The ‘Grease Yaka’ Returns Triumphantly | Sunday Observer

The ‘Grease Yaka’ Returns Triumphantly

23 June, 2019
The team behind ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ at the Awards Ceremony
The team behind ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ at the Awards Ceremony

Anandadrama, founded by old Anandian Nishantha de Silva together with two of his protégés in drama and theatre from his alma mater Ananda College Colombo, –Ishtartha (Ishi) Wellaboda and Rajitha Hettiarachchi, has been something of a notable path breaker in the Colombo Centric English Theatre of Sri Lanka. Over the years through their major productions, the signature element that began defining their brand of theatre was bilingualism. In a country where the lingual reality is starkly becoming bilingual, I would venture so far as to say, ‘multilingual’, Anandadrama offered theatregoers a reflection of present Sri Lankan reality in a manner that created a third facet to the ‘language based categorisation’ of Sri Lankan theatre.

On March 27 this year the ingenuity of Anandadrama received significant recognition at an institutional level when their production ‘Grease Yaka Returns’, competing in the Finals of the State Drama Festival, won no less than 9 accolades including Best Play, Best Director, Best Original Script while also receiving a commendation for Set Design.

I met the senior founder of Anandadrama, Nishantha de Silva recently, to discuss their approach towards drama in the light of their accomplishment at the State Drama Festival. Nishantha said that since 2014 they have been doing bilingual stage plays, producing ‘Grease Yaka’, ‘Picket Republic’, and ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ to name the more prominent ones. “Picket Republic was about political satire versus realism. Not necessarily a play meant to be authentic in terms of character portrayals, but forceful in the message.”

He said the idea of a Sri Lankan stage play meant to reflect our times should reflect the language patterns of today. A play that is set in contemporary Sri Lanka which has its script entirely in English or even in Sinhala doesn’t seem realistic in terms of how it sounds to the audience, is a tenet Nishantha abides by. “In Grease Yaka, the first one, we explored fear psychosis in society and the ‘dissemination of fear’ you could say, and what we did with Grease Yaka Returns is that we amplified it, looking at a scenario where it is spread wider. It was a tool you could say through the medium of theatre to explore how fear works in society, looking at elements like communal perceptions, prejudices, political leadership and the media.” As we got into the conversation about what made Nishantha and his team enter the State Drama Festival, which is not really an arena the English theatre troupes are known to vie for recognition, the answer revealed how Anandadrama’s goals have to do with theatre for all, and not for a limited viewership.

“When Rajitha and I met to write ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ there was no specific goal to enter it into the State Drama Festival,” began Nishantha, recalling how the initial seeds for the script were developed.

He elaborated on how the script, its language factor and the aesthetics of the production were developed as a team effort among Hettiarachchi, Wellaboda, Jayampathi Guruge and himself. Guruge, an experienced practitioner in theatre production from the Sinhala theatre sphere had been instrumental in making the leadership of Anandadrama see the potential for ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ to compete in the State Drama Festival. “It was a collective decision at the end of the day,” said Nishantha, emphasising that it was Guruge who made the initial suggestion to set the ball rolling. He saw that the reason to consider it as a possible entry for the State Drama Festival in the Sinhala full length stage play category, was due to the fact that the script had space for change in language to make it a predominantly Sinhala medium script.

How much of the original script was changed to suit the requirements of the festival? I asked my interviewee, since ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ which I watched on August 17, 2018 at the Wendt, and reviewed for the Sunday Observer readers in the issue of September 9, 2018 (under the title An Old Scare and New Mayhem) was clearly a Sinhala–English bilingual play. Nishantha estimated that the changes for more Sinhala dialogue would have made a change of about 15-20 % of the original script. “Certain changes were done to the dialogue to suit some casting changes,” he said adding that, “three new cast members came on board because two from the original cast had exams at the university and another was sitting the A/Ls.” Nishantha however pointed out that the changes in the script of bringing in the new trio was not to manoeuvre more Sinhala dialogue into the text. “It was more to do with a change in the characters than language per se,” he explained.

Delving into his perception of what ‘Sri Lankan drama’ should reflect, Nishantha said, “I do not mean to denigrate anyone else’s work by any means, but I doubt that in a bilingual society, drama that strictly adheres to one language medium doesn’t reflect what’s actually out there today.” Anandadrama’s vision has to do with providing theatre that doesn’t look purely at providing entertainment but theatre with a larger purpose of bringing topics that reflect contemporary issues offering food for thought to viewers. The State Drama Festival had been in that sense a platform for Nishantha and his troupe to reach a new audience, which is principally, the Sinhala theatregoers. And hopefully, winning the award for Best Play at the State Drama Festival would prove to garner more attention for the productions of Anandadrama from Sinhala theatregoers.

Sharing his thoughts on the experience of taking part at the State Drama Festival and eventually winning big at the finals, Nishantha said, “It was a very different experience for us. Certainly a lot of challenges came up. Especially, at the semis. The staging venue became an issue. I wasn’t aware that we could pick the venue and assumed that the performance had to be at the New Town Hall auditorium.

The logistics simply weren’t suitable at that venue for our performance in terms of stage space. Looking at what some of our artistes had to perform on stage it would have been a hazard to their personal safety. It was something of an eleventh hour solution that finally got us through. We performed at the NADA auditorium after checking availability and managed to do it satisfactorily while also performing to a large audience. It was an overall good experience.” Commenting on the awards they bagged at the Finals, Nishantha said “We honestly had no expectation of winning. But it was pleasantly rewarding and satisfying to see the results.”

The accolades certainly speak strongly not only of the calibre of their work in my personal opinion but also the perceptions of the judging panel at the State Drama Festival this year. Awarding Best Play, Best Original Script and Best Director to ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ certainly would have made eyebrows shoot up among the established ‘canon’ so to say, in the arena of Sinhala theatre.

The judges’ decision thus, in my opinion shows progressiveness in the light of appreciating innovation in Sri Lankan theatre. Innovation that goes off the beaten path not to make a statement of being ‘fashionably radical’, but for ‘difference for a meaningful purpose’. Bilingual theatre is the future of Sri Lankan theatre’s identity. And Anandadrama is becoming the trailblazer in that regard.

Curious to know if they would enter the festival next year as well, Nishantha explained that there is no fixed plan for Anandadrama to be an annual competitor in the State Drama Festival. If they happen to have a production they feel would be eligible then yes, possibly, Nishantha was quick to point out. But competing annually with a script to suit the festival, he clarified, is not an objective along their journey.

Anandadrama, will return with their State Drama Festival multi award winner ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ to the Lionel Wendt auditorium on July 7 with two performances, at 3.30pm and 7pm.