Tuesday, June 13, 2017

'The Garage Show': A manifesto against conventional theatre

At its most basic level, the theatre is rooted in what can be expressed and projected. The notion that it belongs to a packed, air-conditioned hall with audiences kept comfortably seated, therefore, can’t really be vital. Far from allowing scope and liberating productions, these venues seem to have constrained them formally, forcing the same plotline to be worked out again and again. Personally, therefore, I see nothing wrong in getting away from the proscenium. For that matter, there’s nothing to be lost by it either. The truth is that the theatre is more, much more, than the hall.

Last year a group of actors, writers, and directors got together over an idea. That idea congealed into a concept. IdeaCouch. The concept, in a very pithy sense, was derived from the belief that stage productions needed to be liberated from the stage. But IdeaCouch was a performance company. It had a wide range of ideas, some of which were workable while others were not. One of those ideas which did work, and which continue to date, is the subject of my article. The Garage Show. The company has so far given us three Garage Shows. A fourth is yet to come.

But what exactly is The Garage Show? Does it operate in some underground garage? Not really. Put very simply, it is a series of plays that aren’t really plays. They are skits. Skits which work out into a collage. And a collage that forms up a theme. The first such Show was about Labour Day. The second was about getting married. The third was about celebrating the season (staged in December). What separates all three from the fourth, to be unveiled this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at No 12, Grenier Road, Colombo 8, is that they were all seasonal. The Garage Show About Living on Garbage, by contrast, is based on an issue, one which has escaped our playwrights.

To talk about what The Garage Show is means dwelling on what it is not. It’s not constrained. It’s not epic. It’s not inhibited or empowered by the amenities of a hall. It’s for the most devised, which means that, despite the fact that there is a script, and more than one script, it’s rooted in ideas as opposed to preconceived plotlines. It doesn’t just encourage one to imagine and fill in the blanks, moreover: it forces one to be part of the performance, since all its shows have been “staged” in houses where spectators get to see a skit from different angles. There is no single, exact “slant” to a Garage Show, in other words. One sees, one infers, and one leaves.

Susan Sontag once observed that the best modern plays were devoted to raking up private, rather than public, hells. This is true of Strindberg, Shaw, Pirandello, Miller, and Ionesco. This is also true of devised theatre. The Garage Show is no different. In skit after skit, performance after performance, I have been lifted, empowered, chastened, disillusioned, humbled, and even annoyed by those private hells their producers rake up for us. But they aren’t private through and through. They don’t devote all their energy to their own workings. They obtrude on the audience, to make them understand the wider relevance of what they’re trying to get at. They subsume the public in the personal, in other words. And they succeed.

The process which those producers follow, therefore, is time-consuming, meticulous, painstaking. They first decide on a theme. Then they move on to a phrase to get away from the inhibitions of limiting that theme to a word. That is how we get The Garage Show About Celebrating This Season as opposed to About Christmas, and The Garage Show About Getting Married as opposed to About Weddings. The cast, usually numbering up to 10 or 12, are invited, never pre-selected: you see fresh faces cropping up in every show. What follows is a brainstorming session that can last for days, even weeks. Ideas come up, are accepted, rejected, or reworked, and a set of skits are fleshed out to ensure that they congeal into their theme and phrase.

In the end, they become deceptively self-worked, deceptively straightforward. Because they thrive on scripts and scriptwriters, they aren’t the former. Because the themes they engender are much more than what is implied in their titles, they aren’t the latter. For that reason, you won’t see the kind of slipshod vérité you come across in the movies, plays, and paintings of avant-garde artistes. Unlike the cinema of Cassavetes and Warhol and the theatre of Allan Kaprow, these are tempered by a sense of discipline which is formally liberating. Consequently, you get the best of both worlds: an unconstrained, devised work of art which isn’t cut off from the audience.

Which brings me to what liberates them in the first place. The English theatre, more so than the Sinhala theatre, is professional insofar as the dedication of its coterie and players, producers, and writers is concerned. Beyond that, it is limited by certain factors, including the cost of the venue. These are necessary evils, and to get a production to an audience one must endure them, but more often than not they prevent the playwright from, for instance, paying his or her cast and crew. The Garage Show, and IdeaCouch in general, doesn’t operate like that. It pays those who are involved in it and ensures that those aforementioned factors are dispensed with.

How so, exactly? By settling in for a house instead of a hall, of course. That is why the people behind The Garage Show are particular about where they stage it. That is also why attention to detail is a must and why they explore everything, anything, which gives them ideas to work on. This is superficially inhibiting, but in fact liberating: because their ideas are predicated on a minimal budget, they must think. And ideate. I am no thespian, only a copywriter from an advertising agency. But I know the process of briefs and delivery, of aligning creativity with what’s demanded by outside parties. I know how imaginative that process is, and how it forces one to not be complacent with the luxuries a hall or a large budget typically yields.

And to a considerable extent, that is the philosophy behind IdeaCouch as well. While The Garage Show is its primary showcase item, it has indulged in other more conventional skits at various functions, including the United Nations Environment Day and the anniversary of the Family Planning Association (“Engendering Yahapalanaya”). To be sure, one year can’t yield a prodigious output, but IdeaCouch has ensured that its skits have been fine-tuned to the audience specific to the function that has featured it. There is a commercialised backdrop to this aspect of the company’s work, which I think is refreshing: the days when our English theatre was an insular experience seem to have gone by. IdeaCouch is doing to that theatre, in other words, what Marcel Marceau did to mime.

There is a time to write and a time to watch. The time to watch has come, I believe. Without turning something that is simple into something that is impossibly profound, I will hence conclude on this note. The recent spate of productions that have consciously opted away from the hall is not only recent, but also inevitable. I unfortunately missed some of these productions, but IdeaCouch, with its sketches of themes, issues, and phrases, have restored my faith in the theatre in that regard. For that reason alone, you should watch their latest production, About Living on Garbage.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 13 2017