Nepali theater industry’s struggle for stability has been an age-long affair. The uncertainty around its sustainability, chiefly due to the imbalance between its financing and revenue modality, has kept the commerce of the industry on shaky grounds. Worsening the case, the uncertainty after the COVID-19 pandemic has further risked the future of theater institutions and artists of the fraternity. In light of such predicament, and to outline a possible road ahead, around 20 theater practitioners gathered for a discussion at Shilpee Theater on August 1. Initiated by Theater Hub and hosted by Shilpee Theater, the session brought out personal reflections, insecurities and challenges faced by theater groups and artists, especially during the lockdown, and it also facilitated a brief discourse on the future and revival of the industry as a whole.
Struggling to survive
The Nepali theater industry has been virtually shut down since early March following the government’s directives to restrict mass gatherings. With no shows happening for almost five months, and a complete shutdown in alternative income sources like theater training, academic teaching and social/community theater projects, artists have been stretched to the limit for basic survival. Freelance artists, who often are remunerated on project-by-project basis, are mostly bearing the brunt of this protracted halt. Theater groups are, on the other hand, hard-pressed due to the rising financial liabilities amid no business. Artistic Director at Shilpee Yubaraj Ghimire said that the drying up of the organization's savings and an unforeseeable future has raised concerns about the institution's survival. Up until now, his institution has been barely managing to pay the lease rent, cover the electricity bills and maintain kitchen supplies for all resident artists. The fear of paychecks, however, hasn’t been the only insecurity that performing artists are currently going through. Many even have been struggling with the creative drought that has befallen all. The need to refrain from human proximity and collective process of making art has taken its toll on all artists, creating a sense of self-doubt and exhaustion. Without the process of making plays, artists are also worried of the possible stiffness that can hit them once they return back to the stage.
No state support
Much like its financial vulnerability, Nepali theater has also been bereft of guardianship from the state--a unanimous reflection made by attendees at Shilpee. Although the state’s negligence toward Nepali theater industry isn’t new, a complete tone-deaf demeanor during these desperate times has piqued all stage professionals. On June 25, the theater fraternity had submitted a nine-point demand to the Nepal Academy of Music and Drama (NAMUDA) mainly outlining the crisis for theaters, the absence of government policy and actionable plans, and the lack of budgetary support for theater groups and artists. But, much to the dismay of the fraternity, their formal submission hasn’t been acceded for over a month. So far, barring efforts from a few independent theaters and the Federation of Theater Organization Nepal (FETO), the authorities have initiated no notable relief mechanism. Beyond these myopic problems, the academy and the Ministry of Culture, who are often indulged in passing the buck, haven’t genuinely realized the contribution made by independent theater institutions to the overall art atmosphere of Nepal. The shortcomings of these responsible agencies are projected through the lackluster efforts seen in organizing impactful theater festivals, drafting policies, plans and databases for theater events and people, and providing national and international platforms to deserving candidates. It is the creative drive and continuous dedication of independent drama organizations that have helped the theater industry achieve cross-border success, both content and quality-wise, especially in the South Asian region. Last year, NAMUDA was allocated with a fiscal budget worth Rs 60 million, but it did not trickle down to substantial and noteworthy theater activities, and the primary contributors within the independent theater scene were untouched by the budget.
Speaking at the event, actor and director Dilip Ranabhat accentuated the immediate need of institutionalizing the theater industry itself, which might embolden the bargaining capacity of thespians working in it. Similarly, Kedar Shrestha of Theater Mall stressed on revisiting the strategic vision of Nepali theater altogether. Rather than aiming at imminent survival tactics, he said the industry could only steady its ship by making the government agencies and stakeholders concerned more responsible in creating a secure atmosphere for artists. The discourse, however, didn’t only focus on ways of resorting to the government. Theater practitioners brainstormed about possible short-term workshops, courses that could be facilitated under proper distancing and hygiene protocols. Components like playwriting, theater management and interactions on other topical issues could be an icebreaker to begin with. And once the lockdown eases and things get back to normal, staging plays under open air could be another viable option that theater artists can think of. Theater groups like Katha Ghera and Shilpee have already executed few outdoor performances so far, but it was mainly targeted toward putting pressure on the government. To do so more frequently, and for an orchestrated storytelling, theaters should be careful about managing the audience. Spacious amphitheaters located at Taragaon museum or the Dabali (open square platform) of Academy Hall can be considered as immediate venues. Finally, the need for an entrepreneurial mindset in theater was collectively realized by many. Theater scholar and writer Jeebesh Rayamajhi put forward an idea of establishing a fund for theater institutions, an arrangement that can help create a one-window fund generating facility, and bring the corporate world and I/NGOs closer to the theaters. The presence of such independent setup will help not only in smoothening the financing of the industry but also help make the scenario more professional and organized.
Out of all things, the session was a catharsis to many artists; a forum to vent out frustrations, fears and concerns about the future. The positivity emanated by the collective presence will certainly give confidence in the pursuit of finding a silver lining for Nepali theater industry in the days to come.