Is Theatre a Sport?

Title: Performing, Teaching and Writing Theatre: Exploring Play

Author: Sanjay Kumar

Publisher: Cambridge Scholar’s Publishing


The ludic journey has taken us playing through performing, studying, researching, teaching, and writing theatre. It is a specific, experience-based journey, but it has a vastness and a depth that is just about beginning to reveal itself. The one thing that is clear is that creating theatre is an exercise in seeking an alternate way of life, constantly activist and constantly developmental.

Challenging the hegemonic crust, showing it to be the veneer that it is, theatre is the voice of all the diversity that lies beneath. Inimical to the state, in its purer, stronger, manifestations it questions all forms of authority, and beyond that, exposes the fallacies that constitute the very framing of authority. It is the reply to authoritarianism, and at best, often the only means to express the perspective of the unheard. It leads from the front against oppression and repression and becomes a vehicle for the two rudimentary rights of all thinking beings, the right to say ‘no’ and the right to question ‘why’. Hated by religious bigots, theatre is against the orthodox and the patriarchal, and also against the ossification of the radical, showing progress to be a verb in progress rather than an arrived noun. It is a performance that constantly seeks to outperform the deals dealt out to it.

A form existing as text, theory, and praxis from times immemorial, theatre integrally ties in with the histories of its times. Wallowing in many such oxymorons, theatre is historical in being located in its specific history and has a trans-historical dimension in being the perennial naysayer. And as the world sinks to newer levels of fascist authoritarianism, and detentions, arrests and persecutions abound, theatre reverts to metonymies, fantasies, dystopias and historical allegories to keep the fight going. All kinds of decadence are its target, from the toxic masculine to the religious bigot to capitalist power, theatre can, and does, oppose them all. Its biggest enemy remains the fascist, authoritarian, capitalist state in all its avatars, and it is possibly the best weapon against it.

The provisional aspect of its outcomes makes it capable of dealing with the ossified layers of its world and seeking alternate questions and meanings, continuing to show that the meanings that are rooted in hegemonic formations erode in time. An incomplete and malleable form, its multilayerity gives it the flexibility to explore diverse facets of the same reality.

The capitalist and the fascist seek to keep us entrapped in cocoons. Theatre, however, links people, it is a reaching out, and its transboundary aspect makes it possible for it to acquire an international dimension and combat the internationalism of the market. The history of theatre evidences its relative insularity to the forces of capitalism. After a capitalist takeover of our world, clearly since the 19th century in the west, and then in India, all over the world there exist traditions of theatre that prioritize working in the margins, and acquire a razor edge in showing the political through the prism of the peripheral. Critiquing the money-oriented world is where realism began, and the kind of distancing that left-wing theatre creates from this orientation takes the critique much further.

In our world, proscenium theatre can serve as a point of intersection between dominant processes and dominant policy making on the one hand, and the needs of the margins on the other. The pandies’ experience shows this across the class and gender divides, and in undermining notions of dominance and supremacism. Its strength lies in creating mutually performative playful zones where the audience goes along with the performing unit and sees through its own blindness to realize how easy it is to pass a lie as truth and vice versa. The creation of a developmental zone of shared ideology between the unit and the audience is the key to successful proscenium theatre. The challenge of theatre becomes to outperform and reach out to the class and power other. In its taking on of hegemony, it has the potential to be confrontationist. The challenge to regression can be outright or with subterfuge, as seen in the use of Manto by pandies’. Negotiating with those in power, the proscenium is also the space to impact the young privileged, to impact enough to use better, more inclusive paths, enabling us to make better decisions for the future. It is the perfect site for advocacy — social, medical, and even legislative. Its effectivity gains manifold if the performing unit makes a conscious effort to overcome, or at least mitigate, the class barrier, to get underprivileged voices in. This enables the margins to better penetrate hegemonic structures and provide leads to better courses of development.

With workshop-based theatre, we move into a zone that is probably most conducive to alternate formulations of amelioration and development. It opens the doors between the mainstream and its margins and enables those stories to come in, and it’s no longer a diseased margin that needs cure but a vital, throbbing entity with its own claims to be heard and developed on its own terms. This is the real site of out-performing, setting the problems and getting possible processes for solutions. The age-old problem is reframed in bold frieze – can those sitting in positions of power redress the problems of the disempowered? Can they even identify the problems holistically? On the margins, it gives the space to voice its position about its problems and judge back the power structures that profile it. One needs to give in to alterity, to at least a feeling that some of our fundamentally held beliefs can be wrong, or at the very least not pertaining to those away from the mainstream.

When we look at the workshops with the youth in Nithari, and with the platform boys, the certitudes of dominant classes get irrevocably displaced. The participants perform in all senses of the verb. And via proscenium theatre, these voices penetrate the mainstream. They raise new questions and review old problems. Co-ordinates of family, religion, and a good life do not hold any certitude for those in the margins. It stands bare that the system’s ameliorative processes are for the dominant only, and those in the margins continue to be used and exploited. And there is the special relationship between the facilitator and the participants that forms the core of understanding needs and moving towards possible methodologies of development.

Theatre assumes penetrative insights as one creates with communities in zones of conflict and war. Its potential in zones of war, not simply of usual peace processes but of understanding the conflict and seeking solutions from the engaged parties together is still untapped, as shown by the Kashmir experiences. The pioneer process showed possibilities in theatre, at par with workshopping at Nithari and with platform children. In zones of war, its characteristics become stronger and more capable, the defiance of an authoritative perspective, of not taking of one discourse as the final statement, the fluidity of negotiating binaries becomes a mode of understanding and bringing opposite positions closer. Again, voices that are totally removed in times of war, those of women and children, come to the fore and add perspectives to what is felt, and what is required. The process of theatre repeatedly showed that beneath the veneer of hegemonic dominant voices the suppressed voices wanted a cessation, of war, of conflict, of misery, of one and all. The incompleteness of theatre matches the incompleteness of the process, the bumps, the changes, the veering possibilities. Penetrating the chest-thumping veneer, it seeks out the vulnerability and takes us often, as elsewhere, into desire and imagination, the two sources capable of taking on most conflicts. Suspicion and hatred slowly give way to older traditions of love and togetherness. And there is potential for turning any, even loose, agenda on its head, as the workshop with the Sopore pelters showed. There is a kind of immediacy to the process. The form dips so much into the participants’ collective thought process and depends so much on what emerges from there, that it is this collectivity that at that moment forms the narrative.

All political formations seek to prescribe or proscribe theatre, and theatre exists in subversion, subterfuge, and open rebellion. Closer to our understanding of historical processes, theatre’s role has been more caustic as nations veer towards a right-swinging, fascist combination of patriarchy, religion, and capitalism, theatre has had to bite in hard. The proscenium theatre has played, and continues to play, its vital role, but it’s really theatre that emanates from various communities and underserved social formations that the more disturbing and relevant modes of theatre emerge. Arousing our critical faculties theatre goes places. The whole holistic mythos of the bourgeois success narrative from school to profession; the bigotry of all religions; legal, medical and social interventions — all are under its purview. And creating unique developmental zones in our societies it nudges to outperform ourselves, look beyond the decadent ideological frames of the worlds we inhabit, and seek out, or rather make, newer, better worlds.

About the Book:

Drawing on the writer’s experience of three and a half decades of performing, teaching and writing theatre, this book explores the performance practice of a theatre group (pandies’ theatre, Delhi) by placing this practice in a frame of international activist theatre movements. The teaching aspect provides a historical backdrop and the writing of plays adds depth and sharpens the political position. It identifies theatre as a force for changing society across the centuries and beyond national borders. The book examines a large variety of theatrical experiences, including well-known forms of proscenium, workshop and street theatre.

About the Author:

Sanjay Kumar has been part of the International Residency Programme at the Rockefeller Centre, Bellagio, Italy and an alum of the prestigious, US Government’s IVLP (International Visitors Leadership Program) and is the recipient of Delhi University’s (Vice Chancellor’s) Distinguished Teacher Award in 2009.


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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