At the backyard of his home at Kattappana in Idukki district, GK Pannamkuzhy set up a pyre. It was the setting for his 11-minute play, Mannaamkatta, which reflects on the plight of a farmer who decides to immolate himself. But an unexpected downpour dampens his plans and he rues his fate. The theatre-cum-cine artiste had conceptualised the play for ‘Thirayarangu’, a week-long online drama festival. It was among nine plays uploaded on the Facebook page of Idukki district wing of the Network of Artistic Theatre Activists Kerala (NATAK) as part of the festival. The second edition of the online fête begins on July 15.
NATAK, the State-wide organisation of theatre artistes, is keeping the theatre scene up and running during the lockdown through its district and zonal committees in all the 14 districts. Drama contests and festivals, radio plays, discussions, interviews, webinars and lecture series have been keeping the artistes engaged as these get uploaded on Facebook pages.
“They have had no performances during the last three months and some artistes have been depressed about it. Theatre is more than a means of livelihood for these artistes. Going online has rejuvenated many of them for the time being and that’s why all units of NATAK have been asked to come up with programmes,” says J Shailaja, secretary, NATAK. Registered in 2018, NATAK has over 6,500 members and at least five programmes are currently being streamed on the Facebook pages of different units of NATAK.
It was the Kasaragod district committee that first stepped in by launching a seven-day programme on a WhatsApp group for artistes in the district in which yesteryear actors shared their memories with members of the group. An upcoming initiative is a 10-day-long radio play contest by Thrikkarippur zone in the district. “This is open for professional troupes as well. Cash prizes will be given away for the top three plays,” says Nandakumar Maniyat, secretary of NATAK Thrikkarippur. Entries close on July 30 and the plays will be aired on its Facebook page from August 5.
Documenting the history
In Kannur, a project has already been rolled out to document the history and activities of kalasamithis (cultural organisations) in the district. Named ‘Natakathinte Nazhikakkallukal’ (milestones of theatre), it will focus on cultural forums that played a crucial role in the socio-political-cultural history of the region. “The five zonal divisions of NATAK in the district will document the history of samithis that come under their purview. At least 30 of them will be covered in the first phase. The documentary will look into the history and productions of these samithis, besides featuring interviews with directors, artistes, scriptwriters… For instance, there are several male actors who used to don female roles and their stories will be brought into the limelight,” says Prakashan Chengal, secretary, NATAK Kannur.
The series will be uploaded after the culmination of a digital drama festival organised by Thalassery zone in the district. “They have short-listed 25 plays that will be uploaded from July 1. Besides cash prizes for the best three plays, there will be rewards for best male and female actors, director and scenarist as well,” says Prakashan. The digital festival comes close on the heels of ‘Natakappani’, a 15-day-long discussion series featuring 48 theatre practitioners organised by the Thalassery zone.
Among other events have been a drama festival for families organised by NATAK Pathanamthitta and ‘Urava’, an online ‘theatre sketch’ contest by NATAK Alappuzha. “We received 15 entries from theatre artistes in the district. Next, we plan to upload radio plays on weekends, weekly sessions featuring artistes of yesteryears and monthly interaction with experts in the field,” says Praveen Raj, secretary of NATAK Alappuzha.
NATAK Kottayam district committee, meanwhile, is streaming ‘Chamayangalillathe’, a Facebook live featuring theatre actors sharing their memories with viewers, and NATAK’s Nedumangad unit in Thiruvananthapuram runs ‘Uyarum Yavanika’, featuring lectures, one-act plays and radio plays.
Bank of scripts
NATAK is also working on launching a script bank. “This was not meant to be done during the lockdown. There has been a dearth in the number of books devoted to plays coming out in the last few decades. At present, most directors adapt segments from short stories, novels or classics for the stage. Original scripts that reflect on the times we live in have become rare. So when the lockdown was announced, we assumed that writers would have time to come up with new works,” says Shailaja. Entries can be submitted until August 30. She added that reputed writers in Malayalam have already agreed to contribute their works to the script bank.
NATAK will also be starting its online classrooms soon. “We had held a seven-day acting workshop in October 2019 at Kasaragod and wanted to hold workshops in districts. But since that seems a remote possibility in the current scenario, we’ve decided to go online,” Shailaja adds.
Twelve subjects will be covered in the classes led by experts from across Kerala. “Shootings have commenced. Among the topics covered are acting, direction, music, set design, props, costumes and theatre appreciation. There will be two classes each on one subject. This is being planned as a long-term initiative and there will be interactive sessions as well,” she points out.