The inter-school Shakespeare Drama Competition organised by the YMCA, this year marks 40 years of introducing Shakespeare to schools. With the semi-finals just concluded and the finals coming up on September 18 and 20, we spoke to some of the competition’s most well-known alumni about their times, our times and why this competition is where it’s [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Forty years of Shakespeare:

Well-known alumni explain why the popular drama competition elevates school theatre

The inter-school Shakespeare Drama Competition organised by the YMCA, this year marks 40 years of introducing Shakespeare to schools. With the semi-finals just concluded and the finals coming up on September 18 and 20, we spoke to some of the competition’s most well-known alumni about their times, our times and why this competition is where it’s at in school theatre.

Rohan Ponniah

Well known theatre personality Rohan Ponniah has been part of the Shakespeare alumni literally from its inception. He acted in the very first Shakespeare Drama Competition organised by the YMCA in 1973. “It was competitive from the start,” he remembers. “We strove for very high standards.” He was part of the S. Thomas’ College cast who kept up a winning streak for seven years before they were beaten by Trinity College , Kandy.

He remembers working with exceptionally talented young actors who did everything-from directing to stage props to even lights- all by themselves. “We worked very hard on all aspects of our performance. The important thing was to appreciate the language and find the right way of expressing it. Shakespeare is one of theatre’s trickiest so it’s also a very strong foundation for anyone hoping to work in theatre.”

He’s quite impressed with how the competition has evolved but there’s one thing that really irks him and that’s the audience. “I’ve heard that it can get rowdy and that’s disheartening. Shakespeare was very much written for a live audience, so the audience needs to realise that they’re also an extremely important element of the production.”

Jith Peiris

An early production of ‘Hamlet’ by Royal College for the Shakespeare Drama competition. Jith (centre) is seen directing the play. Pic courtesy Jith Peiris

Jith Peiris’ living room is a haven for his theatre related mementos and paraphernalia. However, amongst them his Shakespeare memories reign supreme. Jith remembers a time when he and Jerome were the only two directors on the circuit. “We’d each be directing about three or four schools at any given time,” he smiles. “Nothing but the bard on our minds for months!” Nowadays, of course, schools have their own directors and some are even directed by the students themselves. Jith thinks that’s lovely-“That’s what the competition is about!”

Feroze Kamardeen

Feroze Kamardeen the man behind popular Sri Lankan satirical play ‘Pusswedilla’- has seen his share of Shakespeare drama competitions as a cast member in productions by D.S. Senanayake College. Feroze took to the stage in ’87, ’88 and ’91, and won the Best Actor award in the latter. He directed in ’93 and ’94 and the school emerged champions on both occasions.
Feroze has seen the competition from every possible angle-as a member of the audience, backstage, onstage and even up front and centre as a judge.

He’s a firm believer in the competition’s ability to inculcate an abiding love of Shakespeare in any young student’s mind which he fears might be slipping away. “In our time we were not allowed to choose excerpts so we had to go with what the organizers decided on,” he points out. The rule was later revoked and casts are now allowed to choose their scenes. This wouldn’t bother Feroze so much if only he didn’t have to sit through three hours of Shakespeare crammed into a measly half an hour every single year. He has a question for young thespians -“if the directors in Shakespeare’s time-who actually had access to the playwright himself-couldn’t shorten the play what on earth makes us think we can?” So “pick one scene and work on getting that right” is his advice.

Shanuki De Alwis

Winner of the Best Actress award in 1998 and a bastion of the The WorkShop Players, Shanuki can safely vouch for the competition’s knack for putting young actors in front of the right people. She first took part in Shakespeare at 14 and hasn’t looked back since. “We all loved it that first year. Just the novelty of it all and the glitz and glamour surrounding the competition was a very exciting thing to be a part of.” It was only when she began studying Shakespeare in school she says that she began to really appreciate the fine tuning involved in putting on a performance. So winning the Best Actress accolade as a cast member of Bishops College’s Romeo and Juliet was definitely a theatrical high. She is pretty impressed with the promise shown in the competition these days but feels that sometimes all that effort can “get lost in translation”.

Vinodh Senadeera

The last time Vinodh took part in Shakespeare was in ’92 but he remembers every single moment like it was yesterday. “It’s just not something you forget,” he says. And he probably never will-Vinodh won the Best Actor award in that production (S. Thomas’ College – ‘Taming of the Shrew’) and his school emerged champions.

“If you’re into drama in school every child will agree that this is probably one of the most nerve wracking periods of your school life,” he smiles. “For us Shakes was the most important thing in school-it really brings you to a different level of theatre. The tension and the long hours and the friends you make are all part of the experience.”

He finds that the younger generation is putting on productions even bigger and better than before. “There are a lot of excellent adaptations you see when you attend now. Recently I’ve seen quite a number of outstation schools doing really well and that’s very gratifying.” A self-declared ‘old fashioned Shakespeare’ guy, Vinodh still enjoys the edgier and much darker versions being performed on stage these days. He does have one piece of advice though-“don’t change things for the sake of standing out.”

Javin Thomas

Javin is one of the younger faces on the Shakespeare circuit. He has been involved for almost a decade as an actor, director, producer and the ‘guy doing the lights’ and really embraced all these roles with gusto. He will tell you that Shakespeare is defined for him in a series of different emotions. For example there’s 2003, when he performed for an exhilarating first time with St. Peter’s College, in 2004, when they qualified for the finals and were thrilled to emerge runners-up. And then the crushing disappointment in 2005, when his school didn’t even get through to the finals. And finally, 2006, when they emerged champions. 

“For most of us this competition has been a stepping stone to even greater things,” he says. “I think we need to remember it’s not always about winning. It helps you to be who you are, give a 110 percent and then hope for the best.”

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