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Bringing Politics to the Stage: Observations on

Post-War Political Theatre in Sri Lanka


Im
age courtesy Floating Space production of My Other History
05/26/2014
During the summer of 2010 I was tasked to assist a foreign post graduate student to
conduct her research on Sri Lankas post war theatre. As part of this research we
interviewed around 20 theatre practitioners from the English and Sinhala theatre in
Colombo to encapsulate how the theatre and its practitioners are responding to the
contemporary political issues in the post-war context and the to obtain their opinion on
the state of theatre in Sri Lanka. We also went to see some of the Political Theatre
performances staged in Colombo to observe whats been portrayed and discussed in
contemporary Political Theatre. My colleague went back to her university after
completing her three month research in Sri Lanka in September 2010. Thereafter I
continued to follow and observe Political Theatre in Colombo and managed to attend a
considerable amount of productions staged from 2010 to 2014 for my post graduate
research paper. This article is based on my research and observations on Political
Theatre in Colombo over the last five years.
Emergence of Political Theatre in Sri Lanka
Political Theatre as defined by Michael Kirby is a performance that is intentionally
concerned with government that is intentionally engaged in or consciously takes sides
in politics.[1] Accordingly it is a form of theatre which constructively engage with
political ideas and concepts with an intent to attack or support a political position,
explicitly refers to contemporary government problems and issues and point out
institutions and aspects of government that require change and attempts to change
beliefs and opinions of the spectator. [2]
Secular Theatre is relatively a recent phenomenon forSri Lanka. It was during the late
19th century when Sri Lanka was under colonial rule that secular theatre tradition
emerged in the country under the influence of Nurthi players from India and Fourth
Wall Proscenium theatre from the west.[3]
During the early decades of 20th century, contribution of several university professors
namely; Professor Ludovick and Professor Sarachchandra saw the establishment of
an authentic theatre tradition in Sri Lanka.[4] Professor Ediriweera Sarathchandra,
considered as the father of authentic Sinhala theatre, blended elements from folk
rituals and dance-drama tradition with Western theatre techniques and stage craft to
create a new genre of theatre which had an immediate and wide appeal that cut
across class barriers.[5]Thereafter theatre began to be produced in Sinhala and
English streams.
From the early 60s with the emergence of young playwrights such as Henry Jayasena,
Dayananda Goonawardana, Saiman Nawagattegama and Sugathapala de Silva the
focus of Sri Lankan theatre shifted from depicting universal human problems to
discussing burning socio-political problems of contemporary society, paving the way
to the development of Political Theatre in Sri Lanka.[6]
Today Political Theatre is among the leading theatre[7] forms performed in Sri Lanka
after Commercial Theatre. It is produced in both Sinhala and English languages to a
vibrant audience consisting of elites, government and opposition politicians,
intellectuals, policy makers, university students, government servants, journalists and
rights activists. In my observation bulk of Sri Lankas theatre including political theatre
is produced and premiered in Colombo: the capital of Sri Lanka and the central hub for
political, economic, and social activity due to the fact that it possesses the majority of
physical and human resources required for Political Theatre to sustain its functions.
Mapping Prospects and Challenges for Post War Political Theatre
Five years since the end of the war, the situation of Sri Lankan theatre has
considerably improved with increased theatrical activity in Colombo, its epicenter. In
my observation the number of theatre productions has dramatically increased over the
last five years compared to at the height of the war during in 2006-2009. According to
the online calendar on theatre performances in Colombo, from March 2013
September 2013 an average of five plays have been staged in Colombo every month.
[8] There has been an increase in theatre/stage drama performances outside of
Colombo. Earlier, theatre performances largely took place in Colombo. Following the
end of the war, the number of theatre performances in outstation especially of Sinhala
theatre has increased.
The theatre appears to have benefitted from the ongoing economic and infrastructure
development in Colombo. The Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre, a
modern fully equipped state of art performance center was opened by the government
in December 2011.[9] Although this center is specifically built for large scale theatrical
productions, it is hardly used for Political Theatre performances. While one reason for
this is the high rates that would need to be paid as rent, another is the unsuitability of
the venue for small/medium scale theatrical productions which constitute the majority
of theatre productions.[10]
Participation of youth as actors, critics and spectators has increased for theatre in
general. At the same time the interest of audience for Political Theatre has also
increased over the past 2 years.[11] Electronic media as well as social media have
been increasingly employed as tools to publicize on theatrical plays.
The numbers of English and Sinhala Political Theatre productions have also increased
since the end of war in May 2009. These productions vary from original plays to
adaptation of foreign plays. English Political Theatre has recently focused on devise
theatre.
Yet these prospects are overwhelmed by the challenges faced by the Political Theatre.
These challenges as flagged by theatre practitioners during interviews include: Dearth
of financial support, lack of state support for theatre, limited physical and human
resources, censorship, lack of playwrights, language issues, audiences limited interest
for theater which focus on serious socio-political issues and lack of critical reviews.
A considerable number of Political Theatre productions are self-funded[12]while some
productions secure financial support through corporate sponsorships and Non-
Governmental Organization (NGO) funding. Whilst corporate sponsorships and state
assistance in terms of funding continue to be limited for Political Theatre, it has
managed to secure NGO funding, although it is not consistent.[13] Corporate
sponsorships are mostly channeled towards commercial theatre which has a
comparatively larger audience. According to a theatre Director if you are not doing
western musicals or comedies or adaptations of Shakespeare with pop music, no one
is really interested in funding you.
In terms of State assistance there is no official State Body to fund theatre. Matters
pertaining to the subject of theatre come under the Department of Cultural Affairs
which comes under the purview of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.[14] The
Departments role on to theatre is limited to organizing the State Drama Festival, Youth
Drama Festival and Childrens Drama Festival annually.[15] The winning play of the
State Drama Festival is awarded prize money and this is the only way financial
support is channeled towards theatre by the state.[16] Participation for this festival is
limited to Sinhala and Tamil theatre and therefore English theatre is excluded thereby
preventing it from showcasing their work and accessing an audience and financial
support.[17]
Lack of financial support is further complicated by the limited audience for Political
Theatre which impacts on the remuneration earned from ticket sales. As a result of
financial constraints theatre companies struggle to pay their actors which makes it
increasingly difficult for theatre actors to establish themselves professionally. Majority
of the actors who work for theatre companies in Colombo are engaged in other jobs,
which limits their availability to freely take part in theatre productions.
Censorship is another critical issue. Political Theatre practitioners face censorship in
two folds; 1) Censorship by the Public Performance Board (PPB) of Sri Lanka also
known as the censor board and 2) Self-Censorship. If a theatrical performance is to
be staged publicly, with media publicity and ticket sales the law mandates the script of
the performance to be approved by the PPB. The PPB reportedly does not have clear-
cut guidelines or criteria for approval of scripts and this creates confusion among play
wrights and Directors on whether their scripts will be approved or not. In April 2011 few
lines of the script of My other history staged by Floating Space were censored by the
PPB. The lines referred to an air raid in Jaffna in the 80s by Sri Lankan Air Force. The
PPB banned the fourth edition (part 4) of the popular political farcical Pusswedilla in
November last year on the basis that the play was critical of the 2013 Common Wealth
Summit hosted by Sri Lanka. The ban was later revoked following the intervention of
President Rajapaksa. Coupled with this is the self-censorship of theatre practitioners
working on critical political issues largely instigated by the absence of media freedom
and the lack of space for the dissent in the country.
In the post war context theatre continues to be divided along language lines. Under
the Official Languages Policy enshrined in the present Constitution[18], official status
is given to Sinhala and Tamil languages and English is recognized as a link language.
Yet education continues to be offered in the mother tongue which is either Sinhala or
Tamil. Hence most people are not fluent in the link language. A similar situation is
witnessed in post-war theatre where it is divided on the basis of language. Most
English theatre practitioners are not fluent in Sinhala or Tamil and Sinhala practitioners
are not fluent in English or Tamil. The audience for English theatre is limited to a niche
in Colombo thus limiting their potential to reach a wider audience. On the other hand
due to their limited knowledge on the language, Sinhala theatre practitioners do not
participate in English theatre. Hence the language has made collaboration between
English, Sinhala and Tamil theatre practitioners difficult further limiting the potential of
Political Theatre to meaningfully engage in contemporary political issues.
Finding talented playwrights having the grip on language with a capacity to frame
contemporary political issues into a thought provoking script continues to be a
challenge for Political Theatre especially for English Political Theatre. Theatre
companies have tackled this issue by venturing into devised plays as well as adopting
foreign scripts which are relevant to the contemporary political context.
Drawing the Spotlight on Reconciliation: the Response of Political Theatre
In the post war context, the focus of majority of Sinhala and English Political Theatre
productions have been on power, authoritarianism, state corruption, absence of rule of
law, nepotism and media freedom. Dramatists like Rajitha Dissanayake and
Dharmasiri Bandaranaika have been at the forefront of drawing the spotlight on these
issues through their thought-provoking plays such as Apahu Herenna Behe (No
return), Bakamoona Weedi Basi (Owl on the street), Weeraya Marila (The hero is
dead) by Rajitha Dissanayake and Ekadipathi (The Dictator) and Makarakshaya (The
Dragon) by Dharmasiri Bandaranaika. In my observation these issues are not
contextualized with the ethnic conflict or with the civil war and their engagement with
the issue of reconciliation have been very limited.
A handful of Political Theatre productions have drawn the spotlight on reconciliation as
a theme, making reference to Sri Lankas ethnic conflict and the civil war. The
Travelling Circus adevised theatre piece performed in November 2009 by the Mind
Adventures Theatre Company was a satire based on internally displaced people
(IDPs) living in a camp.[19] This was staged at a time when among civil society there
was an ongoing discussion on the problems faced by Internally Displaced Persons
(IDPs) living in camps and welfare centers. The matter was seen as highly
controversial but at the same time served as a vehicle for those in Colombo to
conceptualize the firsthand experiences of war. In addition to the IDPs, the play also
discussed ethnic divide and collateral damage of war in the context of Sri Lankas
civil war.[20]
Ada Wage Dawasaka Antigani (A Day like Today Antigone) an adaptation of the classic
Greek play, Antigone was staged in October 2010 by the Academic Players of
University of Kelaniya. The play set in a post-war period in Greece narrates a story of
a king who is maddened by excessive power.[21] It encapsulates the conflict between
the mans law and the law of nature and boldly takes on the notion of patriot and
traitor.
In April 2011 Colombo saw the staging of two English Political Theatre
pieces:Rondo by the Mind Adventures Theatre Company and My Other History by
Floating Space based on the theme reconciliation.[22] The two productions were
created through a grant from the Sunethra Bandaranaika Trust.[23]Rondo, a devised
play narrates a story of an allegorical tale of a town that chooses to isolate itself from
the world after an act of violence. The play advocates for a shared future among
diverse communities shaped by shared history. My Other History is an intimate
account of a mothers attempts to share her memories of a life that no longer exists
with her son and of a fathers struggle to move on.[24] It captures the history of a
people denied of land, memory and life in the context of Sri Lankas ethnic
conflict.[25] As noted by its producers, the play attempts to explore the idea of
reconciliation as a moment of remembrance, a process of letting go, an act of listening
as much as that of confrontation.[26] Ariel Dorfmans Widowsstaged by Stage Light &
Magic Inc. in November 2012, depicts a quiet rebellion of a group of peasant women
whose husbands, sons and fathers have disappeared into the deadly maw of the
military junta fighting on behalf of a rich oligarchy.
These productions have attempted to address unanswered questions by the relevant
authorities in the post war context. Productions such as My Other
History and Rondo have used their theatrical space to promote the idea of a common
identity and a shared history; aspects which have not been focused by the
governments reconciliation process. Similarly, Widowsrevolves around
disappearances, torture and extra-judicial killings that have taken place during a civil
conflict. These are some of the burning issues faced by the people in Sri Lankas war
affected areas that have not been answered. Therefore, Political Theatre has the
potential to meaningfully engage and to advocate for reconciliation. Apart
from Widows, all three English Political plays (this includes Travelling Circus) have
been performed to smaller audiences consisting of at least 100 people. Due to limited
funding and audience, these plays hardly go for a re-run. Hence these productions
have not been able to reach a larger audience and to advocate their political message.
A critical gap in Sri Lankas reconciliation process is the limited utilization of creative
arts such as theatre to promote and address reconciliation in the post-war context. As
noted by Ogu-Raphael if theatre is utilized to its full potential it can create the
awareness that conflict is antithetical to societal progress and development by helping
the people to understand issues through metaphoric communication and providing a
communal experience which relates the individual to groups and the groups to the
forces controlling the society. [27] In fact the final report of the LLRC underlines the
importance of cultural affiliations in the process of national reconciliation[28] as well
as the need to promote greater understanding among the communities through
theatre.[29] The Political Theatre despite having a great potential to engage in
contemporary politics, continues to struggle with the challenges above mentioned,
which have limited its ability to respond to reconciliation. Media Freedom in Sri Lanka
continues to be supressed where dissenting media outlets and personnel continue to
be threatened and harassed by the government and military. The notion of patriots
and traitors coupled with Sinhala nationalism and religious extremism continue to
prevail. Unless these issues are addressed by relevant stakeholders, Sri Lankan
Political Theatre will not be able to play a proactively role in Sri Lankas reconciliation
process.
References
[1] Michael Kirby On Political Theatre, The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 19, No. 2,
Political Theatre Issue (Jun., 1975), pp. 129-135, The MIT Press.
[2] Ibid
[3] Ranjani Obeyesekere, The Sri Lankan Theatre in the Past Two Decades,Marga
Institute, Colombo, 2001.
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Michael Fernando, Theatre in Politics and Politics in Theatre:Sri Lankan
Experience Since Independence, Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences 1999 22 (1&2):
63-76.
[7] Chandanie Kirinde, Looking at Relationships in Love and Politics, Sunday Times,
28 July 2013.
[8] See www.stagedrama.lk (accessed on 25 September 2013)
[9] Official website of the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre-
www.lotuspond.lk (accessed on 25 September 2013)
[10] Nadie Kammellaweera, Has your stand on Nelum Pokuna Changed? (Translated
from Sinhala), Vikalpa, 29 June 2013, http://www.vikalpa.org/?p=16358 (accessed on
28 September 2013.)
[11] Interview with Rajitha Dissanayake, 2013
[12] Interview with Rajitha Dissanayake 2010
[13] Interview with Rajith Dissanyake and interview with Nadie Kammellaweera. 2010
[14]See http://www.cultural.gov.lk/web/index.php?
option=com_content&view=article&id=68&Itemid=73&lang=en (accessed on 28
September 2013)
[15] Ibid
[16] Interview with Prof.Neloufer de Mel 2013
[17] State Drama Festival 2012 2013 From 14th February
onwards,http://culturaldept.gov.lk/web/index.php?
option=com_content&view=article&id=121%3Astate-drama-festival-20122013-from-
14th-february-onwards-&catid=3%3Anews-a-events&Itemid=70&lang=en (accessed
on 28 September 2013)
[18] Chapter IV, The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka,
1978.
[19] More from the Circus, Sunday Leader, http://www.thesundayleader.lk/?
p=1800 (accessed on 27 September 2013)
[20] The Travelling Circus: A different take on IDPs in Sri Lanka,Groundviews, 23
November 2009, http://groundviews.org/2009/11/23/the-travelling-circus-a-different-
take-on-idps-in-sri-lanka/ (accessed on 28 September 2013)
[21] Academic Players presents great Greek plays, Sunday Times, 12 October 2012.
[22] Smriti Daniel, The curtains open on reconciliation, Sunday Times, 27 March 2012.
[23] Ibid
[24] Ibid
[25] Production: My Other History, Floating
Space,http://www.floatingspace.org/2012/06/my-other-history-2/ (accessed on 28
September 2013)
[26] Ibid
[27] Ifeanyi Ogu-Raphael, The Medium of Theatre as an Alternative Conflict Resolution
Mechanism: A Case for the Niger Delta,2009.
[28] Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation,
Official Website of the Government of Sri
Lanka, 8.278http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/Current_Affairs/ca201112/FINAL
%20LLRC%20REPORT.pdf
[29] Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation,
Official Website of the Government of Sri
Lanka, 8.277,http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/Current_Affairs/ca201112/FINAL
%20LLRC%20REPORT.pdf