, a stick for rowing a boat, a flying broom-stick of the witch, a flute to play on and what not. We learnt the best of the improvisation-method from our local folk performers, street-performers rather than the institutionalized actor’s trainings.
Improvisation makes an object or an action a sign to decipher. The performer’s task is to leave some clue for the spectator to recognize. As a fact, the act of improvisation is operated with the knowledge system of the spectator. Spectator starts believing the performance and the object to be else than what it really is, and thus the act of mutual-belief denies the illusion. When someone is pointing a bamboo-stick and shouting “hands up” we do believe it to be a gun, and at the same time we know that it is mere a bamboo-stick. In improvisation no object can exist in space, it only exists in time, as the time passes, the object disappears.
Now this method of improvisation solves several problems at a time. It minimizes the props, it makes a performance portable. It is Brechtian, it solves the issues around the actor’s alienation. It provokes a performer to work with the found objects, and when someone works with the found object at a particular site, the performance tends to develop its site-specificity. Moreover, through all the process, an instant improvisation goes against the pre-structured acting method. It can help a performance to be purely ephemeral in nature.
KANKHOWA’S PHOTO STUDIO, a collaboration with Deepankar Gohain, as a part of the project City as Studio, SARAI, New Delhi, 20th Aug 2010
Here, I would like to put a comparatively minor intervention of Kankhowa through Instant improvisation. We had a collaborative short-time performance Kankhowa’s Photo Studio at SARAI, New Delhi, on 20th Aug 2010. It was initiated by Deepankar Gohain, who was a participant of the “City as Studio” project. Deepankar made a larger-than-life-sized camera and designed a series of performance which addressed issues around image capturing and reproducing and intervention of the camera as a character into our everyday lives.
Multiple activities were happening simultaneously. Manola Gayatri and Anandi were improvising some dance steps, Nayani Saikia was singing songs, Deepankar was playing guitar and Nobel Sinha was beating drums. Pari Baishya and Neha Narayan were roaming around the public brushing their teeth. Brushing teeth is a very private act of an individual of his/her interior experience. Doing it at a public gathering itself was a gesture of intervention of the private into the public opposing the intervention of the public into the private.
Now Pari and Neha sat putting on two boxes covering their heads. On each side there are multiple random images that they display as their expressions. Sometimes the images of the both match to each other sometimes do not. Each time they display an image a camera person clicks his camera with flash. The actors started flipping the pages over their face and the series of drawn expressions looked like moving expressions, almost like flipbook animations. Definitely there were a number of people clicking photographs with their digital cameras and mobile phones. Many people were sitting on the ground and enjoying the activities. When a camera person stood and started clicking, numerous voices from behind shouted, “Hey you sit down, we cannot see because of you”. The camera person said, “Wait just a minute”, but he was seemingly least bothered about the people behind him and was constantly clicking his camera. At a time when many people requested he sat down, continuing his camera work, after a while he started rolling on the ground and taking picture like a highly obsessed camera-person. The camera person was so abnormally rolling on the ground and penetrating into the performer’s arena that the audience also started capturing images of him. The camera person was an actor and clicking his camera was a mere performance, people discovered the fact quite late.
After the performance was over, someone came and apologized, “sorry I didn’t know you were a part of the performance and I was shouting”. The camera-person replied, “No, you were just doing what you were supposed to do. You were equally a part of the performance, as was I.” the decision of standing up from the audience making an obstacle, compelling the audience to shout and then rolling on the ground were improvised instantly and it caused a tremendous impact of audience participation on what was happening out there.
Thus, the actors of Disposable Theatre disturb. Through such improvisational methods they disturb the audience, they disturb the co-actors, they disturb the process of illusion-making, they disturb strategies of the elite cultural practice. Through the process of disturbing the Disposable Theatre privileges the performance over drama, the spatial experience over the literary text, the live communication over the ‘product’-ivity.