Art in the time of Corona | Sunday Observer

Art in the time of Corona

Sulochana Dissanayake, made a name for herself by reinventing puppetry - one of the long forgotten traditional art forms which had a vivid history in the Sri Lankan art scene. Being a multitalented artist who graduated from Bates Collage, USA with a B.A. in Theatre and Economics, for the past few years Sulochana had a magical journey with her bold, colourful, charismatic vast range of puppets and was able to bring novelty especially, in children’s theatre and performing art.

For months as we have been pushed into accepting a ‘new reality’ which we never thought about before, while the situation was a nightmare for many of us and a struggle to find peace of our own existence, some artistic souls were able to survive the situation and adhere to the ‘new normal’ while responding to the needs of their own creative communities through social media.

“I’m a dinosaur when it comes to technology – and still my mind spins when I hear about the number of social media platforms we should/could be on and actually it really saved us from the trauma of the pandemic,” says Sulochana.

Sulochana and her four-year-old son were a common sight on Facebook for the past few weeks, with her marvellous, exciting yet scary adventures mostly based on traditional folk tales decorated with her ever shining storytelling talents. It seems she has completely shifted her mode of communication through art according to the rapid changing reality and is able to connect with her audiences via online which are replacing the usual theatre spaces.

In such context, the Sunday Observer had an online interview with Sulochana Dissanayake, aiming to discover her artistic ventures converting into the ‘new normal’ world.

Q: Tell us how this ‘new normal’ has affected your life?


Sulochana Dissanayake and her son Dasharath

A: Professionally, all the physical shows scheduled for April was cancelled – which was brutal blow because for the entertainment industry, April is the first sign of life with the demand for Avurudu shows after the Christmas season. So that was a big economic loss for most of my fellow artists. However, our work in early March allowed us to have a buffer, so we were luckier than most as that enabled us to survive the lockdown period. Since my partner’s work continued, during the day, I was responsible for most of the child care. This worked out well as long as we had a domestic helper, as I could focus on doing creative activities for homeschooling my four year old son and keeping my 1.10 year old daughter entertained.

I was doing a lot of thinking about the artists who are struggling as a result of Covid-19 and wanted to experiment with the virtual performances. But having time to plan anything creative while being a primary care-giver is not easy. But there is never an ideal time in life – you gotta ‘just do it’ (as NIKE says). We were getting a surprising amount of positive feedback for the fun educational activities I was doing with my son and posting on Facebook.

After that experience, I was thinking of a way to create a platform to creatively reach our audience with the potential to develop it into an income-generation for fellow artists. That’s what propelled us to try the Facebook LIVE videos on our Power of Play page. I’m a dinosaur when it comes to technology – and still my mind spins when I hear the number of social media platforms we should/could be on. But the book reading sessions done by the British Council seems to have gained a big following, which inspired me to rethink our performances in the virtual context. It was almost May, and lockdown seemed to drag on and personally, I was losing steam to stay positive in this endless cycle of mostly indoor daily routine.

So I had to give myself a push to try something new – something that would create joy for me, others who watch and will hopefully turn in to re-starting livelihoods for the artists I collaborate with. That’s when I gave myself a challenge to do a LIVE performance on Facebook, every Saturday for a month during the month of May. I was floored by the feedback for the first one which motivated me to somehow keep introducing something novel for each session – despite weathering the domestic storm of our nanny leaving hours before our second LIVE video. As always, when you are hell bent on achieving a goal, everything works in your favour. So with the unconditional support of my partner (who hand paints sets and props at 1am) and my extended family (who pitch in with child care), we pulled through.

Q: How has your art changed during the quarantine?

A: From the physical to the digital. From being able to see the reactions of our audience members (who rarely exceed 100) to performing in front of a screen to thousands who will watch/re-watch at their convenience. Imagining and trusting yourself and fellow performers to be able to create that same sense of fascination in children and adults watching you from any part of Sri Lanka or…the world.

Q: Has the quarantine period changed the way you see the world and your own art?

A: Absolutely. I am fascinated by the power of digital media. No funding required no fussy producers, no big corporations demanding you to sell your soul for air time. A good internet connection, a basic laptop….and you’re your own boss. You can create the content you always wanted (but never had the time for), do the experiments no one else dared to risk and take the creative leaps you never thought possible. Our first live session had audience tuning in from Japan, Australia, and Switzerland – that was mind blowing.

Q: Being a mother of two and a professional artist of your own initiative of Power of play, what emotions are you experiencing during this unexpected time and how is it creating art helping you to embrace and reflect them? Is it an escape?

A: When you are a married woman with two young children, you can never escape. I go through all four main emotions of happiness, sadness, anger and fear almost on a daily basis. My art has created a way for me to connect deeply with my children, and it has made me emotionally resilient (for about 80% of the day – the remaining 20% I’m screaming like a banshee at my children to do the essentials like take a bath or brush their teeth) and has truly shown me the silver lining of lockdown – spending quality time with the children, sharing alone-time with my partner every day after bed time and living as independent adults. It’s very interesting as I’d say we are becoming better known through our digital reach during this lockdown than ever before! Who’d have imagined?

Q: As an artist specialised in children and youth drama and creative activities, what message do you try to share through your work?

A: All our work is based on kindness, self-compassion, and empathy and improving emotional intelligence to develop resilience. Even pre-Covid-19, I was a believer that true success is the ability to be kind to yourself and accept difficult emotions. Once you nurture that from a young age, you’d be able to grow into an empathetic adult. If we act with empathy (towards humans and nature), so many world issues could end.

Q: What are you looking forward to and how will your art be twisted to adhere to the unexpected ‘new normal’ world?

A: I’m excited for all the experiments we will try in this digital medium as that not only opens up a global audience but also, a range of global artists to choose from!

Q: Any up and coming events?

A: Yes! Please watch our facebook page – www.facebook.com/powerinfoplay. We are venturing into paid sessions on ZOOM for a limited number of 20 families per session – catering to families with 4-6 and 7-12 year olds. Zoom allows us to see and directly interact with audiences and we are very excited to explore content that we can co-create with our little (and big) participants. We will still do once a month LIVE sessions free on Facebook so please join! Visit www.powerofplay.lk for more information.

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