Small Stage Depicts Societal Shifts in Sri Lanka

By Marwaan Macan Markar 9 October 2014

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — New walking paths are measures of progress in the Sri Lankan capital. They abound in Cinnamon Gardens, an affluent neighborhood of tree-lined avenues, colonial and modern mansions and a charming café culture. Some of these paths cut through a well-manicured park in the heart of this urban lung. Others unfurl on the edge of the country’s monument to independence from the British Raj.

But even in such a serene setting, the legacy of the near 30-year conflict waged between government troops and the separatist Tamil Tigers in this South Asian island-nation is evident. Once the rebel army was vanquished in a bloody final chapter that ended in May 2009, there were two choices for the triumphant Colombo government: demobilize the battle-hardened troops or draft them into the post-conflict agenda. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his hawkish brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country’s defense secretary, settled for the latter. Troops were subsequently deployed to grow vegetables, clean public buildings and beautify civic spaces. The new walking paths are proof of military labor.

For the creative minds at Stages Theater Group, a local ensemble of dramatists, the new paths have also served as artistic inspiration. The group’s most recent play, titled (what else?) “Walking Path,” innovatively strung together 16 episodes of contemporary life unfolding in the world of the walking paths. Some scenes of the 90-minute, wordless play probed the new trends of a post-war middle class life style, taking digs at the exercise culture and the narcissistic “selfie” world. Ultra-patriotism was also flayed, with nothing more than deft body movement and facial expressions, while the control freaks in the military were presented as threatening, whistle-blowing minders trying to impose order in civic spaces meant for walking and camaraderie.

This production also spoke to the contours shaping the small, yet dynamic world of Sri Lankan drama. Local theater groups are increasingly tapping the country’s contemporary political and social realities as fertile ground for material. The debilitating ethnic conflict, which killed over 100,000 people, has inevitably found its way onto the stage, with some scripts touching on the wounded ties between the country’s Sinhalese-Buddhist majority and Tamil and Muslim minorities.

But pain and trauma are not all the Colombo stage has to offer. “Pusswedilla,” a play laced with local political humor, continues to be a runaway success, drawing packed audiences who revel in the opportunity to laugh at their excessively selfish, predatory political class.

Experimentation is also being embraced. Some production houses use devised theater, where the script is not the work of one person, but a collaborative effort. Others are exploring “forum theater” in which performers act out a basic scene on a social issue, with the audience shaping the direction of the play as it unfolds. Even the proscenium has been happily dispensed with in some quarters.

Jana Karaliya, a leading exponent of the forum theater style, is one group that has turned its back on the traditional theater settings. It takes its plays to the people, using rural locales for its shows. Mind Adventures, another experimental theater company, transformed the hall of an old abandoned Colombo hotel into the staging ground for a play in which actors performed in the midst of the audience. The latter, on occasion, were roped into doing their bit, including holding up props.

The advance of innovative dramas with local themes was inevitable, say those in this world of amateurs and semi-professionals. Original local productions have begun to replace adaptations of plays from Latin America and other politically traumatized societies from across the world. Although local interpretations of an Ariel Dorfman play like “Widows” had served to shed light on stories of oppression that have parallels in Sri Lanka, it did so through a foreign lens. “I got tired of doing other people’s work,” said Tracy Holsinger, a veteran of the stage and head of Mind Adventures. “I made a conscious decision to do original theater after May 2009.”

Since the war’s end, local theater has become a mirror to reflect what is unfolding in Colombo, where politics, the economy, media and culture in the country is centralized and shaped. “As we moved away from the war, it became more comfortable to talk about things,” remarked Dylan Perera, an actor and director. The national conversation shifted from hysteria and hatred to reflecting on the ethnic conflict in more measured tones. “Directors [have] become more comfortable pushing the boundaries of what is being done and said, even if it means staging plays on a smaller scale,” said Perera.

Theater proponents have identified the boldness of post-war productions in Sinhala, Tamil and English as in stark contrast to the output of mainstream media. Playwrights are offering a more honest portrayal of post-war society than journalists, they argue. “Theater is playing a significant role in raising a critical consciousness,” said Neloufer de Mel, an academic in performance arts studies and a theater critic. “There are plays produced by university departments and alumni that are political commentaries of our time.” The editors of some independently-owned newspapers sheepishly admit their critics have a point. The Rajapaksa regime has an impressive array of henchmen to bring challengers in the media to heel.

Plays, like films, are also subject to the approval of the government’s censorship board. Yet, they often get a pass, some with minor changes, even if the scripts have politically charged content. This is not an indication of a liberal spirit shared by the men and women with the censors’ scissors. Rather, it is illustrative of a political calculation on behalf of the elites—that plays appeal to a small cultural constituency that do not amount to a political force. “The reason we are allowed to do what we do is because theater is not seen as threatening, unlike the media,” admitted Holsinger of Mind Adventures. “We are allowed to exist because many of us are under the radar.”