Rebooting ‘Chatroom’ for 2022 | Sunday Observer

Rebooting ‘Chatroom’ for 2022

19 June, 2022

Theatre practitioner Tasmin Antonisz is engaged with preparations to bring back to theatregoers ‘Chatroom’ which she first produced and directed in 2017, and was performed at the Sooriya Village on Skelton Road, Colombo 5.

In this Q and A feature Tasmin tells readers of the Sunday Observer about what post Covid era theatre is like and the preparations to her latest production.

Q: As a theatre practitioner how do you see the present state of theatre in Sri Lanka amidst the current economic downturn which follows the hardships caused by the Covid – 19 pandemic?

A: Like every other industry, there are lots of issues in terms of practicalities that make things difficult, and from the business side of working in theatre, because of the rising costs it’s not good. But, theatre has always been first and foremost a means of coming together to communicate or express a collective thought or feeling. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a big show for the median to work as a means of performative response or reflection, and we are already seeing instances of this kind of creative collaboration happening at GGG, for example, with workshops and readings and no frills but to-the-point performances by some of the best in our local theatre scene.

That is theatre at its core; a creative exchange between all those involved, including players and audience. I think going forward, logically speaking, we’re probably going to be seeing a lot of intimate, small cast shows, and more locally centric or better yet original work come into the spotlight.

Q: What can you tell the readers of Sunday Observer about the progress made in recent years by your theatre lab Studiolusion?

A: We’ve mainly been working on our techniques and rehearsal processes because we haven’t really been able to do any shows as such due to the pandemic.

In a way it was good to have that break because it allowed us to redefine ourselves who we are as a performance platform, what kind of projects we really want to do, and plan ahead for a naively optimistic future.

Being a part of the Stages’ Children in Lockdown Festival last year really helped us find our feet again, and it was good to have that goal of working towards a live show of Chatroom, although we could only present a recorded performance for the festival due to the Covid situation then. I promised my cast that they would get to perform the show live at some point though, and that’s mainly the reason for pushing ahead with the July run in all this uncertainty.

Q: You first saw Enda Walsh’s play ‘Chatroom’ in 2007, when you were 15 years old. A decade later you directed a production of that play. What made you choose that particular play to be produced as a directorial work by you?

A: It was the Chain smoker's song ‘Let Me Take A Selfie’. I was sitting in the student union bar at the University of Manchester at the start of my 3rd year, thinking about what I might do for my directorial project, which was part of my degree, and I had a vision of actors sitting on these ledges that were built into the booths there, randomly jumping from one side to the other taking pictures with regular patrons of the SU bar while a depressed kid sat at the table in the centre, completely unnoticed and ignored.

I felt like there was a play I had come across that would fit that vision and I suddenly remembered Chatroom. The language of the script and its characters’ relatability also made it an easy choice.

Q: You are now preparing to do a new production of ‘Chatroom’ for theatregoers in Colombo. What makes you choose this play again as your latest theatrical venture?

A: As I said, we started looking at it again last year for the Stages’ Children in Lockdown Festival because we realised that cyber bullying had become an even bigger issue than it was in 2017, owing to the fact of children and adolescents being trapped inside with only their socials as a means of connecting with the outside world.

Websites like L1ght that track online harassment globally marked a huge increase in cases of cyberbullying since the start of the pandemic, and the thing is, being the sole connection to the outside, careless words said on the internet can have a profound impact on sensitive and developing minds.

That doesn’t only apply to teenagers but everybody on social media right now, especially in Sri Lanka. We are living in a moment where we have different information coming at us from all sides, contradicting each other. And as a community I think we are fairly vigilant on checking sources, and so on, but there is no denying that it can get overwhelming, particularly in our present state when we’re feeling unheard and like we have no control over how we want to live and our lives to be governed.

I feel it is necessary to put out a reminder of the importance of stepping back for our own mental health, and taking ownership of our own stories in this situation, while standing up for what’s right.

Q: What are the challenges you have had to overcome in putting together this new production?

A: Practical issues mainly. The fuel crisis has made it impossible for us to get together to rehearse as often as we would under normal circumstances. Back in November, I also thought it would be a fun challenge to let some of the Cast who’ve been involved from the start play dual roles; their original casting and complete opposite. So we are essentially rehearsing two casts, which is complicated but I have complete faith in my actors. I am extremely thankful to have found such a dedicated group. The Lionel Wendt staff is also very supportive, as well as others of the theatre community, which is very encouraging and helps us move the production along.

Q: What can theatregoers who saw your production of 2017 expect to see different in this upcoming production?

A: It’s adapted for a different context, in a different setting, different time. So it’s not just the cast but the concept as well. This production is as different from the 2017 adaptation as our lives are now from what they were back then. Actually, it’s not even the same as the recorded performance we presented for the festival last year, given how drastically our economic and social climate has changed in the last few months.

The reason for this is because Walsh’s script coincidentally has a running theme about the need to stand against intimidation and speaking up for truth, which are sentiments that I believe the majority of us are feeling right now.

It would be tone deaf to not acknowledge the relevance of those statements in today’s political context, and how they might resonate with people who are struggling with their economical and mental health right now. The only way to do that was to re-interpret the play in the context of roughly post-May 2022 Colombo.

Q: How relevant do you think ‘Chatroom’ is to society today? Do you believe it has ‘timeless lessons’ in its portrayals of human nature?

A: I don’t think it’s ever been more relevant. Sure, the pop culture references feel a bit outdated now. But, as we know, art is a reflection of life, even if the particular work was not initially intended to be in any way connected to current events. On the surface, the play is about human desensitisation in digital interactions. If the met averse is anything to go by, it looks like over time desensitisation is only going to get more profound. So would the play work 10 years down the line? Probably, although that’s for another director to find out. What makes it most relatable though is the underplayed theme at the core; the need to stand out and be heard; to feel important, know that you have an impact on the world, and have a space to do that.

Editor’s Note: Tickets to ‘Chatroom’ will be available online from June 20. The show run will be from July 8-10, and consist of three evening shows and two matinees.