A Promising Comeback: Colombo International Theatre Festival and Sri Lankan Theatre

Ajay Joshi*


This article characterizes theatrical production in Sri Lanka as it has emerged from the tumultuous years of war and the onslaught of the pandemic. The author has supported the efforts of a local organisation, InterAct Art, which leads the way in reshaping Sri Lankan theatre and providing spectators with a reason to return. With this background as a basis, the author participated as an invited jury member of the first Monodrama Competition on the Emerald Island; this same theme of monodrama competition was also used for this year’s Colombo International Theatre Festival (CITF) – 2023. The present article not only reviews specific performances from the festival, but also comments critically on contemporary Sri Lankan theatre, while at the same time exploring possibilities for advancing and expanding Sri Lankan theatre in general.
Keywords: theatre as catharsis, monodrama competition, academics and practice, resistance, political instability, protest, bold expressions, diversity

I have been associated with the Emerald Island since 2013, first as an invited guest of the Colombo International Theatre Festival (CITF), and then over the years as a workshop facilitator, directors forum coordinator, course conductor and jury member, while gradually becoming integrated into the family of organising artists. I accepted the first invitation with great enthusiasm and excitement, as I was eager to see the theatre reappear in Sri Lanka after the long drawn-out war of over two decades, which ripped apart the rich cultural fabric of this gentle, multicultural society.

Sri Lanka has a long tradition of theatre, drawing on folk traditions as well as commercial successes, and particular plays have been performed for decades at a time. During my visits there over the years I have witnessed the progress of the festival, from its first, staggering baby steps to the great strides it has taken to become a mature contemporary stage.

The CITF is an attempt by writer, director, producer and publisher M. Safeer and his competent troupe of young volunteers from InterAct Art to use theatre as a catharsis for society and a means to express the suppressed angst and artistic cravings of the young. The war had condemned and strangled such expression, which the CITF attempts to streamline and at the same time utilize to draw the crowds back to the theatres they once patronised.

InterAct Art Company is a multifaceted organization which represents all religious and linguistic sectors of Sri Lankan society, who speak English, Tamil and Sinhala. They are a collective of actors, directors, writers, stage artists, singers, musicians, photographers and other theatre professionals who have taken Sri Lankan theatre to the global stage. In my estimation, it is important in this introduction to clarify the layered quality of the Sri Lankan stage and explore its origins.

After the theme of Monodrama was chosen for this year’s festival, applications for participation were solicited. This practice is problematic for me, as a former member of numerous selection juries, since members have to select plays from recorded versions or extracts sent. Theatre is a living art form, and that experience of immediacy helps one create a shortlist.

The selection of plays to be showcased at the festival is normally made on the basis of recommendations and referrals. Numerous performances recorded on DVD are sent to the selection board, who then choose the performances to be included in the festival. In my view, this practice is problematic, as it is extremely difficult to judge a live performance from such a source. My concern was confirmed when I saw shows not only at this festival in Colombo, but also others which I had previously attended in India, Italy, Georgia and Ankara. Nevertheless, I can see how such a format for selection is necessary when the call for participation is open to the world stage.

Another unique feature of this year’s festival, apart from the monodrama sequence, was the competition section. The plays were divided into two categories, one comprised of Sri Lankan plays, and the other consisting of plays from abroad; performances from Poland, Romania, India, Spain, Bangladesh and Tunisia made up the international front, while local companies represented the Sri Lankan repertoire.

The strength of this year’s festival was the programming of parallel workshops which were facilitated by visiting artists. For the most part, the workshops were very well attended. It was exciting to see the vast range of workshop attendees, which included groups as diverse as young theatre graduates, working theatre professionals, and public school teachers.

As opposed to current conditions in India, in Sri Lanka recent developments from the world of theatre are very encouraging, as jobs for drama teachers in schools and universities are in great demand. The strong commitment of drama departments from the academic sector of universities is noteworthy: faculty adhere to the academic curriculum and guidelines while engaging directly with the local community through their productions and applications of theatre as a tool to reform and stimulate dialogue.

This practice has had the unintended benefit of providing students with training in community work by using theatre as the fulcrum. The practical sessions at these workshops include a wide range topics, such as “The memory of the senses,” “Meeting your clown,” “The lyrical voice and theatre,” “Being on stage,” “Acting, movement and improvisations”’ “Finding the body centre,” “Preparing to act,” “Developing skills of appropriation and transcreation of dramatic texts” and “Textual analysis of dramatic texts.”

With so many international guests in attendance, there was also great interest in theatre traditions and practices and their origins. This gave rise to a DIRECTORS FORUM, which I moderated, through which we encouraged a cross-cultural sharing of theatre practice along with the creation of a common discourse of theatre. This segment was well received and provided new insights into familiar practices such as fundraising, acquisition of government support, creation of independent actor training pedagogies and varied performative spaces, and analysis of audience response, among others.

The festival was organized in honor of Professor Emeritus Walter Marasinghe, who, as one of the most senior and renowned scholars in Sri Lanka, has made significant contributions to theatre education in universities, schools and other institutions. He is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, as well as a published author on Sanskrit and Greek theatre. He is a scholar of the Sanskrit language and has been a cornerstone for literature and drama in Sri Lanka; one of his most valued contributions is his Sinhala translation of Bharata’s Natyashastra.

The main attraction of the festival was the monodrama competition, the first of its kind in Sri Lanka, with a separate jury for the Sinhala and International sections. As a member of both sections, I participated in a number of group discussions to evaluate performances as well as to consider how people from such diverse cultural backgrounds and understandings of theatre practice could still engage with the theatre as an expression of universal human values.

Jury for the Monodrama Competition 2023. L to R: Zelia Lanaspa, Dr Asish Goswami, Samuddhi Lakmali, Hemanta Prasad, Dr Ajay Joshi, Yoshoda Wimaladharma, Nihari Somasiri, Lucian Bulathsinghala. Photo: Festival team

In the Sinhala section, the panelists represented the international theatre community, for example, Krzysztof Rogacewicz, a theatre, film and TV actor, director and producer, from Poland; Subuddhi Lakmali, actor, vocalist and vocal trainer, from Sri Lanka; Dr. Asish Goswani, theatre critic, from India; Zelia Lanaspas, artistic director, Mikr OPERA company, from Spain, and myself.

The International jury was comprised of the stalwarts of Sinhala Theatre and Film, for example, Lucian Bulathsinghala, veteran actor/director; Yashoda Wimaladharma, veteran actress of film/teledrama; Nihari Somasiri, veteran actress/theatre artist; Hemanta Prasad, veteran actor/ director, all of Sri Lanka, and myself.

Artist Subuddhi Lakmali. Director- Sujeewa Pathinisekara. Photo: Ajay Joshi

The Sinhala section was performed by young local artists, whose passionate expression of angst and desperation emerged in all five productions. They dared to express themselves by commenting personally on the current political and societal turmoil which is draining the country, focusing on the younger generation who is facing the onslaught of reprisal. The artists used innovative forms and spatial dynamics to tell their story, and provided a novel artistic experience for someone like me, who was raised with a very different cultural sensibility.

The Tyre (Sri Lanka). Artist and director: Asith Muthukumara. Photo: Ajay Joshi

InTyre, by Asith Muthukumara, an artist was suspended from a tyre, strung from a height in the middle of the auditorium. Using Ariel-like movementshis character symbolised the thin line between existence and struggle of a young man living within a political, social and cultural framework caught up in the gradual demise of humanity. This creative work revealed the tragic fate of a young man who stood up against social and political institutions, challenging in particular the educational system that had lost the freedoms of speech and independent thought.

The Inviction (Sri Lanka). Actor and director Samitha Perera. Photo Ajay Joshi

The Inviction, by Samitha Perera, is a captivating short play that explores the impact of contemporary social institutions on the lives of the middle-class community in a developing country. As the narrative unfolds, it masterfully portrays the intricate web of interconnectedness amongst various institutions, such as religion, governance, family, economy, education and law and order, and their significant influence on the daily routines of the citizens.

As the narrative unfolds, the intricate web of interconnection amongst various institutions is foregrounded, and the powerful influence of religion, governance, family, economy, education and law and order on the daily routines of the citizens is elucidated. The narrative was delivered from a point above the audience, across the walkway, thereby enhancing the dramatic effect of the storyline.

Equal Feelings (Sri Lanka). Actor: Nirmani Fernando. Director: Nirmani Fernando, Vidure Abeydeera. Photo: Ajay Joshi

Equal Feelings, performed by Nirmani Fernando, questioned the experience of emotion, particularly those feelings which are present from birth to death, which come and go but are universally understood. The play focuses on people who are markedly different from each other, and questions how such vastly different people can experience the same type of feelings. Using bright light with shadow backdrops and a creative set design, the playwright staged a monumental production which was awarded the best monodrama award at the festival.

Another interesting play, Tik Tik, by Dilshan Thilanka, uses the metaphor of the clock and its exploitation by the battery to comment on the life struggles of the oppressed class.

Asadakta Wedi Thiyanu (Sri Lanka). Actor: Nirosha Godamulla. Director: Mrs G.M.N.S. Godamulla. Photo: Ajay Joshi

Using techniques of Brechtian theatre, the play Asadakta Wedi Thiyanu focuses on the universal narratives of political governance, social structure and cultural difference. Drawing from the Caucasian Chalk Circle, the performance provides a social commentary on the realities of life and the moral struggle to understand what is right and what is wrong.

While the Sri Lankan performances were deeply impressive, the international presentations were equally captivating, offering to Sri Lankans in attendance a flair of world drama.

The play Paradox, from Poland, depicts the senselessness of both war and the military, and shows how the mechanisms of war are governed by the logic of the absurd. An original drama, it was inspired by Joseph Heller’s well-known books Catch 22 and Closing Time.

Don’t Revenge Us, from Romania, focuses on confessions extracted from victims of the communist system, and follows their forced journey as they endure the pain of deportation to Siberia. The performance was named best monodrama by the International jury.

Erendira’s Metamorphosis (India). Actor: Namrata Sarma. Director: Dr Mrinal Jyoti Goswami. Photo: Ajay Joshi

The text of Erendira’s Metamorphosis, from India, draws on the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez as it questions the meaning of life with the frequently raised question: Are we slaves of time? Skilfully performed by actor Namrata Sarma and competently directed by Dr. Mrinal Goswami, this rather difficult text presented a versatile, meta-narration of post-dramatic theatre.

The play by Dario FO and Franca Rame, Eka Ek Nari (A Woman Alone), from Bangladesh, delves into the narrative of a lonely woman and her emotional confessions from travesty to tragedy and the shocking climax.

Lyric Dragonfly (Spain). Actor and director: Zelia Lanaspa. Photo: Ajay Joshi

In Lyric Dragonfly, from Spain, a shy assistant to a famous tenor discovers that seemingly fixed boundaries are apparent, not real, as she learns that the capabilities of women and men are often indistinguishable. The character of the assistant, expertly interpreted by soprano Zelia Lanaspa, was performed to a rapt audience. As the play begins, the assistant is waiting for the tenor to arrive for a concert. Since he is late, as always, she finds the perfect opportunity to sing in his place, and steps forward in order to keep the show going. Through the experience, she discovers that she is both talented and self-confident.

Storyless….Bleed, from Tunisia, depicts the existential dilemma of a clown. While fishing in the sea, the clown finds a magic shoe which later becomes his accomplice to overcome disorder in the world, yet the magic shoe fails to lead the clown to the life path best suited to his goals. The play questions whether the clown will continue his clownish life or whether he will be condemned to a serious life without the magic of the shoe.

The play Two Dying Scenes, from India, focuses on epic characters from the mythologies of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Drawing from two different stories, the play emphasizes that both characters are killed by ideal men of the contemporary world, Sri Krishna and Sri Rama, while questioning the nature of truth and the justification for such an act. Delivered by Saranjith NK, a young theatre practitioner from Kerala, the performance had its captivating moments.

Another play which inaugurated the festival was Untouched, from Sri Lanka, written by Sujeewa Pathinisekara. Although the performance was not included in the competition segment, it has won much praise and numerous awards at international festivals, and was clearly a showstopper at the Colombo festival. The play centers on the contemporary story of a woman, her lover and her husband as she falls into a symbolic pit between the two men. Performed by Sri Lankan actress Subuddhi Lakmali, the staging was a medley of sheer cloth, brilliant lighting design and deft physical movements which subtly underscored the main storyline.

Of the two segments from the monodrama competition, I was deeply impressed with the efforts of young local theatre practitioners and their close connection to crucial contemporary issues. If they are truly representative of today’s youth culture who mince no words to express themselves, then Sri Lankan theatre, in my opinion, is set to reach the pinnacles of success and appreciation from the global stage!

While attending the festival I didn’t see any performances from the commercial circuit, but I was impressed with performances set in rural locations, especially those staged by the Janakaraliya mobile theatre, known as “Theatre of the People.” This company has been extremely popular with the local community, and is to be commended for attempting to bridge gaps created by warring factions and addressing issues relevant to traumatized groups among the citizenry.

Another strength of the festival was the extensive repertoire of dance performances scheduled that were representative of particular regions of the island. Dance concerts were performed with great enthusiasm and sensitivity and initiated the festival with great style, given their distinctive formal and aesthetic properties.

An overriding goal of the festival was to bring audiences back to the theatres, as local groups had patronized the theatre quite fervently before the war. While the turnout for most shows was average, the publicity generated stirred curiosity and generated a lot of interest; this first step was crucial to an effort still in its nascent stages. Furthermore, the post-production discussions generated meaningful dialogue that was enlightening, not only for analyzing a particular performance but also for understanding global theatre practice in general. In my view, fears of a dwindling audience are of secondary importance as this is a universal problem, and the struggle to attract spectators is an ongoing challenge.

My experiences during my visit to Sri Lanka were layered. Images that seemed disconnected were in fact part of a rich tapestry which merged with my newly found associations: the touristic journeys I enjoyed around Colombo, my trip to Ambalangoda and the village of masks and puppets, the ongoing journey to Galle and the participation in the rhetoric of the festival were all integral components of a totality that merged harmoniously with my canvas of experience.

To conclude, I would like to acknowledge the involvement of numerous universities in the theatre movement in Sri Lanka. Though I wasn’t able to attend any of their productions, I was pleased with the efforts of the drama departments to train students in the theatre arts. They have also collaborated with local theatres and mobile theatres to lend support to this movement. This confluence of academic and practical knowledge has produced a group of theatre practitioners who follow their own directives, a tendency with great potential in a country where theatre has the power to bring about reform.

In its entirety, the festival has carved its niche in the world of Sri Lankan theatre. However, a more proactive role by the local theatre fraternity is necessary for their theatre to become more inclusive. The InterActArt means well and has already scheduled a program of activities for the upcoming season. While the organization is still developing, the members display a strong resolve to improve and a determination to expand.

Having traced the path of the festival over the past years and the sociopolitical realities of Sri Lanka prior to that, I greatly appreciate their efforts. All those involved work together as a unified team to realize a common dream, with all its tears and joy, and their success is laudable. I look forward to following their progress, and I strongly believe they will experience many more successes and triumphs in the years to come. 

*Dr Ajay Joshi, a practicing dentist, has completed a PhD. degree in Theatre Criticism and a Masters degree in Journalism and Mass Communication. He has traveled extensively, and has been associated with theatre in India and abroad, in multiple capacities, for well over two decades. Dr. Joshi has designed and taught numerous courses, presented papers related to theatre in India and abroad, translated plays and written extensively on theatre and culture. Among his many honors and achievements, Dr. Joshi was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, 2018-19, for teaching theatre at Rutgers University, USA.

Copyright © 2023 Ajay Joshi
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