It’s time for a chat

What started off as a form of entertainment to help young tsunami victims has now become businessman Royston De Zilwa’s life’s passion. Here he discusses his love for spreading the joy of puppetry and ventriloquism.
By Thulasi Muttulingam, Pix by Berty Mendis

Few people have hobbies that inspire them and touch the lives of several others too in the process. Royston De Zilwa counts himself fortunate to be in this category.

It would have been so easy for him to rest on his laurels as a successful businessman (he was responsible for the first ever tourism theme park – Pasgama as well as several innovations in the tea industry including the first wattle and daub tea kiosk) but Royston chose not to and is a far more fulfilled person for it.

Unlike most who might have abandoned themselves to despair when personal loss affected them in the 2004 tsunami, Royston who lost a beloved elder brother to the giant wave did not waste time feeling sorry for himself but instead helped as many victims of the tsunami as he could – especially children. His efforts were recognized by some American churchmen who recommended that he become a professional entertainer of children and so, in his 55th year, he went to America to learn the art of illusion, puppetry and ventriloquism.

“This is not my profession although I am a professional entertainer. This is something I do apart from my business, whenever I can to entertain underprivileged children and carry the message of God, joy and peace to them.”

His storeroom is filled with puppets as well as all his equipment and trunk loads of gifts he has brought back from abroad to give the children – soft toys and stationery of every colour and use imaginable. The 59-year-old businessman is a veritable Santa to most of these children.

His hobby is neither easy nor inexpensive. The hand puppets cost $80 a piece and the ‘vent’ puppets cost him Rs.100,000 each. In addition to this, he has also invested in his own spot lights, fog machines and curtains for the show as they are expensive to hire otherwise.

To combat the costs, though Presentation Packs Private Limited, his company is mainly involved in exporting tea, they have also now branched out into making hand puppets as they are so expensive and Royston now exports them even to the United States where he regularly does shows. He says proudly that for one of those shows which he did in Sinhala, he got a standing ovation.

With his son and family (including a beloved five-year-old grandson who has already learned puppetry from his grandfather) in Australia, the puppets are his adopted children. They come alive not only to his audience but to him too. He spends the morning practising his four different voices as a ventriloquist with them and discussing the day with them.

Royston has trained several children in his church to put on shows using hand puppets and spring puppets. “All the children are interested but only the dedicated and disciplined ones make it through as they have to kneel for five to ten minutes and keep their arm up continuously, no easy task for youngsters.” Despite this difficulty, he has trained several young ones who have done shows, one of which was even aired on Sirasa TV. When Royston took DVDs of one such show to show in America, the audience marvelled at the fact it had been done by six-year-olds.

Roystan is dedicated to his art as well as his mission to bring joy and meaning into children’s lives and he has toured most parts of the country travelling even to Jaffna two years ago. He does shows mainly in Sinhala and English but is now putting in a lot to learn Tamil as the Jaffna show had to have an interpreter which he felt detracted somewhat from the performance. Adults as well as children are thoroughly charmed by the puppets, especially the ones he uses for his ventriloquism shows. “On my way to Jaffna, I used them to entertain the Army who were all interested and so were the LTTE.”

Since he travels abroad a lot and always brings back a lot of items to give as gifts to the children he entertains, he invariably has a lot of excess luggage. However, Daniel and David (two of his human-looking ‘vent’ puppets) invariably charm the customs officials, that he manages to bring the luggage through without much difficulty, he smiles. “I always carry one of these fellows about with me and I use them to explain to the officials who we are, what we do and why we have excess luggage. They are always instant hits. The last time I travelled, I had Daniel in the empty seat next to me and the air hostess brought soft toys for him.”

Apart from Daniel and David who look like adults and sometimes frighten little children, Royston also has Gideon the lion (who looks so cute that his friendly roar won’t frighten the children) and Gilead the duck. All the names are Biblical as Royston is a devout Christian. In his illusion performances (he prefers not to call them magic), he brings out several of messages in a way children can relate to. For example he uses a small black bob to represent the devil, a small red bob to represent the individual and talks about how the devil should not be allowed to lead us. A deft twist of his hand and voila, the red blob is now much bigger and the black one has disappeared – shows that we can take on the devil and can grow through the process, becoming big enough to make him disappear.

Next he uses a long black stretch of cloth. “See this is us, all the people of this world.” A deft twist of his hand and the cloth is a rainbow of colours in vertical stripes. “We are all different, but we are all talented.”

Wherever he goes the children are amazed and delighted, and if he visits them again, they regale him with their memories of his last visit. It is a source of joy to him as well to bring light and laughter into the lives of children who otherwise suffer hard lives.

Royston has been seeking permission to go into the Wanni for some time now to entertain the IDP children there but has been told to wait until the camps are well settled. He is also negotiating with the Welikada prison authorities to not only put on a show for prison children numbering around 80 but also to teach them puppetry to such an extent that they can put on mega shows of their own.

Says Royston who migrated to Australia and then returned, “It’s my lifelong pledge to serve God and this nation with respect, integrity and dignity.”

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