"Theatre is still very relevant but still very niche"- Ashvin Gidwani, theatre producer


Theatre has been closely associated with human civilization for thousands of years. The earliest record dates back as far as 6th century BC, more than 2,500 years ago. It has been pursued both as entertainment and as an art form. It is probably the oldest form of entertainment.

Theatre arrived in India after the development of Greek and Roman theatre, between the 2nd and 1st century BC. The earliest form was the Sanskriti theatre. Since the late 1940s, theatre has witnessed a boost in India and was among the prime source of entertainment until television arrived.

Today, theatre may seem to have lost the front seat it once held, in the minds and tastes of people, with the advent of all modern forms of entertainments and distractions, such as televisions, video games, Twitter, Facebook and so on. But, theatre has been steadily growing and evolving all these years, perhaps, less visibly. Some production companies have even taken the onus to get the word out and turn theatre commercially viable and successful.

Theatre lovers in the capital city of India, Delhi had the opportunity to attend the The Hindustan Times theatre weekend, which was held on 2nd and 3rd August 2014, at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium. The Ashvin Gidwani Productions presented four of its popular plays including ‘Scent of a Man’, ‘VIRitten’, ‘Two to Tango, Three to Jive’ and ‘Blame it On Yashraj’.

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The plays offered the Delhiites a break from the usual movie theatres and malls they are generally accustomed to. Moreover, it was a playing ground for corporate sponsors to get targeted visibility and for those theatre aficionados looking for networking opportunities.

Traditionally, theatre has been about showcasing art and talent, appreciated and funded by few. These days, with the growing interest in theatre from the affluents and those who appreciate it, including the curious ones untouched by art and theatre before. It has become both a medium and a breeding ground for theatre companies that are passionate about theatrical plays, who also use it to promote and achieve their business goals. And, for brands and marketers looking for new avenues to promote their products and network, it has become the new landing strip.

Theatre may not have the reach and popularity that other entertainment forms like Bollywood and its celebrities enjoy, it still holds relevance among people. The producer and MD of Ashvin Gidwani Productions (AGP), Ashvin Gidwani believes theatre is very relevant today and his company AGP is able to achieve creative and commercial goals.

[caption id="attachment_10839" align="aligncenter" width="179"] Producer & MD of AGP - Ashvin Gidwani[/caption]

Speaking on the relevance of theatre and how his production company is able to make it experiential, Mr. Gidwani said:

Theatre is still very niche, it may not be as vibrant as Bollywood, but that said, it is very relevant even today. we have for the past many years, tried to create what is missing in theatre phenomenon. So, we’ve taken theatre and made it more experiential. We’ve taken theatre and gone into corporate theatre, sit-down theatre, this is one format. We go to 5-star hotels where you got cocktails, act 1, act 2 then dinner. It becomes a holistic evening where people come, congregate and it is very corporate. So, a lot of clients like to do this. Our clients like to engage their customers, and use it as a platform for networking, socializing, fraternizing, etc., so this is one method, which we have used across 17 cities in India and 12 countries worldwide.

Obviously, the most conventional method is to do it in an auditorium or a theatre in a college, but we have made it more boutique by creating lounges at the venue. Let’s say, today, 200 odd customers come and we create a section for them, a lounge for them with starters, but obviously, the focus is on people to come and see a good event, what we have done is to create an aura of ATL and BTL, both conventional and unconventional methods of reaching out to audiences publicly. Strategies have been developed from production-to-production, year-on-year, across geographies, targeting sensibilities, focus groups etc., we need multilayer formats to reach audiences and make an impact.

Mr. Gidwani believes, the challenges faced by the artistic fraternity is the lack of theatre culture imbibed in people from start. However, he feels it is changing. On that note, he said:

Challenge is that not everybody is brought with the theatre culture, I feel most of the school and colleges have now made it part of their curriculum. Earlier, it has always been about music, bollywood, reading but now theatre has become part of curriculums. Now, they are started to understand, at grassroot level that it is an important aspect of education, this is good for us in the long term. In the recent times, a lot of guys would come out of 10th and 12th and they got absorbed in standup format.

Adding further, he believes that the current theatres are are not structured as a business entity that can provide steady livelihood, but it is likely to change in the near future. He said:

In theatre, there is a lot of growth, but it is not structured, they are not structured as a business, not structured to provide livelihood. But, it will change. In 5 years, you can actually say, ‘I work with a theatre company, which does all the things a theatre do’, and you don’t worry about looking elsewhere for livelihood. So, we are trying to make it a business and a profession. We are encouraging talent. In Mumbai, we built a centre, and we are taking our production around the country, but now we are setting up a centre in delhi, which will be producing commercial theatre.

Today, theatre may not be just about presenting plays to audiences with a bend of mind for arts and theatre, but, it is also about how you take it to new potential target groups, attract sponsors and create experiences and engagements that can get brands interested in your offerings. Speaking more on that, Mr. Gidwani said:

With the corporate theatre format, we started targeting a lot of the IT companies, a lot of companies that love to do HR exhibits for their staff, we’ve gone to Infosys in front of 1,900 people at their campus, in their amphitheatre and presented our plays. We performed at Genpact, TCS, banks etc.

Another target group for our production is doing theatre with communities. We are talking about very affluent communities, who are culturally very rich in culture. If you talk about the Marwari community, they culturally  rich and have always encouraged arts. They are social conscious, Then we have Munjal community from Punjab, especially industrialists who encourage this kind of work. Communities are important part of the pyramid for our kind of work.

We also go around the globe where we have strong Indian community, from Africa, Middle East, far east, US to UK. Some of those plays we do are for promoters, social cultural groups, some do it for their own. This is another format.

If we think about the multiplexes, Bollywood movies, DTH TV, video games etc., it may seem that these forms of entertainment would take a huge slice off theatres. But do they? Mr. Gidwani said:

They do not have direct impact on theatre, if you are talking about multiplexes, we are using multiplexes to create alternate entertainment, I’ve been approached to put a production to roll out across 40 cities. This is just another theatre format. The occupancy is good in multiplexes, the numbers are good, so the synergy is right there. As for bollywood goes, we no longer fear or worry that a big blockbuster releases over a weekend and my show is impacted. It doesn’t happen anymore.

Not all theatres work well and strike a chord with the audience. Mr. Gidwani comments on how to draw people’s attention and liking towards theatres. On that, he said:

How much you put out there and what kind of content and quality of content you put out there matters. So, if you do some great work, package it well, with the right name, it normally works at an above average level and grows steadily. Then, it is about good coverage of theatre and the production, but ultimately, it is the word of mouth that gets you momentum. Live performances always have that very sensitive kind of impact. It is like how we use social media to promote products, it comes down finally to what people comment and how they value, makes all the difference.

Theatre in India may have been in existence for a while but when it compares to the west, it needs to go the distance. On that subject, Mr. Gidwani said:

They are eons away, they have been in the system for 100-150 years. Theatre here is at a very nascent stage, we do good work but we are not structured. “Every country is doing theatre in their own format. China is doing a lot on their side, but you cannot compare, they have made it into a tourism business, their revenue model. If you travel to england and open up a newspaper, you will see that same productions are running for the last 10-15 years. In UK, every city has its own art and culture festivals. The England alone has 4,500 theatres for such a small country. We don’t have such infrastructures. Even their small theatres have got state-of-the-art equipments, which even our best theatres in the country do not have. They see theatre as an integral part of their growth

We have zero support when it comes to theatres. Some theatres come under municipal control, very few are private and some are running because there are families and communities that support them, as they have understood the importance of culture. The Art Council England, this year has a 80 million pounds budget compared to our 800 Cr budget. It simply doesn’t compare.

Since, there is minimal support from the government for theatres in India. Productions companies have taken the onus onto themselves and some have even successfully commercialized it. Speaking on these challenges, Mr. Gidwani said:

Attracting corporates is the only way you can make the industry grow, it is to tie up with a corporate. You got lots of private partnerships there and taken the onus to do it. Thats the only u can make theatre grow - as a business. We can start a format where we can paid more, we can afford it, so we can demand what we need.

Due to the circumstances that surrounds theatre industry in India, many production companies have taken the creative way to strategize and partner with brands to offer experiential activities other than theatre. Reflecting his thought on AGP’s approach, Mr. Gidwani said:

Theatre is one approach, we have an art company, we have close relationship with Tao art gallery and we host series of art shows around the country for corporates and we have also done Salman Khan Arts exhibition in Dubai, and we are planning something next year in delhi. That’s the art part.

We also have a talent division in which we create intellectual properties around artists. Our strength lies in content, we sign up artists, some international and some indian, who we identify as talents then AGP support them in achieving their full potential to entertain and perform. We basically manage talent 360 degrees. Our focus is primarily for Africa, Middle East, far east and India. These artists have exclusively signed up with us, we create IPs for them. As an example, we signed up Nicolai Friedrich, a mentalist from Germany.

Further, he added:

We design experiential activities for corporates in many countries, we’ve designed one for a major bank in Nairobi with Kailash Kher, we have designed a show for HSBC and MakeMyTrip with Farhan Akhtar, we did a show for a bank in Dubai with Bipasha Basu, we worked with Standard Chartered bank by enrolling the cricketer Steve Waugh and we also did a show for another bank in Mumbai with Kangana Ranaut. We also got into horse racing business with the launch of AGP Multimillion Racing and we are 3rd largest in Mumbai."

Holistically, any brand that would want to partner with a production company like AGP to reach out to certain target audience or achieve conversion would want to know the takeaways. Ashvin Gidwani speaks about 3 basic tools that AGP utilizes that brands benefit with the association:

The 3 tools are engagement, acquisition and referral. An engagement is, for example, I am a customer with your bank, I have a networth of x amount and I would spend 5% with that bank. When the bank partners with AGP. If the relationship manager from the bank comes to my office, I am never going to be talking on where I put my money, especially in my office. If I get invited to a lovely experience, I meet 5 different people from the bank, the relationship manager, his boss and his boss. You create an experience with bank.

At the party, I might be already high, I enjoyed the show, I laugh, I am drunk and I had a good time. It is an opportunity for the bank to open up my mind, to get me closer to the bank and secure investments with the bank. There are 10 guys out there trying to get my money. You get a chance to gratify me. That’s engagement.

As for referral, at a theatre, we can acquire new customers just by being part of it. You can bring your friend then your friend becomes a referral. The existing customer is adding value by introducing his friends bring friend wide...ur friend becomes become referral. he’s adding value by introducing his friends if banks want to acquire customers. The engagement is structured in a way that everything going right at the event, people are happy and they are in a happy state of mind. We create opportunities in theatres and shows for people to acquire new people."

A successful theatre may be a result of many components, but, some may standout as a key factor in deciding how audiences will receive a play. Speaking on the factors that ensure quality results, Mr. Gidwani said:

Script, content is the raja (king), that’s the first thing. It is the most important thing that one has to get right, then finding the right director to marry the script, every director has a style. He/she has a particular understanding. Sometimes you get both script and director in one person. Bharat Dabholkar, Deepa Mehta, Mahesh Dattani are both directors and writers. Another example is Tariq Shukla, writer, director, actor and a national award winner. These are people from the heartland of theatre, who have understood. At the same time, it is not only important to do great content, great interaction, but get good producer who can understand the sensitivity and sensibility, who is able to levitate their work and bring it up to people, by networking, getting the word out etc."

Every industry has its challenges. When EE asked Mr. Gidwani on the challenges that his production company AGP and the theatre industry faces today in terms of awareness, he said:

"It’s just about awareness, getting more eyeballs. A person would be generally interested in theatre if his/her parents imbibed inside him. The Maharashtrian and Gujarati community has traditionally encouraged theatre at grass root level. That's in culture, but the industry has not been creative. A top guy in a business only understand art when he has the time to experience it, you got too much happening in his life. Look at a scenario,  a guy gets married, in two years he has a kid, another 2 years, another kid, the cycle goes on. That's herd mentality."

"But, from this year, you will see change. what we have sowed in the last 10 year will reflect in the next 5 years, You will see more people coming to theatre. Before Slumdog Millionaire, Freida Pinto wasn't on the radar, look what Slumdog did, Oscar winning movie, until it was recognized, Freida was unknown in this country, until it got international recognition. So, the bottom line is that unless we get out there, people won't respect it."

Mr. Gidwani on future plans:

"We are going to set up in Delhi in the next 3-5 years, so what happens in Mumbai happens in Delhi itself. There are many struggling talents in Mumbai but it is overcrowded, if I can replicate in Delhi, it will be a big move. 60% of cinema in India comes from south, only 20% is from Bollywood, in fact it was 17% last year. South India is maybe more, so, if we start creating cinema in Delhi by providing new infrastructure, ask the new govt to support us, we can really do a lot. There are too many intelligent and creative people here, we can create a base for commercial theatre, which is not only for art alone."

"We have done analytics, we have done studies, we researched how people think, what is the right time, right people, right sex - is it Baisakhi? Is there NRI influx? We found 70% of those who buy tickets are women, on box office and online, that's 3 years of research."

"We did a play 'Get rid of my wife' that has now done about 125 shows, in which the husband is trying to tease her, and the wife replies, "I am not coming to the show", he said, "you have been following me to all place, you might have a good time". I made it a talking subject in every household. This is what we want to do, be the talking subject and get the word out there."

When asked about the reception that AGP’s plays received recently at the Hindustan Times theatre weekend, at Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium, Mr. Gidwani said:

It was a good event, it’s a very big venue. we set up a super structure, we ended up looking like a concert with 100 foot dropping, indoor stadium, it is a good place, humungous place. The audiences gave standing ovation for all our 4 productions.

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