National Theatre Corporation; a pressing need | Sunday Observer

National Theatre Corporation; a pressing need

4 October, 2020

During the lockdown earlier this year one of the noticeably affected occupation groups in Sri Lanka was the community of theatre artistes. A delegation that sought relief from the State to meet their financial pressures, making representation to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was told that a formal working ‘Union’, or an established representative body of theatre artistes was needed for the State to address the issue since the State cannot, quite rightly, make random grants for sustenance on an individual basis. This event showed the crucial need for a formally established, officially recognised representative body for theatre artistes in Sri Lanka.

There is no union for theatre artistes in the country yet. But has there been any attempt to establish one even in the past? This question led me to an insightful conversation with, Sri Lanka’s senior most theatre practitioner, Namel Weeramuni.

I was curious to know if he had any knowledge about any past attempts to establish a union for theatre artistes and what his thoughts were on this subject.

In his conversation he brought to light how there had been an initiative made in 1963 to establish a formal association to represent the interests of theatre artistes.

This organisation was known as ‘Amateur Actors Union’ and was chaired by the late Edmund Wijesinghe who played the role of the Veddah King in the very first production of Maname. “However, though he was the President of the Amateur Actors Union it was Somalatha Subasinghe who as Vice President presided over at most meetings.

Edmund couldn’t find the time to attend meetings regularly due to his engagements,” said the Secretary of the Amateur Actors Union, Namel Weeramuni, adding that Wijesinghe was at the time a full- time school teacher. The Union sought to further the interests of actors and the sphere of performance arts altogether. “Wickrama Bogoda who was working at the Bank of Ceylon at the time was our Treasurer.” Weeramuni said that their first goal as a union was to establish a facility for rehearsals, and that artistes who were committed to of the art of theatre would find temporary places on availability to hold rehearsals. “I realised that a permanent place for drama rehearsals was a pressing need for artistes at that time and that was the Union’s initial goal.

And so we initiated a series of benefit shows to raise funds.

Wickrama and I went to great lengths to put up posters of the benefit shows in the dead of night to make sure that word got around. It was our passion that kept us committed to the cause, and we enjoyed it.” Weeramuni said Rs. 16,000 was raised through their collective fund raising efforts and they began actively looking into the prospects of purchasing a land in a good location in the Colombo city, for the Union to establish a facility for drama rehearsals.

Plot of land

Through a friend named Jayaratne who worked at the Land Commission General’s Department, Weeramuni was able to identify a potential plot of land to suit their purpose near the Colombo Race Course. However, this goal could not be fulfilled. “Due to criticism by a member of the Union over my performance as Secretary claiming that I was not properly maintaining the minutes and records of the meetings I decided to leave the Union, as I was hurt over those remarks after all the effort I had put in.

I handed over all records and documents that were with me as Secretary and left the Union. Unfortunately, the goal of setting up the rehearsals facility never came through.

I don’t know what became of the money that we collected for the purpose.” Weeramuni thereafter continued his involvement in theatre but had nothing more to do with the Amateur Actors Union of which he had been a founder member.

The Union soon turned inactive and failed to continue with its vision. Weeramuni said no committee of office bearers had been appointed the year following his departure from the Union.

That seemed to be the end of what was surely the first theatre artistes union in Sri Lanka which could possibly have grown into a significant national scale organisation to represent theatre artistes and their interests.

Weeramuni said thereafter there was Sugathapala de Silva’s collective called Ape Kattiya (Our Crowd) which was a good initiative for theatre artistes to have an opportunity for collaborations and networking but it was not in the form of a union with elected office bearers.

What was recollected by Sri Lanka’s most senior theatre practitioner on this matter shows that there was no ‘enterprise’ undertaken by theatre artistes in Sri Lanka to develop a formal union to vocationally represent them.

Sri Lanka has a National Film Corporation but no National Theatre Corporation as far I know, and so I asked Weeramuni if there had ever been one? “No”, answered Weeramuni and said, “But that is a good idea and must be looked into by the Government. If the Government can establish a National Theatre Corporation through an Act of Parliament that would be a step forward to establish a Theatre Artistes’ Fund to support theatre.”


Weeramuni said a Fund should be established for theatre artistes and that he is working towards rallying a group of fellow theatre artistes to make representation to the Prime Minister who also holds the portfolio of Finance Minister, to consider introducing a lottery.

“The funds from a lottery, which could be introduced by the National Lotteries Board or the Development Lotteries Board, exclusively to establish and maintain a national theatre artistes’ fund, can be the answer for such a project.”

Weeramuni said that if theatre artistes get actively involved in this effort such a lottery will become popular and get good support from the public. “By having a Theatre Corporation the theatre artistes’ fund can be administrated by the Corporation and the artistes can be given some financial support based on their needs.

This is the best way that theatre can be supported and not be made a burden on the State in time to come.”

Weeramuni’s emphasis on the importance of establishing a Union to make representation is not without a plan.

He plans to host a gathering at his establishment, Namel and Mailini Punchi Theatre, for theatre directors so that they may formalise a representative body that can ‘Unionise’ a voice for theatre artistes and make representation to the Government on the suggestion to develop a theatre fund to support theatre artistes in Sri Lanka.

As the global economy shows signs of a troubling recession in the years ahead due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and as the future of theatre artistes in Sri Lanka may need more formalised structures and mechanisms to sustain them in the next couple of years, let us hope that Weeramuni’s ideas will see the fruition of a national plan to help the future of Sri Lanka’s theatre artistes.