How this theatrical troupe adapted to the pandemic to offer one-of-a-kind digital hybrid performance

Rat — a hybrid semi-recorded, semi-live theatrical production by Delhi-based Third Space Collective — combines Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Spy’ set in Nazi Germany with the personal narratives of the performers.
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Adapting to change is the only constant in life, nobody follows this mantra better than creative thinkers. ‘Rat’, a Zoom theatrical produced by Delhi-based group Third Space Collective, is a great example of this.

Planned as a physical object theatre performance scheduled for May 2021, the production was digitally reinvented in the light of the second wave of COVID-19. Playing till September 12, this virtual experimental show shuffles between recorded footage and live performances that take place in intimate breakout rooms on Zoom.

Director Dhwani Vij explains the vision to YS Weekender: “Our play was greatly affected by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing us to reimagine the piece digitally, in our personal spaces. Suddenly, our home was everything. We began to look closely at the systems of oppression within our own lived spaces – our kitchens, bedrooms, terraces – and started understanding how they nurtured oppressive structures outside.”

Jyoti Rana

The idea

When the pandemic hit last year, the members of Third Space Collective began reading the classics in earnest. Bertolt Brecht’s seminal play ‘Fear and Misery of the Third Reich’, consisting of numerous ‘playlets’ or short incidents based on the horrors of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, was one of the first works they read. Its bold political theme of oppression and fear appealed to the group, who chose to recreate it by drawing comparisons with present-day scenarios.

This led to the conception of their production, Rat. Over 90 minutes long, the play involves four actors moving between live performances and a recorded version of one of Brecht’s playlets titled ‘The Spy’.

“All the plays of the Third Space Collective are part of a larger project or vision. We like to create a conversation around a subject through workshops and addas. And we are always watching out for any adverse reactions to ensure everyone’s safety,” explains Neel Sengupta, the Executive Producer.

The audience is asked to fill in a questionnaire before joining the show, which serves the dual purpose of letting the audience know what they are in for, while also preparing them to have a conversation on the subject during interaction time.

Third Space Collective preparing for 'Rat'

The performance

Rat’s interesting concept was put together by Dhwani, in collaboration with Associate Director and performer Abhishek Basak, Assistant Director and performer Tanishq Pant, and performers Jyoti Rana, Nagina Sheikh, Vrinda Misra, and Ishu Kumar. Each of the performers has scripted their live sequence themselves, drawing from personal stories where they encountered uncomfortable situations and opinions that differed from their own. Performing these live sequences in their own homes adds to the authenticity.

However, it also poses interesting challenges.

Nagina shares, “It was hard for me to decide which story of mine to share here. There were so many uncomfortable experiences I could’ve shared, but I didn’t want the audience’s sympathy or for them to judge the nature of my circumstances. I just wanted to share a story from my life which would encourage them to think about the reality of the situations around them.”

The show is one of the recipients of the Neekoee Foundation grant, and has also been mentored by inter-disciplinary artist Amitesh Grover and installation artist Sharmila Samant. 

A large technical support team works towards keeping the machinery well-oiled. Neel Chaudhari has designed the sound, Santanu Mallick the lighting, Pranav Bhatia coordinates the digital aspects of the show, while Rohan Tongaria operates the lights. The set has been constructed by Ravinder Kumar, Argha Kamal Ganguly is responsible for the scenography, Animesh Barman has constructed the objects, Tanya Sharma is the stage manager, and the video has been made by Rohit Gupta.

The show is bilingual, with performers switching between English and Hindi. Interestingly, they also switch between gender roles specified through objects – a pair of teeth signifying the ‘blabbermouth’ man and binoculars representing the ‘watchful’ woman.

Third Space Collective preparing for the 'Rat'

The challenges

The logistics of putting together a hybrid performance of this nature are difficult indeed. Abhishek talks of how challenging it was to reimagine the project from a physical to a virtual performance: “The way we have envisioned it, the digital and physical – which we hope to be able to put up in the future - will work in very distinct ways.”

Pranav highlights the difficulty of ensuring the wifi continues unabated and there is no audience disruption during the show.

For theatre stalwarts, adapting to the camera is a big challenge in itself. Dhwani and Nagina both felt uncomfortable, even though one was behind and the other in front of the device. Dhwani explains, “With theatre, I’ve trained myself to direct the audience gaze to where I want it, but I’m confused and terrified by the camera, because I do not know how to play with cuts and angles.”

They were originally keen to ensure the footage does not look cinematic and stays true to its identity as a play. However, they soon realised that having one static frame lacked appeal and could potentially bore the audience. Tanishq then made crucial edits of movement and angles that would keep the audience’s interest alive, while maintaining the play’s essence.

Future plans

The group wants to take the play to as many people as possible – no matter their political affiliations – in an attempt to create an open discussion. They have applied for and are hoping to be selected to perform at the Object Theatre Festival in November, which will take place virtually.

Production Manager Naveen Chand Sharma shares, “We are very keen to do more seasons, and especially take the show to schools and universities to students above the age of 13, in India and abroad. We feel that Brecht’s message is apt for sharing with young adults who are forming their own thoughts. Hence, we held three preview shows where we invited ten young students, and had fruitful discussions with them after the show.”

The play has been received well by the audience tuning in. Neel highlights that people identify with the stories shared, and willingly talk about themselves in the interactive part of the show, as they feel safe enough to do so. He signs off by saying, “We are currently in a situation where we are being forcefully subjected to trauma and being told to move on, without being given a chance to articulate our feelings. Through Rat, we hope to create a dialogue where everyone shares their experiences without hesitation.”

Rat, produced by the Third Space Collective, will be performed every day till September 12 at 8:00 p.m. on Zoom. The price of a single ticket is Rs 220, with a group pass available for Rs 400. The team offers five free tickets per show for anyone who is unable to pay and invites them to connect through email at thirdspaceconnect@gmail.com to coordinate. Tickets can be purchased on Paytm Insider and one can keep up with future performances through their socials @thirdspaceconnect on Facebook and @thirdspacecollectivedelhi on Instagram.


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