Co-designed by Nikhita Singh

Stage of the art

By Snigdha Hasan | Mumbai

Updated: Feb 16, 2019, 08:21 IST

Before you buy a ticket to a play, it's often the poster that offers a window into it. Here's how theatre groups in the city are moving beyond photographs to reimagine this microcosm of a production

Standing in the serpentine queue in the Prithvi Theatre foyer can be quite a fascinating experience. There's the celeb-spotting thrill, and there's the hold-my-spot request you make to a stranger when you pop out to buy kadak chai, or browse through titles at the bookshop. But perhaps a theatre-goer's favourite pastime while in queue is to gaze at posters of upcoming plays at the venue, so he knows what is coming here next.

A French adaptation's poster by Bhatkar

"A poster is to a production what a book cover is to a book," says Shaili Sathyu, artistic director of Gillo Theatre Repertory, known for its aesthetically designed posters. And some theatre groups in the city are increasingly moving away from using photographs of the cast or scenes from the play as publicity material to viewing posters as integral to the overall aesthetic quality of the production. The result is poster art that manages to capture your attention without the crutch of star power, gives you a glimpse into the play, and leaves you intrigued. For this, theatre companies are roping in artists, or as go the exigencies and constraints of the medium, turning into artists themselves.

Designed by Nikhita Singh with inputs by Sapan Saran

Omkar Bhatkar, who admits he is "too particular about it", belongs to the latter group. The artiste and founder of Metamorphosis Theatre Inc further explains that a wrongly designed poster can attract the wrong audience. "The colour scheme and fonts are important. I cannot have a warm poster for a play that deals with a dark subject, and communicating this to someone who is not immersed in the play could make it a long-drawn process.

Taoos Chaman ki Myna by Anagh Banerjee

A poster, after all, is the first representation of a production," he adds. And this first look goes beyond physical copies of posters. As theatre groups rely increasingly on social media to get the word out on their productions, it is on WhatsApp or Instagram that you are likely to spot a spiffy JPEG on a new play before anywhere else.

Designed by Omkar Bhatkar

To design posters in sync with the experimental plays that are a crucial part of their repertoire, it is all hands on deck at Tamaasha Theatre. "I wish we had a professional designer on board, but we don't have that luxury. But that just helps theatre groups to learn to do everything on their own," shares Sapan Saran, who co-founded the company with veteran artiste Sunil Shanbag. "We believe that the core idea of the set design, poster and hand-outs must come organically from the script," she adds.

Designed by Nitin Gupta

To create a poster for her play Arabian Night, for instance, she worked in tandem with Nikhita Singh, a writer-researcher with training in the visual medium, who was working at Studio Tamaasha. "The play is about a situation where the water supply to a floor in a building is cut-off. It's why you see a maze of water pipes. Plus, there is a sense of urban alienation in the plot, hence the boxed credits," Saran explains.

Sapan Saran and Omkar Bhatkar

Singh also designed the poster for Abhinav Grover's latest play, Raam ji Aayenge, that explores the intertextuality of the Ramayana and Waiting for Godot. "We used two apes from the vaanar sena, and the iconic motif of a lifeless tree from Godot," she says. Nitin Gupta, who interned at the company, tells us about how he was encouraged to use his passion for sketching to design the visual elements of its plays. "For Going to the Sea, which is about a dysfunctional family, I decided to bring the baby that can be heard crying constantly in the background but is never seen, to the poster," he shares.

Anagh Banerjee

Though they have different tastes, Sathyu credits her father and leading stage designer MS Sathyu for her understanding and respect for theatre design. For her productions, she tells us that she likes the artist to watch a few rehearsals. Anagh Banerjee, who has worked on several of Gillo's posters, says, "Theatre is such a bold medium of performance that I always aim for translating that spirit onto a poster. For Taoos Chaman ki Mayna, I used the architectural elements in old Lucknow, where it is set. A central character feels caged and that can be seen as well, along with his face if you look closely," he says.

All artistes we spoke to agree that plastering the cast's photographs on a poster is not their idea of production aesthetics. "How you present your work on stage should reflect in the publicity material, too," Banerjee points out. "There was a time when vinyl covers were seen as collectible art. What if you could do that for a play you loved, too?"

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