- The third and last in a series of articles delving into our local theatre
Because of certain fortuitous and unfortunate circumstances, those who want to engage in our local theatre are hindered from pursuing it once school is over. This is true in particular for regions and districts and provinces which privilege hard subjects over softer ones, i.e. science and commerce over the arts. It’s significant to note, for instance, that in Colombo, Kandy, and Galle the ratios of commerce and science students to arts students have always been above 2, while those ratios in Moneragala (which has consistently recorded the highest Gini coefficient at 0.53) has always been below 0.6. Let’s face it: numbers don’t lie, even if they indicate a relationship between social status and choice of University subjects which we are at times told doesn’t exist. In Colombo especially, this relationship is profound, potent, unassailable.
The English theatre is more fortunate because its members, or coterie as I like to identify them, are socially insured against poverty when they opt for the stage. Especially when it comes to the themes they opt for – musical comedies, satires and farces, socially relevant dramas – they always have veritable reserves of actors, producers, and writers who pursue other careers while pursuing the stage. No one is a full time producer in this country, except those who’ve been active for more than 20 or 30 years (think of Jith Pieris and Jerome de Silva). But they are insured against an unstable industry because that coterie which patronises them are always there, particularly if it’s a musical comedy or light-hearted farce. The problems of the Sinhala theatre are more complex, more intriguing. Here’s an attempt at a sketch.
An average production would normally cost anywhere between Rs. 500,000 to 1.5 million, and that’s just for one or two shows. Numbers are inescapable and so are big budgets, particularly in these hard, harsh times, and they necessitate sponsors
It’s fashionable now and then to indict an art form as practised by a certain milieu, in formerly colonial societies, as being elitist. The conventional discourse here, then, is that the English theatre, as practised by the Wendites, is cut off from the people, while the Sinhala theatre panders to the people. If this were indeed true, it’s inscrutable that the latter must be ailed with a dearth of dedicated, energetic schoolboys and schoolgirls who wish to pursue it after they leave school, like their counterparts in the English theatre. Obviously it’s not a problem of numbers, but rather a problem of a dichotomy between numerical strength and lack of unity. The typical English Drama Society of a typical school, particularly in the Big Cities, is different from its Sinhala counterpart because there are fewer people in the former. Consequently, there’s a broader sense of unity, of togetherness, which big numbers can’t replicate.
More often than not there’s a symbiotic relationship between certain Clubs and Societies that are in turn linked to the relative monetary power of the English theatre. These Societies are entrenched, financially that is, and their members are more often than not to be found in various other Clubs which are as financially sound. All that goes back to the English Drama Societies, which are partly funded, or even subsidised and sponsored, by those other Clubs, which in turn are housed by members and participants who come from backgrounds that are amenable to the theatre. It’s a circle that never stops going round and round, in one sense, and it at once explains the potency of the English theatre, at school and elsewhere, and why school Drama Societies are more able to stage their productions for the public if those productions happen to be English. (One can think of Around the World in Eighty Days, Dracula, and Kensuke’s Kingdom, all of which were produced through these Societies.)
Let’s look at the numbers again. An average production would normally cost anywhere between Rs. 500,000 to 1.5 million, and that’s just for one or two shows. Numbers are inescapable and so are big budgets, particularly in these hard, harsh times, and they necessitate sponsors. Unfortunately even institutions which patronise and sponsor the arts, and concerts and shows and so on, think twice about financing Sinhala productions, be it a drama or even a felicitation ceremony, because they fear they won’t get a proper audience. That’s the kind of fear they think they can evade through English productions; this is true of musical comedies but true also of any school production that involves huge casts, marketable plots, and the Lionel Wendt. I find the latter alluring too, so that may explain why sponsors are easier to get for them. (And as if to add insult to injury the sponsors admit this point candidly; just the other day a boy told me that he had approached one of them for an exhibition of the evolution of the Sinhala theatre and had been bluntly informed that they prefer to sponsor events and exhibitions organised for English-speaking audiences).
These reasons in themselves are not, of course, enough to explain why our schoolchildren leave our theatre rather quickly. There’s another reason: in the Big Cities, most if not many of those who join Drama Societies (Sinhala) tend to come from streams and to study subjects which are not immediately connected with the theatre. It’s pertinent to note that we are duplicitous when it comes to the arts: we want to adorn our
houses with paintings and music but don’t want our children to be painters and musicians. Similarly, when we opt for harder subjects – Science, Maths, Commerce – and when we join a Society, what we do after school, or whether we continue with the activities these Societies engaged in, depends on what those subjects by default ordain as our careers. The lucky ones, even if they do these hard subjects, resolve and manage to be “freelance” artists and writers. But they are rare.
And because they study hard subjects, how they get into these Societies is as arbitrary as how they get out of them: more often than not, all it takes for them to be scriptwriters and actors (the latter more than the former) is a chance encounter with an official or a teacher who discerns his or her penchant for the arts (because the arts, unlike science and commerce, is rather instinctive; you don’t study it, you GET it) and then takes him or her in. Such chance encounters aren’t as rare as you’d think they are, and they explain how the members of Drama Societies get in (whatever the language), but because of how condescended the Sinhala theatre is, it’s not considered a safe, veritable, worthwhile option even as a hobby once school is done with. Contrast that with how members of the English Societies remain and come back, frequently.
It’s a circle that never stops going round and round, in one sense, and it at once explains the potency of the English theatre, at school and elsewhere, and why school Drama Societies are more able to stage their productions for the public if those productions happen to be English
We are living in a world of freelancers and one hit wonders. Our movies, which were once housed by Thespians, have now partially abandoned the theatre and, like the advertising industry, begun to take in models, some of whom have no real idea about the intricacies of acting. This is not to imply that our models are unintelligent. They are not. But for the most they come with a background in photography (because the model was built to be photographed, if not filmed for a matter of seconds or minutes); the level of commitment needed for a 30-second commercial is different to the level required for a 90-minute film. Sometimes these models make the transition sleekly (think of Rithika Kodithuwakku), but in these cases they understand the medium.
What we lack isn’t just a network of practitioners and performers, but something more: a mechanism to encourage more practitioners and performers from our schools, particularly in the Big Cities. This is important because in those Big Cities the rift between those who go for hard subjects and those who opt for softer subjects has never been wider before. Such a rift can only negatively impact those who wish to indulge in a form of theatre that is at once quantitatively superior and frequently condescended. The Sinhala theatre is suffering at present, not for want of good performers and writers, but because of that accursed tendency of our schoolboys and schoolgirls to drop out once they’re done with their studies, owing to reasons I’ve sketched above. And this affects drama more than any other medium, since the theatre is one of the most expensive art forms. Debaters, novelists, and poets, in whatever language, can follow what they do even if they don’t pursue it as their careers (a debater can be a doctor, an engineer, or a scientist, for instance), while a dramatist has to expend effort on his or her work, and turn it at least into a part-time commitment.
What these reflections bring me to is a simple, potent, unassailable fact: we are haphazard, random, chaotic, and uncommitted when it comes to our local theatre. Particularly in our schools. It’s fatally easy and convenient to pinpoint certain facts and figures as the reasons for this malaise, but the truth, as always, is more diverse and multifaceted than that. In the end it’s all to do with that crude, inscrutable mixture of reverence and condescension with which we treat our own art forms.
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that we are more willing to exhibit Pirandello and Beckett and Shaw in English than in Sinhala, despite the many creative ways in which these playwrights and their work have been adapted and reworked by our producers and actors. We prefer spectacle to subtlety, and in the English theatre, within or outside our schools, we are explicit about our excitement. And let’s face it: numbers may not lie, and big numbers may be alluring, but the more people there are on a boat, the more likely it is that they will bicker, fight amongst themselves, and fall into the water. In a manner of speaking, no matter how inapt that metaphor may be, this is what’s happening to our local theatre. Inside and outside our schools.