As part of the 175th anniversary celebrations of CMS College, Kottayam, there were grand plans for celebrations. The events lined up included a play by Shakespeare performed by the literature department. The professor in charge asked Kamal Krishnan to participate. Though he had no experience in theatre, he was lucky to get the lead role of King Lear. It was a five-hour play and one of the most difficult Shakespearean plays to be taken on stage, recounts Krishnan. The play was appreciated by the audience though it was in English and was well covered by all media. That was the only play done by Krishnan, until he rediscovered his love for the stage. Today, after more than 15 years in media, Krishnan also follows his passion for theatre.
Krishnan, now AVP – Response at The Times of India, has previously worked at Contract Advertising, Percept, Rediffusion, BPL Mobile, Hutch, Vodafone, Radio Mango, Mathrubhumi.
When he started working, at the back of his mind he wanted to do something in theatre and tried organising things within the offices where he worked but somehow it didn’t work. He felt that there could be people like him who tasted theatre in their school or campus and had fond memories but could not pursue due to other priorities, busy schedules as theatre needed physical presence, time and effort.
It was during the Covid lockdown that Krishnan’s passion for theatre got stoked again, when he thought of giving it a try online to see if people would be interested to learn theatre. After work, at night, he started connecting with people, learning their interests and realised that there were many passionate about theatre. People were willing to learn but could not figure out where to start, he gathered. He started adding them to a WhatsApp group named ‘My Theatre’. The intention behind the name was for everybody to see it as their own, he explains.
It helped that Krishnan had some friends from theatre and movies. Roshan Mathew, who has acted in a couple of Hindi movies, was one of those who handled the first online workshop. Film script writer and theatre artiste PR Arun and film and theatre actor Darshana Rajendran were the others who supported the early efforts. As Krishnan had no knowledge about theatre, inputs from professionals was key . The first official live Zoom meet happened on 4th September 2020. The pros conducted a session on what theatre was about and on aspects like acting. Word on the session spread. Krishnan started getting calls from a lot of people who wanted to be part of the group.
One of the workshops was organised online with a prominent theatre group, Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Art Research, based in Puducherry. Krishnan notes that it was one of the most rigorous theatre workshops. The group which conducted residency programmes went online for the first time due to the pandemic. They liked what Krishnan was doing.
The Breakthrough Moment
“That was one big breakthrough I got,” recalls Krishnan. “The moment I said Vinay Kumar KJ from Adishakthi theatre was going to take a session, I got call from all over the country, even abroad – from actors, theatre people, those professionally looking at acting, theatre and movies as a career – they all wanted to attend that workshop. Some bit of investment was there but it is all about what I could afford to do,” he adds.
At this point there were around 300 to 400 people in that group on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram from across India and abroad. Professor, John Mathew who had run theatre groups in US universities supported the cause. “I realised I have a huge resource pool to pull out things so I organised a lot of training workshops online and new people kept joining,” he explains. Abhilash, Director of The National School of Drama, was also part of the training workshops.
It was all on Zoom, so Krishnan thought of producing plays online. “We used to gather in the night, practice, so within the constraints of a zoom we started developing the play and started performing. We had to improvise, make it endearing and good; so we picked up short 10-minute plays and within the framework of a Zoom platform we tried to add a lot of creativity so that you don’t feel constrained as an actor, so even for the audience it doesn’t look boring – that’s also important,” he said.
Every two weeks they staged a play, which helped him learn creative apps like Canva and Vimeo which were used in making posters and videos for promotion on social media. Having worked in ad agencies helped in shaping how the creatives should look and know how simple the communication should be.
In Canada, one of the Malayalam radio stations was running a radio drama competition. Kavita Menon in ‘My Theatre’ group from Canada suggested that they try out. A team was formed and production was to be done online; as they were in different places, the voices were put together, and it was all mixed, they added some audio and created a Malayalam radio play. It won the ‘Best Play’ award.
Over time, a schedule evolved. On Saturdays people performed monologues. Sunday theatre was reserved for Shakespeare. Poetry and play reading was a regular feature in the group and everybody loved it.
The group was diverse and the content that it curated matched the diversity. An Iranian theatre Actor and Director, Mahana Narimani took a session on the famous poet-philosopher Rumi from her country. Pratap Suthan, who runs ad agency Bang In The Middle, spoke about advertising. Yet all of them connected to theatre in their talks.
For instance, Krishnan knew Olympian swimmer Saajan Prakash personally and got him to speak. The swimmer reflected on the things that go on in his mind when he is on that platform, seeing the swimming pool as a theatre to perform live in front of an audience.
Of the many online plays by ‘My Theatre’ on Zoom, Family 2.0 was a one directed by the theatre lover Krishnan himself. It was a 10-minute play that drew appreciation from the audience.
Krishnan adds, “I need to invest into apps to get those tools sometimes; you have to put in some money. I’ve invested from my personal account, I’ve never collected any single money as a remuneration on this at all. Eighty percent of the people are well-to-do and they always offered to fund it but I said no, if I take money from you then I will be obliged. As of now it’s my passion. I don’t know how long I can continue that.”
Krishnan always wanted to pursue this as a passion and not in place of his job, which he underlines is important to him.
“Everybody is always willing to support without any returns; just for the love of theatre. I never saw it as a revenue model at all. It was more about keeping a diversified group together,” he remarks.
After the Break
Currently, the online theatre has been paused for two months due to work pressures and attendant lack of time. Admittedly, the fatigue of online has set in. But everybody is still in the group and it remains a good referral avenue for any kind of requirement. Some of it has – not surprisingly – to do with theatre.
People who met through this group are now teaming up and making productions, creating movies, plays. It also happens to be a platform where people connected from various parts of the world, reminds its founder. It helped reignite the passion for theatre in people.
“Praseed Prasad, from IBM, Bangalore is now part of one of those productions and he called and said, ‘You actually got me back. It’s (been) 20 to 30 years since I had left this passion but ‘My theatre’ got me reignited about this. Now a part of this professional production; I do my work and I’m also on stage now’,” Krishnan recalls fondly.
Incidentally, Praseed was introduced to the group by ex-GroupM & current Executive Director of Asianet, Kishan Kumar who is also an active member of ‘My Theatre’.
On future plans, he says, “I also want to reconfigure the whole thing and have plans to go offline. When the pandemic opened I travelled to Trivandrum and Cochin. We had around 30 to 40 people whom I have interacted with but never met, they all travelled and came. There is a huge demand to do offline in Bombay and Bangalore. When I get some time to work around that I’m thinking of how a hybrid thing like both online and offline can come together. There is a lot of support available. Taking it a little easy now but will surely come back with a bang.”
He also credits his family for their support. While during Covid evening time was by default family time for most, his family allowed him the space. His wife, Tessa would have in fact joined ‘My Theatre’ as she was a part of theatre during her college days. In fact, that’s how they met, connected as good friends and are now partners forever. While she used to listen to all that was happening, she never wanted to be actively involved because of the other constraints at home, says a grateful Krishnan. She played her part, albeit silently.