Makeshift Theatre Travel Blog
Makeshift Theatre visited Sri Lanka in September 2010 to offer an introductory Playback Theatre workshop in the town of Hatton, while only meriting a passing mention in the Rough Guide to Sri Lanka, Hatton hosts the Centre for Social Concern and is the capital of the tea-growing area. The Director of the Centre for Social Concern is Father Benny, a dynamic Tamil Jesuit Priest who grew up on a tea plantation is very familiar with local social problems and issues. The work of the Centre for Social Concern is not confined to working with any particular religious group, but seeks to empower all of the people that live and work on tea plantations and the urban poor in the Nuwara Eliya district of the Central highlands. I was put in touch with Father Benny by Cymbeline Buhler, a Playback Theatre Practitioner form Australia who was instrumental in establishing a Playback Theatre presence in Sri Lanka some years earlier.
I was pleased to spend ten days staying at the Centre and taking part in the daily life, meeting many local people and taking a turn to cook in the evening. I was taken good care of by Maryausa, Emilmoses, Chandrakathan and Rebina among others and appreciated the friendly hospitality and administrative skills of Yogitha who organised the workshop. I also had the privilege of visiting two tea plantations with Father Benny and experiencing the Tamil Mass and meeting local people and learn something of the life of the tea picker.
The residential three-day workshop was attended by 32 young Tamil people, both male and female, ranging in age from 15 to 25, all of whom lived on tea plantations in the area and a couple of whom had previously attended a PT workshop with Cymbeline. Otherwise, everyone else was new to the idea, and it seemed, new to the idea of drama itself, so I had to adjust my plans and find a suitable approach. As it was my first time in Sri Lanka, I had some pre-conceived ideas about what kinds of stories this group might bring to the workshop and I soon had to revise them. I conducted the workshop in English, with Father Benny translating into Tamil. Working with a translator requires a slowing down of the process, pausing often to give the translator time to understand the content as well as translate appropriately. Working with a translator also means that the facilitator is one-step removed from contact with the group, dependent on the translator to keep the flow going and not get side-tracked into a debate or over-mediating between group and facilitator. It’s a challenging, sometimes frustrating and rewarding process.
As an outsider, I sought perspective and understanding of this group of young people, viewed from the outside as a marginalised and oppressed group. This image is reinforced by the presentation of Tamil Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka as “Indian Origin Tamils” or “Estate Tamils” referring to the times when Tamil people were brought in from south India by the British to work on tea plantations and implying that they remained immigrants and didn’t actually belong in Sri Lanka. The separation and tension between Tamils and the majority Sinhalese who tend to regard themselves as true Sri Lankans was to lead to a civil war that lasted twenty five years and only recently came to an end with great loss of life and displacement, particularly in the north of the island.
Another aspect of Sri Lankan life is the export of labour and more than a million Sri Lankans now work abroad, and nearly 600,000 are housemaids, according to government estimates. Many of whom work in the oil-rich economies of the middle east, Saudi Arabia being the main destination. Migrant workers have become Sri Lanka’s biggest earner of foreign exchange, all of which comes at a price as stories of mistreatment, rape, beatings and workers being kept in slave-like conditions abound. My preparation for my visit to Sri Lanka included background reading on the above and as I knew nothing about the specific group I would be working with, I wondered what to expect and I had some presumptions to work through as well.
It’s common in Playback Theatre workshops to begin with a fun warm up as a disarming tool and as a light-hearted way for participants to get to know each other and relax before exploring who’s present in the group in more depth.
So after a warm-up, we spent some time social-mapping our similarities and differences and through this process, explicitly identified that everyone in the group, except myself, was Tamil and either Catholic or Hindu. We noted the absence of Buddhists and Muslims from our group and that it was confined to people who lived on tea plantations. My questions on whether anyone in the group felt affected by the civil war drew a blank as did the subject of Sri Lankans working overseas. So while this suggests the somewhat insular nature of this group as physically remote as they are from the mainstream and as a distinct and specific group. The tea plantations that I visited with Father Benny are indeed remote – half an hour or more from the main road by scooter rickshaw up a very bumpy track and often with only limited access to facilities.
However, before we could focus on Playback Theatre and the telling and enactment of personal stories, the group needed to learn some basic acting skills and acclimatise to the idea of theatre in general. They were invited to devise and enact some socially relevant scenarios before we moved to learn the basic short-forms of Playback Theatre. One of the basic non-narrative short forms used in Playback Theatre is the Fluid Sculpt. In this form, actors, one by one, build a dynamic sculpt of the teller’s inner feeling of the moment. Perhaps I wasn’t explaining it well, or maybe the concept was too abstract, but the group couldn’t get the idea. So we moved onto Pairs, the other principle basic form where pairs of actors, one standing behind the other, demonstrate as one, ambiguity, confusion or indecision for example. In this case, they were able to use Pairs as an embodiment of the contrast between their understanding so far and their confusion of what was happening now.
Eventually, I was able to show a one-person fluid sculpt by embodying the reaction of one girl who had lost her mobile phone. She was desperate, upset and searching. It turned that one of the boys had taken it for a joke and it was returned to her, so I embodied the relief (and an element of anger)! We then went to use the group process to allow topics to emerge and foccusing on short forms brought up the feeling of disapointment felt by by one young man that two of the girls weren’t allowed to stay at the centre but had to go home – breakthrough and time for tea!
After the break, I returned to the theme of disappointment in general regarding relationships and the freedom to mix and went on to broaden it out to include future aspirations and dreams. The same young man came to the teller’s chair and the story about the two girls who weren’t allowed to stay was told in full much to the delight of the young people in the audience. We touched on the theme of secrets and openness and how Playback Theatre allows others to know what we are thinking and can show that we think alike perhaps more than we know.
What emerged as we began to draw out some of the stories was that their issues, concerns and interests were not dissimilar from the issues of young people anywhere. The focus being on their interior lives, the relationship between boys and girls, parental control and their aspirations for the future rather than their exterior situation.
Playback Theatre has many potential applications in this area and during the workshop, it was used to share stories from among the young people present and proved to be an interesting and vital medium of communication for them and their shared problems, hopes and struggles which tend usually to be kept private. Currently there is a lack of opportunity for young people living on plantations. Often these young people do not feel inclined to work as estate labourers like their parents and find it difficult to access higher education or find alternative employment. Their parents are often illiterate and are keen for their children to progress, yet are frustrated by their own situation and plantation life in general. Playback Theatre can offer an alternative approach to empowering these young people to communicate among each other by sharing stories that build a common bond among them and ease feelings of isolation. A functioning Playback Theatre group could help provide leadership models for young people in these communities, develop shared empathy, enable communication indirectly through the theatre medium to their peers and older generations and consequently invite sharing back and ease inter-generational tension.