Theatre During COVID: How This Indian Theatre Company Went Global with "Digital" Culture

2020 has been a strange year for all of us.

For those involved in the arts and cultural industries, it's been even stranger. With physical venues and events cancelled for a large part of the year, it required a deliberate resetting of their artistic toolbox. With many industries adopting digital-first measures to continue surviving, the theatre and performing arts industry was no different.

Here at Kaivalya Plays, we've had the good fortune to continue working, creating art and moving forward throughout a better part of the year.

Ever since the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, we have been working consistently to move our cultural offerings to an online format. In the last 6 months alone, we conducted 30+ theatre workshops, 40+ improv workshops, 7 live performances, 3 digital theatre productions. We even conducted an entirely remote Theatre Management Fellowship (read more about our Fellows' experience here) and last week, launched a new year-long Research Project that seeks to critically evaluate safety in Indian contemporary performing arts (learn more here).

As we moved our cultural programs online, this small "Delhi-based" theatre company grew to include team members working remotely from 6 different Indian cities and now, across 3 different timezones, having reached close to 1500+ people across 10 countries with our online workshops and close to 2000+ across 14 countries with our online performances. We even received recognition for our work in the press, which allowed us to reach more audiences.

But this journey to digital wasn't as easy as it sounds. These big numbers hide the even bigger number of hours spent strategizing on Zoom, deliberating strategies and checklists on Google Chat and managing elaborate Google Calendar invites.

Here's a short glimpse of what went behind the scenes.

Coming To Terms With Digital Challenges (and Opportunities)

For us, lockdown didn't mean that our work had to stop, we just adjusted our way through the new medium and tried to make the most of it. That doesn't mean we did not face any difficulties or setbacks in our way, we just found a way around things and started making use of this opportunity.

Going online with all our offerings did not just help us in engaging and retaining our existing audience and patrons but it also made it possible for us to reach out and connect with people across India and all over the world, which we could not have achieved so easily otherwise.

"It's understandable that many are still shy of calling what we do online as "theatre", so we don't even get into that debate. We just call it the work, and we chose to keep working."

As Varoon P. Anand, the artistic director of Kaivalya Plays says "We realized during the lockdown that the internet equalized the playing field for all theatre groups. It was the groups that were willing to embrace the change that defined what this new form of performance would be. It's understandable that many are still shy of calling what we do online as "theatre", so we don't even get into that debate. We just call it the work, and we chose to keep working. The internet also allowed us to reach out to practitioners all over the world and participate in this new medium with us. During the pandemic we have worked with people from the USA, UK, Canada, Poland, Austria, Germany, Spain, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and every major city in India. There is no way we will let go of the opportunities just because physical spaces have begun to re-open"

The work Kaivalya Plays has done during the lockdown till now is a mix of various aspects of a theatre company and branches out to a number of categories.

Enter Improv Theatre; A Global Language for a Global Audience

Kaivalya Plays' artistic practice is grounded in spontaneous improvisation (aka improv theatre), lying at the intersection of short-form improvisations (for performances and workshop) and applied improvisation (with a focus on mental health, business, education, training). Naturally, this focus allowed us to move our improv offerings online quickly. The language of improv requires you to do nothing else apart from just showing up, which is what led us to engaging audiences across the globe with these simple, fun games.

  • Improv For Wellness: Kaivalya Plays's Improv For Wellness workshops, which is a series of multi-arts initiatives to explore issues related to mental health, had been going on even before the lockdown started. Initially the workshops were conducted on a monthly basis but during the lockdown we took the decision to offer those workshops on a weekly basis, as we recognized the need of providing people with a safe space in these tough and challenging times. We conducted the Improv For Wellness workshops (formerly known as Headspace as a program in collaboration with the Oddbird Theatre & Foundation) for 15 consecutive weeks. Post that we took a short break to re-evaluate our offering and re-launched the Improv For Wellness program on World Mental Health Day in October.

  • A1 & A2 Improv Theatre Workshops A1 and A2 Improv workshops are official training workshops for those who want to move ahead in the world of improv and study the methodologies and technicalities behind it. The first edition of the A1 & A2 Improv workshops were already underway before the lockdown started. Unfortunately, the in-person workshops were paused in between due to the pandemic. Those workshops were later moved to the online medium of zoom and were completed during the lockdown. Post that we also conducted the second editions of the A1 & A2 Improv workshops from August to October, where we saw a great participation from people across the globe. We are now all set to start our third edition of the A1 Improv Theatre Workshop this November.

  • Open Space - Online Improv: Kaivalya Plays started hosting an Open Space every Wednesday during the lockdown where people can just come to play improv games. This is an open room for fun and simple games, anyone can join and no prior experience of improv is required. We have completed 28 sessions of Open Space as of now with 9 national and international facilitators. We saw the participation of 700+ people in Open Space who attended the sessions from all the corners of the world. Drop by for the next session! Happens every Wednesday at 7PM IST. Sign up here.

Online Performances & Digital Collaborations

  • Hydroxychroloquimprov An online improv show proudly concocted by Mischief in Action (MIA), Nautankibaaz Improv Collective (NIC) and Kaivalya Plays with scientific precision. 10 improvisers from 3 different improv groups and from 3 different cities came together to perform a completely improvised show on zoom. Watch it here.