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Analysis: Script For Success

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It is difficult to define ‘good theatre', which is central to the issue of pricing a live theatrical performance. There are other elements that come into play — if you will excuse the terrible pun — into the pricing matrix: the script, its relevance to the audience, the calibre of the performers, the music, effects and props, the nature of the theatre facility, the sound and light infrastructure, the theatre's location and the timing of the show.
I can relate to the dilemma faced by Ammini and her aunt Omanna. I am trying to answer the same questions they face at The Waltair Center for the Performing Arts. Is theatre somehow a ‘superior' form of entertainment and should, therefore, be priced higher? Should  theatre do all it can to bring down the cost of productions so that a wider swathe of society can enjoy it? Is there a way to package theatre so that a production becomes accessible to different audiences?

I need to answer these questions because after 25 years of being in theatre, I am finally on the cusp of my dream — we (my husband Jagdish and I) have a theatre of our own that opened its doors in early-2011. Jagriti Theatre is a 200 seater in the quiet suburb of Whitefield in Bangalore. So, Ammini and Omanna are like our twins.

For quality theatre to emerge, a repertory group is an essential accelerator: professional actors bring consistency to productions. Audiences like that. They know what to expect and are willing to pay for it. 

For a repertory theatre group to make an impact, the actors should take to theatre full time and professionalise their approach. To do this, they must earn enough from theatre. Ergo? Everyone has to raise the bar, including the  paying audience. 

From an audience (consumer) perspective, what is the right price to pay for a play? I wish we were a biscuit producing factory. I'd have the answer pat: don't change anything, just bring down the packaging size for rural consumers, so that they can afford to buy two biscuits at a time at a lower price than the 14 biscuit-pack; supersize the packaging for urban consumers with fat wallets so that they don't face the problem of going out to buy the biscuits repeatedly. And the problem of pricing is solved — a real piece of biscuit. Fortunately for biscuits, packaging does not make all that much of a difference. This is not so with theatre. Packaging plays a role in the pricing, the quality of the actors does and so does the quality of the director. 

But the bigger problem continues to be the definition of quality theatre. I have been to performances where I dozed off but the cast got a standing ovation. And I have been to performances where I was deeply moved, but I had just a dozen other people in the audience with me. And critics panned the play. Yes, even Thespis would agree, theatre is slippery and quality theatre is subjective.   

We have a repertory theatre company called the Artistes' Repertory Theatre (ART), which has 75 productions under its belt. And now ART has the platform to stage its plays with regularity at Jagriti. But a repertory group like ART needs to have full-time actors who are paid just compensation for their effort and talent. It is not possible for actors to work in a BPO by night and rehearse during the day for a month, then stage the production and make just about enough to pay for the taxi fare back home. 

Stage actors need to be paid like anybody else. They need to make enough to be able to afford a course at a drama school, hone their skills and turn acting from a passion to a profession. I must confess that a self-sufficient, independent repertory group is a dream at the moment; perhaps an even bigger one than having a theatre of our own. It certainly appears to be a more daunting dream. But its outcome will have far reaching effects on the business and quality of theatre in India.

When theatre gets professionalised, youngsters will begin to consider it as a career option. More talent will be infused into theatre. Audiences will be assured it is theatre they are consuming and not an embarrassing charade. More people will be encouraged to set up theatres in their communities because audiences will be willing to pay — and come to think of it, will have one more alternative to IPL!

What are the answers that Jagriti has for the business end of theatre? We have figured out the packaging conundrum. We are planning to package 6-7 plays in a Jagriti Season. You can buy tickets for the entire season up ahead (there, we supersized); and if you wish, you can buy tickets for a single show (well, in a manner we downsized). But, crucial to the success of the strategy is consistency. This, of course, brings us back to the concept of a repertory group that introduces consistency and makes everything else possible. Exeunt, stage left.

Arundhati Raja has over 30 years experience in theatre, and is founder and artistic director of Jagriti, a centre for performance, in Whitefield, Bangalore