LOL, textspeak for ‘laughing out loud’ has rarely been more compelling outside the virtual world than in these times when ironically there hasn’t been much to smile about. After months of being locked out of what a standup comic does best-take centrestage in a small room and look for laugh lines on the faces of his audience that often help them determine their self-worth – Vaibhav Sethia readied himself to tickle a flesh-and-blood audience three weeks ago.
For two hours on a Saturday night, the comic told jokes. At first to a crowd of two and then nine, their faces obscured by masks even as organisers at That Comedy Club in Bandra-a venue designed for ten times that number-urged them to indulge in some audible laughter in acknowledgment of the hilarity. “It took me back to my early years when even six people in the audience meant a full house,” said Sethia, glad that the laughter and his muscle memory were still alive. “I’d been yearning to get back on stage and it felt good to wear full pants, carry my own mic and get back in rhythm.”
Eight months after a virus brought the performing arts industry to a grinding halt, on-ground events in the genre of music, comedy and theatre have started tiptoeing back into a semblance of its former self this month.
Even as rules around public gatherings ease up, artistes and venues braving this new normal are trying to map their own blueprint of what works best for them. Which means the shuffle of bodies navigating the neon haze of a nightclub will now have to keep two arms distance separated by neon floor markings instead, UV rays to disinfect windowless rooms and artistes carrying their own microphone to avoid the germy spatter of respiratory droplets.
Earlier this month, AntiSocial in Todi Mill unbolted its door to a bunch of indie acts with The F16s,a band from Chennai rocking the space back to life. Although the night awash with UV rays from a disinfection system installed in their AC turned out to be a success, Harshan Radhakrishnan the band’s keyboardist couldn’t shake off all apprehensions. “It was exciting yet weird, familiar but unfamiliar,” he said, recounting his quandary over whether the crowd was smiling or grimacing behind their masks. “It was also scary to take a flight. All of us have been quarantining since we got back. Yet being on stage was a step forward.”
For Rhys Sebastian, saxophonist and frontman of the multi-instrumentalist band Bombay Brass, not playing for almost a year felt, “something like a car being started after ages. Thankfully, we managed to keep our foot on the pedal, with the odd stutter!” It also felt “surreal”, adds Sebastian who had to adjust himself to the sight of 100 reticent partygoers, fa from stage as opposed to 300 heads jostling close to them. “But real time experience with an audience is unlike any other. The crowd was responsible, which allowed us to engage them in singing on a few songs, albeit conservatively under the breath!”
Prithvi Theatre bounced back too, this month with pandemic rules, which-apart from temperature checks, mandatory masks and running half capacity – includes a two-feet orange contraption crafted with metal pipes handed to each patron to keep neighbours at bay. “The theatre is sanitised before and after every show and the audience turnout has been surprisingly encouraging,” said Kunal Kapoor, trustee of Prithvi Theatre whose unlock calendar also saw veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah reemerge on stage with a solo act last week.
Shoulder-to-shoulder venues like Habitat in Khar or the Cat Cafe Studio in Versova – that had made room for cultural outings in a city perpetually starved of space-have slashed theirpocket-sized capacity down to a quarter.
The audience, on the other hand helping live gigs stay afloat in the pandemic includes “mostly singles and lots of doctors,” points out Sumendra Singh, owner of That Comedy Club. Sethia chips in: “Maybe they’re checking out competition. Laughter, they say, is the best medicine.”