The State and Fate of Theatre | Sunday Observer

The State and Fate of Theatre

13 September, 2020
A scene from the play ‘Forgetting November’ (Pix: Sanjana Hattotuwa)
A scene from the play ‘Forgetting November’ (Pix: Sanjana Hattotuwa)

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

Jake Oorloff

An artiste dedicated to the arts as a writer, director as well as actor, Jake Oorloff is a Co-Founder of the Floating Space Theatre Company. An old boy of S.Thomas’ College Mt.Lavinia, Oorloff’s involvement in drama and theatre spans from working with schoolchildren to works of avant-garde theatre that combines, and even defies, conventional genres within the arts. The non-proscenium play ‘Forgetting November’ written and directed by Oorloff in August 2015, was a work of theatre which I had the pleasure of experiencing and reviewing in the Sunday Observer’s issue of September 13, 2015 (exactly five years ago!). And thus, in this week’s instalment of The State and Fate of Theatre, I present to the readers of Sunday Observer the views and perspectives of theatre practitioner Jake Oorloff, who provides a glimpse at what society at large should know about what theatre practitioners must deal with in days to come, in the face of a global pandemic.

Q. Did the lockdown and the subsequent situation that arose, halt any theatre productions that you had planned to get involved in?

A. Like most people, when the Covid-19 situation was first reported, I didn’t quite understand what we were really in for. I was in the middle of planning a new production and was having conversations with a producer at the time.

Floating Space Theatre Co., the company I work with, initiated a Theatre and Performance Symposium (TAP) last year and we were planning a second iteration when the curfews and lockdowns were announced. It soon became obvious that we were going to have to just sit it out until we understood what was happening around us.

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

A. I believe the entire ‘arts industry’ and theatre community is grappling with the question at this particular juncture. The simple answer to that question is that I do not know.

For me, as an independent practitioner, creating and producing new work is reliant on many factors. Some of that is to do with the creative process but the actual production and presentation of work is reliant on people interacting, creating and generating work together.

A lot of this work requires payment and without the possibility of cultural life returning to normalcy it is hard to imagine that work can be generated at present. My colleagues in the theatre have attempted to use the internet to create dialogue/performances and in many of these instances managed to make some headway. But without a well thought-out strategy for generating funding or income, these projects are hard to sustain.

People think writers or creators can work anywhere and under any situation. That is a rather romantic if not a preposterous idea. Writers, if they do so in a professional capacity need an income to sustain themselves. I know actors and theatre professionals who were living and working in the city and who have had to return to their homes outside Colombo. It means they are no longer able to practise their art or engage with their peers as they once did.

Q. You are a co-founder and artistic director of Floating Space Theatre Company known for its focus on experimental theatre. Have the events that unfolded in the context of this global pandemic provided you new perspectives on approaching avenues and media of performance to ‘suit the times’ so to say?

A. Floating Space has experimented with form and presentation before and the present moment has demanded a rethinking or modes of presentation. It is something the company is discussing. The pandemic, more than providing me with new perspectives for creating work, has given me time to reflect on my practice, and also revealed the fault lines in the industry as we know it.

Many artistes, theatre companies and art institutions across the world have tried to find alternative ways to present shows and performances and engage with audiences, perhaps to reassure the public and ourselves that ‘things will be okay’. Societies and communities have always looked to art and artists to make sense of moments like these; moments that defy logic and reason. Science might tell us that Covid-19 or the new SARS-CoV-2, is most closely related to a group of SARS-CoVs found in humans, bats, pangolins and civets but that won’t help us make sense of this moment we are experiencing together. That job will be left to the artistes.

Q. What do you see as possible trends and themes that may develop in Sri Lankan theatre in the face of this current situation where both state and non-state actors advocate social distancing, and fears of possible recurrent pandemic waves and thus possible consequent lockdowns, that seem to be looming over the ‘collective psyche’?

A. I think artistes and companies that produced shows for larger audiences would need to rethink their established form of presentation. We may see more fringe theatre and experimental work when we finally start seeing work being presented.

Jake Oorloff at work as a director