The State and Fate of Theatre | Sunday Observer

The State and Fate of Theatre

12 July, 2020
A scene from Heirs (2019)
A scene from Heirs (2019)

A prolific theatre practitioner of the younger generation whose involvement in English theatre has been as an artiste, director and producer, Tasmin Anthonisz has both practical and academic training in drama and theatre as a graduate of the University of Manchester where she read for her BA in Drama. Over the years Tasmin has produced works of theatre of a more avant-garde form such as ‘Chatroom’ (2017) and ‘Heirs’ (2019) which was a re-devised work of Romeo and Juliet.

Thus, I present to the readers of the Sunday Observer in this second instalment of The State and Fate of Theatre, Tasmin Anthonisz who shares with us, what she sees, as the road ahead in her journey in theatre, as Sri Lanka adapts to life in a world dealing with the curtailment of a global pandemic.

Q: Did the lockdown halt any theatre activities you had planned and were in the course of putting into action? How much of a backlash has the current pandemic situation caused your plans as a theatre artiste and practitioner?

Tasmin Anthonisz

A: It’s pretty much as you’d expect. Everything’s been put on hold for the moment. I was working on a few projects for Studiolusion, Wesley College’s Drama Program, and workshops at Wendy Whatmore’s, and had also just started rehearsing for a show that was to be held in May when lockdown hit. I think it took us all a little while to accept that our plans for this year were going to have to get pushed back.

It was frustrating at first, not being able to get on with stuff. But the time out has also given us a chance to reflect and just be for a bit, which is good because I don’t feel like we’re all rushing to keep up anymore. We have the luxury of doing things at our own pace right now. Or maybe that’s just an effect of being in isolation.

However, the lack of work is a major issue. Technically, it is possible to create Drama virtually, but not Theatre, which is fundamentally interactive. It’s very much a physical conversation between the performer’s body and the bodies of the audience, and it’s going to be some time before these bodies are comfortable being in the same shared space.

When it is safe for us to meet in mass again, we’re going to have to navigate a set of challenges we’ve never had to consider before. The concept of spacing, for instance, is going to take on a whole new meaning. But, on the plus side, we have time to figure it out.

Q: You work closely with schools as a theatre director and trainer. How do the policies of social distancing and their advocacy by institutions affect drama and theatre at school level?

A: It leaves a bit of a void, particularly as we’re just coming up on what would pre-Covid-19 be ‘Shakes’ Season’. But we can survive a year without the competition, and the absence of it, I think, will lead to a greater appreciation for the art itself, as we explore other forms of Drama and Theatre beyond the competition setting.

In fact, a child once asked me, on hearing about public productions, what competition they were going for. He was very surprised to hear that people sometimes do plays for the sake of the play.

The thing is, this situation we’re in is constantly changing. A few weeks ago we were under curfew and could only meet in a group via Zoom. Now, we’re a bit more relaxed, but it’s still very uncertain. So we can’t really plan for any theatrical event as such since it can as I mentioned earlier only happen live and in person.

But, we can work on bettering the students’ understanding of the craft, and elevating their ideas of production. Work on developing those skills that you don’t necessarily see on stage, but are nevertheless essential for realising this kind of work. With precautions and in smaller numbers of course.

Actually getting students back on stage will probably take longer than Theatre itself to open. But there’s a lot we can do in the meantime, and theatre doesn’t have to be the only way for students to get themselves out there.

What we need to do now is focus on developing the Drama aspect of their education, which could help them achieve careers in Film, Radio, Broadcast Journalism, you name it. Short films and podcasts are the natural alternatives to student theatre productions, and you can already see senior students venturing down that path on their own via social media channels.

Q: There is a young segment of theatre enthusiasts that has come up in the past two to three years as school leavers who get involved in public productions and who support theatre. How will their aspirations get affected in the next two years due to the pandemic situation as per your observations and perceptions?

A: I guess we’re about to witness something of a creative boom. I can well imagine the next generation of ‘Ferozes’ and ‘Ruwanthies’ sitting at home itching to do something productive, probably scripting ideas for plays and films they can either do during or post lockdown, and maybe already starting to execute their ideas. But all that depends on 1) how serious you are about pursuing a future in the performing arts, and 2) how committed we, the directors and producers, are to making English Theatre sustainable enough for someone to make a career out of it.

That starts by theatre makers putting their money into the most essential part; the Performers. You can have the most elaborate set and lighting in the world, but if your cast doesn’t feel at least equally valued, if not more, your audience is going to know it. Show your cast that they are respected and loved, and they’ll do their utmost to bring down the house.

The fact is, making theatre in the next few years would be even tougher than before, particularly from a financial viewpoint.

The lockdown has caused a complete shutdown of theatrical work globally. But for us, this could be a unique opportunity to go back and re-evaluate what our personal brand of theatre is about, and what we really need to prioritise going forward.

At Studiolusion, for example, we’ve always aspired to become a platform for young artistes to experiment and workshop their performance ideas. In the next few years we’re going to be focusing on creating opportunities to support these guys and help produce their work.

Collectively, our local theatre community has a lot of potential to be really great one day. We just need to work together. If we can get that right, and continue to support our fellows as well as the newcomers as they try to find their feet, I fully believe we’ll bounce back stronger than we’ve ever been.

Q: As a theatre practitioner you have experience in both traditional proscenium theatre as well as more nontraditional, ‘experimental’ theatre. Do you think this current situation will see proscenium theatre getting more adversely affected and the growth of more experimental theatre approaches, especially among the younger generation of theatre enthusiasts?

A: Logically, the traditional format will probably be ‘the go to’ as it naturally plays into the norms of social distancing. Audience spacing would be easier to regulate, and the proscenium stage creates a built in barrier between the Performers and the House.

Also the ROI ratio makes more sense as a proscenium theatre would typically allow for more seats per show than the kind of experimental theatre you’re talking about, which is usually lower in budget and allows for only small audiences so as to keep the experience intimate.

If audiences are to be halved, or worse, quartered, I’m afraid we won’t be seeing a lot of this kind of avant-garde theatre we’ve now got used to. These shows are more about art than commerce, it’s true. But they do need to break even if they are to continue practising.

However, it’s possible for the methods used in this kind of experimental work to be transferred over to the bigger theatre houses. Then what we’ll get is something of an amalgamation of both, which could be very interesting to see. I think the key is to focus on the content we’re creating. No matter how novel or innovative our method of delivery gets, it’s what we’re communicating that ultimately grabs people’s attention.