When reports started trickling in about a mysterious disease in China, one was not initially too worried. As it spread to neighbouring countries, we thought it was still remote. In any case, we soon found out that more regimented societies were at it and had controlled the deadly virus. It was much after the 2020 New Year revelries in the West had subsided, that we heard of new Covid victims: the advanced, civilized, democratic Italy, Spain, UK and then came Trumpland, the US. It was still distant, a Western phenomenon. “We are immune to such viruses. We are a young population and virus-hardened”, some of us thought.
Until the Enemy hit us like a force 10 tornados.
Now at the end of the year, the world has 1.5 million dead and over 70 million infected. Pakistani victims are many times higher than the NCOC stats, thanks to the combined efforts of the Government, the Opposition and the Public of course.
For me, the Pandemic struck at the most inconvenient and inopportune time. I had just got engaged and now wedding preparations were gathering steam: selection of wedding dresses, Walima bookings, house revamping etc. Already had the first photo shoot. Wife-to-be had already given notice of resignation to the channel she was working for in Islamabad. Being geographically distant, we were planning things through Whatsapp and Face Time, a kind of “virtual” wedding planning.
At Ajoka Institute, I had just made ambitious plans for 2020, taking into account the growing demand for performing arts classes. After acting and writing classes, we had launched dance and anchoring classes. Discussions with extended classes for the Pakistan Institute of Management were in the final phase. A tour of Ajoka’s new play on Asma Jahangir was planned. An Ajoka team was in Sweden working with a Swedish theatre group, Jalada, on a play on Malala. The new batch of acting class students were rehearsing their final production, the performance was planned at the Shakir Ali Museum in the first week of March.
Lockdown is flustering for everyone but for someone involved with performing arts, especially acting, it is particularly frustrating. You may sing or dance on your own, in front of a mirror or a monitor. But an actor needs an audience. The audience are your mirror, your monitor. You act for them and their feedback is your source of energy. The same is the case for teaching acting. You need warm-up exercises, theatre games, improvisation, interaction, then you develop a rapport with your students and they overcome their inhibitions, discovering their potential.
There were challenges, though. Physical classes were a problem for many, in addition to transport cost and hassle, time clash with jobs or studies. In some cases, students were coming from as far as Bahawalpur and Rawalpindi every weekend. The possibility of having some kind of distant learning was somewhere in a remote corner of my mind.
When the lockdown struck and all social contact was declared dangerous and unlawful, we had to abandon the physical classes. The last performance, the students’ end-of-course play, did take place, but had to be livestreamed for a Facebook audience. There is no replacement for a live, lively audience and their instant response, laughter, shouts, applause, heckles and jeers. But I noticed that while a live performance is mostly less than a thousand, the live Facebook audience was many times more and many had been responding live during the performance, appreciating, commenting, remarking. That made me sit up and reflect.
Can theatre be totally gagged by a mere virus and then decimated by a government decree? Or must the proverbial show”go on”?
On the other hand, my wedding plans were in doldrums. The second week of April was the Wedding Week. Cards had been distributed, halls had been booked, bridal dresses and jewelry paid for. Just two weeks before it came the national lockdown. No gatherings, no celebrations, no non-emergency inter-city travel. We all agonized for a week or so, weighing the pros and cons. We decided that the wedding must go ahead and got married on the due date, 10 April, with masked groom, bride, even the Nikah Registrar. The limited roster of guests joined the event on Zoom, including the groom’s sister from Karachi and the bride’s brother from South Korea.
Encouraged by the online Wedding Show, I decided to continue with the Ajoka Show as well. Like the shaadi halls, the theatre hall doors were shut but the windows of the online theatre started to open. Not that the excitement and thrill of person-to-person interaction, live performances or the process of on-ground learning can ever be replaced. The facial expression of an actor, the contours of their body language, the throw of their voice needs physical contact, bonding – how could that be virtualized? There was no guidance available in the theatre books. On the internet, all I could find were recorded lectures, theses, biographies or run-of-the-mill “master” classes. My mentors, though masters of their craft, had not been there either. The students were also wondering how could they learn the art of acting from a virtual course. Virtual performance of a theatre play was even harder to imagine. This was indeed uncharted territory.
I had never used Zoom before but there is always a first time. It was not that difficult. There were handicaps but also some advantages. You could organize the participants in groups, communicate in groups or have one to ones. You could even keep a tab on the late-comers. You could share screens, show videos, record the proceedings without a cameraman. I decided to go ahead and announced the online course. I was expecting 3-4 people to join, 5 would have been a welcome bonus. Something like this, the world over, had never been attempted before, and I was just grateful of (hopefully) the opportunity to do what I love.
Imagine my surprise when a few hundred people applied! Admitting up to our maximum capacity, the rest were put on a waiting list. Previously I had still been relatively relaxed. I viewed it as a hit-or-miss proposition. Now I had to actually deliver!
(to be continued)