The State and Fate of Theatre | Sunday Observer

The State and Fate of Theatre

A scene from a  children’s drama by the Kotte  Playhouse.
A scene from a children’s drama by the Kotte Playhouse.

A feature series of Q&A interviews with Sri Lankan theatre practitioners on perceptions and perspectives of what lies ahead for Sri Lankan theatre as the world grapples with a pandemic that calls for ‘social distancing’.

In this tenth instalment of The State and Fate of Theatre, Dr. Chandana Aluthge, an academic at the Colombo University’s Department of Economics, speaks of his views and concerns connected with children’s theatre, sharing his experience and insights as a director and producer of several children’s plays. Dr. Aluthge, a director of the Somalatha Subasinghe Kotte Playhouse has been a driving force in promoting children’s theatre, directing and producing several children’s plays created by his late mother-in-law Somalatha Subasinghe. Given the current context that does not favour an environment for theatre to thrive in Sri Lanka, Dr. Aluthge provides a perspective that stresses the need for stakeholders for a more proactive stance to take theatre forward in Sri Lanka.

Q: Did the nationwide lockdown and the subsequent situation that arose, halt any theatre productions that you had planned for this year?

A: We were actually getting the production organised for a new play that was targeted at children. It was written by Nilanka Dahanayaka, a young theatre artiste who has been involved with the Kotte Playhouse. It deals with some very significant themes and contemporary issues children face in society.

Drugs, bullying, and such issues that children and young adults have to deal with are at the core of this play. It is a pity that we had to temporarily halt the production plans due to the lockdown, but then again what else was there to do. The situation that we had to face was that a new production that will address issues that children and parents grapple with in today’s society had to be halted. Also, our regular annual performances of children’s plays such as, Walas Paula, Thoppi Welenda’ and Punchi Apata Den Therei are now somewhat uncertain due to the hurdles that we are faced with in the current situation.

Q: Over the past decade or so a robust theatre culture was coming up in Sri Lanka through both English and Sinhala theatre troupes. However, children’s theatre isn’t as widespread as adult theatre. How do you see children’s theatre in Sri Lanka getting affected in the next couple of years in the face of the current pandemic factor?

A: Children’s theatre faces some rather large obstacles in this current pandemic context. To begin with let me give you some perspective of how the cost factor affects us. Children’s theatre productions can cost just as much as an adult theatre production. Of course, it depends on the play and the production design, but when it comes to income, the revenue factor is less than in an adult play. The reason is, children cannot come on their own and watch the play. They have to depend on their parents.

The parents must decide how much money they can set aside from their monthly income to take the children to watch a stage play. Their primary expense will be tickets for themselves as parents as well as their children. In addition, there may be transport costs for them to travel together as a family. In view of that we usually try to keep the ticket prices at a rate more affordable for a whole family compared to adult theatre shows. In the current context there is not much enthusiasm among many to incur extra expenditure. Many are now conscious about spending economically due to the unfavourable economic climate.

Apart from that there is the social distancing factor. Getting a play organised means rehearsals and preparation as a team. Therefore, the social distancing factor is also to be considered, and Health authorities’ guidelines have to be observed. And that means the potential income from ticket sales is half the usual amount. Hence, it is a far greater challenge to have a children’s play performance and hope to come through, by at least covering the cost. Therefore, based on these factors there is significant challenge ahead for children’s theatre in Sri Lanka in the next few years.

Q: You direct and produce two children’s plays that are part of the school syllabus. How important is it for children to actually watch a live performance of a drama that is in their school syllabus textbooks?

A: One of the most significant factors that we need to address in this regard is, how schools and the Department of Education can become active stakeholders in keeping children’s theatre alive during the next few years in Sri Lanka? Children’s theatre is about education as well. It is not merely theatrical entertainment for relief after a long week of stressful work in the way adult theatre sometimes works among certain audiences. Children’s theatre is somewhat a different realm altogether.

It is about helping them gain lessons in life as well as engaging them in the art of storytelling using the stage. It helps to teach them about the world at large through the medium of live stage performances. This same experience cannot be gained by the child by watching a DVD of the stage play at home. Theatre is a live medium of performance that involves experiencing the audience’s collective reactions to the live performance unfolding on stage.

It is an engaging experience to any theatre-goer in general, and for a child to get that experience creates a significant impression in their childhood. This is not something parents seem to always understand. To most parents whose children are in either Grades 5, 6 or 7, their main attitude towards the drama and theatre texts that their children have to ‘encounter’, is about passing another exam. It has now become a ‘systematised attitude’. To most parents of children in Grades 5, 6, or 7, the plays Punchi Apita Den Therei which is in the Grade 5 Sinhala language syllabus and also in the Grade 6 drama and theatre syllabus, and Thoppi Velenda in the Grade 7 drama and theatre syllabus, are merely seen as schoolwork to be covered for the examination. I have been asked many times by parents if we can provide a DVD of the children’s plays. It is not that I am blatantly against anyone watching a DVD of a stage play, but what I want to emphasise is that the whole point of a child watching a children’s play should be to appreciate theatre in a larger context of aesthetic experience based knowledge and not in correlation to solely getting good marks at a school exam paper.

Learning can be achieved in different methods. When the teacher reads the text of the play with the children, and visualises the contents, that is one method. Another way is for students to go to the theatre and actually experience the play as a performance. The whole objective of any drama script is for it to be experienced as a live performance and not merely limited to reading as pages in a textbook. The activity of watching a children’s play to a great extent is similar to an educational trip that a school organises for children to gain knowledge on subjects like history by visiting the museum.

However, school administrators look upon a performance of a stage play in a different way. Even when the performance is of a play that is in the school syllabus, it is still not readily allocated ‘school time’, but relegated as an activity that can be opted for ‘after school’ hours if at all.

I won’t say this is the attitude of every single school in Sri Lanka, but by and large most school administrators will not give priority for a performance of a play that is in the school syllabus to be staged at school during school hours. These are hurdles when it comes to keeping momentum alive for children’s theatre in general, and in specific for productions of the plays that are part of the school syllabus.

Q: What kind of support do you think the state should provide for children’s theatre to be sustained in this challenging environment?

A: Firstly, if the Department of Education, which is now under Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris, can look at the subject of drama and theatre, not only with regard to children’s theatre, but the subject as a whole, as a subject that cannot be fully appreciated solely by means of textual study in classrooms, but should be experienced as a performance coming out of an aesthetic subject, and adopt measures accordingly, that would be a great triumph. If schools can adopt a policy of allowing performances of plays that are in the school syllabus to be staged in school once a year, during school hours, that would be a positive development.

And, if the Government can support children’s theatre productions with a stimulus package by means of annual grants and disbursements that would be a significant lifeline for children’s theatre in Sri Lanka. If a stimulus package of grants is allocated annually for the next few years, that will help sustain the livelihoods of numerous stakeholders in the theatre industry.

It is not just the stage artistes and the directors who will benefit but numerous participants whose skills and work come together to make a production come to life. I hope that children’s theatre especially, will not be neglected, and, therefore, I make this appeal to the Government. If this issue is addressed actively and some system of stimulus and support can be extended by the State soon, it will be a turning point for the survival of children’s theatre in these challenging times.

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