The State and Fate of Theatre | Sunday Observer

The State and Fate of Theatre

2 August, 2020
Pem Yuwalak
Pem Yuwalak

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’.

A graduate in Economics from the University of Colombo, a published author of Sinhala fiction and nonfiction, and working full time as a senior Sinhala copywriter at the advertising agency Phoenix Ogilvy for well over a decade, Udayasiri Wickremaratne is a Sinhala playwright and theatre director who is perhaps best known for his play Suddek Oba Amathai (A White Man Addresses You). Over the years, Udayasiri has offered theatregoers many Sinhala plays which have won over audiences in different parts of the country.

The playwright and director of Sinhala stage plays such as Thunsiya Heta Eka (361), Rangapem Ivarai (Adieu to Acting), Pem Yuwalaka One Kara Thibe. (Wanted: A Couple in Love) shares his thoughts, concerns and perceptions in this week’s instalment of The State and Fate of Theatre.

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

Udayasiri Wickremaratne

A. Eight performances of my latest stage play Garu Katanayakathumani got cancelled. Those bookings do not seem likely to happen this year. Seven of them were at venues out of Colombo and one in Colombo. That was a considerable setback for me and the team who work in the production. Then there was a booking for my play Thunsiya Heta Eka or 361, which had a booking for a performance in Embilipitiya. It was to be shown in the Embilipitiya town hall auditorium.

That too was cancelled due to the lockdown and the regulations to curtail public events that would cause the gathering of many people. The show in Embilipitiya is also unlikely to happen this year.

The permission for theatres to operate from June 15 has helped us to begin work as theatre practitioners. However, momentum was lost during those months of lockdown and quarantine. I am not blaming any of the authorities in any way. The measures taken were needed for national security and medical reasons, that is quite clear. But answering the question, I am simply revealing the opportunities for performances that were lost.

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

A. For theatre artistes the engagement with the art of theatre cannot be stopped by any challenges or risks other than the risk to life. That’s how I see it. Although there will be more challenges for theatre artistes to engage in the field of theatre in the next two to three years due to the pandemic and the repercussions it has on the economy and public health, I believe there will still be commitment on the part of artistes to engage in writing and producing stage plays. That is something I believe applies to us all.

We as theatre practitioners face the threat of financial ruin when setting out to achieve a new work for the stage. Sometimes the situations we face in our struggle may seem even more deadly than the coronavirus for those engaged in this art and committing our financial and at times our emotional wellbeing. I say this because it is no easy task to overcome the hurdles which come up when trying to make a success of a new stage play.

In Sinhala theatre there is always the aspect of payments for the artistes that must be borne in mind regardless of how the ticket sales would be. And no one can be assured of a full house unless all tickets have sold out before the show.

Therefore, there is always an element of risk that we as theatre practitioners take when it comes to creating works for the stage.

It is true that the global pandemic has now created a new formidable hurdle in addition to what we usually have to contend with, but that doesn’t mean that an artiste committed to the art of theatre would allow the lack of opportunities for financial gain through theatre, stop him from continuing his work.

Q. From June 16 to 19 there was a series of theatre performances at the Punchi Theatre in Colombo which marked ‘the return of theatre to Colombo’ so to say, after the lockdown ended and shows were permitted on condition of following health department regulations. Your play ‘Thunsiya Heta Eka’ or ‘361’ lead the way, going on the boards on June 16. What are your observations about that event?

A. It was a much needed event to build confidence among practitioners and theatregoers to see the curtain raised again. The stage had to be brought back to life. In this regard Jude Srimal our organiser should be thanked and applauded. It was a considerable risk that Jude took organising that event. Attendance was not optimum but it was heartening to see that we were able to ‘get things off the ground’ so to speak, since theatre was stagnant in Sri Lanka for several months. Jude’s efforts got us ‘off the ground’ and ‘back on stage’ you could say! I don’t think it was a financial success for Jude but it was a step to build confidence and enthusiasm among all stakeholders.

All the artistes in my production offered to work voluntarily and didn’t ask for payments. I did, however, provide each of them a small amount of money as a gesture to cover their transport cost for that day. It was heartening to see that everyone considered it a task to build our way forward, thinking ahead, rather than looking upon it as a job for remuneration. I did not make any financial gains whatsoever from that show. But it was the commitment to make sure that theatre should resurface to the public again that made it all possible. It was an event that was much needed to reignite the drive. I am very happy that it happened.

Q. As a Sinhala theatre practitioner what sort of institutional support would you like to see take place at this point when practitioners are making commendable efforts to bring back theatre as part of public life despite being faced with new obstacles?

A. When we speak of institutional support there are of course two sectors that can help us. First, the Government and next, the private sector. Looking at the state sector support I would say what we are seeing right now is heartening and helpful. The decision to provide the Tower Hall Theatre and The Elphinstone Theatre at no cost for staging plays is quite an encouragement.

I must say that the state media and the private media have been very supportive in our efforts to bring theatre ‘back into action’. For the theatre festival that we had at the Punchi Theatre, which Jude Srimal organised, the SLRC, SLBC, as well as Hiru TV provided valuable publicity. Many newspapers also promoted the event. That is institutional support that is very valuable and must be appreciated.

When we speak of financial support one thing that is quite evident is that unlike English theatre which receives corporate sponsorship, Sinhala theatre receives such support very rarely. Practically speaking, hardly at all. But sometimes there is support when a company may want to support a show by displaying the company banner at the show, and providing some financial support that would help with the expenses of the show. But it is not in the scale of large sponsorships that some English theatre productions receive.

In this regard an encouraging development I can speak of personally is that Darley Butler and Company offered me some assistance by providing a ‘digital banner’ of their Teapol detergent brand to be featured on the Facebook publicity page for my plays. That is something I appreciate and is very helpful to us when we try to carry forward our art.

Institutional support for theatre is necessary and hopefully more state and private sector support will be shown to theatre in general to help the art move forward despite the pressing difficulties.

Q. English theatre practitioners have taken to webcasting their work and developing a platform online to reach audiences. Do you see this current situation driving Sinhala theatre practitioners to seek audiences in similar ways? Do you think webcasting ‘performances’ by practitioners would help the progress of Sinhala theatre?

A. First, we must be conscious of the fact that the most watched Sri Lankan YouTube channels are those that were started by Sinhala medium performance artistes. The comedy skits by Sinhala comedians such as Jana and Priya, Laka and Sika are a few examples.

They along with such others have become financial successes by broadcasting their performances on YouTube. It is new media and the talent of Sinhala medium performance that have come together to write those success stories. However, that is not theatre.

It is not theatre even if a theatre performance is shown online.

Theatre is defined by the fact that it is a live performance in which the space of the show is shared by both performer and viewer.

Similar to the artistes of the English theatre, Sinhala theatre practitioners too must think of ways in which performances with ‘theatrical quality’ can be created for YouTube and other such platforms to reach audiences in these times.

That is important. Like English theatre artistes finding audiences for their performance online, Sinhala theatre artistes too should think of webcasting their talents as ‘performance artistes’ with a more theatrical aspect and depth. That is important in these times.

The lockdown quarantine period saw an amazing rise in the viewership of clips of Sinhala theatre productions. That is a fact. There was more interest and need for people staying at home to seek entertainment online.

And theatregoers and theatre enthusiasts in general surely found watching clips of theatre productions on YouTube an entertaining experience.

One example is that one of the video clips of my play Suddek Oba Amathai on YouTube uploaded in 2013, has now got more than six-hundred- thousand views. More than 2,800 people have subscribed to that YouTube channel. These are remarkable developments.

Looking at how various events are now reshaping the local and global landscape it seems theatre artistes will have new challenges as well as new opportunities in this ‘new age’. How they are looked at and adjusted to, depends on each person. And regardless of how the winds and tides may turn the committed practitioner will somehow steer forward.

Garu Katanayakathumani