Laughter, hard work and Hakuna Matata!

Celebrating 20 years on stage The Workshop Players prove they ‘ain’t no passing craze’
By Marisa De Silva

Twenty years ago, we were a bunch of school boys who wanted to meet girls, and who figured that we could quite literally “set the stage” for such a union to take place. Since then, we’ve fought valiantly in the revolution, danced at midnight in the light of the Jellicle moon, picked a pocket or two and sung a Phantom’s Opera, all in the course of our Circle of Life... None of which would have been possible though, without the ingenious magician himself...our beloved Jerome L. De Silva.

On March 7, 1992, Sri Lanka saw the birth of The Workshop Players (WSP). Little did we know then that 20 years down the line, we’d still be thrilling and entertaining audiences from 1to 92. Many, many ‘full house’ 10-night runs, standing ovations and re-runs later, little did we anticipate how very much a part of our lives the stage was to become. Both on and off stage, WSP has given us more than we could ever have imagined! Under Jerome’s (a.k.a. J) wing we learnt that we were only in the spotlight if we could feel the light on our eyelids, that ‘up stage’ is back and ‘down stage’ is forward, that there was such a thing as an ‘apron’ outside our mother’s kitchens, that black lines down the bridge of your nose gives it definition and keeps your face from looking flat under lights, the all important 3P’s - Presence, Poise and Projection and most importantly- Discipline. Although memories of Workshop often recalled and shared are those of raucous laughter and general merriment, when J said work, he meant work. And thankfully so, or else we may not have got too far from the “wanting to meet girls” phase.

As much as J is both the heart and mind of WSP, our celebration of 20 years would also not have been possible if not for the blood, sweat and tears shed by many a ‘workshopper’, both at home and now around the world. Not just on stage, but off (or sometimes even under or above) stage as well, WSP has been known to pull off some amazing feats! We staged the first ever production to have a revolving stage, controlled 100% manually by a group of poor unfortunate glove-clad souls who lay flat on their backs just beneath the stage for a greater part of the 3 plus hours of ‘Les Miserables’. We crashed a grand chandelier from the roof to the floor, rowed a boat onstage and had candles appear and disappear as though from nowhere (unfortunately the public never got to see it).

Our productions are famed for their magnificent sets such as hanging bridges, intricately designed prosceniums, grand staircases, elaborately hand painted backdrops and flies, flamboyant costumes, spectacular lights and laboriously laid out music tracks. A WSP presentation has never been just a play or musical. It has, and always will be a ‘Production’- one that even those of us on stage are not privy to until the day of the show. The entirety of each masterpiece is only fully known to one man and one man alone. Many have been the times we’ve wanted a sneak peek into his mind, just so we could see what it is that he sees when he looks at a bunch of unruly actors/actresses on an empty stage. But it wasn’t to be.

Outside of our productions at the Wendt, the group hosted many workshops in keeping with the motto “Peace through the Performing Arts” for theatre troupes from Batticaloa, Jaffna and Trincomalee. At the request of the Dambadeniya Development Foundation, Jerome and WSP spent a weekend working with more than 190 children of all ages, by using theatre dynamics to help develop their English language skills. We’ve also conducted numerous workshops for school and university students studying drama and theatre in Colombo. We’ve performed many times at charity fundraisers as well.

‘Workshop Players Retro 20’ – Reviving a score of memories in song and dance, presented by the Workshop Players, will be a spectacle extraordinaire of all our past productions. This is a tribute to all the Workshop Players across the globe, to those who have collaborated on various aspects of our productions, to those who have passed on before us, and of course our founder, Jerome L. De Silva. The show goes on board the Lionel Wendt, from March 3-4, 2012, at 7 p.m. Tickets are now available at the Wendt.

Jerome L. De Silva looks back

“It has been a long but fruitful journey,” says Jerome L.De Silva looking back on accomplishments of the Workshop Players in the last 20 years. “The whole origin of it was boy wants to meet girl,” he says, explaining that in its early incarnation the 32 member group allowed the boys of St. Peters College to meet with girls from many of the other Colombo schools.

“Drama brings people close together,” Jerome points out, noting that some of his actors actually ended up getting married and that we’ll even see a “second generation” of WSP on stage during the ‘Workshop Players Retro 20’ to be held in early March. But WSP has always been much more than a matchmaking service - its been a star factory.

Jerome says that some of the finest actors, actresses, playwrights and directors working in Sri Lanka today had their start with the group. Jerome credits the WSP emphasis on discipline in helping them make the transition. “We take absolute amateurs and work with them,” he says, adding that over the years WSP became in essence a school of drama that was free for all its members.

“They started off with us, and it’s wonderful to see they’re still so loyal and fond of each other,” he says. In fact, the WSP has harboured much young talent that he talks of the WSP ‘diaspora.’ “None of us thought that it would be like this when we first met. It has become huge. Some of the most creative stuff and the most successful performances have come out from the Workshop Players.” On a personal note, he says the group has been a “lovely vehicle for the venting of my creative juices.”

But it hasn’t all been song and dance – “Somehow audiences seems to think that all we do are frothy musicals and large scale productions, but we have done some very serious stage theatre as well,” emphasises Jerome, adding that the WSP has also made a mark in Sinhala theatre with productions of ‘Death of a Salesman’ and ‘Macbeth’. He’s particularly proud that the group is “self-sufficient and self-reliant” – encompassing within its membership everyone from stage managers to lighting technicians alongside directors and actors. “We’re a total theatre company,” says Jerome.

It’s at this point that he tells me that WSP has always tried to live up to their motto of “Fostering peace through the performing arts,” be it taking their workshops down to Jaffna during the war, or welcoming performers from the North and East to visiting them in Colombo in the same period. Now, Jerome is looking forward to not only the retrospective but to their production of ‘Evita’, planned for this October. “I can still see that there is so much good that could come of this group,” he says, emphasising that WSP is going to be around for a long time.

Past Productions

1992 – The Creation of WSP
1993 – Debut Production – Lost in the Stars
1993 – The Play’s the Thing
1994 – Serious Stuff (Four one act plays by Harold
Pinter and Edward Albee)
1994 - Cats
1995 - Four original plays by Reggie Siriwardena –
including The Critic, The Mannequin, and
Temptations of Paradise
1996 - Les Misérables (Re -run in 1997)
1997 – The Royal Hunt of the Sun
1998 – West Side Story
1999 – The Middle of Silence
1999 – The Lion King(Re-run in 2000)
2000 – Macbeth (in Sinhala)
2002 – The Phantom of the Opera (Sadly didn’t
make it to the stage due to copyright issues)
2006 – Oliver!
2007 – Blood Brothers
2008 – Bugsy Malone (Junior Workshoppers)
2008 – The Sound of Music
2009 – Death of a Salesman
(in Sinhala)

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