Going Viral in India

tll-2016-sunken-garden-going-viral-47.jpgThe Going Viral tour of India is more than halfway through. Since we arrived we’ve already been to Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Rangashankara and Hyderabad, doing ten shows, staying in eight hotels and countless hours of travel time. It’s tiring but I can hardly complain. My job for this month is touring a fantastic country and doing a show I love to audiences who receive it with real warmth and enthusiasm. I could hardly be more privileged. We’re now back in Bombay enjoying a welcome two days off for some cricket. By this weekend we’ll be in Kolkata for a theatre festival, then Guwahati, then back to Mumbai for  another festival.

Bombay. Mumbai. It’s so confusing. Everyone in Mumbai calls Mumbai Bombay, unless they work for the government. Everyone from outside of Bombay calls Bombay Mumbai. In Britain in particular we call it Mumbai because we don’t want to flout the wishes of its citizens by calling it by its colonial name. But Bombay isn’t its colonial name and its citizens find the name change ridiculous. So I’m inclined to call it Bombay.

Doing a show partly set in India has been a real pleasure, and I’ve been able to put back in some India material that got cut during rehearsals because the UK audience found it bewildering. In Bombay in particular this material has gone down a storm.

The question I’m asked most frequently here is “how have Indian audiences reacted differently to audiences in the UK”. Local minutiae aside, the answer is “not at all differently”. Differences are created more by performance space than by city – and more by my ability to negotiate that space than by the space itself. The two performances in Mumbai alone were as different to each other as either one was to any given UK performance. At NCPA’s Sunken Garden I didn’t do a good enough job of negotiating the demands of outdoor performance, which, coupled with a few sound issues, made a genuine relationship with the audience very challenging to establish and sustain. At Prithvi Theatre, a relationship with the audience comes as a given – it’s almost the perfect space for the show and one of my favourite theatres anywhere in the world – and so the challenge instead became staying on track and actually getting on with the show from time to time, rather than just playing with the audience. These two shows, in the same city, on consecutive nights, could possibly be my least and most enjoyable performances of the show anywhere ever.

Then we got to Delhi, where the contrasts may not have been quite as extreme, but they were emphasised by the two performances having taken place not just in the same city but in the same venue. It was in the British Council theatre, an end-on space with a raised stage, the kind of space that’s radically hostile to the confected round on which Going Viral thrives. Three small banks of audience perched on the stage, with the fourth bank, a 250-seat rake, yawning back into the darkness. The first night I didn’t make it work at all, pushing too hard, straining my voice by trying to reach the back row while facing away from them half the time, not really adapting to the new context, to some degree out of irritation at having to do the show in a space so unsuitable. Contrary to popular belief, it’s easy enough to be intimate in a big space – but not so much if you’re facing the back half the time. On the second night, I played the room I was in rather than the one I prefer to be in, worked with the main seating bank much more, relaxed a bit, and it was an absolute blast. The audience got so involved and so much happened that we added about fifteen minutes to the run time and I’ve rarely had such a warm response at the end.

And then the same space in different cities or just on different nights can have very different results. In Chandigarh, in a space much more obviously appropriate to the show, the audience was almost totally silent. I’d done two shows the week before in virtually identical British Council spaces in Pune and Ahmedabad and they’d been an absolute blast, yet here it felt dead. I tried to work with the audience’s silence rather than begging for laughs, to give a good account of the show’s shifts of energy and rhythm, to stay relaxed despite the lack of feedback. The response at the end was incredibly warm. I should remember this more often back home, rather than inwardly cursing the audience for their silence.

The difference between audiences here and audiences in the UK aren’t markedly different in part, of course, because the main cultural obstacles to encountering this show have already been overcome. No one comes unless they back their ability to follow a text in English for seventy minutes. This carries with it certain implications about the class background and privileges of the people I’m reaching here. (That’s of course to some degree true back home.)

So finally, it’s particularly fascinating to do a show that is, to a large degree, concerned with the corrosive effects of white western privilege on the rest of the world, here in a part of the world that has been a notable victim of British expansionist imperialist privilege-building. Early in the show there’s a quip about my being – as a straight white western male – “basically a perfect storm of privilege”. That often gets a laugh, at home as well as here. On a couple of occasions here it’s also had a round of applause. And as I pointed out to the audience in Delhi on Sunday, that’s what privilege is. It’s an unearned round of applause from the universe for your mere existence. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the fact that this improvisation itself also got a round of applause.