The State and Fate of Theatre | Sunday Observer

The State and Fate of Theatre

30 August, 2020

Kaushalya Fernando is a well known face of the screen, yet has her roots in theatre, and continues to be part of the vibrant Sinhala theatre community in Sri Lanka. The daughter of the famous theatre and screen artiste Somalatha Subasinghe, Kaushalya drives forward, together with her husband Dr. Chandana Aluthge, the theatre company ‘Somalatha Subasinghe’s Kotte Playhouse’ founded by her late mother, that has been a platform for many young artistes to find their feet in the world of drama and theatre. In this week’s instalment of The State and Fate of Theatre, Kaushalya speaks of the challenges they faced during the past few months and what she sees as issues and factors that need to be focused on and addressed, to help drama and theatre to grow in the next few years.

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

A. We were preparing to debut a new play this year but now we have halted work on that production temporarily.

Apart from that our plans to stage the regular shows we have every year are now in a difficult position. The lockdown itself caused some severe difficulties for young theatre artistes who take part in our productions.

Most of them are from outstations and stay in Colombo as boarders in rented lodgings. During the lockdown they had to get back to their homes, and now continuing with the planned schedules is not possible as some of them cannot find lodging in Colombo at rates affordable to them since as artistes they cannot find work like they would usually get.

Q. How big a task is it to get your schedules reorganised and make a workable performance plan for the productions that are usually staged annually by The Playhouse?

A. Getting the artistes back together is only one part of the task. The operational costs and social distancing factors when added to the equation make it very difficult. The artistes who mostly come from rural areas are faced with many economic difficulties at this point. When a production is organised we have to bear all costs from costumes, to makeup, to stage sets, to transport. And that is without counting the payments to artistes. Therefore, without the possibility of having regular shows it is difficult to financially manage a production under these conditions.

When we were given the opportunity to perform Vikurthi at the theatre festival at the Elphinstone and Tower Hall theatre, we at first thought it might be possible to do it.

‘Vikurthi’ is part of the O/L Grade 11 Sinhala language syllabus. Although the Elphinstone theatre festival offered the hall free with a stimulus of Rs 50,000 to bear costs and even offered the ticket sales revenue, the cost factor was simply too much.

Ticket sales revenue is an uncertain factor, and it has been halved due to social distancing factors.

Therefore, we are looking at half the usual ticket sales. Hence we were unable to utilise the opportunity and withdrew due to cost factors. In that context it is very difficult to reorganise the show runs we usually do for a year.

Q. Given the situation you and other theatre artistes are faced with, how do you see the future for Sinhala theatre in the next two to three years?

  Kaushalya Fernando 

A. The situation is precarious looking at the state of how things are at present. As I said, many young theatre artistes from rural areas find it difficult to secure lodging in and around Colombo due to the lack of work. That is a significant hurdle that needs to be addressed.

They are struggling as artistes and when faced with a further drop in work and with only a few jobs available in theatre for a year is not financially possible for them.

Apart from that how many shows can be expected to stage outside Colombo? That is a crucial factor.

Stage plays such as Vikurthi which my mother wrote and produced originally, and is part of the Grade 11 Sinhala language and literature syllabus in schools, can be shown in schools only if the school administrators are cooperative and give it priority.

At present most of the Education Department officials and school administrators focus only on the academic work in classrooms and do not believe in allocating ‘school time’ for stage plays even when the play happens to be one that is in the syllabus.

Watching the stage play as a performance is also part of the learning process and learning drama and theatre is not merely about reading the script in the classroom from the textbook. Therefore, I think there is a need for immediate dialogue and cooperative measures to be adopted by stakeholders such as the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Department of Education, and operators in the theatre sector.

While theatre festivals in Colombo’s main theatres held with the support of the state are greatly appreciated, and while applauding such measures, I must also say that drama and theatre is not something that must be limited to Colombo and other main urban areas.

It must be made accessible to outstations as well with a well crafted plan to go beyond Colombo in the future.

The state should consider providing a stimulus plan for theatre groups.

That is a much needed requirement at this point for all theatre artistes. Otherwise drama and theatre in Sri Lanka will suffer a massive setback in the next two to three years.

Q. You said that a new production which was planned for debut this year has now been halted. Does this mean that you will not go ahead with new productions in the next few years?

A. As artistes we cannot idle without engaging in the arts. It is our passion and we must endeavour to do so.

Although we had to halt the production plans temporarily we have not cancelled it.

We will persevere as much as possible to bring new creations to life in the coming years despite the challenges. We may not able to do long show runs but may be one or two shows since it is a new play, but we will certainly not give up altogether. Despite the odds, as artistes we must try to realise our visions of creativity.

And we sincerely hope that all stakeholders in Sri Lanka will consider giving theatre the required support to not merely survive but to actively grow in the coming years.