Amitesh Grover Interview
"There are 125 ways to watch this piece. The internet is in its very rudimentary form, perhaps the best democratic tool that is available to us which is that all of us have an equal state, an equal voice in it. I don't think we recognize this but this is a revolution for theatre" says Amitesh Grover as he talks about his upcoming show THE LAST POET and discusses what it is about, the internet and digital medium that fascinates him the most.

 By Parul Rana

He is an award-winning interdisciplinary artist. He moves beyond theatre into visual art, film, installation, digital art, and text-based art. His work is anchored in social practice and revolves around themes like absence/presence, staging abandonment, the necessity of remembering, the performance of resistance to keep on living, and how to embody unsayable knowledge. He produces work in the form of open-ended actions, series, processes, and projects. He studied at the University of Arts London and is an NSD alumnus. At present, he is an Assistant Professor at the National School of Drama (India) and teaches Interdisciplinary Art at several Universities in India and abroad. He is the recipient of several international grants and artist residencies, and his work is shown internationally in theatres, galleries, public spaces, and on the internet.

Please tell us about the concept and theme of the play.

The theme of THE LAST POET is exactly what its title says. A poet goes missing and who we meet in the show are people who are looking for him. It's a virtual city that I have built online and, in that city, you meet several characters including publishers, students, a daughter, a colleague, and another poet. Everybody seems to be sharing their memories and relationship with him and are also looking for him. They are speculating, there are a lot of rumors on why he has gone missing and everybody seems to have a piece of information about him. The audience is put into the position of collecting information and along with the characters, they also begin to look for the poet. In this journey, we come to know more about the poet, about his poetry, his body of work, and we learn why he was so immensely popular, why was he called a people's poet, and what is the kind of loss that this city now endures and is suffering from now that its poet has gone missing. This is the poet who has left behind a powerful and moving body of work. When you meet these characters, they share couplets and excerpts of poems that have moved them. I wouldn't call it a thriller, but a sort of a journey in which the audience goes deeper and deeper into this virtual city.

What inspired you to direct THE LAST POET?
The central question that drove this piece was the fact that I kept wondering why we are afraid of someone who writes the truth. Not just very recently, but there is a 100-year long history of poets, artists, and writers being threatened for their work, their books being banned or burnt and many writers have had to flee their native countries and live in exile. This is the question that motivated me to think about this piece, what is it in their writing that threatens the government, people in power, or the majority so much, or what is in their writing that moves us so much. The script is the exploration of this fascination that we have with people who show us the mirror and show us the truth and why is it so hard to see it. So, there's tension between, we want to read and to be confronted with the exhilarating and shocking truth but also at the same time we don't want the artistes to live amongst us. So that's what motivated this piece.

What was the process to create the script, develop and execute it entirely online?
It took me about seven months to create this. I started making this last June, during the first lockdown, and then premiered the first show in December. I have been making a lot of work for the internet for quite some time, so this is not my first piece for the internet. I have been making international work, connecting audiences and artists between different countries so I had some experience with how to make performance work with the internet. What I saw last year was the reaction from the theatre community to either adapt platforms like zoom to do online theatre or to do recordings of the play that were done in the auditorium and put them up online as well. I thought that this is not what I want to do because theatre for the internet has to have its own identity. It cannot be a quick adaptation of whatever is there, or whatever is available online. So, I was very clear that I don't want to do zoom theatre or Facebook or Insta live. I wanted to create an original piece. I started work with a couple of programmers and coders and we started to explore coding language that would give us the opportunity to create a whole virtual city as the location for this piece. It took us about four months as there was a lot of coding involved. Finally, a team of five coders designed and created this magnificent virtual city with its own dedicated website. The show has its own website, it is not run through any other medium like zoom or Facebook, you just log in to this website and that's where the whole show happens. This is also the first time that someone has registered a website for a theatre play. I don't know of any other examples. So, the website is called, 'in' standing for India. So that's the first part, which was really important for me, to create a digital city in which then I want to host the performances.

As the audience goes into this virtual city, they navigate around, this city has its own rules and within five minutes you understand how to move around in the city. Then you can click on rooms, objects, buildings, etc. When you click on them, you are taken inside them where you meet the performers who perform live. So, it's a mix of virtual reality and live theatre. I also wanted the audience to interact with the piece so there is live interactivity built into the piece. There are live polls that take place during the show and the audience gets to decide by voting collectively on which scene should be played. There are five performers and they play about 30 characters and no audience member can watch the entire show at one time. There are 125 ways to watch this piece so people actually come back again to watch the show twice and even thrice to get a sense of the entire play. It sort of works in multiple layers, you come to watch the first show, you only see a small section of it and then you come back to watch another, you see another section of it. That's how the experience is built for you.

What roadblocks did you face during the process of making the show?
There were several roadblocks. As nobody has done this before, there was no example in front of us. There was a very long process of trial and error, sometimes the website would crash, and sometimes the live stream won't work. The actors had to get trained into live-streaming their performances. All the actors are used to having an audience right in front of them, but here they were in front of the camera sitting alone in their houses under lockdown. We had to invent a lot of techniques; the coders had to invent technical ways to make it happen. There was a lot of testing involved as well, which took us a couple of months. All the rehearsals done with actors were online. The dramaturg of the show was writing an original piece, so she was in the show rehearsal and developing her writing alongside the development of the digital city. This was also the first time that a theatre dramaturg was in rehearsals with a coder and programmer. So, it was really hard for us to understand each other first as we don't share the same language of working and then begin to create this piece together.

From very early on in your career, you have moved very freely between theatre and technology and blending these two together. What is it about the digital medium that fascinates you?

I stand for a borderless world. Borders are against art and culture. The digital medium is exactly that, I can sit and access the entire world on my internet device, on my screen so that is what fascinates me about the internet. It is also in its very rudimentary form, perhaps the best democratic tool that is available to us which is that all of us have an equal state, an equal voice in it. We can make our presence felt, and connect with others in our own capacity. It's also about human collaboration. So many of these principles that the internet is built on are very dear to me, perhaps that's why I keep going back to the internet and technology when I make work. In terms of making THE LAST POET, I think the accessibility of theatre has suddenly increased. If I were to play it in an auditorium in a physical way, maybe I can show this piece to 400-500 people maximum, whereas THE LAST POET can take up to 1000 people in one show and they can be from anywhere in the world. Anybody can book the show, and can watch the show live. I don't think we recognize this but this is a revolution for theatre. We have never had this kind of open access to the theatre, how much Chinese theatre have we seen? How much of the theatre from Zambia have we seen? But with the internet now it's possible for us to access it, watch it without travelling to these countries. This is a kind of revolution I think we are not realizing we are in the middle of right now. On the same hand, I am not saying that digital theatre has replaced physical theatre, I don't think in terms of opposition and things replacing one another. I do a lot of physical theatre and that will always be dear to me for several other reasons but I think with the coming of digital theatre, Theatre has become more expansive, it has opened out to new possibilities and to new audiences, and is also opened out to new ways of imagining what theatre could be. I think in the next few years we will see a lot of live theatre being made for the internet and the key is that it needs to be live. There's also a lot of confusion around, a lot of recordings being played and being called theatre, which I would argue is not theatre. If it's a recorded piece, it is not theatre. Theatre needs to be live for it to be called theatre because it is in that liveness that it breathes and lives. I often insist on producing live theatre whether I do it for the internet or whether I do it for the physical site, is another question but the liveness of it is important.

Your vision of theatre in the coming times?
Theatre has always adapted to new circumstances. It was played in the amphitheaters and then it got adapted to be played in churches and temples. Then we have a lot of theatre in India which happens underneath the trees, in tents in a warzone and of course in the specifically built auditorium for theatre and then the black box came in and now we have the screen. So, the theatre has had a very long and rich history of adapting to different mediums and this is the only reason why it lived for so long because it adapted to move further. We live in a time in which theatre will adapt to the screen and I think there's a huge audience waiting to experience it, and consume it online. I do think that a lot of theatre content is so much better than a lot of popular content available to us.

Theatre online has the promise and capacity to build a much more sensitive, more thinking, and reflective audience than other kinds of content being streamed online. This is what I want to achieve with The Last Poet which is that the content is sensitive, it is made with serious intent and when people watch it, I hope they also realize that what they watch on the screen is not something quickly digested and they move one. I want them to wonder after the show has ended, I want them to sit and ponder, what they have just watched. The screen and its live-streaming should become a movement of solidarity between all of us where we all sit together, perform, watch, and think.

Any advice for the upcoming directors and actors?
Be courageous. The young directors and actors live in a very different time. Their time presents them with different challenges, these are not the challenges that the older generation faced. These new challenges will demand inventiveness from them. So don't be afraid to invent new ways of making theatre.

*Parul Rana is a theatre enthusiast and movie buff.

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