The question of theatre culture | Sunday Observer
Crisis in Sri Lankan Theatre: Part 2:

The question of theatre culture

12 December, 2021
The Tightrope by Simon Brook
The Tightrope by Simon Brook

All the advanced theatre arts in the world, from Athens in ancient Greece to Broadway today, originated in the busiest developed cities the world over in terms of culture and trade. 'Watching a play' here does not mean engaging in theatrical performances of witchcraft or religious activities.

It is the time when the audience started to engage with the play after the performing arts detached itself from occult activities and developed into an autonomous art medium. The uniqueness of the cities or environment in which the play was developed is that it has become a haven where music, literature, other arts, philosophy and politics can all be equally practiced and enhanced.

In other words, theatre culture has developed in the midst of broader socio-cultural discourse. Even Aristotle's poetry, which influenced the whole of Western theatre, originated around 335 BC (Poetics), at the height of all the cultural practices in Greek theatre.

Studying the book, it seems to us that it is not simply a book produced based on theatre productions, but a work of broader art and philosophical discourse.

However, throughout history, watching theatre productions has been primarily an urban cultural activity. Athens, London (West End), New York (Broadway), Berlin, Moscow, Paris and Edinburgh are some of the most influential theatrical cultures that have had the greatest impact on world theatre.

When we look at these advanced theatre societies, we see that the idea of watching drama has always developed as a cultural habit centered on theatre. It seems that where that cultural tradition does not exist, there is no relatively advanced theatre. Watching a play is a cultural habit that is part of one's social life, a habit like going to church or temple.


A theatre, especially Western theatre, is a complex cultural space where people meet and interact, often based on watching the play. Usually in such a theatre there is some free space for buying or reading books, and some free hang around space such as a pub or coffee shop and sometimes a museum and a gallery is also available.

We know that one of the inherent features of artistic inspiration is that it is difficult for us to remain silent while having some artistic inspiration and we wish to share its virtues with others.

This dialogue is very important to understand the work of art more broadly and to enhance our understanding and inspiration of life through it. The work of art is also analysed through it.

What is special about this environment is that people meet each other in an inspiring way (theatre) based on a human experience. In societies where drama is often seen, the most interesting sub-cultural traits that have developed have more liberating and exploratory ideas about life in their own way.

Sri Lanka

Now, let’s look at Sri Lanka. Here we have to admit that something that radically went wrong not only with the theatre culture in Sri Lanka but also with cultural life as a whole. That is to say, when the nation-state model of Sri Lanka was created soon after Independence, no one had a broad understanding of what that cultural life was all about. Cultural life here refers to activities that allow people of all ages to socialise with each other and spaces.

With the modernisation of many Western European countries, including Japan, various measures were taken to preserve such cultural spaces that they traditionally had in modern society in the sense of cultural exercises.

For example, when large markets such as supermarkets were created in those countries, they did not lose the small market places in the village. Even today, village fairs are run with state sponsorship as a cultural activity where non-professionals who cultivate and produce products on a small scale socialise and sell their produce.

In Sri Lanka there was also a culture of going to the village shop and spending time drinking tea or coffee and playing checkers, and later we developed a volleyball culture where boys and girls in the village got together and played volleyball in the evenings. The Government did not have a special plan to understand and preserve the value of this cultural life. It is in this context that theatre is not widely understood as a cultural exercise beyond being a subject and a performance.

There is not a single theatre in Sri Lanka that has created the idea of watching dramas as a cultural habit. In general, only the Lionel Wendt theatre emerged as the most suitable theatre for plays. In many other places the play was shown either in school halls or in community halls and auditoriums built for other work.

The crisis in the theatre, rather than the lack of proper objectivity to show a play, is the inability to develop a theatrical culture. Usually the best part of a play starts when the actors and the audience embrace and chit-chat after the play. But at present, the hall watchman picks up the keys and starts asking people to go out!

There are a considerable number of Government and non-Government project programs related to the development of theatre in Sri Lanka, but unfortunately they do not seem to pay much attention on how to make the theatre going as a cultural habit.

Community Theatre

After such an environment is created, it becomes a backdrop for the gradual production of quality drama. For example, there is a theatre culture called Community Theatre in Australia. (This is different in some other West European countries.) It is usually found in areas away from the city.

Performing for audiences ranging from a minimum of 25 to about 150, it is not considered as professional theatre. Everyone involved in it is from the surrounding area and while doing other jobs they do drama for fun.

The specialty of this state-sponsored event is that it has become a cultural activity for the evening, regardless of the drama. The reason is that the place has been turned into a cultural space that goes beyond showing the play. These spaces automatically become the headquarters for professional theatre plays creating new audiences and inviting artists.

What the Government should have done was to maintain cultural life as broadly as essential to the people as health and education giving it a market model and sponsor the non-profit areas. It has now been proved that the art of theatre is not developed by drama festivals, courses and subject matter alone.

Even more problematic than the allocations made by the Government for theatrical arts is the lack of correct ideas and concepts and the failure to systematically implement them.

In view of the importance of theatre culture we have discussed, let us now look at two major proposals regarding the development of theatre in Sri Lanka.

Performing arts complex

The first proposal is to build a performing arts complex based on the art of theatre in Colombo. It should have two or three theatres of different sizes, several rehearsal rooms of different sizes, an art gallery, and a museum of performing arts, a bookstore, a bar with a restaurant and facilities for theatrical exercises and other arts.

A cultural environment and an advanced discourse that will lead to the production of quality theatre should be developed in such places. If desired, attempts can be made to build similar performing theatre complexes in other parts of the country as well.

The second suggestion is to introduce children to the culture of watching plays. Drama and the performing arts, especially as a subject in schools, are by no means sufficient and young children need to be culturally trained to watch theatre plays. Going to watch a play on a specific day of the week at school or with the family and make watching the play a fun cultural part of their school and childhood.

In many West European countries you may have seen people reading books while travelling in the bus and even when waiting in queues. The reason for this is the cultural habit of reading extracurricular books inculcated at school level from an early age. Then there is the example from parents as well.

Translated by Anuradha Kodagoda