Why Is Theatre Relevant Today? An Essential Exploration
By Nayantara Nayar
“like all great art, theatre is not useful, but is essential.”
A question I get asked a lot is why I write for and create theatre shows. There’s this sense that it is an art form of the past and something that’ll die out in the near future. ‘Afterall’ they say, ‘what use is theatre these days?’ My answer is that like all great art, theatre is not useful, but is essential.
It might surprise most to learn that the history of theatre is closely linked to the history of the world’s first religions. It makes sense. Anne Boggart, founder of the famous SITI Theatre Company says that theatre is the only art form that asks ‘How are we getting along?’ and ‘How can we get along better?’ Why does it ask these questions? In order to hold a mirror up for us; to show us what we are, what we have done, and what we might become. Religion at its best does something similar.
Another reason I work in the theatre is because it is live. It demands presence. Today, amidst the fear of virulent diseases, and ‘life online’, live experiences where we are in the presence of other people are crucial. Recently a friend said to me, “Isn’t digital theatre a marvel? These shows from across the world right in your homes!” While I certainly appreciate the chance to watch theatre shows I might not have seen otherwise, I don’t want a theatre in my home. I want to go out to the theatre. I want to sit amongst strangers and, for an hour or two, belong to the crowd, to the stage, to the performers.
“Good theatre then needs three things: presence, authenticity, and joy.”
Finally, I work in theatre because I love it. Unabashedly. Nothing I have seen on a screen, or read in a book has compared to the pieces of great theatre that I’ve watched. What is extraordinary though, is that these pieces of theatre have not necessarily come from great ‘institutions’ or drama schools. If I made a list of my top ten theatre shows till date (and that would be a hard list to write) I’m sure that it would be mixed: college theatre, workshop shows, and village pageants would be up there with shows produced by famous companies and moneyed theatre institutions. How does that happen? Honestly, I don’t know. If I had to make a guess, I would say it’s because the language of theatre is the language of lived experience. Good theatre then needs three things: presence, authenticity, and joy. These are not easy to bring into a show, but technically anyone could.
Having said all that, I reserve the right to change my mind. Not about whether theatre is relevant or important, but why. Theatre is about transformation: written words turn into spoken actions, actors turn into characters, a stage into a place and audiences also transform. It’s only natural then that how I think about theatre is going to change as well. It might be best to think of it as an exploration.
If you’d like to explore theatre with me, consider joining my introductory workshop, ‘Theatre 101’ with Bound. I’ll be covering the history of theatre and the basics of writing and performance through games and exercises. Check out more details about the workshop here.
Until then, stay safe, and maybe watch some (digital) theatre?
About The Author
Nayantara Nayar is a writer, researcher, and storyteller based out of Chennai. She has a background in theatre and education, documentary film, and sociology. Her practice looks at how to use playwriting and storytelling to explore larger historical time periods and socio-political issues from deeply personal perspectives. Her most recent work as a playwright is ‘The Body’ commissioned by Rage Theatre Mumbai and EnActe Theatre California. Her previous play, ‘The Lottery’, was long-listed for the Hindu Playwriting Award 2018. It was further selected to be workshopped at UnBlock 2019, conducted by Rage Theatre, Mumbai, and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. She’s currently working on a visual art+storytelling performance called ‘Limits of Change’ commissioned by the Inko Centre Chennai. Her hobbies include reading, watching too many videos of PBS Eons, and destroying her family at Scrabble.