As we wrestle with the coronavirus pandemic, theatre artistes and production workers are trying to figure out how to stay afloat and take care of their community, since the very notion of live entertainment has become taboo.
"I haven't been to rehearsals or performed on the stage for so long. However, I am happy because I finally have some free time to read my books without any distractions," says actor and costume designer Samiun Jahan Dola. "The panic is very real, but it is also the right time to reflect upon our actions." Dola also noted that proper education and research is necessary to understand the consequences of the pandemic. "We will face a global economic crisis. Unfortunately, the arts are one of the most neglected sectors," she adds. "Freelance performers and technicians are not doing well at all, as live shows have been cancelled. Some groups and individuals have taken initiatives to support struggling artistes temporarily, but a better strategy is needed in the long run. We might need to rethink our performances in ways that may not adhere to the classic form of theatre, but they may give rise to a different form."
Dola recently practiced a soliloquy by Dr Faustus, from home. "I've been in touch with some of my friends, and we are trying to collaborate on certain projects. We also need to stand beside the underprivileged communities at this time. I believe in the words of Swami Vivekananda -- those who serve others serve the Lord in the true sense," she explains.
Theatre activist and President of Goti Theatre Mony Pahari noted that the coronavirus pandemic has inevitably jeopardised people's livelihoods. "As our group works in remote areas of Rangamati, we are hardly known in the mainstream scene. Since we are at home, I, along with my husband and daughter, have turned our bedroom into a small studio, from where we have been recording charity shows since March 31," she adds. "We wanted to help people in need. We have received generous donations from our fellow theatre activists and the public from nine countries, including Bangladesh. Till date, we have reached out to nearly 255 families through our theatre workers and teachers all over the area. So far, they have conducted 12 charity shows, and hope to help more families in the future. "My daughter Falgun, who is otherwise shy, played the keyboard at one of the shows when she learned that it was for helping others," adds Mony.
On the other hand, Jyoti Sinha, General Secretary of Manipuri Theatre and Cultural Officer of Shilpakala Academy in Moulvibazar, noted that the most important factor in theatrical performances is the audience. "The pandemic is affecting us financially and psychosocially," she says. "Several of our artistes are students, for whom theatre is a much-needed breather from their hectic academic lives. Most of our performers are also freelance dancers who depend upon live shows. Like most organisations, we are also exploring the digital platform, but the essence of theatre lies in the interactions with the spectators." Nonetheless, basic communication and individual practices are keeping their hopes high for a quick recovery from these difficult times, according to Jyoti. "We are worried about the aftermath of the pandemic, as the return of audiences in the auditoriums will take some time, but we are not giving up. Financially, we have reached out to our members, with support from the district administration," she adds.
Sound assistant Ujjal Chandra Sarker, who has worked on over 700 plays, has been completely out of work for over two and a half months now. He returned to his hometown once all cultural events were cancelled by the government. "I have been asked to return to Dhaka, but I am skeptical about going back," he says. "I am also afraid of losing my job. Some well-wishers from different groups have offered help, but I have not been informed about any permanent solutions."
Theatrical productions have been the only source of income for make-up artiste Shubhashish Dutta Tanmoy, for the last 25 years. Needless to say, the absence of live shows has hit him hard. "A few theatre activists came forward with aid, but that was given to two of my assistants, as they had greater priority. It is indeed a frustrating time," he says. "I have served Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy for years. I am hoping that they will take initiatives for the livelihoods of workers like us."
On the other hand, set designer Mohammad Monir Hossain has worked with different theatre groups and designed the sets for numerous events at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. He has been out of work with no payment, for quite some time. "Currently, I am living in my hometown, but the situation is not ideal here either. The Group Theatre Federation has asked me to submit my National ID Card. I am hoping to receive some support from them," he adds.