Virus Woes

Author: Nirvaan Nadeem

Lockdown is flustering for everyone but for someone involved with performing arts, especially acting, it is very frustrating. You may sing or dance on your own, in front of a mirror or a monitor. But an actor needs an audience, they are your mirror, your monitor. You act for them and their feedback is your source of energy. Same is the case for teaching acting. You need warm up exercises, theatre games, improvisation, interaction, then you develop a rapport with your students and they overcome their inhibitions, discover their potential. There were challenges though. Physical classes were a challenge for many, transport cost and hassle, time clash with jobs or studies. In some cases, students were coming from as far as Bahawalpur and Rawalpindi every weekend.  The possibility of having some kind of distant learning was somewhere in the remote corner of my mind.

When the lockdown struck and all social contact was declared dangerous and unlawful, we had to abandon the physical classes. The last performance, the students’ end-of-course play, did take place, but had to be livestreamed for a Facebook audience. There is no replacement for a live, lively audience, their instant response, laughter, shouts, applause, heckles and jeers. But I noticed that while a live performance is mostly less than a thousand, the live Facebook audience was many times more and many had been responding live during the performance, appreciating, commenting, remarking. That made me sit up and reflect. Can theatre be totally gagged by a mere virus, decimated by a government decree. Or should the proverbial Show, “ must go on”?

Facial expression of an actor, the contours of his body language, the throw of his voice need physical contact, bonding, how could that be virtualized? There was no guidance available in the theatre books. On the internet, all I could find was recorded lectures, theses, biographies or run-of-the-mill “master” classes. My mentors, though masters of their craft, had not been there either. The students were also wondering how they could learn the art of acting from a virtual course. Virtual performance of a theatre play was even harder to imagine. This was indeed unchartered territory.

I had never used Zoom before but this is the first time. It was not that difficult. There were handicaps but also some advantages. You could organize the participants in groups, communicate in groups or have one to one. You could even keep a tab on the late-comers. You could share screens, show videos, record the proceedings without a cameraman. I decided to go ahead and announced the online course. I was expecting 3-4 people to join, 5 would have been a welcome bonus. Something like this, the world over, had never been attempted before, and I was just grateful of (hopefully) the opportunity to do what I love. Imagine my surprise when a few hundred people applied! Admitting up to our maximum capacity, the rest were put on a waiting list. Previously I had still been relatively relaxed. I viewed it as a hit or miss proposition. Now I had to actually deliver!

What was the reason for this unexpected response, I pondered. I realized that the online course provided the students an opportunity to beat the oppressive, claustrophobic lockdown, they could get out without getting out, engage with the teachers and students, explore their acting potential from the safety of their homes, without even spending a penny on fuel or Ubers. There were still some glitches, mostly connectivity-related. The most interesting aspect of the online classes was that the students were no longer restricted to the geographically accessible radius around Lahore. There were students from Islamabad, South Punjab, Karachi, Sialkot, even Texas USA. They said they wanted to join acting (or writing) classes but could not come to Lahore for that. Now they could. Being able to reach across every corner of the country, cutting across social classes and barriers. The possibility of a person in a village in Gujarat and in DHA Lahore, sharing experiences and emotions together. The possibility of someone unable to attend a concert, art exhibition or theatre performance for numerous reasons to finally get a taste. Many in our on-ground classes were attending secretly; girls who would have never been allowed to join classes, people from the most underdeveloped areas who could never imagine Ajoka coming to them. Those from the developed parts, some perhaps lacking exposure or life experience, had the opportunity to widen their horizon. As in the rest of the world, in Pakistan too art has become an elitist luxury. How many drivers have you seen at the local concert? When was the last time you saw a maid at an art exhibition or an “English” Theatre performance? The concept of people from all over Pakistan attending a class, and of thousands later watching their live performance online was exhilarating.

The first challenge was to get introduced without even shaking hands. Even their visual images were mostly mug shots on zoom windows. Acting relies so much on human emotion, on the intangible exchange of energies and subtle understanding of facial and physical cues. How could I replicate that incomprehensible human experience across thousands of miles, across cities and countries?  I painstakingly modified modules, constructed new paradigms to fit the digital realm. I imagined ways in which people across borders could look at each other, share deeply personal stories and develop profound trust amongst one another. How to make these strangers, who have never, and probably never will, actually meet each other, open up? Could the beauty and excitement of performing live on stage be replaced by the subtlety of owning the screen. I was in for a surprise. This was the smartphone Insta generation, very familiar with chatting, sharing statuses, with wide circles of Facebook friends and Whatsapp groups. Their enthusiasm compensated for the technical issues and physical distance. Soon they became good friends and adapted to exercises and theatre games within the limits of a zoom screen.

Initially, the sessions were quite nerve-wrecking. Every exercise, every game could have gone either way. Somehow, making the large group of students, essentially  frames and pixels on a two dimensional screen, to interact with each other, to laugh, argue, discuss, feel, was a gigantic but fulfilling task. At times we forgot we were on an online video platform. As we grew more and more engaged, involved and emotionally invested, it felt like we were all physically there, together on this exciting journey of exploring the human soul. A girl from Texas acted with a boy from Gujranwala, a kid from Karachi improvised with a student from Quetta.

And then came the most difficult and hence most exciting challenge: how to work on a “virtual” theatre production, which has always been the pinnacle of our acting course. Classes, exercises were one thing but actually rehearsing and performing within the zoom confines was completely different. How to make the actors interact with each other, what about their costumes, the backdrops, their points of view, face light, sound level? Parallel to the classes, Ajoka organized a Coronologue Theatre Festival open to theatre groups and individuals. That gave us some sense of the issues one was likely to face.  Students were given scripts to work on their own and record for our evaluation. It was tedious, sometimes frustrating. But I pressed ahead.

The rehearsals involved the same levels of intensity, passion and dedication. Nerves were high on the final day, but when “Manto Online ” premiered by Live Stream on Facebook and YouTube, the live feedback was full of praise. Later on this path breaking performance even got covered by the BBC. I viewed it as the birth of “Virtual Theatre”

Indeed there was no dearth of hiccups, especially for the first online batch. I dreaded rainy days, for connections all over would stall. A few times the UPS battery went down, and I was running about, laptop in hand, rushing outside to find some light!

It was indeed exhilarating to be able to pioneer these virtual classes, and contribute to the advent of virtual, live theatre. Humans are lost without connection. That is a hard truth we have unfortunately realized through our lockdowns and isolations. We have taken human interaction for granted. Whether that connection happens over a few feet, or over thousands of miles, the human connection, and indeed artistic bonding, surpasses all boundaries.

We hope to continue with the virtual theatre courses and performances, even after the Corona beast has been overpowered or harnessed. Why deprive those who are hundreds of miles away and yet so close, why abandon this exciting experiment midway.

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