On the sixth of June, 1974, on a Poson poya day, several students of the Ranga Shilpa Shalika –among them Hemasiri Abeywardena, Parakrama Niriella, H.A. Perera and Nimal Chandrasiri – travelled to Anuradhapura with their theatre instructor Gamini Haththotuwegama. In the glow cast by five light bulbs on the playground of a local school, the group performed Raja Dekma, Bosath Dekma and Minihekuta Ellila Marenna Berida, heralding the introduction of a new theatre experience to contemporary Sri Lankan audiences.
This was the group’s goal: to take theatre away from the cities—out of the enclosed proscenium theatre buildings where ticket-holders are the exclusive spectators of theatrical performances—and bring it directly to the people. They wanted to take theatre to the people who were hitherto excluded from the mainstream theatre experience.
While waiting for the train out of Anuradhapura the next day, the troupe members spontaneously decided to perform a play on the station platform for the other passengers awaiting trains. Since there was no defined performance area, Gamini Haththotuwegama took the prop sword, walked in circles brandishing it about, struck it at a specific spot and declared: “This is where we will perform!” The group then enacted Can’t a Man Hang Himself?
for a ever-changing audience of people coming and going as the trains arrived and departed—until the performers themselves had to board the train to Colombo.
Thus was founded the street theatre tradition in Sri Lanka. Gamini Haththotuwegama, who accompanied his students on that crucial journey, kept the group going for more than 30 years, until he passed away on October 29, 2009. Parakrama Niriella writes in “Prabhuddhayana, Andurana, Mithurana”: “The Wayside and Open Theatre was similar to a bus that was travelling towards a beautiful infinity existing far away. Our teacher, Haththotuwegama was its driver.”
I have often heard the statement that street theatre has died with Gamini Haththotuwegama. This idea is short-sighted. The Wayside and Open Theatre of which Haththotuwegama was a pioneer and subsequently the leader, continues their work today, still striving to realize the goals and the vision that motivated the creation of the group. In fact, the Wayside and Open Theatre continues to perform in various villages and urban areas almost every month. Apart from that, the members conduct weekly workshops and are currently training new actors. To borrow the title of Lalith Vachani’s documentary on Jana Natya Manch: “the play goes on.”
Haththotuwegama often spoke of how his acquaintances would ask him why he wasn’t doing theatre anymore when, all the while, he was performing almost 50 plays throughout the country and even abroad! He attributed this misconception to a problem of perspective, and more precisely as to what people perceived ‘theatre’ to be.
Let us therefore take a moment on this anniversary of Haththotuwegama’s passing to acknowledge what the Wayside and Open Theatre has accomplished. One of Gamini Haththotuwegama’s principal criticisms of the mainstream Sinhala Theatre was that it was confined to the major cities, especially Colombo, and that the audiences for these theatrical shows only consisted of Sinhala and Sinhala and English-speaking middle classes. Thus, in an enterprise that was becoming increasingly ‘bourgeoisified’, the farmer, the peasant in the village and the urban factory worker were denied the experience of theatre.
In an effort to address this issue, the Wayside and Open Theatre went to places such as Ibbagamuwa, Hatton and Hingurakgoda. In Ibbagamuwa, they performed plays on the beautiful rock formation in the village. Athula Weragoda, who joined the group from Kurunegala, recalls how the actors could see the spectators coming along the niyara with fire torches (hulu athu) to watch the plays. Furthermore, in Ibbagamuwa and the surrounding villages, Haththotuwegama and other actors conducted workshops for those who were interested in theatre. At the same time, they joined forces with the farmers’ movement to fight together for land rights and against the increase of water taxes.
The group also went to Hatton and presented their work to communities living on tea plantations; they performed for the marginalized community living on the rock formation called Elugala in Kurunegala. The group has had great success in taking theatre to areas unfrequented by mainstream theatre.
Yet, at the same time, the group has had shows at the Lionel Wendt and at John De Silva Memorial Theatre. For them, the proscenium stage is merely another space to perform; it is not the sole space where a play could take place. The actors of the group have shown the versatility of space, and the possibility of transforming a specific place into a powerful performance area. Thus, village threshing floors, train station platforms, bus stops, universities and urban slum areas are all potential performance spaces for them.
The best way to celebrate Haththotuwegama’s life is to celebrate the work he did and the spirit he left behind. The group continues to bring theatre to audiences who do not usually get to experience it. Just two weeks ago (October 19), the group put on a spontaneous performance in the Galle railway station. They enacted Polima, a short improvisational piece that satirizes the competitive impulse behind the desire to be the first in line, offering a critique of the capitalist ethos and a commentary on the uncritical imitativeness of human beings. Then, they performed in the Galle Town Hall. The group performs through invitations as well as on their own initiative.
On September 12, they held a street theatre show in Kuruwita, at the Pathagama school playground. The audience included students of many age groups, teachers, parents and villagers from the area. Some of the audience members were on trees looking down at the ground below. The group enacted Rookadayo, Wesak Dekma, Dead mobiles, and Polima. As the gurunnanse (Upali Weerasingha) and the golaya (Saman Hemarathne) dominated the performance area and continued their improvised acting, the audience laughed in delight. As a spectator, I observed how the young children in the audience scrutinized every movement the golaya and gurunnanse made, becoming intensely focused on minute details of the action. The laughter diminished when Dead Mobiles was performed, a piece in which characters, all engrossed in their incessant cellular phone conversations, fail to notice the man beside them who is begging for help.
As the performances continue, there is work still to be done in Haththotuwegama’s honour, to fulfil the vision he supported for many decades. It should not be forgotten that there was hard thinking even behind the seemingly simple theatre exercises, and that there was constant practice when it came to improvisation. Haththotuwegama asserts in the article he wrote for the Abhinaya jubilee issue: “The street theatre's use of improvisation has been totally misread. Behind improvisation strategies lies overall training and commitment to ideology, vision and the presence of mind that is cultivated and sharpened by exposure. "How many days do you train an improvisation?" an English street theatre man asked me once.” A deviation one observes in some of the current Wayside performances, which are very powerful otherwise, is a lack of definition in acting: there seems to be uncertainty about the lines and the movements. The timing has to be established and some plays need to be more intact and cohesive. Perhaps the improvisations need more training.
Apart from Galle and Kuruwita, the group has performed in the premises of the Nagoda general hospital, several places in Kuliyapitiya, the Sarachchandra Open Air Theatre in the University of Peradeniya and numerous other locations in the past year. Members of The Wayside group, past and present, have joined together in this attempt to continue with the goal of taking theatre to the people. In fact, Nimal Chandrasiri and Jayantha Gunathilaka from the 1974 team have joined this venture. So have Deepani Silva, Athula Weragoda, and Nihal Suranji.
The group members of the past two decades, Saman Hemarathne, Upali Weerasingha, Chamaru Pathirana, Eranga Fernando, Veranga Mendis, to name a few are working collectively to continue the mission that the Wayside theatre started in 1974.
As the work goes on, Haththotuwegama’s name continues to come up every day. He has inspired several generations of artists to create art for the people. He has motivated many artists and students to think beyond the accepted notions of theatre and life. What better way to remember him than to see how he lives today in his work. Thus, the journey goes on…