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Sunday, 3 May 2009

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Beginning of a new chapter for Batticaloa

One is entranced by the melody of the singing fish engulfing the waters of the Kallady lagoon below the Lady Manning Bridge. As dusk descends, the fish chorus sing their hearts out with the harmonious tunes that can be heard if you pass by in a fishing boat on the lagoon.

Today, Batticaloa is bringing the best out of their singing fish with a new concept initiated by the British Council called `Forum Theatre’ that aims to develop communities that had been ravaged by the ethnic conflict and the 2004 tsunami.

The Eastern Province with a population of 1,419,602 is considered to be having the most diversified communities of all.

Just like the soft and peaceful sounds the singing fish bring to the people of Batticaloa, the theme of `Forum Theatre’ aims to bring the best in the people by displaying their talents so that they have an opportunity to spread the message of togetherness.

“It is an amazing experience hearing the singing fish because they make such a soft sound and like the talent they possess, the youth of Batticaloa too have it in them to do wonders on stage”, says Vanni, a trainer from the Centre for Performing Arts.

As one of British Council’s activities to support the efforts of the Sri Lankan government’s agenda of resettling and empowering the communities living in the Eastern province, Forum Theatre aims to increase the ability of individuals and organisations to contribute to positive social change and the strengthening of civil society.

British Council Country Director Gill Westaway said, “We produced a Forum Theatre drama at the Mandathiravu in Batticaloa where we got an overwhelming response because many were willing to speak more about issues that they felt strongly about with regard to the performance”.

As the performers’ own community members act out various solutions to the problems faced by their society, it opens their eyes emphasising that they can make a difference for the better.

“Through forum theatre, the audience will now go back to their homes and will make a small change either by behaviour or reasoning and this is the essence that will develop better communities,” said Gill.

By bringing out various issues and offering different solutions via a collective effort, `drama with a difference’ has taken theatre in Sri Lanka a notch higher. Forum Theatre was initiated by influential theatre director and playwright Augusto Boal who got the audience to control the direction of a performance by proposing a change.

By allowing them to interact with the performers, the traditional audience/actor participation not only makes the drama interesting but offers food for thought. Many performers have reported on the benefits of the Forum Theatre like in the case of stage actor Senthooran who said, “We acted out a play where two different species of birds can live together in harmony with each other, signifying that harmony between our ethnic communities in Sri Lanka is possible to bring peace”.

He said that he was immersed in the act at hand and really understood how it was to experience the reality of a situation. “The power the audience has to change the performance makes it all the more worthwhile because it is they who understand the gravity of the situation if they are faced with it,” he said.

Another performer, Jeewani from Polonnaruwa said, “At first, I was a bit scared to venture out to Batticaloa to be involved with the Forum Theatre but once I met the people and worked with them, I realised as it I had come home.”

As Forum Theatre reaps the most benefits when performed in rural villages, the British Council works in association with the Centre for Performing Arts in Batticaloa who help in the coordination of performances and other logistics. Coordinator of the Centre for Performing Arts,

S.J.V. Swaminathan said that the Forum Theatre concept is extremely beneficial to the people of Batticaloa and today, many who are willing to come forward to do more than acting also want to train and spread the message of community development.

Trainers Nalinda Premaratne and Poopalasinghem Pratheepan said that the performers displayed immense courage on stage as it was quite intense as they were re-enacting scenarios from their lives.

In the words of UK’s forum theatre expert John Martin who works with the British Council to help develop the Forum Theatre art form in Sri Lanka “The goal of Forum Theatre is not a methodology of how a situation can end differently but it is dependant on the local people and their attitude towards it by changing mentalities”.

Pic: courtesy British Council

 

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