Eleven days before the opening show of its play, Tadpole Repertory, a New Delhi-based theatre company, published a 1.25 minute trailer for Quicksand on YouTube. Icons that populate conversations on phones and the internet – including a surprised emoji – flashed through the trailer. By the time the title of the play appeared on screen, viewers had just enough to make some inferences – Quicksand is about an event that transpires on social media and spirals out of control.
It is hard to quantify how many people turned up at Quicksand’s opening show, which was houseful, in late October because of the YouTube video, but it was of a piece with the trend of theatre trailers that are increasingly more common, creative and adventurous.
Trailers for theatre productions are not new, of course. The UK’s National Theatre has been making them since 2007 and even in India, trailers for English language plays go back at least five years. What is new is that a trailer is now being treated by more crews, venues, festival directors and production houses as a creative product in its own right, rather than as a hasty edit of a recorded performance.
Setting the context
A case in point is a 30-second trailer of Thoda Dhyaan Se (Be Careful) that was released on YouTube in January. Written and performed by Mallika Taneja, the play, which is about moral policing and women’s safety, opened in Delhi-National Capital Region in October 2015 and had shows in India and abroad. The purpose of making the trailer 16 months later, then, was not just to give audiences an idea of what the play is about or to sell more tickets. Taneja said she decided to make one belatedly because “everyone seems to have one now”.
To make the trailer, Taneja’s friend and coworker Shubham (who uses only one name) used recordings of live performances of the play to layer four videos on top of each other. The bottom-most layer shows Taneja in her underwear before she starts putting on an absurd number of clothes, as in the play. “I made sure no one could peel the layers and misuse the video before publishing it online,” said Taneja. “Having it there in public domain, online, is an act of subversion for me.” She is now thinking about cutting a trailer for her new play, Rukawat ke Liye Khed Hai, which opened at Oddbird Theatre in Chhatarpur in August.
Mumbai-based AGP Productions which organises theatre plays as well as musical and other acts regularly cuts trailers of 30 seconds, one minute or two minutes. In a phone interview, producer Ashvin Gidwani said the trailers serve different purposes, from giving audiences an idea of what the play is about before it opens, to setting the context for international audiences and for corporate sponsorships. “We have an in-house team that makes trailers for our own productions,” said Gidwani. One of AGP’s most successful theatre trailers is for Drama Queen, a play by Suchitra Krishnamoorthi. The trailer had been viewed close to 32,500 times at the time of publishing this article.
Documentation is what drew Shawn Lewis to making trailers. A member of Aranya theatre group in Mumbai, he started by making a behind-the-scenes shoot into a trailer for founder Manav Kaul’s play Park in 2014. “I already had access to the rehearsal,” said Lewis. “I didn’t need permissions to make the trailer. After that, people saw me with the camera and sometimes they would ask me to make a trailer for them.” Among those who have engaged his services are the National Centre for Performing Arts’ NCPA Centrestage theatre festival, Prithvi Theatre and theatre groups such as The Company Theatre. In 2014, he started Bombay Film Factory to make trailers and photographs to promote plays on YouTube and Instagram. Lewis’ most recent trailer is for Shikhandi: The Story of In-betweens, which opened at the NCPA in April.
Of course, theatre is a live medium and translating it into film raises some fundamental questions. On the other hand, video and social media can be cheaper and more targeted than, say, a television spot. Which is why more theatre groups are channelling their limited marketing budgets to these media.
“We are even rethinking the point of printing posters,” said Amba Suhasini K. Jhala, a co-founder of theatre company, Guild of the Goat. “We would still make the posters and share them on social media, of course. But printing them has limited use. Even if we pin them up on the events boards at India Habitat Centre or Prithvi Theatre, the same set of people who already watch theatre will see it.”
This would be a significant shift. Theatre groups have relied on posters as a key marketing tool for decades. Posters from the 1950s and ’60s all the way to the 2000s can be found in the collections at the National School of Drama in Delhi, and adorning the walls of historic venues like the Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts. Even today, the National School of Drama announces big theatre festivals with large posters and hoardings in Mandi House.
Guild of the Goat cut four trailers for its most recent production Futureproof, which opened in May. Jhala worked with cinematographer Yashas Chandra to identify a concept suited to film and to make the videos. “Video is a powerful method for online marketing,” Jhala said. “But how you tell a story through film is different from how you tell it live, on stage. Actors doing stage acting for film just doesn’t work for me.”
Reconceptualising the story for a different medium (film) and a different format (short videos of 30 seconds to 2 minutes) opens up possibilities for abstraction, visual effects and anachronistic presentation. One of the trailers for Futureproof, for example, runs like a directory of misfits. It introduces the cast of characters with written descriptors as short as a single word (for example, vain). Finally, it invites the audience to “#GetYourFreakOn” for the performance. “I was trying to convey a mood,” said Jhala.
While she agreed that in the absence of a survey, it is hard to pinpoint how many people came to the show because of the trailer, she added that 90% of the shows were houseful. At least a part of this success, she believed, is owed to the trailers.