They all watched the couple fight – noticed their tense body language, the clanging of utensils. They watched from the windows and the kitchen door; some sipped tea made by the woman as part of the act. When the couple finally called a truce, the group walked out into the garden of The Company Theatre’s (TCT) 5-acre Kamshet residency and sat down by a lake.
There was no stage, no chairs, no curtain calls and no spoken words at the first performance by TCT after the six-month pandemic-prompted break. Instead, the event featured nine acts and a socially distanced audience that could also choose to participate — by sipping tea, helping plant a tree, walking into the lake, depending on what the scene demanded.
Where Have All The Woods Come From, first performed on September 22 (there are 10 more performances scheduled in Kamshet by the end of November) was an immersive two-and-a-half-hour performance, and an exercise in how restrictions could spark innovation in the performing arts.
“The performance represented the different states that humans, especially artists, were inhabiting in the nation — amid CAA, extended restrictions in Kashmir. The lockdown was the last nail in the coffin. There was anger, frustration, depression. It was all very dark. We meander around those states without any spoken word,” says artistic director Atul Kumar.
So, there are beds, shrouds, everyday banalities turned into community dance, a violent and aggressive cutting of a fish/flesh with a butcher’s knife as a Kathak dancer performs alone on a stage far away; there are clowns, people waiting for something to happen, something that never does. There is friction and co-existence at the same time.
The format was also a response, Kumar says, to being in the midst of other human beings after months of isolation. “Stepping out, interacting with others was overwhelming, it felt like we were all under a spell,” Kumar says.
Pune filmmaker Anupam Barve, 36, who was in the audience, described the experience as fascinating, “once I loosened up”. Coming from a traditional Marathi theatre background, this kind of performative experience was new. “I had my reservations initially,” he says.
But as the play progressed and audience members read poems and essays and listened to music and planted saplings, let go of their umbrellas and enjoyed the rain, “I had completely submitted to the performance,” he adds.
Is this the future of theatre then — immersive, interactive, minimalist? “Theatre has survived wars and epidemics and economic meltdown for thousands of years and so it will now too,” says Kumar. “What forms it will emerge in post-Covid is anyone’s guess. But I am excited to see what theatre will talk about, whether it will be more internal, more collaborative, more tolerant.”
The performers each took something else away from the experience. “To be part of something that goes beyond the spoken word, that unites you with yourself and nature… that’s something all of us need now more than ever,” says Bharti Perwani, one of the nine performers.
Up next for The Company Theatre is a ‘performance website’, a digital and collaborative theatre format. “It’s a sort of online museum where you can enter different rooms to experience different parts of the show,” says Kumar. “The control stays with the audience as they make choices to do this or that.”