Breaking Barriers

Unravel, an improv theatre performance, hopes to encourage discussions on mental health

Before entering the Amaltas Hall at India Habitat Centre, the audience were handed slips of paper to fill in information about their favourite songs and what makes them happy, on the condition of anonymity. This formed the premise of I Will Be Happy When… — where eight performers read out some of the answers — that was one of the many games that featured in the improv theatre performance Unravel, presented by Delhi-based theatre collective Kaivalya Plays.

As the play’s director, Varoon P Anand, read the numerous answers, one left him in tears. It read, “I will be happy when I die”. Subsequently, Anand recalled how hopeless he felt back in 2015, when he shut himself off from the world, started eating a lot, avoided talking to friends and went through a depressive phase after a heartbreak.

With no prior script, and dialogues created in front of live viewers, two-hour-long Unravel, staged on August 16, made an attempt to share the experience of those suffering from depression and other mental health issues. Dressed in casuals, the performers stood in the midst of the audience with an aim to create a safe place for discussions. The audiences’ favourite songs were sung and jokes were interspersed to lighten the mood. “What is interesting about an improv show is that anybody can do it. Comedy is the root. You don’t need to have props or costumes. We haven’t written the stories we tell. It is impromptu,” said Anand. He was introduced to spontaneous improvisation in 2008 at Theatre Guild of Ancon in Panama, where he co-founded Improv8, one of Panama’s first improv groups.

Each performer was free to share personal experiences. Dravya Chawla, for instance, spoke about the struggles he faced to find a job after completing his MBA. Also pursuing theatre simultaneously, he was successful in neither. He shared how he was the sole earning member in his family, but his friends were only concerned about his dating life. “I had so much going on. Dating was not a priority,” he said. Actor Gaurav Singh, meanwhile, spoke about how caregivers for those who are battling depression also need care. He spoke about the challenges he faced while taking care of a close family member, who suffered from depression.

Towards the end of the act, the lights were turned off and the performers posed questions before the audience. A clap would mean ‘yes’ for an answer. Most questions received thunderous claps — from “Are you depressed?” to “Has your trust been broken so many times that you find it hard to trust anyone?” and “Are there days when you struggle to go to work?”.

With this being Unravel’s 14th performance in Delhi, Anand noted that the improv scene in the city is “exploding but worrying”. “Suddenly, there are several improv groups. I have attended a show where they said ‘let’s go and shoot some kids’. You don’t do that in an improv. Rules are required. We don’t allow jokes about gender or someone’s sexual orientation. One has to aim for a better quality of comedy,” he said.

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