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.
How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found Kaivalya Plays's adaptation of Fin Kennedy's play 'How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found'. The play was performed by 10 actors, digitally during the pandemic. The story revolves around an advertising executive who starts unravelling after the death of his mother, the story explores the identity and the vanishing of it as we vanish into our own seclusion, a pertinent lesson for the times. Watch it here.
Luz Negra A digital adaptation of Álvaro Menéndez Leal, Luz Negra (Black Light) which was performed live in the Spanish language and was also the first Spanish digital production of Kaivalya Plays. This black comedy, originally published in 1962, focuses on a conversation between two severed heads in the aftermath of an execution. Watch it here.
Unravel An online improvised show performed for Improv Comedy Bangalore's 5th Anniversary during a 24 hour long online improv fest. 8 of Kaivalya Plays's best improvisers came together to marry mental wellness and improv into one wholesome show. This was a digital version of our original production Unravel commissioned by the Goethe-Institute / Max Mueller Bhavan in December 2018.
Spontaneous Shaadi An auspicious big fat improv wedding between the Kaivalya Plays and the No Script Attached families. An online interactive, improvised show performed and supported by 13 members of the 2 improv groups. Watch it here.
Tales of Hans Christian Andersen Inspired by the enchanting characters and stories of Hans Christian Andersen, 10 performers from divergent fields of performing arts comprising of theatre, dance, puppetary, music and improv gave birth to a beautiful rendition of numerous stories with their own personal touch. This production was built in collaboration with Aaron Fernandes Entertainment and Shohini Dutta / Friends of ART.
Aguebao: We also had the opportunity to present Aguebao, our new play that examines gender identity through the lens of data, in a digital format adapted for Instagram Live as part of the online Reconnect Theatre Festival. The project was originally conceived for the Gender Bender grant in July 2019 and is supported by Sandbox Collective and Goethe-Institut Bangalore. You can learn more about the project here.
Launching India's First Theatre Management Fellowship; In A Virtual Avatar
Possibly our proudest achievement, The Theatre Management Fellowship was a first-of-its-kind training initiative focused on strategic management and creative administration in the field of theatre. We received 280+ enquiries for the fellowships and 90+ thought-provoking applications out of which we curated a cohort of 5 talented individuals, who came from diverse backgrounds in theatre, arts management, literature, design and more.
The Fellowship was conducted over a period of 2.5 months and the fellows worked on an exciting range of existing and new projects. The aim of the fellowship was to enable the cohort to apply the knowledge and skills gained in the Fellowship to their own practice.
The Fellowship consisted of 15 Tech Sessions on topics like email marketing, website building, payment portals, graphic design, data management and more. It also had a curation of 13 Guest Speakers who spoke and discussed topics like theatre curation, legal and financial management, venue management, personal branding, theatre producing, touring and logistics, fundraising, archiving and more.
The 7 members of the team including 5 fellows and 2 core team members hailed from different cities in India which was a testament to the equalising power of the online space.
Learn more and sign up to be on the mailing list for the second cohort of the Fellowship here.
Digital Tools for Performing Arts Workshops
A month-long series of affordable, practical workshops on tools, software and technologies for performing arts management. Each session consisted of presentation-led training with interactive and practical exercises. The workshops offered ranged from Whatsapp Marketing, Email Marketing, Social Media Marketing to Knowledge Management, Graphic Designing, Website and Blog Management and many more. You can learn more about the series here.
Collaborations with Teams Around the World
Dubai Improv Tribe Kaivalya Plays's Artistic Director, Varoon Anand and Production Manager, Gaurav Singh were a part of an episode of Dubai Improv Tribe's podcast, Unscripted, a weekly improvised-comedy podcast. The podcast is available on various platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcast and many more.
HerMoveMeant In collaboration with HerMoveMeant, Kaivalya Plays conducted a mental health, Improv for Wellness workshop which aimed to create a safe space for participants to notice their thoughts, emotions, behaviours and capabilities.
The Improv Chronicle: We had a chance to share our journey multiple times on this monthly podcast by the UK-based improviser and performer Lloydie James. Each episode focuses on conversations on improv-related topics with humans of improvisation from across the world. Hear us in the episodes on taking care of your partner and moving improv online.
Theatre in Education: Kaivalya Plays conducted a number of workshops for both students and teachers from different schools and organizations, some of them being the St. Mary's School, The Banyan Tree, Open House and more. The workshops were conducted on topics like Storytelling, Leadership through Dance and Movement, Improv For Mental Health etc., through the medium of improv.
Improv For Language Projects: These projects focus on practicing and learning language applications for applied improv, such as:
Punjabiprov In collaboration with Laal Button, an comedy group based out of Canada, Kaivalya Plays started a series of improv workshops, celebrating the rich heritage of the Punjabi culture and diaspora with Improv theatre. Sign up for the next session here.
Improv For Hindi: Kaivalya Plays built a series of Hindi Improv sessions for students of the Hindi Language Department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.
Imperformers For graduates of our acting programmes we helped found a team of improvisers focused on the long form of improv, the Harold. The improv team, the Imperformers is now focused on creating its own long-form format; Lost In Improv Tales, and has performed 2 live digital shows in the months of September and October, including for Feisal al Qazi's legendary group Ruchika Theatre.
The Road Ahead: Cultural Events in 2021
Over the next few months, we are looking at offering our theatre training workshops in acting, direction and improvisation both as socially distanced on-site classes in Delhi as well as online classes to global audiences. With the pandemic we found an international audience for its work, collaborating with companies in the US and UK to offer special sessions. We are also planning to expand language-specific improv classes in English, Hindi, Spanish and Punjabi which celebrates the heritage of these global diasporas, as well as expanding our improv for mental wellness program which was attended by over 400 participants during the first few months of lockdown.
"We imagine the next two years to be a deeply experimental, hybrid phase for theatre-makers across the country who will need to balance the return of physical shows keeping the safety of audiences, artists and venues in mind."
For our 2021 artist calendar, we are planning socially-distanced site-specific revivals of our latest Spanish productions like Luz Negra and Un Hombre Muerto, along live improv comedy shows adapted for a socially distanced setting in prominent Delhi venues. The company also plans to continue offering workshops and sessions online, most notably its Improv for Performance workshops and a new 14-day Online Performance Making workshop for young practitioners looking to create artistic work for the online medium.
As Gaurav Singh, the General Manager at Kaivalya Plays says "We imagine the next two years to be a deeply experimental, hybrid phase for theatre-makers across the country who will need to balance the return of physical shows keeping the safety of audiences, artists and venues in mind. Kaivalya feels confident about our 10% offline, 90% online cultural calendar for the next few months. Our big priority is to make audience members feel safe about coming back into physical spaces and pushing the boundaries of online theatrical experiences."
As we get ready to move in 2021 with renewed hope (did you hear about the vaccine yet?), we will continue offering cultural experiences to our patrons, at-home or in physical venues. You can learn more and sign up for our upcoming online programs here.
P.S. We are always up for collaborating, pushing the boundaries of performing arts and taking our work to audiences around the world. If you'd like to collaborate with us for a cultural project or invite us to your institution or organization, please write to us on firstname.lastname@example.org
(Compiled with contributions from Gaurav Singh)