When the creativity is locked down

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by Imran Iftikhar

About a month and a half ago, I received a WhatsApp notification on Farmers in the Dell, the group which contains the general members of Theatre Wallay. It was a call for a meeting. There are 35 people in that group, a motley collection of different people connected by their love for theatre. Now we are all used to meeting calls on the group, but we had not received one for quite a while.

It had been about a month since lockdown had been initiated and ‘Farmers in the Dell’ was now being used to air frustrations about the pandemic – how the lockdown was being mismanaged, how all of us were being affected by it, and how much all of us missed The Farm and were aching to begin work on a play again.

Thus, when I received the Whatsapp notification that morning, I was taken by surprise. Things were made clear when Fizza, our artistic director, shared a link for a Zoom meeting. Of course. How stupid of me. The Covid-19 pandemic had rendered meetings-in-person a thing of the past. Needless to say, everyone in the group was overjoyed and promised to join in. 

Theatre Wallay is a theatre group, based in Islamabad, whose members hail from a variety of walks of life. Most of us have full-time jobs in fields not even remotely connected to theatre, such as engineering and accounting. But most of us made time in the evenings to go to The Farm, our theatre space right outside Islamabad. Theatre Wallay acquired The Farm about 4 years ago, as a rehearsal space and a platform to promote the arts and culture in Islamabad. Since then, we have used it to discuss new ideas, talk about the arts, movies, books, write the most fantastic plays, and put up the most memorable performances.

But for a lot of us, The Farm was much more than that. It was a refuge from the outside world. It was a place where all of us could express ourselves openly, say what we desired, and be who we truly were. It seemed that, on The Farm, we were not bound by the suppressive norms of the society in which we existed. It was a place where we could be free. With the onset of the pandemic, we could not access that wonderful place anymore, and that added to the gloom of the lockdown.

However, when I received the meeting notification, my spirits were rejuvenated slightly. The meeting was wonderful. It was great to see everyone, hear about what had been happening in their lives, laugh at silly jokes, and crack even sillier ones. We had missed the unique shenanigans that everyone brought to the group. The main purpose of the meeting, however, was to decide how we should proceed, given that no performances or events could happen at the Farm. By the end of the meeting, one thing was certain: we were not going to let this pandemic get us down – the show must go on. 

Over the next few weeks, we brainstormed ideas on how to keep on going, how to keep making our mark on society in Pakistan, how to remain relevant in a time where conventional theatre was simply not possible. There were several activities that were conducted regularly at The Farm, before the pandemic; we just had to find a way to resume them. We decided to utilize the tools at our disposal: YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. 

One of the first things that we decided to do was to take up some of our old scripts and re-enact them on live video calls. However, this is easier said than done, because we cannot meet our scene partners face to face. There is a disconnect between the actors when trying to run a scene over Zoom or Skype, making it difficult for appropriate chemistry to develop between characters in the scene. On top of that, unstable internet connections cause lags, call drops, frozen screens, and a plethora of other obstacles that make recording plays on Zoom or other social communication apps impossible. Nevertheless, we are trying our utmost, and have come up with innovative solutions to most of these problems. We have created several short movies, one of which recently won an award in a film competition.

We also decided to conduct our storytelling sessions for children again. This was an activity that we began at the Farm about 4 years ago, and it became immensely popular among young children. What is so wonderful about these online sessions is that they can now reach a much wider audience than ever before. Children won’t have to be driven anywhere, they can just sit at home, in their living rooms, and be transported to the most wonderful places, and meet the most amazing characters. The stories we currently tell are in Urdu and English. 

Another popular activity that was regularly conducted at The Farm was our literary readings, in which we read out excerpts from the literary traditions of countries around the world. These included short stories, essays, and poetry in Urdu, English, and Punjabi, pieces chosen on the basis of their relevance to our society and its concerns. These sessions are now online as well and are performed at least thrice a week. 

This lockdown is difficult for everyone, and it has been especially difficult for those associated with the performing arts. We have been constantly brainstorming, texting each other, holding online meetings, reading plays together, everything that we can to try and remain sane. I am extremely glad that we have come up with ways to express ourselves, even in these troubling times of anxiety and uncertainty. However, our plays and readings cannot exist in a vacuum; no performance is complete without someone to appreciate it.

We are slowly gathering an online audience but there is still quite a road ahead.  I would like to request those who are reading this piece to support art by watching our storytelling sessions, our plays, and other activities online, and sharing them with others. Because when an artist is truly appreciated, it makes all the effort and struggles worth it. 

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