The State and Fate of Theatre | Sunday Observer

The State and Fate of Theatre

23 August, 2020

Beginning his entry into Sri Lanka’s English theatre in 1980, staging a production of the classic Ceylonese vintage comedy Well Mudaliyar How written by H.C.N de Lanerolle and E. M. W Joseph, Jith Peiris has proven his prowess as a theatre practitioner entertaining theatregoers for what is now four decades.

A veteran English theatre director who has been instrumental for Sri Lanka’s English theatre to gain momentum and robustness especially over the past two decades, with notable successive groups of schoolchildren with a passion for theatre being moulded by his guidance through school productions and amateur theatre productions, Jith shares his views and concerns about what challenges are ahead for English theatre in Sri Lanka, as this week’s featured artiste in 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?

A. It was quite fortunate that my latest production ‘Oops it’s a Crossdresser! Cash on Delivery’ managed to complete the show run, which was in February before the lockdown.

It was a spin on Michael Cooney’s British comedy Cash On Delivery. However, the subsequent show at the Wendt, which was Feroze Kamardeen’s production, couldn’t complete its show run because of the lockdown. My production was the last one to have its full show run at the Wendt before the lockdown came into effect. But the pandemic has thrown ‘a spanner in the works’ when it comes to my plans for the rest of the year. My annual Christmas show Silver Bells which is towards the end of each year at the Wendt seems unlikely this time because of the present situation we are faced with. It is a pity as I have been doing Silver Bells for the last 30 years.

I was planning to do what was to be my ‘curtain call’, if I put it like that, to ‘call it a day’ and retire from theatre.

It may come as a surprise to you perhaps, to hear that I have decided on retiring from theatre, but that was what I intended as my program for 2020. I was going to stage Well, Mudaliyar How? the play that I staged as my first production, directed by me in 1980, which marked my entry into English theatre in Sri Lanka. I was going to have a show run of Well, Mudaliyar How?’ during July to August this year, take a bow and bid adieu to life in theatre. But when the lockdown started I knew this was going to drag on for some time, and I began planning ahead.

I knew this was not going to ‘blow away’ in a matter of weeks. Even though the lockdown may end in a few months the nature of the pandemic would have its effect for some time. So I got the calendar for 2022 from the Lionel Wendt and began planning ahead. We are planning to have rehearsals in 2021 and move forward from there.

Q. Did the lockdown provide you an opportunity to engage in any creative endeavours? What did you engage in during those months in connection with your interests in the arts?

A. You know the lockdown compelled us to stop and think. I mean we had to seriously think and rethink what our priorities are in life and for me it was also a time for reflection and contemplation. It was during this time that I decided to start on my memoirs and did the initial ‘sketch work’ so to say, by working out the segments and themes and so on, because there are several aspects to my life in the arts and society that converge to form the larger picture of what is my ‘realm of interests’. Segmenting the headings for chapters and sections and noting down themes was what I focused on to begin with. So I have made a start with the intended future memoir. That is a positive development for me during the lockdown.

I am also an avid reader and an ardent follower of politics, not just in Sri Lanka, but politics around the globe. From New Zealand to Iceland, what happens in the global political arena is of interest to me. Reading about politics is one of my great interests. Politics is after all a form of drama. It is an engaging drama and that is how I see politics. So even if it’s a by-election in New Zealand or a State election in Australia my attention is given to that political event. I read Michelle Obama’s biography cover to cover during the lockdown. I also read a set of books on Donald Trump and his administration. In all I read about fifteen books during the lockdown. So as you can imagine there was quite a good amount of reading and also writing during those lockdown months.

Q. Sri Lanka doesn’t have an ‘English theatre industry’ so to say, as compared to Sinhala theatre which has artistes employed more or less on a full time basis, with frequent work being available as shows take place in various parts of the country. How do you see the effects of the global pandemic affecting English theatre in Sri Lanka which is basically a Colombo centric sphere of artistic engagement?

A. It was just getting ready to take off as an industry. That’s how I saw it, and why I feel so sad for so many of these young theatre directors who over the past few years gave it their heart and soul and developed several theatre companies. It was just on the verge of developing into an industry. But this pandemic which has affected theatre globally, has dealt a serious blow to English theatre in Sri Lanka. A very serious blow. English theatre will survive but it will not thrive for quite some time to come. There were so many large scale big productions that happened over the last several years, and there was the show of so much promise for English theatre to develop beautifully with new artistes coming up. But all that has now been dealt a serious blow.

Q. You have been involved with school theatre productions for decades. Looking at the current state of affairs that is affecting theatre badly how can English theatre in Sri Lanka sustain interest among schoolchildren so that successive generations of theatre artistes will join the folds of English theatre in Sri Lanka to take it forward?

A. If the annual All Island Interschool Shakespeare Drama Competition, which obviously isn’t happening this year, stops for a few years that alone will be a big setback for English theatre in Sri Lanka. The annual Shakespeare drama competition is something that boys and girls who are passionate about theatre during their schooldays look forward to. If that stops for two or three years it would cause a big drop in the momentum for English drama and theatre among schoolchildren. I have so far got 43 telephone calls from students I have trained in English drama from various schools, and they are heartbroken that the productions planned for this year won’t take place.

They kept saying how much they looked forward to those productions as some of them were getting ready for A/Ls and cannot look forward beyond this year at school to get the thrill of doing school plays. I really feel sorry for them. I have had parents telling me that the problem is with rehearsals and how could they as conscientious parents agree to about three months of rehearsals where the risk of infection cannot be ruled out completely? They asked me how they can let their children be part of rehearsals for several hours a day in close proximity to each other, and for that routine to go on for about three months. I can understand their concern as parents.

Q. You mentioned that you are now at the point of preparing for your retirement from theatre. Having been part of Sri Lanka’s English theatre for four decades what are your thoughts on what looms ahead for English theatre in Sri Lanka?

A. Firstly I must say that I learnt the nuts and bolts of theatre and developed my craft from practitioners and productions of West End theatre in London and Broadway in New York. My heart simply aches when I think of all those technicians and artistes who are now out of work due to the pandemic. What on earth will they do? They are professionals who depend on theatre as their livelihood. Theatre has been affected globally and the worst hit are those who depend on theatre for their livelihood. Sri Lanka’s English theatre as I said earlier will not thrive during the next few years but will somehow survive.

The proscenium is going to suffer no doubt. But there will be alternative forms that will come up. Outdoor theatre is one. I recently advised Aslam Marikkar in Kandy who is the head of Sri Theatre Company, to do a production as an outdoor performance within the premises of his school Trinity College, and to avoid doing the show indoors. Similarly I think English theatre practitioners in Sri Lanka will adopt ways to keep the art alive, but I am sad to see it will not thrive in the way it had so much promise in the recent years leading up to this pandemic.