One on one with the audience: A reflection by Raghav Seth
Raghav Seth is an actor, improviser and voice artist based in New Delhi, India. His association with Kaivalya Plays started as a cast member in our digital productions How To Disappear Completely and the Tales of Hans Christian Andersen.
Here's his reflection on his third project with Kaivalya Plays called Lifeline 99 99, an interactive one-on-one theatre performance that takes place on the phone.
Q. What is your background in theatre acting and how did you happen to join this project?
I have been doing theatre for almost as long as I can remember. I have always had the affinity for the stage but I never really saw it more than simply being on stage. When I was applying for colleges, I found a course that lets me do Theatre, English and Psychology as a triple major. It was during my time in college I realised how much I loved theatre and not simply being on stage. The process, the insights, the ethics. Just everything was so compelling.
After graduating from college, in 2019, I started looking for work in the field of theatre, and fortunately, I was able to start working on two plays. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit just a few months after I started working on them. In 2020 however, I began experimenting with online theatre and Improv. By the end of 2020, I had been a part of multiple performances online. In the month of October, I was reached out to by Kaivalya Plays to be a part of Lifeline 99 99, a play devised in the form of a phone call. I was initially sceptical but not closed-minded about my experience and I decided to be a part of their initiative, and I have not looked back ever since.
Q. When you first heard about this project, what impression did you have? What were your expectations?
I was a little sceptical but I was intrigued to see how it would turn out. There wasn’t a solid script in place when we started, so I was confused about how we were going to go about it. However, after our first few meetings, we were ensured that the script will be developed with us. My expectation was quite limited because I had never done anything like this before. The two major expectations were exposure and getting paid.
Q. What was it like in the rehearsal room? What was different about it being virtual?
The rehearsal rooms were quite fun, actually. Getting used to using Zoom has definitely helped. The difference is that it lacks that transfer of energy. Eye contact is such an important part of being in sync with other members of the cast/group. We did come up with some exercises to make up for this but it is not the same.
Q. Tell us about some of the challenges you faced during this project, perhaps some which were compounded by its one-on-one nature?
There were many obstacles that I faced. The first and most important obstacle was the lack of a solid script. Coming from a field of theatre, I am used to having a set script and that was definitely a challenge I faced during the whole process. It was being developed and re-developed with each rehearsal and it wasn’t until the final shows that we had a “set script”. The solid script was simply a framework to work within since quite a bit of the performance was improvised.
The second challenge that I faced was the accent that my character was using. My character, Murugan, was using a regional accent from the South, and due to a similar nature of the accent’s sounds, it became very tricky to get it right. I tried to maintain it throughout the process, but there were times when I kept losing the accent in the midst of improvising.
The third challenge that I faced was relating to my character (especially in the initial stages of the preparations). My character was extremely politically charged, which I am not and so understanding where he was coming from was an extremely difficult task. However, over the course of the project, we decided that the character is more driven by his dilemma in life and his character’s story, which added a lot of sense to his political stance without having the need to justify using political agendas.
The final challenge I faced was that my piece was particularly emotionally exhausting. It had a lot of psychological aspects and sympathy-driven elements where I had to draw in the audience and then talk to them heart-to-heart. It is easy to do it once but to do it 6 times over two days was extremely difficult, mainly because I want to ensure that everything I do is authentic. I tried my best to keep that part of the performance fresh, but in doing so, it was quite emotionally exhausting.
Q. How do you prepare yourself before an audience call? What do you do?
I just be with myself for some time. Take a deep breath and compose myself because I know that it is going to be a rollercoaster of a journey through the performance.
Q. How do you ground yourself after a call ends?
I take a moment to break out of the performance because it is quite a difficult ending to perform. Then I immediately join the Zoom meeting, because I like to discuss what happened and just let go of any apprehensions I had during the performance.
Q. How do you approach the world-building of your character? How has an audience's question(s) added to that?
The world-building is a very gradual process and it takes some time because the performance changes drastically from its opening moments to the middle and then, the end. The middle section is where most of the world-building happens. This is where I take a step back from the script, and talk to the audience as the character, building the character’s narrative and his story.
The story is created in such a way that there is room for curiosity and thereby getting the audience to ask questions. Questions are a good way for the audience to assess how real the performance is for them, thereby adding a lot more to the world-building from their perspective.
Q. What's different about performing on the phone than performing on the stage?
The main difference is interactivity. I am not used to interacting with the audience on stage + there is a willing suspension of disbelief. However, in my performance, because it is so personal and so deeply rooted in building an emotional connection with the audience, it leaves little or no room for willing suspension of disbelief. The closest it comes to it is after the performance, if an audience member says something like “I didn’t know how much of it was scripted and how much of it was real?”
Q. What intrigues you most about this kind of show?
Getting to interact with the audience and also the freedom to improvise on the spot depending on where the conversation is headed.
Q. Tell us about a time when you improvised / had to manage an enthusiastic audience member whilst staying true to the script?
There was a moment in a performance when we started talking about tea and everything about tea. It was simply the most wholesome interaction which lasted fairly long and in that conversation, tea was not simply tea, but a philosophy.
Q. What do you miss the most about doing a regular in-person show? Have you been able to find some of them in this virtual stage?
I think it’s the ability to move, to interact physically. Gestures do not have the same impact online as they do offline. However, I have always been an actor who loves experimenting with his voice and this was a great platform to hone that since I could ONLY use my voice.
Q. What is the creative potential of telephonic theatre in future?
I think telephonic theatre is an interesting device that people can use. However, personally, I feel the scope is very limited for simply telephonic theatre. Telephonic theatre merged with a stage performance would be extremely multi-dimensional and interesting to watch/hear.
Q. What is unique about performing to a single person as opposed to performing for a group of people?
I think streamlining the performance is what is unique about an interactive performance. While performing to a single person, it is easier to streamline performance, rather than having to cater to the needs of all the audience members.
Q. Talk about how the composition of the team adds to your performance.
First, and most importantly, support. A good team supports you and whether a performance goes well or not so great, is still there to support you.
Second, cooperation and communication. Talking to each other, learning about each other’s process and working towards the main goal, which is to perform and give it our all.
Finally, fun. It is important to have fun with it. It makes the process easier and less stressful.
I am so fortunate to be working with the team I am working with and I could not have asked for a more considerate and cooperative team.
Thank you Raghav for sharing your experience so candidly.
Lifeline 99 99 premiered for audiences in India in February 2021 with four housefull weekends and 140+ hours of one-on-one calls. The show was also selected for the Re-Connect Online Performance Festival 2021. The show is currently preparing for a second run in July 2021 for international audiences in the UK and US.