“The children in this country have been completely neglected in the reckoning of what this pandemic is,” says Ruwanthie de Chickera, the well-known writer and director of many thought-provoking and award-winning plays. Is she going to write a play about it? No. But the Stages Theatre Group, which she co-founded two decades ago, is putting [...]


‘Children in Lockdown’: Giving a creative platform to a burning issue

Well-known writer and director Ruwanthie de Chickera talks about her upcoming venture, a festival of curated art

Interview process: Ruwanthie and Malith chatting to a young applicant

“The children in this country have been completely neglected in the reckoning of what this pandemic is,” says Ruwanthie de Chickera, the well-known writer and director of many thought-provoking and award-winning plays. Is she going to write a play about it? No. But the Stages Theatre Group, which she co-founded two decades ago, is putting together a whole festival of curated art spanning two days at the end of November, dedicated purely to the plight of “Children in Lockdown”.

 “Our country doesn’t have a policy that protects children in a crisis.” This is the rarely-discussed broader issue that leads to many of the lockdown-specific issues now increasingly being talked about  especially with the reopening of schools. “Half the children have become zombies spending hours in front of screens doing online school, tuition and extra classes. The other half were without any kind of support for over a year and they still have to face exams,” Ruwanthie says. “We adults have really mismanaged the situation for children. The state, professionals, teachers and parents will all have to consider the impacts of the damage as we try to move on.”

The festival, Ruwanthie hopes, will bring the different issues together to generate the awareness that is sorely lacking in society.

A festival built on trust

Together with film-maker Malith Hegoda, Ruwanthie first commissioned 20 artists (both adults and children) to respond creatively to the theme of ‘Children in Lockdown’ by producing either artworks (plays, books, films etc.) or artist interventions (workshops, talks, campaigns etc.) that address the issues children faced during the pandemic.

 “I’ve really wanted to offer artists in this country, commissioning for a long time,” she says. “It so rarely happens here.” And when it does, there is a lot of interference. The underlying issue, as she sees it, is trust. “Nobody takes risks on behalf of the artist.”

Ruwanthie de Chickera

To break away from this trend, Ruwanthie and Malith embarked on the Children in Lockdown commissioning programme with the express intention of giving artists complete freedom to do what they want. “The artists come up with the idea and go ahead on their own. We also promised them that we won’t micromanage the grants.”

The funding for the programme and the festival came through a grant from Kindernothilfe (KNH), a German charity working on children’s issues (the name translates to “children need help”). Ruwanthie is eager to point out that the relationship between the two organizations has also always been characterised by trust. “There was a fair amount of negotiation involved with this project and all of that has been very cordial and respectful,” she says.

This being their first time as curators makes the task doubly challenging, but an open and involved approach seems to have made it an enjoyable and edifying process.

Curating art and cultivating artists

With 80 applicants initially, Ruwanthie and Malith interviewed each and every one. “Part of the decision to commission or not was based on the strength of the creative concept, but we also wanted to get a sense of the passion behind the project,” Ruwanthie explains. “We looked for things like discipline – who were the people we thought had enough drive to see the project through?”

“Stages has always worked with young people. We like to nurture the next generation of artists,” Ruwanthie described another aspect that is integral in their eyes. She makes a clear distinction between entertainers and “conscientious value-based artists who want to impact lives by looking at themselves, looking at society and raising the difficult issues.”

They also began providing feedback to the artists – “so it’s been a conversation right from the beginning,” she says and they continue to be involved with the artists – some more than others, based on the requirement of the artist. These conversations led them to add on a mentorship component to the programme.

“Rather than just commissioning a 13-year-old to write a book, we thought, why not give these children an opportunity to work with someone more experienced?” Four out of the 20 commissioned artists – three children and one adult – were assigned a mentor -  Ameena Hussein, Boopathy Nalin Wickramage, Evan Ekanayake, Prashani Rambukwella and Shaanea Mendis taking on the responsibility.

Of the 20 artists commissioned, six are child artists, and all competed for the grants on the same playing field. All were eligible to apply for grants ranging from Rs.100,000 to Rs.500,000 and went through the same curating process. “We’ve never been a children’s theatre group but we have the skills to enhance the creativity of children in this country and we believe very strongly that children should be respected as artists,” Ruwanthie explains. Added, the 20 pieces combined involve the creative input of over 60 children, she notes.

The artist in lockdown

For Ruwanthie herself, the pandemic itself forced her into a period of “very disciplined writing”. Being in lockdown also prompted her to do something she has never done in the past – she made two speeches based on her own experiences during the pandemic. The first piece, an intensely personal reflection on “the strangeness of COVID… it is at one and the same time, the most personal and most public of traumas”, the second piece – “An artist mother’s response to the Sri Lankan education system during the pandemic”.

“I have never second-guessed myself as a mother so much as in the last two years,” Ruwanthie says. Her children are 13 and 14 years old. “On the one hand I am just mad at the impact of the digitalization of my children’s life… but there is the other side of me that feels so sorry for these kids and is struggling to really sympathize with their need for community etc., and accept that they might grow up slightly different because of all this.”

The two speeches were published online on her Medium account (@ruwanthie.de.c) and on the Stages Theatre Group YouTube account. Although “anti-all-things-digital”, Ruwanthie explains that the urgency of the issues which she felt deeply at a personal level, and the difficulty of producing art and reaching an audience warranted resorting to “something that could be done in lockdown” – social media.

The Children in Lockdown Arts Festival, a trilingual virtual arts festival takes place from November 26-28. Artists, children and child-care professionals will directly address a range of pandemic related themes – from online schooling to domestic violence, digital wellbeing, health-care challenges and special needs challenges – through artworks and discussions.

Event registration is now open at https://www.stages.lk/arts-festival.


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