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26th April 1998

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Spotlighting the Eastern stage

By L.A. Leon

Is there an English theat rical tradition in Batticaloa? The answer I think, is yes and no. If we look for an English theatrical tradition outside educational institutions, the answer probably is no.

There never seems to have existed a Drama Society or club independent of any institution. On the other hand to the question “Did schools in Batticaloa stage English plays?” the response is positive.

Drawing on past experiences of English plays in schools, it could be said that an English theatrical tradition in Batticaloa existed in some leading schools in the town (St. Michael’s College, St. Cecilia’s College, Vincent Girls’ High School, Methodist Central College, and Shivanada MV).

There has existed a tradition of staging scenes from Shakespeare plays at special school functions.

Some over-used escape literary plays other than scenes from Shakepeare, like Cindrella, Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs have been continuously staged at most school functions. They are still in the forefront as popular forms of entertainment at school functions.

The prevalent stage in the English theatrical tradition can be related to the common factor referred to by Tissa Jayatilaka in his address Sri Lankan Drama in English.

“The state of affairs that we find in the English theatre of Sri Lanka is the natural outcome of a historical fact. Western dramatic literature is a tradition brought by the British to Sri Lanka and just as much as most other “things British” absorbed by the locals, are confined to those that form the urban sector of our society. This tradition too struck roots in the very congenial surroundings provided for it by the urbanized Western-oriented lintelligentsia of the land which were quick to accept uncritically, and quicker to ape those nuances of western taste that they deemed fashionable.”

The use of role plays and then dramas to motivate the teaching and learning of English became popular in schools in and after1986 with the Ministry of Education taking the initiative to organise school, district, provincial and national level English drama competitions. Due to time constraints, easy accessibility, simplicity, and popularity, the above mentioned popular plays have constantly been staged.

In the past few years, English drama stages in Batticaloa have seen a slight deviation from the common, over-used traditional stage presentations.

The experiences of the DELIC graduates in adapting stories into stage plays actually done as an enrichment activity in language development during the training period has enabled some enthusiastic teachers to stage such adaptations for the English drama competitions. One such adaptation was the short story The Diamond Necklace by Nirmali Hetiarachi.

Similarly sections from Treasure Island and Oliver Twist were adapted and staged by students of Methodist Central College and St. Michael’s College respectively.

From the series of one act plays The Bishop’s Candlesticks was presented by Vincent Girls’ High School, The Proposal by Anton Chekhov and another play The Richmond Hotel was staged by the Batticaloa Delic trainees in 1995. There may be still others that I am not aware of.

Several reasons could be considered for this break away from the usual Shakespearean plays. For instance:

1. Those involved in the production of Shakespearean plays were the older generation of “English medium educated” teachers familiar with such plays and the language. The casts were mostly from students who had done English elocution and often the same set of students participated year after year in different plays making it easy for the directors/teachers to train.

2. Most of the new generation of English teachers of today are not familiar with or do not have the confidence to handle Shakespearean plays and the students who are not fluent in English do not have the ability to memorise and present the dialogue. This actually discourages teachers from going in for Shakespearean plays.

3. Although, the general audience is attracted by the movements and actions, they fail to understand Shakespearean langugage and the over-accented elocution in English.

To date, stage direction has been made by English teachers who have had a little or no stage experience, nor were they aware of proper theatrical techniques involved.

The teachers did what they thought was best to make the presentations entertaining, even cinematic style and movements were used in stage plays. These producers/teachers often failed to make the casts internalise the characters, or to make them understand their role in relation to the whole play. These lapses on the part of the directors made the characters ineffective.

My intention here is not to denigrate the excellent contribution made by English teachers to English theatre in Batticaloa, but to emphasise the need for creating awareness in theatrical techniques and stage performances.

In this frame of reference, it would be gratifying if the Fine Arts Department of the Eastern University, Sri Lanka take the initiative to educate and encourage school teachers to present better stage performances in the future.

A new set of riders

While tracing the Engli- sh theatrical tradition in Batticaloa, I considerit relevant to review Riders to the Sea performed at the Fine Arts theatre, Eastern University on November 19, 1997.

I deem that a new dimension and a transitional phase for English drama in Batticaloa has been prompted by S. Jeyashanker of the Department of Fine Arts, in collaboration with the English Language Teaching Unit [ELTU], of the Eastern University through the play Riders to the Sea by J. M. Synge. I am sure it was a challenging venture, and calls for the commendation of the principal, teachers and students of St. Cecilia’s College who came forward to work out on this experimentation.

Although Riders to the Sea carries the traits of a symbolic play it also holds the universal theme of conflict between man and nature, a theme that knits well into the life and experiences of the fisher folk of the coastal belt of Sri Lanka. Riders to the Sea, presents an insight into the nature and condition of existence of fisher folk pitted against the forces of the universe, sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile. The success of a play depends on the ingenuity of the producer. In any play the choice of realistic or unrealistic stage sets, costuming, and make up lies with the producer. As such the localising of the stage sets, costuming, make-up and music, made Riders to the Sea realistic in a local context, a plus point to the producer S. Jeyashanker.

The producer very effectively used a bare stage with a few essential movable properties. The choice of cast for the female characters was apt but the cast that formed the male characters had their limitations - I think, generally maximum interpretation of male character is not possible for a female and vice versa-but this is a limitation that could be overlooked. The costuming matched the day to day dress of our local fisher folk.

Although the movements of the characters were meaningfully performed in keeping with the situation demanded, the meaningfulness of the dialogue fell within certain limitations. Voice training and finer voice modulation would have ensured that the general audience, which is usually enticed by glamorous costumes and actions, follow and understand the dialogue better. This would have enhanced greater involvement of the general audience.

Another strategy brought into play was the localised drum beat and the Tamilized chorus on and off stage, which effectively conveyed communal or group emotion from the start to the finish. In this nexus, the introduction of the characters with the chorus and drum beat, and speaking out pieces of the dialogue contributed to set the mood for the play from the start. Background sounds; (sawing, nailing) off stage evoked suspense in the minds of the audience who actually hoped to see a coffin brought in.

On the whole Riders to the Sea was a success story and this was reflected in the behaviour of the audience who physically and emotionally accepted this temporarily as the real world.

The stage production of Riders to the Sea has gone through various phases of a proper theatrical regime thus making it the first play to experience organised development, so I would consider this to be a milestone in the English theatrical tradition in Batticaloa. I hope this would pave the way for better and more stage presentations in English in the future.

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