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Diving Deep Into The World of Theatre, Management (And Everything In The Middle)

The Strange Summer of 2020

When I first found out about the Theatre Management Fellowship by Kaivalya Plays, I was ecstatic at the mere fact that there was this opportunity that catered to training people in arts administration exclusively. I had lost my job to the pandemic, was just about wrapping my head around the ‘new normal’ and was quite anxious about the immediate future when the fellowship came along. I was also quite inquisitive because my only tryst with Kaivalya Plays up until that point had been watching their performance of Aguebao for Gender Bender 2019 in Bangalore, which I thought was an under-rehearsed execution of a rather brilliant idea. However, they made a very lasting second impression with the entire fellowship application process, their website and the exhaustive information that was made available to everybody interested. The questions that needed long-form answering as part of the application, really made me think hard, forcing me to imagine the realities of the post COVID world: what exactly I would do differently to put together a production post the pandemic, for example. And that is what further convinced me of the value of the fellowship and the credibility of its organisers.

The acceptance email I received as part of the Theatre Management Fellowship

I come with the experience of having independently managed theatre productions, tours & festivals for about an year and a half, and having managed events for an arts and culture venue for an year. As was clearly described in the agenda of the fellowship, my expectations from the fellowship were solid up-skilling and being able to envision a long-term path in the career of arts administration with special focus on theatre management. I was thrilled to get shortlisted and get called in for an interview. Varoon, the Artistic Director, and Gaurav, the Production Manager, were absolute professionals, made me feel extremely comfortable, with a fair bit of intimidation. I left the interview feeling great about myself and knowing for a fact that I wanted to learn from and work with these guys, fellowship or not. I also knew I had plenty to learn from the word go, as was evident from the selection email (see pic below) which came in shortly after, with a tentative calendar for the *whole* duration of the fellowship, complete with marked slots for collaborations that the fellows would be entrusted with pursuing once aboard. The importance of meticulous planning, clear communication and timely execution was very evident through the entire orientation and onboarding process for the fellowship. This level of professionalism in the theatre industry was quite precedental and aspirational.

The A to Z of Theatre Management

The following ten weeks were a crash course in digital skills, people skills & operational skills. When we started out, the format of the fellowship included:

One weekly team meeting to take stock of the week gone by and to lay out an agenda for the upcoming week - this seemed easy and simple but I did not realise how daunting and effective it can be to vocalise your weekly goals & accomplishments or a lack thereof in front of the entire team, week on week. Having the most supportive set of co-fellows made this extreme sport a lot less stressful.

The 5 Theatre Management Fellows (Olympic Medal Courtesy: Stuti Kanoongo)

One weekly tech session for specific digital upskilling - this is where I learnt the various inbuilt hacks of google sheets, how to build a website, how to navigate through the different payment portals, how to efficiently document data for easy accessibility, how to run a mass email campaign etc. We called it the Tools Bootcamp aka #GyanbyGaurav. These sessions also served as practice gigs for Gaurav’s very promising Youtube career.

Some of the digital tools for cultural management I used during the Fellowship

One weekly guest speaker session by a practitioner having expertise in different theatre management related areas - curation, production, festivals, tours, finance, safety, law, artist management, self management, corporate gigs, international collaborations, logistics, fundraising, archiving, venue management etc. And there was an equally long list of speakers we could not bring on board due to paucity of time. It was so heartening to see the willingness of all the speakers to share and engage with us. It also worked as a brilliant networking opportunity for the fellows as well as for Kaivalya. I had a bunch of favourites. The most unexpected one was with Mr. Atul Satya Kaushik. I wasn’t prepared for all the truth bombs and the very real and raw wisdom that he very generously offered. The one with Yuki Ellias was the most moving one, hands down. She instilled hope and confidence in me as a ‘young woman’ in theatre. Speaking to Menaka Rodriguez was eye opening, not just in terms of fundraising but also about just how passionate one can be about their work. It was inspirational. Vivek Rao taught me more than a thing or two about being meticulous, forthcoming and kind in this business. I was thrilled to close the series with Adv. Niranjan Kaur and Adv. Rishabh Sharma as it reaffirmed my faith in my legal education and left me feeling empowered to not only take care of myself but also my community.

Apart from these, there were several smaller project-based meetings almost everyday. The highlight of the communication blizzard that was our google chat forum and zoom meeting schedule board, was this dedicated chat room called #random. This often acted as the much needed respite for the bunch of workaholics that all of us were.

A glimpse of messages on Google Chat, the collaboration tool we used during the Fellowship

One of the most precious things I discovered during the fellowship was the relationship between Varoon and Gaurav:

And honestly, I think, Varoon and Gaurav as people in general:

This fellowship also gave me complete freedom to celebrate the smaller things in life. Notwithstanding Gaurav’s attempt of making a project out of that too.

Managing Cultural Projects Independently; Yikes!

Alongside all of this, Kaivalya had over a dozen different ongoing projects for us to choose from. For a company that was being run by just two people up until that point, the line up was almost unbelievable. I picked the two closest to my heart - Headspace (Applied Improv for Mental Wellness) and the Safety Vertical of the organisation:

Headspace, an applied improv for mental health program, before it was moved to an online format in early 2020

Headspace was a weekly online session facilitated by Varoon in collaboration with Oddbird Theatre & Foundation around the idea of therapeutic effects of improv practice. It intrigued me for two reasons: one, this was my very first experience with improv of any kind, even more so with the claim that it had therapeutic effects with prolonged practice; and two, I wanted to see how a subject like mental wellness was being handled in a programme where neither the facilitator nor the collaborator were trained mental health professionals, yet were able to provide value for the attendees. What stood out for me was the emphasis on some very basic and important safety practices that were explained to the attendees at the beginning of every session to ensure that they do not hesitate in exercising their agency whenever and wherever need be. My apprehensions were largely taken care of by sheer self awareness and absolute willingness to reevaluate all systems in place regularly. This is something that became a core value of the company - we revaluated our meeting formats & schedules, set up measures to control screen time, set a night curfew for work messages, set up new communication language halfway through the fellowship and tried to remind ourselves of the bigger picture as often as we could.

For example:

Managing the property of Headspace obviously came with the logistical upkeep of it as well, in terms of ensuring the event goes live on time, is shared in the right forums at the right time, being mindful of different time zones, answering queries, moderating the room during sessions, following up with the attendees post the session, etc. I also witnessed the very crucial juncture of this property where it completed an year of successfully running its course, leading us all back to our drawing boards to brainstorm the upgrade. The tools used to effectively capture ideas that were being brainstormed plus moderating the brainstorming in a way that all the high flying thinking culminates in some concrete actionables, along with managing the different collaborative energies in the room, made for a perfect package of the digital, operational and people skills training all rolled into one.

The Safety Vertical of the organization was built to start a conversation around the safety of theatre practitioners in different spaces and situations. It was a result of some of Kaivalya’s personal experiences that prompted an intervention by a drama therapist who helped them establish some safety practices and systems that helped them tremendously. This vertical included a two-fold plan: one, was to conduct research on the subject of safety (physical, mental, legal, financial) in theatre and come up with a set of guidelines that can prompt and help theatre practitioners to start safety conversations of their own and develop customized safety practices for their group/ project/ institution; and two, to consult and workshop with organisations (both theatre and non-theatre) that are looking for help with understanding and practicing safety within their teams. In furtherance of the first agenda, I got to co-draft a proposal for a prestigious grant and appear for an interview alongside Varoon and Gaurav for another prestigious grant - two experiences I am personally very grateful for. In furtherance of the second agenda, we engaged in thorough brainstorming, documenting, rebuilding to come up with viable modules, revenue models, timelines & communication language to get the ball rolling. My investment in both these projects is such that it is highly likely that I am going to continue being involved in an independent capacity till I see them through to some form of fruition.

Looking Back At My Time As A Fellow

This fellowship has taught me a lot of things that I can now confidently put on my CV but most importantly, it has helped me regain my sense of self confidence and ownership over the value I can offer and the things I feel strongly for. Like one of my co-fellows said during our farewell party, a team is as good as the people in it - and this fellowship gave me a cohort of 6 of the quirkiest, smartest, funniest and hardest working bunch of people, 3 of whom I haven’t even seen in person, thanks to the pandemic. I can see this network growing stronger with time and bleeding further into the community. I can only hope that the theatre community, Kaivalya Plays and all of our individual careers duly benefit from the 10 week long madness, that was this fellowship.

Interested in learning more about the Theatre Management Fellowship by Kaivalya Plays? The next cohort will begin in December 2021. Learn more and sign up for updates here.

Bonus screenshot: Just another one of our highly stimulating and riveting post-midnight conversations.


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