The State and Fate of Theatre | Sunday Observer

The State and Fate of Theatre

26 July, 2020
A s cene from the Sinhala play Ravana Seethabilashaya  co-written and directed by Namel Weeramuni.
A s cene from the Sinhala play Ravana Seethabilashaya co-written and directed by Namel Weeramuni.

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 week’s instalment of The State and Fate of Theatre, I present to the readers of the Sunday Observer, a playwright, director and actor whose contributions to the performing arts has been monumental. Starting his lifelong devotion to theatre from his days in the Peradeniya University, as a student of the legendary luminary in Sinhala theatre Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Namel Weeramuni has the distinction of being one of the few theatre directors and producers in Sri Lanka who has directed and produced works in both Sinhala and English for the Sri Lankan stage.

Together with his wife Malini (who is also a face well established on the Sri Lankan stage and screen), Namel being a co-founder of the Namel Malini Punchi Theatre in Borella is now Sri Lanka’s most senior theatre director whose passion for theatre still pulsates strongly within him.

This veteran of Sri Lankan theatre shared his thoughts, concerns and perspectives on the state and fate of theatre, as the oppressiveness of the current pandemic makes its impact on artistes as well as all other stakeholders in the field of theatre.

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

Namel Weeramuni

A. This year I was going to bring to the stage a Sinhala translation of a play that I did in 2004. The play staged in 2004 was an English translation of a Latin American play which I now want to bring to life as a Sinhala translation.

The working title at the moment is Sakra Devedraya Maha Polowata Basie. Which you can say in English I suppose as ‘God Sakra Comes Down To Earth’. But of course there is only now five months left of 2020, and the chances don’t look too great for a new production to be realised this year even though I am not really the type to give up.

On the question of whether the lockdown and the pandemic that was the cause of it, created obstacles for my plans this year for a production, the answer is most certainly ‘yes’. It caused a major setback for this year’s production plans.

Apart from doing a new production we also had plans of staging some performances of Ravana Seethabilaashaya, but for that too there will be some challenges in the months ahead because of the lack of crowds for shows. Many people these days are not encouraged to go to watch stage plays because of the need to observe social distancing to prevent the spreading of the Coronavirus. You can’t blame them and in this regard no one is to be blamed.

But the truth is, there are now more hurdles for future productions and performances apart from the fact that theatre, anyhow, has been a field of the arts that has had to survive among a lot of financial hurdles even during normal circumstances.

Q. Looking at the next two years, how will the pandemic situation affect your plans as a theatre practitioner engaged in aspects such as writing, directing and producing stage plays?

A. When it comes to writing, there is no serious impediment caused by the current situation with regard to social distancing and so on.

But it is the practice of performance and producing a performance in the capacity of a director that faces the challenges. However, that is not to say that we have accepted this situation as the end of theatre in Sri Lanka. It is far from it. But the chances for theatre to thrive in the next two to three years may not be all that good.

For example my production Ravana Seethabilaashaya, has been scheduled to be staged at the Elphintsone Theatre Festival. The hall is given free of charge but of course all other expenses must be borne by the producer. Now the main problem is with regard to the capacity an auditorium can hold as the audience. The regulations of the Health authorities have to be observed and therefore only half the usual seating capacity can be filled.

Therefore how financially successfully can a production be staged under such circumstances is the question. The artistes and the makeup artists have to be paid, the stagehands, and so on, as well as the transportation costs, are all expenses that have to be covered. But the means of revenue is only from ticket sales. Therefore I am yet undecided whether we will take part in this festival due to the issues of expenditure.

I want to do a festival of the several One Act Sinhala plays I have directed and produced over the years, such as Kandoskiriyawa, and Golu Birinda to name just two.

Apart from the existing challenges, sadly now there is the need for a successful replacement for the late Daya Tennakoon, my good friend and fellow artiste who passed away. Daya’s loss is a terrible loss for theatre.

Therefore, when taking into account the many factors staring me straight in the face with regard to doing a set of productions in the coming two to three years, no doubt there are some considerable challenges. But I am never one to give up on my goals. Despite the challenges I will pursue these goals to the best of my ability. As they say, ‘Where there is a will, there is a way’!

Q. The Punchi Theatre recently opened its doors and raised the stage curtain for theatergoers, and staged a series of plays this month. How was the response? Was the ‘reemergence’ a success?

A. It is imperative that we start to open the doors and see how we can get back on track, and not let this pandemic situation let everything go defunct. The overall attendance, on an average was about forty percent. The exception was the new play that was debuted at Punchi Theatre on Saturday, July 18. It was a Sinhala play named Ooro Athara Pork which was a new play by Asanka Saayakkara. I suppose in English you may call it ‘Pork Amongst Pigs’. That performance had a full house. The seating capacity now at the Punchi Theatre is one hundred seats. We observe all regulations of the Health authorities and the Government and ensure that we function in strict compliance with the law.

We charge half rate for the hall, because after all a show can now have only half the number of audience and, therefore, the income level also has decreased for producers who wish to stage plays.

I would say although this series of performances may not have been a rousing success, the overall importance is that we got things moving again. I am happy that we have made a start in that regard.

Q. You are now Sri Lanka’s most senior theatre director. Looking back and observing the present how do you see the chances of Sinhala theatre and English theatre in Sri Lanka? Sinhala theatre is more widespread and with a robust network of practitioners while English theatre is more or less entirely Colombo centric.

A. You know, way back in the 1960s when I started in theatre it was a different landscape altogether. There were, compared to the present times, a few theatre directors and artistes. But the quality of work was very high, especially when it came to Sinhala theatre.

By quality I mean the depth of the script and the performance. I’m not referring to stagecraft and other effects. But Sinhala theatre now is commercialised to the extent that it has lost most of its depth and artistic value.

It is now simply another means of entertainment for laughter and the most sought after genre in Sinhala theatre is cheap comedy which offers little to no food for thought to the viewer. You may think that Sinhala theatre may have better chances of making headway compared to English theatre because Sinhala theatre has audiences outside Colombo, but in my opinion the one that is likely to do better comparatively, will be English theatre.

The reason is that English theatre exists solely because of the passion of those engaged in it. The artistes and directors are not solely dependent on their productions for income and financial survival. Therefore, the English theatre in Sri Lanka will likely see more commitment from those engaged in it to keep it going without looking at it as a means for income. But for Sinhala theatre the story is different. Many artistes in the Sinhala theatre are in it as a fulltime occupation and depend on it for financial sustenance.

Therefore, unlike in English theatre, you are unlikely to see the artistes being in a position to perform free. They will have to be paid and rightfully so, because they depend on that occupation for income.

But then under these circumstances, when an auditorium can only hold half its usual capacity, how many producers can afford to bear all logistical expenses and pay the artistes and still hope to make even a marginal profit from the show? These are my observations.

Of course there is nothing to say that I am absolutely right. But looking at the dynamics and factors affecting Sinhala theatre as compared to English theatre, I feel the latter will have a better chance, comparatively that is, to make headway against the current pandemic situation that is oppressing theatre.