Nepal | July 15, 2020

‘The worst is yet to come’

Nepali theatre industry struggles to cope with no work, operation costs, and no light at the end of the tunnel

Raju Upreti
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The theatre industry in Nepal was already struggling in terms of business, and the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19 has hit it bad, affecting the livelihood of hundreds of theatre artistes, while raising a question on its existence. With productions being halted, training camps being postponed and stagings being stopped, the theatre industry is going through its worst phase.

Nepali theatre community at risk

Calling the lockdown a villainous factor for the Nepali theatre industry, Ghimire Yubaraj, Founder and Artistic Director of Shilpee Theatre, Battisputali said, “It is working against the theatre business. The entire theatre community is at absolute risk.”

Calculating the overall monthly operation cost, including the rent, of Shilpee Theatre, comes to around Rs 4,00,000 as per Ghimire. “But there is no way we can earn that amount in this lockdown.” As such he has been using his savings as well as family money to sustain at present.

Out of 20 artistes working at Shilpee, most of them have returned to their homes outside of the Valley as “they have been cut off from their work”. He as been supporting the remaining staff who are in the Valley “to the best of my ability”.

But Ghimire says the problem of his theatre is on a small scale as compared to what’s in future. “The audience are going to be reluctant to come for stagings due to the fear of the pandemic. It seems theatres will remain shut for a longer period.”

He is worried what if “Nepali theatre fails to cope with this situation”.

“It has forced us (theatre practitioners) to question the existence of the theatre industry.”

No hope so far

Somnath Khanal, a founding member of Mandala Theatre, has been in continuous discussions with the theatre fraternity to plan ways to cope with the current crisis. But he says he has not seen any “way that would address the loss caused by the lockdown”.

“All theatre-related works have come to a halt. The impact is so severe that everyone has been affected,” Khanal reveals on a sad note adding, “There are around 200 artistes associated with Nepali theatre and all of them have now been deprived of their jobs as everything has come to a halt.”

In the case of Mandala Theatre, they have been facing difficulties “to pay rent and operation cost, which comes to around Rs 2,00,000 a month”.

On top of that, around 90 per cent of its artistes are from low economic background and have been living in the Valley on rent.

“They are in great difficulty. Some have returned to their hometowns. And we have been helping each other during this time, either by lending money or arranging other essentials,” Khanal adds.

The lockdown has severely hit the Nepali theatre industry which had been struggling to be stable and settle, he opines, adding, “The worst is yet to come as we don’t have any concrete coping mechanism.”

Long time to stand again

“The pandemic has affected the theatre fraternity by 200 per cent as compared to other industries,” says Raj Shah, Creative Director at Sarwanam Theatre, Kalikasthan when asked about the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on the theatre fraternity. As all theatrical works and sources of income such as training camps, productions, staging of plays, rehearsals among others have been halted “there is no hope of returning to normal immediately”.

He too worries about the future: “The situation is so bad that it will take a very long time for Nepali theatre community to stand on its feet again.”

That’s because “the mentality of audience is going to change for sure. No one will be able to sit with a large group of people to watch a play. Meanwhile, theatre artistes will start looking for another medium to meet their economic goals as theatre won’t be able to do so. Every aspect of theatre is going to fail.”

Though Sarwanam stands on own land and need not pay the rent, it’s still difficult for them to manage the monthly operation cost of around Rs 1,00,000. In case of their theatre artistes, “we have been supporting them to the best we can.”

Last to open

Like other theatre practitioners, Akanchha Karki, Founder of Katha Ghera, also does not see a good future. As per her, it would take more than a-year-and-half for theatre to get back to normal. “Theatres would be the last to open,” she says while revealing, “Though our theatre is on our own property, it’s getting difficult to pay the monthly operation costs which get to around Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000.”

“Additionally we had taken a loan to set up the theatre and it is getting difficult to cover that too,” she adds.

To sustain at present, Karki has started teaching online. But she is worried, thinking how other theatre artistes have been surviving in this situation. “I wonder how those who were dependent only on theatre have been surviving.”

Nonetheless, she has been helping artistes associated with her theatre.

Traumatic situation

The pandemic has made it more difficult for Shailee Theatre at Ratopul. Its Chairperson Nabaraj Budhathoki says, “It has led us to a traumatic situation.”

Why? Budhathoki’s theatre was recently established, in November 2019, and “now was the time to recover the investment, but this (lockdown) happened. All the works have halted. And we are under a huge economic burden,” he shares.

Apart from this, around 16 members associated with the theatre have been affected badly as “their only source of income has stopped”.

Theatre needs to be revived

It is not only the theatre community but the entire country and the world that have been going through this bad situation. And it is when theatre is needed the most. “In a situation where everyone and everything is paralysed, theatre would be an option to bring back joy and excitement among the people in the coming days,” says Ghimire adding, “Thus, it’s really necessary for all of us to look for ways to revive theatre again.”

Khanal echoes a similar view. “Theatre would be a strong mechanism to ease the psychological burden of people. It is a form of art that connects with people and we promise to bring out productions that would provide relief to society and bring back hope,” he states.

Karki and Budhathoki on the other hand appeal everyone to come together to save this form of art: “Theatre is an integral part of community and it needs to be protected/ saved to save the portion of humanity,” the duo share in unison.

Help theatre community

Photo: File/THT

All these theatre professionals opine it would be of great relief if the government would provide support to the theatre industry to help it get back on its feet during this harsh time.

However, they do not have much hope as they point out, “Even the problems of migrant workers who are deprived of food are not being addressed. People are dying due to lack of food. In this situation, we don’t think the government is going to do anything for us.”

They also want the Nepal Academy of Music and Drama (NAMUDA) to develop a coping mechanism for the survival of Nepali theatre industry.

To Nisha Sharma, Head of Drama Department at NAMUDA, said, “The government is not in a position to help theatre houses with monetary or any kind of support. However, NAMUDA is working to help theatre artistes with relief packages and the discussion is going on

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