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Analysis: Business Of Theatre

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The question of building one's own theatre space with a professional repertory company is the greatest challenge for Indian theatre today. And interestingly, more and more practitioners are setting out to do this — an exciting trend, though filled with the terrible dread of sustainability. ‘Brick and mortar' is always more difficult to maintain and a great responsibility as opposed to a freewheeling gypsy existence of a travelling theatre company. The questions that the case study at hand raises are natural.
The outlook at Prithvi Theatre was to establish a professional theatre practice — by offering professional facilities to theatre groups, understanding their needs and thus enabling them to develop their own professional standards, and excel. It is this that powered its success, even if gradually. The ingredients are — theatre architecture (with the intimate thrust stage demanding a certain approach to productions and the open-air café lending comfort and ease), technical facilities (included in the rent), subsidised rentals, controlled ticket rates ensuring a wide audience and flexible timings, to name a few.

Prithvi's personality is ‘only for theatre' — no dance or music, and no films. In doing this, Prithvi's business intent is clearly spelt out. Waltair, too, must avoid the ‘multi-purpose hall' trap. It will dilute their very role. 

At Prithvi, all shows are curated — it is not just a venue up for rent. Groups apply, and according to their history, aims and production standards, dates are allocated. There are no  corporate events, ‘sold out' shows, birthday parties, etc. And yet, there are over 550 shows a year at this 200-seater auditorium, which sees over 74,000 footfalls a year. It took five years to build a community, both of performing groups and an audience, and the belief in this strange little theatre. Yet ours would be a disastrous business model. Run on inexhaustible energy and passion, its losses have been subsided mostly by sponsorship and in part by the managing trustee, Shashi Kapoor's immediate family. But then theatre is passion, not business. And passion seeks not profits.

Our methods were possible because this is Mumbai, where regular theatre groups produce a quantity of plays, and a cosmopolitan audience that is thirsty for theatre. But 33 years ago, we did not have over 40 regular performing groups in Mumbai — today, we do.

I would not say such a reality exists in Delhi, for instance. As for Vizag, Ammini has to make a beginning for a local, vibrant modern theatre to develop. Times have changed — with our lives being overwhelmed with technology and its de-humanising effects, the need for theatre and its human touch is that much more. The live experience of being actively engaged in a performance cannot be replaced by any passive electronic media.

The main challenge is to remain sensitive to the needs of theatre. Or else, we could get caught up in looking at excel sheets, branding gurus and marketing schemes. Regular programming is a great establisher of habits — and developing habits contribute to a healthy audience who feels a sense of belonging and familiarity.

Ammini and team cannot ignore quality. Modern proscenium- or auditorium-based theatre is only about 250 years old in India. This must not be confused with traditional or classical theatre, which is much older, but has very different ingredients. If she is looking for international quality in contemporary Indian theatre, she must be prepared for the long haul. We need more entrepreneurs in theatre willing to subsist on bread and butter.

Non-commercial theatre will need corporate sponsors too. In most countries, this support comes from the government; despite cuts in most arts, the significant value placed on arts in political policy structures is prominent in all countries. Since government support is absent in this case, Ammini must seek partnerships with corporates. This can be done in many innovative ways, to mutual gain. 

Eappen needs to believe that theatre does matter to society. The rest is detail which will grow on its own powered by passion.

Our happier story today is that after 33 years, even with our subsidised model of rent and reverse economics, we are finally able to subsist from the income we generate from theatre rent, café, bookshop rent and the interest from our fledgling corpus fund. Two major players in this transformation are our corpus fund and the fact that groups are confident of charging higher ticket rates, thereby paying us a higher rent. Times are changing.

Sanjna Kapoor is director of Prithvi Theatre and artistic director of Prithvi Theatre Festival