Does the winner truly take it all

This is the second piece in our series on theatre awards where we discuss their impact on the art and the community. In the first one, we took a look at what awards meant for the art and the artist. Here, we are going to take the conversation further and talk about what and whom theatre awards leave out when making these considerations.

Are theatre awards designed for a certain kind of play? Does production quality impact nominations? Is the shortlisting process adequate?

These are some of the questions we had before we began speaking to theatre professionals about the true scope of theatre awards and their exclusions.

The nomination process

The Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), the only professional national theatre awards, use video recording as a means of screening productions from around the country. A jury watches them and creates a shortlist of nominees.

Vikram Phukan

“It’s hard to judge if they are the best on video, but there is no way for the jury to go and watch each and every play,” says Vikram Phukan, who served on the selection jury this year. He also admits that sometimes the work coming from different parts of the country is so diverse that it may require more categories than the standard ones. “This works with film and OTT, where there is something unifying about the medium. That is not necessarily the case with theatre,” he says.

Bangalore-based practitioner Anuja Ghosalkar also believes that theatre awards tend to draw from a Bollywood format which isn’t always suitable for the medium. “Are we trying to standardise a form doing theatre?” she asks.

For Delhi- based Keval Arora, Faculty Advisor, The Players, and retired Associate Professor, Kirori Mal College, regardless of the medium of selection, the process is often a part of the problem. “When plays are selected at a collegiate or professional level, they are first chosen based on their impact. And that there is a coherent, consolidated, comprehensive sense of the play. But, when we start thinking of the play in

As an aside, we spoke to a couple of theatre-goers to ask them if awards played a role in determining the plays they watch. Here’s what they had to say

My decision to watch a play has more to do with the script and how it has been produced. Word of mouth helps, too. Theatre awards don’t particularly matter. I’m curious but won’t choose on the basis of that. Theatre deserves an audience, awards or not.

    • Ruchika Chanana, writer and actor (TV and OTT), New Delhi

terms of awards, we begin dissecting its constituents like lighting, ensemble, script, etc. Plays are not necessarily a sum of their parts,” he says, explaining further that the best script at a competition may not come from a shortlisted play, or the best actor may actually reside in a play that fails on other counts.

Most theatre makers also believe that while awards are a helpful means of validation and infusing money into the ecosystem, they aren’t the markers of the ‘best’. It’s perhaps why Thespo, the youth theatre festival that ends with an awards ceremony chooses to have ‘outstanding’ preceding the categories instead of the ‘best’.

Thespo also chooses to shortlist plays in a labour-intensive manner with a selection committee that travels the country to watch every production in rehearsal before making a decision about the nominees.

The venue and its impact

Jitender Singh

The selection process and the funds for digital recording aren’t the only things that keep theatre makers outside the awards categories. Awards are preceded by festivals and the many organisational aspects ensure that only theatre of a certain grade and scale make it to the nominations.

“In any given year, more theatre for intimate spaces is produced in the country but most don’t make it to award nominations. The lack of space ensures production value is compromised and these plays thus, don’t qualify in several categories. For instance, you can’t have a beautiful light design in an intimate venue like Harkat or Prithvi House in Mumbai,” says Jitender Singh of Afsana Theatre in Mumbai.

The venue for the festivals that accompany awards is, in most cases, fixed. META takes place at Kamani Theatre and Shri Ram Centre while Thespo has made Prithvi Theatre its home.

Singh explains that besides productions mounted at small non-proscenium venues, awards tend to also exclude extremely large-scale productions. “They want to award experimental theatre but end up catering to the in-between category (think Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai and Ranga Shankara in Bangalore) that suits their festival venues. Besides, in cities like Mumbai, to find a proscenium stage to record a play is in itself a huge challenge,” he explains.

Similarly in Marathi theatre, templates have emerged due to the limitations of venue and timings. “Commercial Marathi theatre has a set format. They are performed in proscenium venues only. You have limitations like venue bookings in four-hour slots, so the sets and production design cater to it,” Nipun Dharmadhikari, Marathi writer, actor, and director, tells us. In due course, these templates make their way to theatre awards and risk the creation of an awards ethic.

Emerging patterns

“Marathi theatre performers are also more used to competitions and plays are sometimes made for awards and employ certain gimmicks,” says Singh.

When choosing to watch a play, a combination of factors comes into play. While conversations with friends and family, or reading online sources can help, I do pay attention to the awards it has won. I also look at the nominations it received. Award recognition indicates that the play has been well received. However, awards are not all, a well-written script and excellent acting can create a captivating experience. The venue, lighting, and other aspects also impact my decision.

    • Aditya Anand, Journalist, Mumbai

One wonders if national theatre awards also tend to make way for such templates and patterns. Phukan tells us that the ‘spectacles’ do sometimes turn out to be winners and there may be a tendency to attempt the same form. “Briefly, there was a pattern of larger-than-life production design. But it is safe to say that awards don’t necessarily dictate the kind of work that is being made,” he says further.

Toral Shah, Partner, and Creative Producer, QTP, believes more firmly that awards don’t interfere with the artistic vision of a theatre company. “If a comedy wins at META, people will not start doing more comedies,” she says.

At the collegiate competition level at Delhi University too, Arora has witnessed patterns that emerge every six months. “Comedy with a certain kind of pacing, a slick, and nippy feel, gets a place of privilege. Plays on subjects of socio-political awareness also work really well,” he says.

The case for grants

While talking to a bunch of theatre makers, we also asked them another question; should grants be included in the same category? Are they as competitive? Do they have an impact similar to that of awards?

We talked about awards being conferred on finished work and grants being enablers that seed productions but Phukan is quick to point out the most fundamental of differences. “Grants don’t always have transparency in the process. There is a sense of who is getting it and not why. You don’t compete when it’s not a level playing field. You simply apply,” he says.

Over the course of these two pieces and numerous conversations with theatre makers, we realised that awards like plays, as Arora says, are more than a sum of their parts, too. Their inclusions and exclusions are governed by the limitations, theatre-makers are only too familiar with. It’s perhaps why the revelry that comes with celebrating the form overpowers the cynicism, albeit for the few weeks around the awards season.

This piece was commissioned by Bhasha Centre.

Prachi Sibal
Prachi Sibal
Prachi Sibal is based in Mumbai and has been a features writer for over a decade. Her work has appeared in several publications like VICE India, Scroll, Huffington Post India, Open Magazine and The Ken, among others. Although she has written on several subjects ranging from the performing arts and culture to South Indian cinema and business trends, theatre is where her heart truly lies.

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