No business in show businessAt a time when the increase in the number of plays being staged and attended in the Capital has been hailed as a ‘renaissance’ for Nepali theatre, another theatre house has shuttered its box office, laying bare the systemic problems that continue to plague the industry.
At a time when the increase in the number of plays being staged and attended in the Capital has been hailed as a ‘renaissance’ for Nepali theatre, another theatre house has shuttered its box office, laying bare the systemic problems that continue to plague the industry.
On Sunday, the operators of the Theatre Mall, the youngest of Kathmandu’s four theatre houses—which staged 18 plays in total in three years—announced that it would cease operations for the time being. The reason: its venue is now being converted into a more financially lucrative movie theatre instead. And while Kedar Shrestha, the artistic director of Theatre Mall, stopped short of calling the shut down emblematic of the trajectory of Nepali theatre at large, other stakeholders have expressed grave concerns over a second theatre house calling it a day in the past two years. A year ago, in June 2016, the iconic Theatre Village also decided to cease operations.
To discuss the recent shutdown, the current status of Nepali theatre, it’s challenges and possibilities, a panel of veterans of Nepali theatre—including Sunil Pokharel, Ashesh Malla, Rajan Khatiwada, Ghimire Yubraj and Kedar Shrestha—engaged in a discussion moderated by journalist Yangesh, at Theatre Mall, on Monday.
The discussion revolved around the history of Nepali theatre, its present and the reasons behind its struggles.
“Theatre in Nepal, it seems to me, is an installation art that lasts only for a few years,” Ghimire Yubaraj, founder of Shilpee Theare, said, referring to the two recent shutdowns.
About a decade ago, Gurukul, a theatre founded by Sunil Pokharel in 2002, had shut down as well, for reasons similar to Theatre Village’s and Theatre Mall’s.
Speaking about it, director Pokharel said, “Once Gurukul shut down, for whatever reason, I went through a spell of depression, I drank too much and became a bit of an alcoholic. Although it was a shock at first, I coped with it. As theatre artists we have to embrace this uncertainty that always surrounds us.”
But for Bimal Subedi, the founder of Theatre Village, the shut down of Gurukul, “although unfortunate, opened new frontiers in Nepali theatre.”
“If Gurukul had not closed down, I doubt we would witness five theatre houses that sprang in the Valley, afterwards,” he said.
Since Gurukul’s closing, Kathmandu has seen the founding of five theatres—Mandala Theatre, Shilpee, Sarwanaam, Theatre Village and Theatre Mall.
But despite the burgeoning number of theatres, Ashesh Malla, the founder of Sarwanam Theatre, still describes theatre as a profession of passion rather than profitability. Staging plays, he lamented, is still fraught with many risks without the promise of reward.
When audiences go to a play, they immediately become immersed in the setting, the ambiance and the script. But even before a play gets onto a stage there are manifold issues that a theatre house needs to account for. There are scripts to be written or purchased, sets to be designed,
costumes to be procured and actors that need to be trained. Yet, who pays for all these initial costs? Add to that the fact that all theatres, expect for Sarwanam, are housed in leased properties whose contacts are set to expire, further compounds the problem.
Rajan Khatiwada of Mandala speaking to the Post last month informed that the average pre-production costs can run anywhere from Rs 100,000 to Rs 200,000. “We allocate Rs 8,000 for daily expenses, if you’d include the rent to be paid out to the landowners,” Khatiwada said, “Now, with about 22-24 shows per play, and a maximum of 4,000 individual ticket sales in total, it would amount to about Rs 800,000. That would be the ideal situation—but not every play collects that much and, even if it does, it is never enough to adequately support the actors and the stage crew. This is the sad reality.”
Kedar Shreshtha, one of Theatre Mall’s founder, said that he has embraced this reality. Until some ten years ago, he would occasionally proclaim ‘Theatre is my life’. “That, however, has changed now,” he admitted, “I know that theatre is my passion and no one has forced me to do theatre. The day my passion fizzles out, I will stop. For now, however, I am passionate enough and Theatre Mall will continue.” Shrestha informed that Theatre Mall will remain closed until further arrangement with space has been managed.
Shrestha concluded the discussion held amid a packed theatre by saying, “We as a team are determined to continue our passion, and we will find a space soon, and despite all odds, will continue to follow our passions. Nepali theatre is at a crucial crossroads and we cannot give up.”