Five writers, one play
By Ruwanthi Herat Gunaratne
'Stages' has been invited to perform at 'Culture Shock', the official cultural festival of the Commonwealth Games of 2002 to be held in Manchester in the United Kingdom. This is to be hosted by the Contact Theatre in Manchester. 'Contacting the World' as the theatre part of the event is called will bring twelve youth theatre groups from five continents together in a massive celebration of original work.
Six of these groups are from the UK and they will each be 'twinned' with one international partner. 'Stages' has been paired with the Welsh Theatre group 'Sherman'.

The 'twins' collaborate to develop a new piece of performance text based on common themes. After weeks of corresponding the common theme they decided on was 'Memories and Identities'.

The organizers of the event arrange for board and lodging whilst the group is in Manchester but the participants have to find their own airfare.

Five strangers working together to write one play. Next to impossible, would you say?
That was the challenge that 'Stages', a theatre group committed to developing the talents and interests of young people in various aspects of drama and theatre undertook.

'Fillin the Blanks', the end result of their efforts is a play that will be performed at `Culture Shock' to be held from July 13-21 in Manchester.

Not surprisingly, the dramatists Nadie Kammallaweera, Sandamali Wijeratne, Amal de Chickera, Thushara Hettihamu and Namal Jayasinghe did not have it easy. Their backgrounds were different, their beliefs different, even their writing styles were different. "I would write in abstract," laughs Thushara (Hetti), "whilst another would write in a manner where the actions spoke loudest! There was always a rift in the ideas! But that only strengthened the play."

So how did they manage? "When we were first given the task we all packed up and went to Kandy for a weekend, to come up with a plot. We learnt a lot about each other during that time," says Amal, "the key word being collaborate."

For Sandamali, the 'fresher' of the group airing her views at any time was never a problem. Sharing ideas, dreaming up scenarios were all welcomed. Praise was aplenty and the occasional criticism was heartily accepted.

As 'Stages' feel that Sinhala theatre is not given the recognition it richly deserves, half the play was written in Sinhala. The final draft, though, is completely in English. "It helps to bring out the best of both worlds," says Nadie, a seasoned writer in her own right. Incidentally Nadie was awarded the Best Translation Award at the State Drama Festival for 'Asinamali'.

Like Nadie, Namal also made his way into the world of stage through Sinhala dramatists such as Somalatha Subasinghe and Solomon Fonseka. For him working as a group was easy since the five soon grew to be the best of friends.

The dramatists came together at the invitation of Ruwanthie de Chickera who directs the play. Thushara had been a part of 'Stages' since the production of 'The Last Elephant' whilst Nadie had been one of Ruwanthie's batchmates at University. Sandamali, who left school last year has many a play to her name and had got to know Ruwanthie through school productions. Namal and Amal too are writers in the making.

Initial plans were laid in January this year and the theme of 'Identities and Memories' was decided upon. After that it was up to the chosen five to come up with the plot and build the play.

"We came up with nearly 14 possible plots," they chorus laughing. But the final decision was a plot centred on 'Sumathi' (played by Ravin Fernando) and is based on a journey through his memories to find his true identity.

That was the first step. They each then wrote their own version of the first scene. This helped locate a common binding thread. After that there was no turning back. A personal history was built for each of the characters. It was then a case of pairing up and writing the next few scenes after 'brainstorming' collectively.

So wouldn't five dramatists mean five directors? They laugh," Definitely! We all had preconceived ideas about the actors, the sets, the costumes and even the lighting, but once we were done with the play it was handed over to Ruwanthie, who was not part of the writing - and that was that!"

As it is a pre-requisite of the festival that the participants produce their play at home before taking it to Manchester, 'Fillin the Blanks' will go on the boards at the British Council on June 30 and also from July 4-7. One of the earlier productions of 'Stages' - `Two Times Two is Two' will be staged on July 1, 2 and 3, also at the BC.

"Writing this play has changed my beliefs," says Nadie."We are all so different, but the play brings forth a common message, which each of us presents in a different way. It's finally and unbelievably a culmination of ideas presented in a seemingly singular manner!"

So while their ideas and opinions differ, their collaborative effort is worth looking out for!

Navaranjini sings again
The church was alive with music. Melodious voices floated through the air. Stepping into the Methodist Church in Kollupitiya, time and age seemed transformed.

Welcome to the world of the Cantata Singers.

The Cantata Singers. Pix: by M.A. Pushpakumara and Ranjith Perera

The Cantata Singers were formed way back in 1967 by a group of nine young music lovers. It has through the past few decades remained one of the premier choral music groups in the country.

'Cantata' actually stands for a 'small piece of choral work' explains Satyendra Chellappah, the conductor of the group that now boasts 24 members. Initially the Cantata Singers would perform thrice a year for various occasions while also singing for a couple of broadcast shows. There were also the very first to perform at the Lionel Wendt theatre.

"Singing has changed during the past few decades," says Mr. Chellappah, "Those were the days when I would simply toss around a few sheets of music and the song would be done within minutes. But today it's different. The traditional church choir has changed."

The Cantata Singers rely mostly on music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods anthems, motets and Negro spirituals. "Our main aim is to capture the mood of the music effectively, the key changes, the magic that the composer would have liked to project for they all give such meaning to a piece."

The Cantata Singers will perform together with Navaranjini Olegasegarem at the Kollupitiya Methodist Church on June 25 at 7:00 p.m. Navaranjini was a part of the Cantata Singers in the 1970s until she migrated to Australia. It is after a lapse of 15 years that she is back in Sri Lanka.

An accomplished soprano, Navaranjini's beginnings were at the Methodist Church. "I've come back to relive those days," she says smiling. "My first solo was at that church way back in the seventies. I worked with the seasoned musicians of the time and it was fascinating."

Navaranjini started her career as an operatic singer after the birth of her first child. On migrating to Australia, she sang in such prestigious venues as the Sydney Opera House. She has sung 14 lead operatic roles in Australia during the past few years.

Her talents also extend way beyond the stage. She is a well-known teacher of music and one of the only two Asians examining for the Australian Music Examinations Board, a great honour indeed.

"I may be an Australian citizen now but the minute the flight touched down at the airport, I was hit with this sense of deja vu , I was home," she says. "My voice is my instrument, I can use it any way I choose. I felt that I should give my 'comfort zone' a little piece of it." She feels that unlike a traditional instrument the voice can carry so much more weight. That it has the ability to profess much more.

The performance on the 25th will be a presentation of the Cantata Singers former work with solo performances by Navaranjini. Premila Perinpanayagam will accompany both the Cantata Singers and Navaranjini.

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