Sri Lanka 2013
In March 2013, I made my last planned visit to Sri Lanka to work with the Mountain Flowers Playback Theatre group. They had attended the First Sri Lankan National Playback Theatre Gathering in January that year where they’d had a lot of contact with the other Sri Lankan groups and trainers from Europe and Australia and it was lovely to see how they had developed in my absence. When we sat down to plan our time together, once again, the group took the lead and presented a list of topics that they wanted to work on. One important goal was they wanted to develop the ability to work with fewer words and be more expressive through their bodies.
On the day prior to our workshop, a mini-conference was held at the centre and Father Benny was keen to demonstrate something of Playback Theatre. I was invited to perform as there were just two members of the group present on that day. Father Benny conducted and one of the stories told was about the difficulty of getting an ID card in Sri Lanka without the correct paperwork. This especially applies to Tamil people who live isolated lives on tea plantations and tend to not have the appropriate paperwork for various reasons. I was chosen to play the Singhalese official who only spoke Sinhala and was extremely unwilling and unhelpful to the Tamil applicant. I portrayed this by picking up my chair and moving around the stage with the hapless applicant following me around trying to get my attention. Of course, not being able to speak either language was to my advantage but I didn’t use English, I spoke gibberish when I deigned to speak to the applicant at all.
In the other story, I was cast as a corrupt head teacher who received bribes to enrol children into a school through a shop-keeper who I also played. Both stories illustrated the disadvantage that Tamil people face in trying to integrate into Sri Lankan society.
Getting back to our final workshop, we re-played the ID card story as a workshop aid and looked at the various levels and how to play a story in a way that doesn’t attack Singhalese people in general as that would just be reverse prejudice. We looked at the contrast between the psychological level and the political level and how by turning the power game into a caricature it can be disarmed. We looked at how anger about discrimination could be played creatively and inclusively. We felt it important to learn how to soften into a neutral place from which to play these challenging stories.
When we came to our performance at the end of the workshop, three stories emerged, two of which linked in to times when the group members experienced prejudice or isolation due to being Tamil. For the last story we invited Rubina who was in the back room, to come and tell a story from the 15 years that she had worked at the Centre. She chose to tell of her best memory on one of the annual Women’s Day events when she was (again) called from the back room and invited to sing a song with her then two small children. It was a fitting end and an important gesture to make as Rubina had made sure that I was well-looked after when I visited Hatton. She did that from the back room, making some delicious meals and ensuring that I was well-supplied with tea. After the performance, the group and I sat down for our closing circle. I was trying to find a way of explaining that I wouldn’t be returning to work with them as I felt that my work with them was complete, which eventually became, I wasn’t sure when I would be back, as making such a final statement was too much at that time. This was an emotional moment for all of us and as I was speaking a heavy storm broke and with the rain pounding on the tin roof drowning out my voice, a power cut followed to temporarily plunge us into darkness. I was able to hide my tears under the cover of darkness. It was something that we all felt but that didn’t stop us ending with a little dance party, as dance has always been a big part of our work together.
It has been a privilege to have been involved with training this group of people who have made a committed effort to continue with the work. It’s true that I have no plans to return to Sri Lanka, but the bond remains and I made sure that we took plenty of souvenir photos that were later sent over. I wish Mountain Flowers Playback Theatre well in their work with the people on the tea plantations in the area. I think too, that they will have much to offer to support the development of Playback Theatre in Sri Lanka as it continues to grow and flower all over the island.