What led one of India’s most popular comedians, Vir Das, to describe Soho Theatre as ‘my UK home venue and fave tour promoter’ to his 8m followers on Twitter? And how did Soho Theatre become London’s leading producer of Indian comedy?
When we first travelled to India over a decade ago to bring our playwriting workshops to schools in Bengaluru, Kolkata and Mumbai, we’d already established a track-record of championing artists with roots in South Asia. Since the early days of Soho Theatre we staged the first plays from Tanika Gupta MBE and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti among others, and worked collaboratively with UK-based South Asian theatre companies such as Tamasha and Kali.
We took our flagship Primary Playwrights workshops for London school children aged 10-11 to Bengaluru, where we partnered with Jagriti Theatre. The culmination of these workshops were performances in London and Bengaluru, which showed that, though separated by thousands of miles, the children’s plays had many common themes.
The burgeoning comedy scene in India was underpinned by the opening of The Comedy Store in Mumbai in 2010. The financial and entertainment centre of India, it ushered in a new era of Indian comedy, supporting the careers of an emerging new generation of artists. Bearing witness to this flourishing scene, with performances primarily in English, we took the opportunity to introduce some of these emerging artists to the UK.
As the comedy scene was taking off in India, we took the play Blink, written by the Bruntwood Playwriting Prizewinner Phil Porter, and set in Leytonstone in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, to Bengaluru and New York, setting our international ambitions in stone.
Things really started ramping up from 2016 when we brought Bollywood actor and comedian Vir Das to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the first time.
It’s a relationship which exists to this day as we continue to present his work at the Ed Fringe, in our Dean Street venue and other spots in London and all over the UK on tour.
The next year we returned to India for five weeks, touring Natasha Marshall’s show Half Breed (developed through our new writers’ programme and later filmed for the BBC). We also presented comedians Ahir Shah and Lauren Pattison in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. We formed a key relationship with G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, a not-for-profit cultural centre in Mumbai.
In 2016 we launched our online streaming platform, Soho Theatre On Demand, enabling even more people to access our work from anywhere in the world. As we set about filming and distributing performances from household names to rising stars, comedians from India and those with roots in South Asia, like Aditi Mittal, Nish Kumar, Anuvab Pal, Sindhu Vee and Kai Samra, appeared on our platform.
When lockdown had us all confined to our homes relying on streaming services, we signed a three-series deal with Amazon Prime Video in 2020 to bring 31 critically-acclaimed and award-winning comedy shows filmed at Soho Theatre to Amazon Prime Video’s UK audiences. All the comedians we’d digitally captured over the years were now exposed to brand-new audiences, including on British Airways flights on our own inflight channel.
In 2017 we established the first ever Comedy Stage at the Mayor of London’s free Diwali on the Square. We brought the very best comedy from the UK and India to this celebratory festival in the heart of London’s Trafalgar Square. Nish Kumar, Aditi Mittal, Anuvab Pal and Kai Samra (formerly of our Soho Young Company) performed to over 300 people, ranging from 2 years to 90 years.
2018 saw performances from Daniel Fernandes, Ahir Shah, Sindhu Vee and Kai Samra, and our 2019 line-up was Nish Kumar, Ahir Shah, Kanan Gill, Sunil Patel, Charlie George and Jamie D’Souza. We returned in 2022 with Sid Singh, Sahil Shah, Raj Poojara, Priya Hall and Shalaka Kurup, recent winner of the West End New Act of the Year 2023 competition.
Building on the success of our Primary Playwrights workshops in India a decade ago, and not wanting to lose momentum in India because of Covid-19, we delivered another flagship artist development programme in 2020. Writers’ Lab Mumbai, established in collaboration with G5A, gave 16 young writers the opportunity to express their ideas around heritage, identity and belonging.
‘I was able to recognise my heritage and differentiate between that of my family and mine. This brought me face-to-face with the story I am so compelled to tell, and why it’s necessary.’
In recent years there’s been an explosion of Indian talent, creating an audience in India hungry to discover the next big thing, whether they’re homegrown, from the UK or anywhere else in the world.
We set the ground-work and increased visibility in Mumbai in 2019 when we presented comedian Shaparak Khorsandi to a sell-out audience at the 1,000-seat Tata Theatre at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) as part of the prestigious Tata Literature Live! Festival. This kick-started what we hope will become a regular programme of touring to India, last year taking ventriloquist Nina Conti
We’ve also been busy building relationships with a number of arts organisations in Mumbai including The Habitat, a multi-venue home to live performances including open mics, comedy and improv and artist management company OML.
We reasserted our commitment to bring the best Indian comedy to the UK and the best UK and international comedy to India, appointing Sumit Naganath to the newly created role of Soho Theatre Comedy Producer: Mumbai, in partnership with G5A. This was another milestone, giving Soho a year-round presence there.
‘I was so excited visiting the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time. It was a brilliant way to immerse myself in the UK comedy scene. I came away with a great sense of who’d go down a storm with Mumbai audiences, and the comedians here in India who’d be popular at Soho Theatre and on tour across the UK.’
Back in London and Edinburgh we staged Vir Das, Zakir Khan (Eastern Eye’s top 50 Asian stars of 2021) – performing to a sell-out crowd and the first full-length show in Hindi at Soho Theatre – Suhani Shah (India’s first female mentalist), Aditi Mittal, Anuvab Pal, Kanan Gil, Azeem Bannatwala, Sapan Verma and many more.
'I guarantee these names are going to be names you’ll be hearing about. They will be household names, very much like Vir Das or Nish Kumar.'
And alongside comedians from India and those with South Asian roots we programmed internationally acclaimed writer, performer and public speaker ALOK, the Fringe First Award-winning show Brown Boys Swim, and a stage version of the critically acclaimed podcast Brown Girls Do It Too, which receives a second run at ours due to demand. Recently we hosted Biswa Kalyan Rath for his show in Hindi, which is now available to digital audiences in India.
'Part of the pleasure of watching this podcast turned show is the palpable gratitude and glee with which it’s received, by a (mainly girl, mainly brown) audience drinking up its gags about British-Asian life.'
With our second venue, Soho Theatre Walthamstow, opening soon, be sure to click on our What’s On pages to check out the exciting artists and comedians we’re programming – on stage, online and on tour.
Our brand new venue
See where we're up to refurbishing the old Walthamstow Granada into a state-of-the-art 21st century comedy venue in the heart of the Waltham Forest community - Soho Theatre Walthamstow.