Let us start with me, my relationship with theatre, in general and with open theatre, in particular.
I might be digressing from the central issue when I discuss these additional and presumably “irrelevant” personal stories. I could have constructed this explanation like a theoretical manifesto or just made a compilation of various people’s experience of undergoing this process. But that doesn’t adequately answer the question of how and where, who first laid down the initial few precepts of open theatre. Under what socio-political and economic conditions did they say these things, what were their relations to their immediate environment while thinking about open theatre? I tried to structure this article to the best of my abilities, but eventually, I realized that open theatre can’t be defined under certain compartmentalized topics; rather I will try to reproduce the stream of consciousness that gave birth to them. In recounting my thoughts, I will talk about my group Bibhaban but let me question why I ventured into theatre, in the first place.
At the beginning of my tryst with theatre, I was confronted with this fundamental question, to which my answer was, out of a social responsibility to the times I exist in. Looking back into the distant past, I realize that the entire scenario (society wise) might have changed with time, but my reason still holds true. Experience makes us weary of the language we use; we tend to understand the various shades of a word and the meaning it connotes. Today, if I were to rephrase my fundamental query or the answer to it, I would think twice before talking about any social responsibility. What is my standing in the power structure, which we label as society? Back then, the logic might have been questioned but the emotion with which I uttered those words, are true to this day.
Now that we have tried to answer why and are moving onto the how, let us look into the origins of a thought process. A thought is said to be born out of a conflict, a dispute between what I see and what I can accept as the truth. When a disparity occurs between the two, an idea is born. Now the question remains, why am I thinking in the first place? What was the conflict I faced?
In 1993, I started my conscious journey as a Theatre Activist, by acting in a Proscenium play, in the Malda district of North Bengal. Some more one act plays passed in between and I eventually joined the cosmopolitan stream of Kolkata. Out of a voluntary impulse, I started my researches in theatre, worked with different groups, and spawned my own, Bibhaban. Between 1993 and 1996, I gradually started receiving recognition for my work, all the while, developing a conscience, geographically removed from my loved ones. As I started coming to terms with my existential reality, a time came when I had to deal with the dismantling of the group that I worked with. Monetary concerns brought us to a premature halt. In an urban sphere, there are generally two types of actors in progress. One who work with financially well off groups in lavish productions, and the other only gets the opportunity to take part in minimal expenditure competitions. While this dichotomy wreaked havoc on my fragile mind, I managed to witness a staging of “Michil,” (The Procession), by the group Satabdi. It changed the way I conceived the absolute rules and glories of proscenium theatre. In the meantime, I received a letter from the Alternative Theatre group to take part in a workshop(in Madhyamgram) dealing with alternative theatre methodologies. Having attended that, I resumed my theatre studies at the Rabindrabharati University. Somewhere around this time, I formed Bibhaban along with a couple of close friends, primarily to take part in One Act play competitions. We had decided never to incur debts while running a theatre group. The two staging of Bikalpa(The Alternative), which we undertook in a proscenium setting, came to a stop when we failed to meet the expenses. Eventually, the open space in front of the Sangeet Bhavan of Rabindrabharati University (Jorasanka),Kolkata, Bibhaban staged its open air theatre, “Tarpor”(The Next), on April 12th 1997. Some months down the line, we staged “Swapno” (Dream) on 15th August, 1997. Due to natural calamities, we had to hold the staging in a closed space, and that was my first brush with Intimate Space Theatre. Later, when we had done it in an open air theatre, certain equations started being questioned. I saw how the audience-actor relationship dramatically changed in the two different venues. After all, theatre thrives on the heartland of interaction. Feedback procedures are so dynamic in an intimate space, that I started toying with the idea back then. I can’t exactly define how, but I felt I saw Open Theatre being born at that point of time.
Watching Open Theatre (Mukta Natya) in progress, and the target “audience”
I started rethinking the ways in which theatre serves its objective of communicating its message to an audience. Most groups fail to question these finer sensibilities of staging a production, why do people come to watch theatres and what do they take back with them? How do you transfer emotions and ideas seamlessly into their thought processes and attune them with your message?
Every genre has its takers, whether it is proscenium or street theatre. A friend once joked that, if instead of a street theatre, I put up a trivial game show like a monkey dance (a literal translation of the term bandor naach), people will crowd to witness it. Everybody loves to be entertained and if that form of entertainment comes for free, all the better. Human beings are a crazy breed; they tend to have widely disparate likings, things which even question their moral standings. Bengalis more so, are known for their multicultural habits. Finding an audience can’t be too difficult.
However, we can’t expect the entire human race to be conscious enough to try and create an artifact which lives beyond its time and which addresses the question of greater good. Generally, we tend to accept the conditions we have been thrown into, refusing to question those tenets which are imposed by our irrational beliefs and superstitions.
Our State boasts of millions of teeming theatre groups, each with its own targeted audience. How do we then create our own space and make ourselves heard?
Who is a philosopher but a common man who confronts reality, asks questions regarding its validity and then establishes certain life guiding principles based on his experiences? If Philosophy is a way to reconcile with the incidences we encounter in a lifetime, Open Theatre is an amalgamation of this experience.
Just like every cooked food item has its recipe, similarly, theatre forms also have its own distinctive methodology. We are aware of the fact that theatre is a culmination of the various performing arts (music, dance, and acting) for a live audience. Arguably, one might surmise that theatre was born out of the need to appease the sovereign deities, and purge one’s self of his daily sins. We know that theatre evolved out of the hunting experiences of the first man, one who drew these scenes on the walls of caves.
In theatre, a person tries to channel his thoughts into a character and communicate it to a wider audience which is willing to accept these and question them before accepting. A process of mimesis is being talked about here, where we present to the audience a sequence of well accepted signifiers to drive home an idea. This is but one school of thought. On the other hand, there might be a process of theatre, where the duende happens when the audience emotionally and intellectually engages with the existence of the character in performance. In that manner, a completely new dimension of theatre and its communicative strategies open up to us. Theatre deals with living beings and living beings are not immune to changes in philosophies nor do they remain inert to change.
Society functions by transforming one person’s weakness into the other’s strengths and cohabiting for the sake of common welfare. Anthropological studies show us that when a technologically progressive nation passes through a state of political upheaval, actors on stage try to bring out the times’ reflection by refining their abilities to portray their respective characters faithfully. However, Open Theatre, tries something different. It calls forth an integration of the actor’s emotional state with reality so that he comprehends it better. Open Theatre seeks a solitary refuge away from this machine driven society, a place for man’s own thoughts.
What does one live for? He can’t survive for his own well being, the implicit rules of society always bind him into an interminable contract of give and take. We are always surrounded by social, political and economic changes which relatively determine
our life force. Every instant, I am forced to question my wants since it doesn’t depend on me alone, anymore. Advertising has ruined my ability to take a clear cut decision about my day-to-day life, leading to a suffocated sphere where man fails to develop his intellectual faculties. This is where the concept of Open Theatre had it roots.
Influences at the Germinal Stages
Stanislavski wrote his phenomenal treatise (An Actor Prepares) elaborating the key processes an actor undergoes and he stressed the importance of affective memory in it. He later revised his ideas to incorporate a method of Physical Actions, something which was furthered by Jerzy Grotowski in his seminal treatise on Para Theatre, Towards a Poor Theatre. Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty” , as enunciated in his book The Theater and its Double, remains an over arching presence on our ideologies. In India, theatrical procedures have been defined in the age old treatise called The Natyashastra, which again doesn’t talk further beyond the creation of the spectacle. We always wanted a psychological basis for the theatrical process we underwent and hence searched for a medium of enhanced public feedback response system. After dabbling in an intimate form of theatre with Swapno(Dream) in 1997,besides from our performance I started my conscious experiments with Open Theatre form since2002 with the concept “Journey” on which Bibhaban continues to build. Presently, through this research, we are now trying to develop a work, called “Approach to Silence” started in 2009. We are trying to evolve a space where we can redefine our daily existence in a more intimate manner, unaware of the presence of a removed audience. In trying to pay tribute to the work of Mr. Jerzy Grotowski, we have accommodated our own societal standings into our art.
Without you, I am not, am I?
There have been groups in the past which talked about open theatre or called themselves Open theatre groups. Unlike them, we aren’t a group, rather a concept. Here anyone and everyone can take part in the process, to develop his or her own line of action and thoughts.
We must first shed the notion of an actor-audience dichotomy existing in an open theatre space. The basic mantra/line of our work is -“Without you, I am not, am I?”
No one is an audience, no one is an actor, and everyone can be everything or nothing.
There are no fixed identities. Rather the term visitor seems more apt to describe a friend who has come to be a part of the process.
You have to free yourself from the notions of any kind of audience. You have to rethink the entire equation you have with people who come to witness you in performance.
Can you reveal a naked truth to them uninhibitedly, a truth which you hide even from your closest friends?
First of all you need a fairly large room, which is free from all kind of furniture and other cluttering. Those who will take part in it are requested to develop a common ground of thought or a common frame of reference along which they will align their respective bodies and minds. Once the common topic has been established, you are asked to analyze your experiences against it.
Once your common motif has been decided upon, you will exercise your individual artistic abilities (music, dance, art, and performance poetry) to elaborate it. You will try to accommodate the other participants into your respective spaces, allowing room for an interaction to take place, energy to flow through all members of the group.
Once everyone starts feeling comfortable with his or her own modes of expression and interaction, you will invite another new member to join in your process.
In this process of Open Theatre, you have to rethink the idea of a group. Will this be a daily affair, where the participants need to sit in every day, take part in physical or mental workshops to make themselves inhibition free? Or should you allow it to be a long standing, even a life long alliance, punctuated by momentary interludes of silence? It is in silence, that we organize ourselves to present “us” to society once again. Silence affords that necessary break, when we question the first principles.
Born in 1969 in India. Theatre director and practitioner. Studied Directing at the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata. Founded Bibhaban, an experimental theatre company in 1996 and has been directing, writing plays and leading it since. Since 2002 Samajdar is running his research project on Mukta Natya (Open Theatre), exploring the communication between a spectator and a performer, Through this research work ‘Journey’ with Open Theatre presently he is working on a project called- Approach To Silence, participated in Regular contra Regulam, research project of Teatro La Madrugada, in Brzezinka (Poland) in 2008.His research paper" in search of a new form -open theatre was" selected for a international symposium-“Language(s) of Theatre”, organized by Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and the Indian Society for Theatre Research (ISTR). in January 2009, and "Grotowski – Alongside – Around – Ahead" at the University of Kent in Canterbury(England) in June 2009.
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(This article was originally written in Bengali and later translated into English by Samik Dasgupta)
 According to the Samsad Bengali-English Dictionary, the term Bibhaban literally means the process of exciting magnanimity, sorrow, surprise, resentment, terror, love, mirth, disgust or quietism in a person.
 El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as physical/emotional response to music or dance. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive.