Between 2009 and 2012, when Aruna Ganeshram was senior manager, Branding and Communications, at Daimler India, she often got her hands dirty in the field. Meeting truck drivers on a near-daily basis to identify points of communication for the company, she sometimes worried that her persistent questioning would result in a burly truck driver lifting her by the collar and pushing her off the truck! But, thanks to an early initiation into theatre, such interactions, coloured by her wild imagination, just became bigger stories in her head.“Every time I met a truck-driver, there was drama unfolding in front of me. Once I saw a fully functional household inside a truck — mini cylinders, stoves, a guy cutting vegetables, and another hanging clothes on a line.
The spectators become a part of the performers’ world.
It was literally their home,” remarks Aruna, who did her Master’s in Marketing from Chennai Business School. After spending over six years in the corporate world, she decided to pursue theatre, her first love, full time. Visual Respiration, her theatre company, is dedicated to non-conventional formats of performance, where the spectators become a part of the performers’ world. The productions involve less passive watching, and are experiential encounters for the audience. But the worlds of corporate and theatre are not as far apart as they seem. Aruna says the experience of being on field and the direct interaction changed her whole approach to communication: “In that marketing context, I realised that the communication had to be more personal to resonate with the drivers. It couldn’t solely focus on fuel-efficiency and engine power.”
Now, she approaches theatre from the perspective of the audience; “We often create something based on what we enjoy. How often do we think about what the audience wants to connect with,” asks Aruna, attributing the acquired sensitivity to her research on the field.
Ecosystem around theatre
While introducing audiences to niche performance areas is one part of the challenge, sustaining an arts enterprise is another. “We don’t have an arts focus from a business point of view,” says Aruna, but she is optimistic about emerging models of collaboration that aim to build an ecosystem around theatre.
Punch Drunk, a UK-based company, for instance, creates performances as well as enrichment activities. It works with schools, colleges and corporates using theatre as a learning tool. They also look at interacting with brands, as immersive theatre can distinctively communicate a brand’s uniqueness. As an ATSA (Arts Think South Asia) fellow this year, Aruna is working to build this kind of ecosystem around immersive theatre practice in India.
“Atta-Galatta in Bangalore, as well as Jagriti, are happy to work on a revenue-split model. Whether you have 500 or 10,000 people coming in, it doesn’t matter. There is also increasing collaboration with cultural institutions such as Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institute and Russian Cultural Centre,” she says.
In the pipeline
As a corporate theatre trainer, Aruna believes that when you take the basics of an actor’s rehearsal process to a group of people, there is so much potential for discovery. “It creates a space for dialogue and reflection. And that is necessary for every activity,” she says.
What offends people?
Other ways in which arts enterprises can be sustained are by using crowdfunding platforms, creating performance-related merchandise (as Aruna did for ‘A Moment of Memory’) and external funding from foundations. With foundations like the IFA willing to fund work that pushes the boundaries, the arts and artists have easier access to funds now. Aruna’s next big production, Freedom, which draws from the current controversies around freedom of expression, will take shape in August. “When there is so much opposition to artists expressing themselves, right from the protests around Perumal Murugan’s book to the recent AIB roast, I want to explore what really offends people, and how that can be used to present different points of view. We are planning to use social media as a form of interaction, though it’s not clear how it will play out,” says Aruna, putting her faith in the Eureka moments that experimental processes often throw up.