I have now visited Sri Lanka twice, last September and this May. I initially went with notions of peace-building between Tamils and Sinhalese following up on the work of Cymbeline Buhler. I learned that the issues and stories in the Tea Plantation sector are more localised and concerned with personal and community struggle and mainly relate to Tamil people. When we did the social mapping at the first workshop we explicitly acknowledged that everyone present excepting me was Tamil and either Catholic or Hindu. We also noted the absence of Sinhalese and other religions. The Hatton area seems to be a neutral area with little animosity among groups. When I asked about the effects of the civil war, no one that I spoke to in the Hatton area, seems to have been directly affected by it – the perception being that this war took place at a distance.
The Hatton group is Tamil and drawn mainly from people who live on tea plantations who therefore represent an important segment of Sri Lankan society. By the way, the name that was chosen for the group this May, was Mountain Flower Playback Theatre. I know now that Cymbeline plans to re-visit Sri Lanka in February 2012 and hopes to base a long training session in Hatton for Playback Theatre groups from throughout the island. Hatton would make an excellent venue for this work, with good work spaces and good food. Hatton has a cool climate and is easily accessible by train from the south, north and Columbo and it’s a great train ride too! It would be great for the Mountain Flowers group to experience work with other Playback Theatre groups and hear other stories. A decent length of training would also really help cement the understanding of Playback techniques.
It’s important for me to say that the reason that I returned to Sri Lanka was not just because I am emotionally-bonded to the Mountain Flowers group, the Centre and the area, but because they continued to work together after September and I wanted to support that. There was always a risk that my initial two-day workshop could easily have been fun that was quickly forgotten which didn’t happen. The group wants to learn, but can at times struggle to grasp abstract concepts such as the short-forms used in PT. To help understand short forms we looked at the complexity of feelings: the surface feeling and the sub-feelings that underlie that. The short forms have continued to be a problem which probably explains why they weren’t being used in the performances that took place between my visits. Story might seem easier but short forms are an essential warm-up and prepare the audience for the idea that things will be contained. It’s too much to go straight into story. The two performances that we did may have been a bit rough around the edges, but they were sincere and the audience was appreciative. I conducted both performances with translators and was able to model keeping the teller focussed and contained.
By having a theme in the first performance at the Hostel for children and young people (struggles and achievements) we learned how that can contain and focus the audience. In the second performance at the Teacher Training College, we started with a looser theme of the students being away from home for the focus of the Importance of Friendship to emerge. Both performances went well, the second being the more successful as the audience was more adult. I was pleased and proud to be a part of Mountain Flower and ended my visit to Hatton feeling very satisfied. Sure, there’s a lot of work still to do, but that doesn’t take away from the success of what occurred. The group also learned a simple way of introducing themselves through action to model the process and open a performance. We also worked with the idea of doing short forms for the audience as a whole before seeking out an individual teller as that seemed to be more reassuring, rather than expecting an individual to volunteer immediately (which they won’t in my experience). We closed each performance with the conductor giving a verbal summary of the stories as we hadn’t got around to working on an action-closing technique which needs to happen.
Regarding the place of Playback Theatre in core activities of the Centre for Social Concern, clearly the remit is broader than a theatre group, focused as it is on worker’s rights etc. But in my experience and in what I have been told about the between-visit performances, was that they served as a kind of informal field research. The stories that were told reveal something about the social problems in the area: alcohol abuse, domestic violence and trauma of the women and children who experienced or witnessed these incidents. Playback Theatre as it develops in Sri Lanka could become a positive force in community building. The more these stories are told, the less these tellers live in the shadow of their experiences, the less shame and the more empowerment. We encountered some of these stories in our performances and we tried to play them in a responsible and contained way and not re-create the chaos or repeat the trauma. These stories were held by the themes of the performances.
The group also serves as a positive and affirming experience for the young people involved. It gives them a sense of belonging to something that continues to grow, develop and judging by the singing in the van on the way home from the second performance, a source of pride and satisfaction, a sense of working together to face the challenge of performance. I feel very proud of them. I certainly feel that the investment of my time and money (I go at my own expense) in Mountain Flower Playback Theatre has been very worthwhile.
In that way, I see Playback Theatre is an important part of the work of the Centre of Social Concern that supports and complements the other activities. To be honest, I don’t really see the difference, core activity or not, as everything is a sum of its parts. So the next step is for Cymbeline to return to bring the gift of her time, skills and energy to Playback Theatre – a seed that she originally planted. I plan to return to Sri Lanka in September 2012 to continue the work and may provide input to other groups in Sri Lanka in addition to working with the Mountain Flowers group.