The State and Fate of Theatre | Sunday Observer

The State and Fate of Theatre

9 August, 2020
A scene from Nethuwa Beri Minihek
A scene from Nethuwa Beri Minihek

In this sixth instalment of The State and Fate of Theatre I present to the readers of the Sunday Observer, the concerns, views and perceptions of one of Sri Lanka’s best known and popular Sinhala theatre practitioners, Rajitha Dissanayake. A lover of theatre whose dedication to the art saw him embark on a journey to write and direct stage plays since his undergraduate days in the Colombo University’s Arts Faculty, Rajitha has over the years developed a significant presence in mainstream Sinhala theatre.

To a great extent his status in contemporary Sinhala theatre is due to his consistency to engage in theatre as a practitioner committed to provide his audience a new work usually every year. Despite the new obstacles that have come up in this new context of a ‘Covid-19 era’, Rajitha as this week’s featured theatre practitioner states that he is preparing himself to go forward.

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

Rajitha Dissanayake

A. Two performances for which tickets were sold out before the show dates got cancelled. They were, Nathuwa Beri Minihek which has its English title as ‘A Much Needed Man’ to be staged on March 15, and Hithala Ganththu Theeranayak which has its English title as ‘A Well Made Decision’ to be shown on March 18.

Two other shows were planned for May and two more for June this year, to be staged in Ratnapura, Galle and Colombo. Those shows also got cancelled. Following the festival we had in January this year at the Lionel Wendt, my plans included having multiple performances of those three plays staged for the festival. But due to the unexpected pandemic situation those plans and momentum weakened.

Q. Being a committed theatre practitioner how did the lockdown period affect your engagement with theatre as a part of your life and who you are?

A. Surprisingly, it became a time for reviewing and revisiting ideas and plans that were shelved due to the inability to ‘commit time’ during regular days. I must say that I was able to catch up with a lot of reading during the lockdown period. That was a very satisfying thing. Often we keep putting off activities that we like to engage in due to the ‘lack of time’. The lockdown period certainly gave me that time to engage in a considerable amount of reading that I had missed, as well as to spend quality time watching films.

It became a period that turned significant to me as an artiste since I began revisiting some of my old scripts. I was able to find the time and space to rewrite certain parts of my play Bakamoona Veedibasi which has its English title as ‘Owl on the Street’ a script I wrote ten years ago. It was edited in some aspects during the lockdown period.

I was also able to go over the first draft of the script of my next stage play and fine tune it. It was written before the lockdown period, but the script was in its first draft stage. And so this lockdown period gave me the opportunity to concentrate on finalising the script. I am planning to premiere it in January next year, and start rehearsals in August. So far that plan has not been affected although admittedly it is a big challenge. But my team and I are, in principle, committed to realise that goal.

Q. Looking at the next two to three years how do you see the chances for Sinhala theatre to go forward due to the global pandemic and its economic repercussions?

A. When addressing this question I must say that the economic condition in the country leading up to this pandemic wasn’t conducive for Sinhala theatre to thrive, to begin with. And now there are the new hurdles of ‘social distancing’ and also the economic hardship that is being felt by the people due to the global pandemic. But the truth is, this current hardship for theatre in respect of the economic factor has been building up over the past couple of years in Sri Lanka.

A scene from Hithala Gaththu Theeranayak

The hardship for theatre in this country for the next couple of years is not a sudden occurrence on account of Covid-19 alone. The lack of good income growth in the lives of the average Sri Lankan, for the past couple of years, means there was less money with them to spend for entertainment and recreational activities. Therefore, they cannot spend much to watch stage plays regularly and that has been a problem for theatre in the country.

The negative economic factors affecting theatre over the past years have resulted in the lack of opportunity for enriching theatre in its quality of performance as well. Artistes are compelled to take on as much work as possible for performances to earn due to the fact that the rising cost of living compels them to say ‘yes’ to practically every offer they get to perform, and that results in them not being able to commit more time to qualitatively enhance their performance in a show. That affects theatre in a negative way. Enriching the play through performance requires artistes to be able to commit more time to focus on bettering their character’s performance in a show. For the past few years I have seen how they lack rest and time to focus on their role.

Therefore, looking at the hurdles we have been faced with due to an economy that burdens the average Sri Lankan severely, and which thereby affects theatre’s growth both in volume and quality, we are now faced with the coronavirus. Needless to say the future for proscenium theatre is not too bright in the next couple of years. I would say things look precarious for the proscenium in the years ahead.

But at the same time I do not believe that Sinhala theatre which is by and large bound to proscenium theatre will not evolve. I think practitioners will adopt new methods and spaces for performance and adapt to the new situation. While there will be less stage plays that usually require considerable production costs, there will be new alternative forms of theatre coming up in the years ahead.

That is something I believe that can be said about Sinhala theatre. For example outdoor theatre shows and site specific theatre performance may gain more ground among theatre practitioners and theatregoers. Some new trends will surely come up in the days ahead. Having said that I need to add that even when eventually the corona disappears completely, if the condition of the economy does not improve in the years ahead, the state of theatre is going to be a sad one.

Q. Young artistes engaged in Sri Lanka’s English theatre have now begun taking their creativity for performance online and gaining new audiences. Do you think that is a trend that Sinhala theatre artistes too might begin exploring soon?

A. Theatre is a very special art form. It is being a medium of live performance that defines theatre. The performance happens right in front of the viewers with live actors. Theatre is about sharing the space between performer and viewer. The artistes on stage need to be conscious and deal with the reality of being observed by a live audience whose responses could affect the performance. The gasps and laughter that come from the audience are all part of the aesthetic experience that defines theatre.

So I must say that when a theatre artiste presents a performance through an electronic medium that does not mean it is a new form of theatre. That is not by any means an alternative to theatre. I wouldn’t even call it an alternative space for theatre. That is a different genre of performance. Therefore, whether or not theatre artistes engage in online broadcasting of their performance is not related to whether ‘theatre’ goes forward through such performances.

Q. Schoolchildren who have aspirations of becoming theatre artistes after leaving school may find their chances of becoming ‘artistes of the proscenium’ and perhaps in theatre in general, limited, owing to the factors that will negatively affect theatre in Sri Lanka in the years ahead. In that regard how do you see the chances for theatre to grow with the next generation if aspiring theatre artistes are dispirited by seeing a lack of opportunity in Sri Lankan theatre?

A. We must all grasp this state of conditions affecting theatre with a new attitude. We must be practical in our approach, especially, how we must work and encourage newcomers to theatre. The chances to grow more ‘fans and followers’ for theatre will be less in the next couple of years. But that is not solely due to Covid-19 or the lagging economy. There has been something much more severe affecting theatre and the arts in general I would say when it comes to moulding a new generation of art lovers and artistes. That is the education system in the country.

Our education system does not inculcate appreciation for the arts among students. They are merely mechanically driven to answer an examination. Even on subjects of the arts, students who follow those subjects in school are simply taught a set of facts to rewrite at an examination and pass the test. That’s what ‘learning’ about the arts is in our education system. This education system itself has imposed limitations on children to grow to appreciate the arts, and that impinges the growth of theatre, because for theatre to flourish there should be successive generations of theatre artistes and theatregoers who appreciate theatre as an art that must be followed and enriched.

Our education system has been designed and is being perpetuated by a hierarchy of bureaucrats who are bereft of any aesthetic sense. I would say in Sinhala that they are ‘vandha niladharin’, or in English it could be said, they are a group of ‘infertile bureaucrats’, who turn schoolchildren into mechanical entities. It is the few children who escape this mechanised thinking imposed by the education system who can see the beauty of the arts and kindle their love for the aesthetics as pursuits in adulthood.

This education system and the kind of bureaucracy that runs it are a bigger danger to theatre and the arts than Covid-19. However the force that can help correct this damage being done by the present education system is the mass media. The press and electronic media can contribute towards driving the interest of children to appreciate the arts better and break away from the mechanised thinking imposed by the education system. But if the media in the country doesn’t take a more active hand in helping children to think broadly and develop a love for the arts, the fate ahead for theatre and the arts in general is very bleak.