The bulletin board with ‘Now Showing’ written in bold letters has been removed from a usually buzzing ticket window of the Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts auditorium, situated in the heart of the bustling theatre colony in Mandi House in Delhi. The thespians who populated its galleries in the pre-corona era are now scarcely to be found.

Barring its annual breaks for renovation and maintenance, theatre spaces boast perhaps the longest uninterrupted gigs of live theatre, not just in Delhi but in show-business the country over. Programmed to the principle ‘the show must go on’, all seven days a week, and attracting hundreds of theatre-lovers every day, these spaces have come to a rare standstill as a result of the nationwide lockdown.

Around mid-March, even before the government announced the lockdown as a preventive measure for the COVID-19 pandemic, several cultural venues brought their calendars to a hasty halt.

Even without the exceptional circumstances, theatre in India generally operates as an underpaid informal economy, with actors and technicians substituting earnings from platforms such as television, film projects, or are employed full-time in other professions.

Those who eke out a living purely from theatre are likely to bear the brunt of the current closure, while others will explore their alternative means of keeping the cash registers ringing. Large performing arts centers and spaces usually have recurring fixed expenses (in terms of payroll, rent, utilities, etcetera) that incur even if the gigs are not taking place.

However, for young and amateur theatre groups, the situation remains unchanged since most groups operate as a project, wherein the revenues from the current project feed the expenses of the next one.

According to a well-known theatre critic Vikram Phukan, who made his directorial debut last year, the theatre community is based on the fundamental ethos of human gatherings and are faced with uncertainty in a world of social distancing.

“Like everything else, the world of creative arts has come to a standstill by attempts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, including strict lockdown measures imposed nationwide,” he said.

From replacing physical box offices with online-only tickets, creating socially-distanced seating plans, introducing contact-less security checks, facilitating limited movement between the viewing gallery and corridors, and finally, staggering the entry and exits of the crowd—theatres in India have to redesign the entire ecosystem.

For performers, new protocols such as sanitizing hands before scenes that involve touching each other, distanced marking to perform on stage, and referring to e-scripts might be in place, as well.

Fearing the risk that will come with performing on stage, Neel Chaudhuri, founder of the Tadpole Repertory, said, “Staging a play involves actors to be in bodily contact with each other, which performers cannot commit to, without ensuring safety for themselves and the audience.”

“Actors have worn masks for centuries, let alone for protection,” Chaudhuri added.

The past few years have witnessed a great democratization of theatre in India, with scores of alternative spaces setting up a parallel, while larger auditoriums pushed the envelopes in terms of big-ticket ventures that attracted large audiences.

Navigating in a similar uncertainty is one of independent collectives based in Delhi, Kaivalya Plays, that doubles as an improv theatre group. Gaurav Singh Nijjer, the group’s Production Manager stated, “Though human interaction and cultural exchange is paramount to the theatre, the post-COVID world will drive artists to push the boundaries of staging a drama and reimagine the conventional audience-performer relationship.”

Kaivalya Plays, along with the OddBird Theatre and Foundation, has found a new stage on Zoom and is regularly staging, rehearsing gigs, and conducting acting workshops on the platform. Venturing into the virtual space is reportedly becoming a lucrative coping mechanism.

“With the advent of the digital boom, independent theatre groups like ours feel positive and excited about prospects that the virtual theatre is offering,” Nijjer told The Citizen.

“A theatre workshop that used to happen in a physical space in Delhi is now expanding its audience base and is being attended by artists from pan-India and garnering buyers from Germany, Spain, and the UK, as well. Theatre groups often lament the lack of visibility that they have, but the online space is proving to be a great equalizer in that aspect,” he said.

As the coronavirus pandemic forces most industries to adapt to the new normal, the world of live theatre, too, is transitioning with the current times and beginning to embrace virtual spaces.

Many theatre companies, globally and in India, are showcasing their works—old and new—on social media platforms to continue engaging with their audiences. The Paris Fringe theatre festival will be streaming all its shows free of cost online. The Department of Language and Culture, Telangana Government, is also offering Telugu plays online as a part of the virtual Telangana Theatre Festival.

Cover photo: An actor wearing a character mask during a performance at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, an annual festival of the National School of Drama, that was concluded in February 2020 right before the countrywide lockdown was imposed. Credit: NSD 2020

Raghav Arora is a budding development professional working with a multilateral organization and is an ardent admirer of the visual arts, theatre, and documentaries