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Immerse and experience! 

‘The Emporium; At the edge of Uncertainty’, an immersive play staged at a dilapidated building in Okhla Phase 3, manages to engage the audience despite a vague storyline.

Immerse and experience! 
Would you want to pledge your next unborn child for experimentation to a man who lives in a gutter, along with rats and trains pests at your home to help you? Or would you like to buy certain kind of headaches (piercing, dull, etc) so that you could train your mind to deal with pain, thus learn a life skill? Would you mind helping an extinct word survive at a Word Hospital?
Sounds weird? So did it to me when I visited 'The Emporium; At the edge of Uncertainty', an immersive play, staged at a huge but dilapidated building in Okhla Phase 3, last week.
Why would a play be staged at a derelict building? What's the theme; the storyline? That's the key catch with such an experience called the "Immersive Theatre". New to India, almost none, except one theatre group of young actors called Crow, has dared to bring it to India. Dared, because it involves a vague or almost no fixed storyline, yet it engages the audience directly within the play, hence the name - Immersive. It creates several situations and characters, at various locations. The audiences are made to interact with all characters who occupy them in several creative and unexpected ways. Each character has a subtle message to give to the audiences. Here, even a venue has an interactive role to play.
For instance the venue for The Emporium; At the edge of Uncertainty, a ram-shackled multi-story building had office cabins, canteen, etc of a manufacturing unit. The group renovated and turned it into an emporium housing several shops, cabins of dream house sellers, a laboratory, a pest control centre, lost and found department, a salon, a court and a tea house. In a complicated yet interesting situation, each space has a character engaging the live audience. The emporium has a barter system and a candle is its currency.
In one showroom, a highly sophisticated anglicized shopkeeper is selling numerous strangely designed, antique cameras and binoculars which he says he has discovered, procured and patented from across the globe. These special instruments, "Optic neurotics", as he calls them, are meant to give buyers, certain kinds of headaches. A butterfly look-alike glass, for instance, is for nature lovers. Once they see through it, they get a nervy feeling of their skin being touched by a crawling insect. The feeling induces pain. Another lens can get one headache as he takes pictures by it …. it gives broken, fragmented, distorted shots, enough to give him dementia. "Why are you selling these headaches?" I ask. "To create a cognitive dissonance in your mind. It gives you enough headache to deal with its pain, without any pills, hence teach you better life skills..." he answers.
Another shop is of a card player. He is local Haryanvi short-tempered guy who will indulge you in card games. There is a court where the audience is not allowed as "it is in session" and a "Lost and Found" department – where you can buy someone else's wasted minutes. And Adavnijis office, a super salesman who sells you a home in your dreams – you will then never have to pay rent during your dreams and can stay in that house whenever you dream.
Besides that, there is Gupta ji corner shop, a general merchant, who is a chatterbox - more interested in storytelling than selling his wares. He wants someone to make a nice logo for his shop. He has another hair cutting salon which has no employees. But with posters inside, it boasts of having skills of styling your hair like Hollywood and Bollywood stars.
The play concludes with a winner, who wins a house and a dream car in return of candles. She can live in that house in her dreams; a comment on builders today. Post this there is a bell as it is dinner time for the shop owners and means the audience can leave.
Complex storyline
Left rather open-ended, the play keeps the audience captivated until the end. Though it has surprises at every turn, the play could begin with less complex stories. Our theatre audience is still not educated about how to handle himself in given situations. Moreover, in India, most audiences go to the theater for entertainment than an intellectual experience. Finding acceptance with such complex storylines is certainly not a good idea to begin with.
Struggle for funds
Apart from the U.K where it started in the early 1990s, and today seems to have reached a saturation point, Immersive Theatre is still in nascent stage across the globe. It is also prevalent in Prague, Paris, and some parts of USA, Spain, and Russia.
Actor-designer Nayantara Kotian, who has done her Masters in Theatre from London and learned this technique from Felix Barrett, the founder of Immersive Theater in the US, and artistic director of company Punchdrunk, brought Immersive Theater to India, "to give an alternate theatre experience to Indian audiences." She, along with actor-director Prashant, founded Crow in 2014 and staged their first production in 2016 in Mumbai.
Nayantara says, "Though excited about the idea, sponsors don't want to take chances. We were lucky to be funded by OML (Only Much Louder) a Mumbai-based music venture for our first play, but we haven't been able to make any major breakthrough yet."
Prashant echoes, "We have no precedence, no milestones in India for Immersive theatre so it is advantageous for us. We create our own rules but patrons want to play safe. Thankfully, Gujral Foundation gave us little funds and this building for free. We had terrible time cleaning and renovating it according to our script. Getting audience is another major issue, A few shows were for India Art Fair visitors, that was running parallel last week. Since such plays cannot be staged in compact auditoriums, it is tougher to bring the audience to an alternate venue like this. And our audience also cannot be in hundreds but in just a few numbers, say maximum of 50; all the more reason that they have to buy tickets."
In India, where audiences largely don't want to buy tickets for theatre but look for passes, the Immersive Theatre certainly needs a push from theater lovers. However, to create a momentum, it needs to keep its stories limited, simpler and familiar. Though a bit expensive, but a must go, the ticketed play could be experienced on February 24 and 25.
Rana Siddiqui Zaman

Rana Siddiqui Zaman

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