Pandemic takes a toll on Nepal’s theatre communityThe majority of theatres in the country have now been closed for over a year and this has left artists facing multiple challenges.
When the first lockdown happened, like everyone else, Akanchha Karki expected it to be over in a month.
As someone who had been working nonstop for over a decade in Nepali theatre, Karki thought the lockdown would provide her a much-needed break from her hectic lifestyle of acting, writing, directing and even managing a theatre.
“Like everybody, I was unaware of the gravitas of the situation. I thought that lockdown would be over in a month, and we would all get back to our normal lives,” says Karki, director of Kausi Theatre, who was at the time prepping up for the Nepali adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
During the first few days, Karki made use of her free time by taking part in online discussions and sessions with her theatre friends.
But when the government kept extending the lockdown, Karki says she started getting anxious and her mental health started getting affected.
“After having worked in theatre as long as I have, it has become more like my home and not getting the chance to perform, rehearse and enjoy the process of making a play for such an extended period of time started affecting me emotionally and mentally,” says Karki. “It was like having an identity crisis and I felt lost.”
Karki wasn’t the only one going through such emotions. Many from the theatre world say that they experienced the same during last year’s nationwide lockdown.
Even though last year’s lockdown began on March 24, theatres and cinema halls were already shut by the government on March 18, making theatres among the first businesses to be closed.
As winter approached, daily Covid-19 cases started declining and businesses in the country started resuming operations, a few theatres in the country reopened.
“By last year’s November, daily Covid-19 cases had declined and some measure of normalcy seemed to have returned,” says Jeevan Baral, a theatre artist, who returned to his village in Morang during the first lockdown. “Theatre artists were hopeful of getting back to work.”
A few theatres even started hosting plays, on their premises.
“A few theatres in the capital also resumed classes, and Kausi was also able to bag some works as well,” says Karki.
But then in April this year, Nepal got hit by the second wave of Covid-19 and the few theatres that had opened closed once again leaving many artists more worried about their future.
The prolonged absence of work, artists say, has affected them financially and mentally.
“It’s always been difficult for theatre artists to sustain in Nepal. But many continue in the field because they are passionate about it. The pandemic, which has left many of us without work for more than a year now, has made things much more difficult than it already has,” says Kedar Shrestha, artistic director of Theatre Mall. “With no income and a platform to express our creativity, we are all in one way or another affected by the current situation.”
During the first wave of coronavirus, most theatre groups started going online. Right in the beginning, Shrestha’s theatre group hosted a live screening of the previously recorded plays on their Facebook page. Although it was a new experiment, the plays, which have been watched more than half a million times, were well-received, says Shrestha.
Likewise, a few groups also performed street plays, voicing social issues through their performance.
Even though the online platforms and street plays did keep theatre artists busy for a while, nothing comes close to performing on stage, they say.
“I think it’s difficult to describe in words how it feels, for an artist not to get the chance to perform on a stage. It’s like someone snatched your happiness, and there’s nothing you can do but be a mute spectator,” says Baral.
At least during the previous lockdown, says Karki, she had the energy to conduct a few virtual sessions.
“But now, I don't even have the energy or excitement to go online. This time, it’s mentally more difficult for most of us,” says Karki, expressing her grief, over a phone interview with the Post.
But it’s not that it’s only the theatre artists and the theatre community that are suffering. The whole world is facing economical, mental, and social challenges, exacerbated by the constant lockdowns and the pandemic.
“However, for actors, especially those who work in theatres, it’s more challenging to cope with turbulent times. Since their profession requires them to play with emotions, most theatre actors are emotionally fragile and vulnerable, and such prolonged uncertainty can take a toll on their mental health,” says Aashant Sharma, a theatre artist and director.
Many theatre artists the Post spoke to agree with Sharma. Many of them shared that the pandemic has affected their mental health, so much so that they feel hopeless and powerless.
“As someone who has been in this business for 16 years and has done more than 35 plays, the stage has always been a place from where I derive power and energy. I feel the most powerful when the lights are on me and I act for the audience,” says Pashupati Rai, a theatre artist. “But the pandemic has snatched the stage away from me. I have never felt so powerless. I feel a part of me is missing now that I can’t do what makes me the happiest—to be on stage and perform in front of a live audience.”
For theatre artists, a theatre is more than just a venue to showcase their talent.
“For us, theatres are our home. Artists come from different socio-economic backgrounds but none of that matters when we are in a theatre,” says Karki. “Everyone lives like one big family. From drinking tea and rehearsing together rehearsing to even brainstorming ideas, we spent a lot of time with each other.”
With the majority of theatres now closed for over a year, it hasn’t been possible for artists to relive such experiences of solidarity and togetherness. This, say theatre artists, has not only taken a toll on their mental well being but also their creativity.
“In more than 25 years of my career in the Nepali theatre scene, I have always longed to share my ideas with my friends and perform with them. But when we have been restricted from doing what we love for so long, it makes us dull and it negatively impacts our creativity,” says Sharma.
It has been more than a year since Rai last performed on stage. Such prolonged forced break from the theatre has caused her to question her skills and craft.
“I constantly fear that I will forget my skills,” says Rai. “The thing with acting is the more you practice it, the better you get at it. But when you have been forced off work for more than a year and live in scary times like these, the chances of your acting skills getting affected is maximum.”
Many theatre artists say they are not just unsure of their career but of the future of the Nepali theatre community itself.
“I don’t know for how long the community can sustain itself in such a climate. I hope the situation improves soon,” says Shrestha.
With so much uncertainty and normal lives turned upside down, theatre artists say that all that they crave now is to get back to work and perform on stage.
“I miss the stage. I miss the lights. I miss the costumes. I miss the unity and the friendship we shared between friends from the theatre,” says Sharma. “Until the day theatre returns to its pre-pandemic days, the dark clouds of hopelessness and frustration will constantly hover above me”