What is theatre’s worth today? | Sunday Observer

What is theatre’s worth today?

I recently came across a video clip uploaded on the ‘Drama Sri Lanka’ Twitter page which shows the speech delivered by Sinhala fiction writer and theatre practitioner Piyal Kariyawasam at the event organized by the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation in view of World Theatre Day (27th March). ‘Drama Sri Lanka’, which is the brainchild of Yohan Ferreira, a friend from schooldays at Wesley College, must be hailed for the service it renders to promote Sri Lankan drama and theatre of all levels through Social Media and text message services. The speech by Kariyawasam on which I will comment in this article can be viewed on the YouTube channel of Drama Sri Lanka.

Kariyawasam in his speech highlights how the ever increasing streams of technology now act to create distances in human relationships rather than sincerely bring people closer. I venture to think that when one looks at the broader scenario of how a highly ICT immersed youth is merging, his observations portend what is possibly a virtually irreparable fissure in human relations in respect of the ever increasing generation gap of the present.

The seasoned theatre practitioner and writer clearly puts across his argument not by alluding to theoretical discourse but by citing a scenario that had unfolded in their midst at that event.

In his address to the audience he cited how all of them in attendance were enchanted by the accomplished violinist from the Kaemadasa Foundation who had played for them (before Kariyawasam was invited to the podium to speak) and how nearly everyone there took out their phones to take pictures, and perhaps make short video clips of this violinist’s performance. He then subsequently raises the question whether anyone bothered afterwards to speak a few words with him and get to know him? I believe the question was rhetorical.

That question was surely a hard hitting point for all there, but it raised a truth that should not be overlooked. Do we, in this digital age, with our employment of technology relegate an artist to being ‘objectified’ in the course of appreciating his work? Is a picture or a short video clip of his work all the memories we care to keep of experiencing his efforts? Would not sharing a word with him to verbally express our appreciation of his efforts be a way of giving back to him in return for what he has given us? These are thoughts to ponder, based on what Kariyawasam has brought out through that simple example.

In citing what technology is presently impacting man’s interpersonal bonding, Kariyawasam cites the crisis that has been created in theatre.

He says, this crisis has now created a need for alternative media for theatre. He cites in this regard a piece of writing by prominent French actress Isabelle Anne Madeleine Huppert who among her many achievements in the world of cinema, counts winning the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for Violette Nozière (1978) and The Piano Teacher (2001).

Kariyawasam says that fear of the growing crisis in theatre seems evident from Huppert’s writing. He says in his own opinion that theatre is a place where a person meets a person. With no religious, lingual, ethnic, geographical provincial factors creating barriers, this is the greatest feature in Sri Lanka he says. He says, the most special attribute in acting is that it transcends verbal language viewing ‘narrative’ as a statement of the body. And thus, surely one could surmise that he means that theatre offers a physical expression that is not linguistically caged. A bare stage and a human body, that is all that is needed, he cites Huppert who believes that with those bare elements, theatre is born. Kariyawasam in his speech says much wealth now is invested not to build human relations (and the sense of collectiveness) but to destroy it. Not to facilitate their meeting and bonding, but to create distances.

In his speech, he presents what is perhaps the counterargument as to what negativities in this world lend to theatre’s continuance as an art practised by man. He cites Huppert who says, for as long as war, poverty, disease, illiteracy, food scarcity, gene technology, and the problems that arise from these exist, man will never let go of the art of acting. Kariyawasam thus gives perspective that this art arises from aspects / factors of oppression.

He says, “There are some classes that don’t even know they are oppressed.” As an academic and a university lecturer the closest example he cites are university students. He cites the crisis that is growing with regard to how the state views the ‘worth’ of studies in the humanities and liberal arts. He says, the curtailment of funds for universities is aimed mainly at the humanities departments. The problem lies mainly, as pointed out by Kariyawasam in the question posed them –what sort of ‘product’ can they give? He says, ‘We can’t produce an engineer. We can give an actor, an actress.”

But then he says, the subsequent question is ‘What can they sell?’ Basically, the establishment wants a saleable product. This is very pitifully telling of the crass hyper consumerist market system our society as a whole is being moulded into by the state itself.

Towards the end of his short speech Kariyawasam speaks of how the veteran Japanese theatre director Tadashi Suzuki fled from the central cities in the wake of a monstrous urban capitalism that has profit as the sole means of judging the worth of anything.

Taking his practice in theatre out of the cities, Tadashi sought alternatives. We are now getting moulded into a society that will reflect the words of Oscar Wilde –“People nowadays know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Sri Lanka today, has a theatre culture that is becoming arguably robust in volume. Is quality equally so? Perspectives may surely vary.

However that may be, it is the duty of the State to ensure that in the zeal for market driven economic prosperity the arts are not eroded to virtual obscurity. It is said that during the Second World War, Churchill was allegedly asked to cut funding for the arts in support of war funding.

His response had been –“Then what are we fighting for?” Whether this is apocryphal or recorded fact I cannot be certain. I may not be a fan of Churchill’s broader political philosophy which was based on brazen white supremacist colonial ideology, but that supposed statement says much of how important the arts can be to a people defending their very existence as a nation. Technology alone cannot be the yardstick of a civilisation. A ‘human civilisation’ requires much of the humanities to make its statement of worthiness, to man.


Theatre pix:

Mahinda Vithanachchi