“Theatre is not about having all the answers. It’s about raising the right questions that take you into a zone of reflection,” says Aruna Ganesh Ram.
Aruna Ganesh Ram is the brain behind Visual Respiration, her theatre company that crafts experiential encounters for audiences. Visual Respiration, an international performance company, was founded to pursue immersive, experiential and devised work. They design performance that is visual and visually-led.
Visual Respiration draws from the immersive form of theatre where it is about the audience as an agency that shapes and crafts the performance space, just with their presence. It’s no more a stage, but a space, where those present create, share and reflect, together. The audience enter the world of the performer and become part of the environment. Immersive theatre is about engaging the audience by means of impacting the senses — smell, sound, and taste etc.
“In a way, theatre has become a medium for the performers to take risks and narrate their own life stories in public space; new kind of freedom from putting yourself out there. Our performers join a production through our workshops, where they are introduced to the immersive theatre practice, which becomes the starting point to create further work,” says Aruna.
Here are some more excerpts from the conversation with Aruna.
HS: What inspired you to take up immersive theatre?
Aruna: When I was studying in London, I went to watch ‘Shawshank Redemption’ in an immersive theatre performance. Here I was given prison clothes and was actually made a prisoner for four hours. I slept in dirty bunk beds and was forced to eat ‘prison’ food. I was exposed to the life of a prisoner in every possible way, from the mood, the environment and even in the way people dealt with you. This was when I realised the power of experiential theatre, where you don’t just watch, but become part of the performance in different ways. This was my inspiration to begin immersive work.
HS: You said that theatre is therapeutic. Is healing through art and theatre possible?
Aruna: Art is therapeutic. It can heal, cleanse, probe and create space for reflection. Theatre as a performing art enables complete involvement of the body and mind, which therefore allows for a physical and mental release. We experience freedom that comes out of that expression.
In my latest venture, ‘A Moment of Memory,’ the performers have shared personal moments when they have experienced challenges and what it took for them to overcome them.
HS: When did your journey with theatre begin?
Aruna: Theatre happened in high school and continued through college and early days of my corporate career. My parents always encouraged participation in dramatics in school, which ended up being the starting point to my interest in theatre.
I studied graphic design and communication. Everything I learnt in college I was applying to create design for stage, or marketing promos and theatre trailers. I started working with a group called Landing Stage, which was focused on Youth Theatre. My youth theatre directorial debut happened in 2004.
(Aruna worked in brand management and communications for about six years with Ashok Leyland and Daimler India.) By then, I had directed close to eight theatre productions, several reading sessions and worked with all aspects of theatre based application. In 2012, I decided to quit my corporate job and pursue my passion. (She relocated initially to Singapore from London for a year and then to Bangalore.)
HS: Tell us more about immersive theatre and its impact.
Aruna: As part of my research process during my training in London in theatre I also explored theatre based application for allied areas, including theatre based learning avenues for institutions and corporates where participants learn through experiential doing. I also experienced through my course that a lot of work comes from a deep reflection of your own doing – and this was really liberating. From here on this form of theatre became the leading point in my life.
From a process point of view we do not work with existing scripts. We pick concepts and then devise them through multiple performance processes that include using the body, observation, imagination and free writing. The process is organic and at the beginning I honestly have no idea where the show is headed.
What happens in the rehearsal space is what shapes the performance. I have learnt to trust the process and let go and over the last few immersive productions we’ve created, it’s worked like magic. I keep telling myself that it will happen if we are true to the process.
I would recommend it to everyone, across age groups, across gender. It’s a platform for self-discovery through action. The process can just slow time and bring one into a new kind of realisation. And that can just be a start to so much more.
While working with a friend to run Landing Stage, a youth theatre group in Chennai, on the last show of ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’ a bunch of us were chilling at the light pit and were talking about what next for Landing Stage. We just randomly said, “We should do Harry Potter,” and we all laughed about it. A week later, my friend wrote to Rowling’s agency and we actually received permission to adapt the book as a show for charity. We were mighty thrilled and before we knew, we were rehearsing with over 40 people to create this performance. This gave us the hope to dream big and do big.
HS: Are you involved actively in all aspects of your company-marketing, social media, and operations etc.? How big is your team?
Aruna: Given that I design and direct most of my work, I am involved in all the artistic aspects of the performance. For operations and marketing, we get help from people passionate about theatre. I also do a bit of painting and design myself – so this comes in handy when I get down to designing the marketing collaterals for a show. We often collaborate with people with specialised experience. That helps me just focus on getting the show together.
I was an ATSA Fellow this year (Art Think South Asia), which is a fellowship for Arts Managers in the country. So using my corporate experience coupled with Arts Management insights, I’ve been able to be more efficient with my planning, programming and performance.
I am the only one running the company on a day to day basis. Based on the projects we create, I collaborate with practitioners of varied expertise, from movement artists to dramaturgs and playwrights, to designers and production expertise from around the world depending on the project.
HS: What keeps you motivated? What is your greatest source of strength?
Aruna: The creation process is my biggest motivator. Through time, when I experience things coming together, it gives me a creative high and that’s what truly keeps me going. The encounter with the audience is another moment where you witness your work through the body of the audience.
HS: Share with us some of the milestones you have reached.
Aruna: We performed a play called ‘Visual Respiration’ as part of a festival in London at the Round House. This was my international performance and it was such an experience.
We then devised and created a performance called Re:play, inspired by traditional Indian games and this was our immersive theatre debut in India. We’ve since then performed 35 shows in India, Singapore and the UK. When we performed the show at the Kala Ghoda Arts festival in Mumbai last year, it was immersive theatre’s first festival encounter and the very positive reception from the large audience has inspired us to take the show further.
HS: What do you have in store for future as regards Visual Respiration?
Aruna: My vision is to create an immersive theatre eco system in India and that’s going to keep me busy for some time to come.
We’re starting the year with A Moment of Memory, which is about real life stories and events in an immersive theatre format. We hope to tour that show this year. The show will be in Bangalore on 9th, 10th and 11th and showcase real life stories of four women. Women who have gone through tough challenges
We will then launch our workshops for the year, the first in Jagriti, Bangalore, followed by one in Shoonya. The workshop will be a starting point for our next performance based on the concept of Freedom in the 21st century.
This year, I am also planning to bring back ‘Swami and Friends’ by RK Narayan. We’ve already performed this in 2011, but I want to recreate this performance experientially.