Theatre Industry – Are The Curtains Closing?
This article looks at the functioning of the Tamil and English theatre industries in India. There is little documentation or academic studies related to the vernacular and English theatre industries in India. Hence, this article draws on primary interviews conducted with various stakeholders in the industry to outline the challenges faced by the industry and the future direction envisioned by them.
With some of the running troupes dating back to pre-independence era (ex. Madras Talkies), the English theatre industry is testament to a strong legacy which has withstood colonialism, advent of nationalism and technologically advanced media of entertainment. From an era of being a fledgling industry to finding its own identity (the first two decades post independence), Indian English theatre has rapidly moved from performing western plays or adaptations of British dramatists to developing and performing indigenous adaptations and performances specific to the Indian context. However, with the rapidly evolving entertainment media, the position and sustainability of English theatre is under question.
On the other hand, Tamil theatre which was a thriving industry a few decades back is steadily on the decline. Crowds are rapidly declining even as troupes rehearse and perform scripts. There are few equipment and stage-setting providers. The industry is unorganized with no contracts or paperwork involved as Sabhas and Event Managers work on oral agreements. Tamil theatre has had a long history and many of film personalities in the previous generation were from the theatre industry. The perception is that the industry is now however fast declining and is unable to compete with television and cinema.
The Theatre Troupes
There are just around 25 troupes in Tamil theatre which is a drastic step-down from the 120 troupes that existed in the 1970s. There is not a single professional troupe that exists now. All troupes that have survived the test of time, and the new ones that have cropped up are amateur troupes.
Tamil theatre troupes are very different from those observed in English. The troupes function like a company i.e. a fixed set of people form a troupe. Actors do not audition for plays but are recruited into the troupe. Scripts are usually written for the troupe with roles tailor made to suit the actors in the troupe. With revenues from theatre not enough to pay an entire roster of actors a fixed salary every month irrespective of the number of shows, the model has become unsustainable.
The Tamil theatre troupes have weak brand names and usually individuals are bigger than the troupe.
The Tamil theatre troupes have weak brand names and usually individuals are bigger than the troupe. The plays sell on the brand value of individuals around whom the troupes are built. The brand value is most often carried to theatre from films or television. Personalities are so strong that remunerations of troupes are based on the crowd pull of the person around whom the troupe is built.
English theatre, like Tamil theatre, is characterized by absence of full-time troupes. Most troupes are a collection of part-time artistes except for a few, for example - Evam. This creates significant restrictions on the number of performances, scheduling, travelling show opportunities and inherent scalability and sustainability issues. The troupes typically have a core group of founder managers. The actors are selected through auditions. The plays performed are typically pre-existing scripts and not written specifically for a troupe. The new troupes focus on building strong brands rather than personalities.
In the case of actors and writers it is the passion for the stage that draws them to work in the theatre industry. Remuneration from theatre barely meets their transport expenses to and from the auditorium except for those who are also famous television/film personalities. Most actors have day jobs while full-time actors and writers usually make their living through television serials and films. Though there is a dearth of good writers in the Tamil theatre industry and the demand is high, the remuneration offered is not enough to attract new ones.
Sabhas are a traditional form of organization among the Tamil speaking people. They offer cultural programmes throughout the year to their subscribed members. The main source of revenues for the Sabhas are membership fees and they also get a part of their revenues through gate collections i.e. the public is allowed to purchase a ticket for individual shows that the Sabha offers. A majority of the programs that the Sabhas offer are dramas. However, here has been a drastic reduction in the number of Sabhas, from over 150 in the 80s to just 20 now as well as declining membership to just about 1/3rd of the member strength they had a couple of decades back.
The other theatre organizers are the 4 to 5 event managers organizing Tamil plays in Chennai. The main sources of their revenues are gate collection (revenue from tickets) and sponsorships. They do not have a fixed audience base like the Sabhas and hence resort to extensive marketing. Even if they do have a loyal audience base, they still do a good amount of marketing. The primary reason being that unlike the Sabhas where the members pay upfront, the event managers make their money only if they are able to run successful shows. Hence, unlike the Sabhas, the event managers rarely organize shows with second-tier drama troupes.
Unlike Tamil theatre, the Sabha system does not exist in English theatre. Often troupes organize the shows themselves which rarely happens in Tamil theatre. In addition, Event managers also organize shows, much like Tamil theatre.
They also receive more corporate sponsorship compared to vernacular theatre which receives more governmental support.
In terms of business models, English theatre is very progressive in terms of diversifying to affiliated fields for earning further revenue, for example theatre as speech therapy, drama workshops, office out-bounds, team-building exercises, personality development and so on. They also receive more corporate sponsorship compared to vernacular theatre which receives more governmental support. Most of the troupes also look at their performances as a form of category development. Paraphrasing one of the interviewees, “If someone watches a film and does not like it, he would go later and watch another one; but if he watches a play once and does not like it he might never visit a theatre again”. To a large extent, the focus of most troupes seems to be in generating further interest in theatre as opposed to their own brand. This is also evidenced by the popularity of certain theatres rather than brand of troupes (ex. NCPA/Prithvi in Mumbai; Rangashankara in Bangalore)
The remuneration for the Tamil troupes is usually a pre-agreed amount irrespective of the crowd turnout. However, there are times when some amount of the demand risk is pushed to the troupes. This is typically the case when event managers do shows with second-tier troupes. The troupes are given a set of tickets that they are free to sell at any price. This model creates strange situations where a person with a 500 Rs. ticket might be sitting next to a person with a 100 Rs. ticket simply because they bought their tickets through 2 different channels (the event manager and the troupe). Sabhas do not actively look for sponsors as a bulk of their costs are covered upfront in memberships. The event managers on the other hand, have to proactively seek sponsors to mitigate the demand risk.
In case of English theatre, the median price point for a performance is around 150 rupees. There are shows which are able to generate Rs. 2000 per ticket depending on celebrity value rather than the play/effort involved. The remuneration structure for the troupes is largely variable with some retaining most of the earnings as a central corpus for skill development and other expenses. English theatre troupes do not have the Sabha system and hence proactively hunt for sponsors.
Publicity and Marketing
There is no clear sense of direction for marketing in Tamil theatre. The troupes do not undertake any marketing activities as it is beyond their financial power to do so. The organizers do not market shows unless the troupe already has considerable crowd pull as they do not realize the importance of sustained marketing for educating the masses about theatre. Marketing is mainly through text advertisements in local newspapers which does not attract much attention. In case of first-tier troupes, the organizers market their plays through picture advertisements in various dailies, posters, and of late, through tie ups with radio stations and text messages.
However, the press does not seem to be extending the same support to Tamil theatre as much as it does for English theatre in Chennai. Quoting a Sabha secretary, “If the press does not step in to provide support, Tamil theatre will die in 10-15 years”. English theatre undertakes a huge amount of marketing activities. Most often, the troupes take on the demand risk and hence have to pull audiences. They reach out to the public through all channels including social networking sites. The press support to English theatre is significant. Performances receive preview and review based publicity in most cities. Leading English dailies offer significant coverage to the events and happenings in English theatre.
Issues in the Theatre Industry
The reason for decline in the Tamil theatre industry has been attributed to the cable television. People have substituted their Sabha subscription with cable television bills to get 24x7 entertainment. Television has attacked theatre on two fronts. Not only has television pulled away the audience, it have also pulled away the actors and writers. In addition to this, there is very poor marketing and poor support from the press as well. There is an aging audience indicating that new audience have not been lured in the past few years. The content of the plays merely satisfy the existing audience base and is not very helpful in getting new audiences.
On the basis of our findings it is apparent that there seems to be little motivation to create demand. Industry insiders are not willing to extend themselves as they work for passion while they get their livelihood from other. The television industry is very lucrative and far from saturated.
In case of English theatre the issue seems to be a lack of government support. Governments provide some amount of financial support to vernacular art forms. Some troupes feel that audience involvement and interest has flagged over the years. In their view, critics also have begun to appreciate mediocrity diluting the content of present day plays. The other school of thought believes that theatre is a source of entertainment and hence should not be disconnected from the audience tastes.
With the emerging trends of various innovative business models in the English theatre industry, it is safe to say that the curtains are not closing for English theatre. This is ensured by the fact that there is tremendous inflow of talent, proliferation of associated business models and marginal increase in number of productions across the country. With the advent of further urbanization and growth of English educated middle class, we can look forward to a promising future for English theatre in terms of demand base. The supply structure is likely to see radical changes in the coming years with more troupes being full time performers.
The same cannot be said about Tamil theatre. The industry is struggling with the last 2 new troupes to enter, separated by 10 years. With television attacking the industry on the supply and demand sides and minimal support from the press, the industry is shrinking rapidly. The audience as well as the troupes are aging and with a negligible addition to either side in the past decade, the curtains seem to be closing on this industry.
V. Ranganathan is the Reserve Bank of India Chair Professor on Infrastructure in the Economics & Social Sciences Area at IIM Bangalore. He is He holds an FPM (equivalent to Ph.D.) from IIM Ahmedabad, India and a B. Tech. (Electronics and Telecom) from IIT Madras. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Vivek Rajagopal (PGP 2009-11) holds a B. Tech (Information Technology) from SSN College of Engineering, Anna University, India and can be reached at email@example.com
Dawn Thomas (PGP 2009-11) holds a B. Arch from Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Theatre, Drama, Tamil Theatre, Indian English Theatre, Strategy, Economics
- Interviews with:
- Padmashri Dr. K. Balachander
- Shri S. Ve Sekar
- Shri Kathadi Ramamurthy
- Shri Bramha Gana Sabha Ravichandran
- Shri Nataka Academy Kishore
- Shri Kavithalya Krishnan
- Shri Karthik Bhatt
- Shri Vikram Mankal
- Mr. Sunil Vishnu K.
- Bala Sir
- Mr. Mathivanan
- Gowri Ramnarayan
- An Audience Can Teach You Better Than A Book Can, Financial Express August 4th 2002
- The stage for all Seasons, Telegraph, July 17th 2004