Performers, their practice, and their community in Pandemic

The third series of ‘Conversations’ of ‘the Vessel’ is a conversation amongst different artists who practice and teach, performance space owners. This conversation is moderated by architect Siddharth Singh who prompts a few questions regarding the practice of the artists during the 2019-2020 pandemic, the sense of community for them, and the way forward for performances during and post-pandemic times.

The practice and pandemic

All performers have their way of practicing. Every person feels and processes differently and so their response to the same situation can be and will be different. But one predominant thing that emerged through the 5 conversation episodes was that almost everyone missed the touch of another human being, the energy of life in the space of practice, jamming, and the liveness of making the art. Well, this is a common phenomenon in the pandemic and is true for all human beings, it was interesting to see how did it affect the way of practice and way of being for the performers.

Amruta Mapuskar prefers working alone or as a duo. She emphasizes that she is not just an artist but also a researcher, a teacher, and an entrepreneur and that she loves to be in these multiple roles. Each role needs a way of operation and working alone gives her the space to process the operation modes of all the roles.  For her, the pandemic gave her an undisturbed time to concentrate on her research and work. Even if her mode of work is predominantly solo or duo, her explorations happen in an ensemble. She loves to jam with a group of people. On the other hand, Dr. Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry prefers working in an ensemble. Her entire practice and performances are based on the energies of her ensemble. She cannot imagine creating a performance or jamming without her ensemble or a live audience because ensemble has been her only way of practicing and being an artist. This is very evident from her commissioned documentation project during the pandemics. They were supposed to film the performance. The filming was completed but the performance was performed for 8 people (because of covid restriction) and was filmed twice without treating it as a film but being true to the process of theatre performance.  

During the pandemic, some took a step back to slow down. Some reskilled themselves be it cooking or learning new courses online which provided them opportunities for work during the pandemic. Some shifted to teaching online. Some like Amruta Mapuskar shifted from a black box to a rooftop for performances. While some shifted from ensemble to duo or solo mode of performance. Some like Abhishek Krishnan and Dr. Eilon Morris moved to a different medium to create in collaboration. Even though artists could find a space (physical and virtual) to create and collaborate, the one common thing which everyone missed and found difficult to overcome was ‘the practice’ or ‘jamming’. For most performers, it is important to be in a group however small or big. It is in the group that they perform hence they need to explore the rhythm of the body (within one’s body), the rhythm of the ensemble (between individuals), and the rhythm of the space physically as well as in mind. They find their voice, their physical expanse, their way/patterns, etc. about themselves, others, and the environment (space around).

Performance in pandemic

Many online platforms were made available to people during the pandemic. Performers also explored those platforms for their work like others in the world. While some repelled the new format, others started exploring new ways of using it.

Amba Suhasini, Preeti Birla-Nair, and Manjari Kaul mention their realization of the need to ask different questions about the art and art form. Amba Suhasini realizes that one can no longer afford to be a purist regarding their art. She urges look at the need to reinvent storytelling. Abhishek Krishnan goes back to ask what is essential to the theatre. He identifies ‘liveness’ – the presence of people, to be one of the cores of the artform. Dr. Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry’s conversation elaborates on this point by explaining the energy exchange that happens between the performers and the live audience and how it affects the performance as it opens new dimensions for the artist.

Amruta Mapuskar and Amba Suhasini bring out the conversations about managing the economics of production, the stress of selling tickets, doing publicity, and booking an auditorium, and is minimized in the virtual performance.

Maya Krishna Rao challenges the norms of theatre practice and bias and proposes a collaboration of mediums. She urges us to look at the mediums of live and virtual not static and separate but mediums that feed the artist’s creativity for individual exploration or a collaboration of ideas. She looks at these mediums as part of the larger picture of practice. And thus, constantly changing, when necessary, from one medium to another would be a part of the artist’s process. She shatters the bias towards social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, etc, and shows us the possibility of collaboration amongst the greater community. This means a possibility of expanding one’s community even if it is an online/virtual one.  She says, ‘ Exploration can happen virtually and can extend to real-life performance – let’s not think in boxes- not treating real-life practice and virtual explorations as separate silos. But two realities feeding each other in practice and performance.’

Pandemic and space of performance

All these conversations bring about a mixed bag of approaches towards the space of performance. While most artists and place owners see a hybrid model where the performance caters to both live and virtual audiences as a way forward for performing Maya Krishna Rao’s conversation suggests further fragmentation of such space mediums. She imagines the space where artists (all-performers, designers, technical) enter a frame of mind prepared both for offline and online. A space where possibilities of various permutations of Digital Technology + human bodies +images+ sound + participatory can happen. A place that can change the way of teaching performance. And also a place of teaching or training for an artist who does not have access to the internet or finds it difficult to adapt to online mode.

While everyone talked about the peculiar nature of the space of performance that they need, I wonder how much of those would be appropriate and could be incorporated on my site!