By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Celebrating his 50th year in theatre, Jerome L. De Silva is one of Sri Lankan theatre’s most prominent faces.
The Artistic Director of The Workshop Players since its inception, the country’s largest theatre company to date, Jerome amassed to his name an impressive repertoire of productions all ranging from fun musicals to serious character driven plays.
Almost half a century of experience later, Jerome is still a passionate theatre enthusiast best known for being everyone’s theatre guru due to his no holds barred policy in imparting wisdom – Jerome holds nothing back and shares all he knows.
This interview was conducted prior to the tragic passing of veteran stage play director Vinod Senadheera, following which, in a brief conversation Jerome expressed his deepest condolences: “We are all saddened by his passing.
We are going to miss a great personality in Lankan theatre.”
A milestone achievement on track, we had a quick chat with Jerome about his love for theatre, the perceived-but-not-totally-accurate assumption that English theatre is elitist, and his dislike for fast food, among other things.
When did your love for theatre first manifest and what were the twists and turns along the way that got you to where you are right now?
I’ve had an interest in theatre from the time I could walk!
But it was much later in life that I got my first taste.
I once thought I was studying to be a doctor, but life steered me in a completely different direction.
In 1970, having transferring from St. Joseph’s College to St. Peter’s, I joined the schools’ choir under Rev. Fr. Claver Perera, following which I took part in the chorus line for the Wendy Whatmore Academy’s production of Boyfriend simply because I could shake a toe a hold a note, which then led me to Mrs. Oosha Saravanamuttu Wijesinghe and Mrs. Ena Heynnecker.
I’ve not had any formal training in theatre, and it was never my ambition, but since that very first day I stepped into the Lionel Wendt I’ve acquired full board and never left.
Since those early years, from back when you were starting out leading up to now, what would you say was the biggest most notable change in Sri Lankan theatre?
In 1970, when I was first starting, the theatre scene was not great. Theatre in Sri Lanka had more or less died, but in 1977, Wendy Whatmore put together a production of My Fair Lady where I was lucky enough to be cast as Freddy Eynsford-Hill.
Following that production, there really appeared to be resurgence in theatre within the island.
This was when the theatre scene became very popular; during this time in 1979 I also had my directorial debut in Oliver!
This was also around the time Shakespeare drama competitions started gaining traction and became very popular, which then introduced a whole new group of people into the local theatre scene.
Despite theatre being such a seminal part of our culture, why do you think it remains an area that is, to this day, ill advised to opt for as a career?
You simply cannot make money doing theatre in Sri Lanka – it’s unfortunate but true.
I am a visiting lecturer at the University of the Visual and Performing Arts, and I always ask those students: “Why are you doing drama?”
I choreographed many Sinhala plays; Wesmunu Galawanna and Trojan Kanthawo to name a few, and what I saw was that it was so very difficult to keep a Sinhala cast together.
Many of them were running off to take part in various acting parts for television or small promotional features to earn a livelihood, and we can’t blame them because there is very little to no state support when it comes to the arts.
This is thankfully a little different in English theatre because we manage to obtain sponsors which allow a higher production value, and the actors are mostly professionals in other fields; often doctors, lawyers, and various executives who merely do it for the love of theatre.
The Workshop Players are in their 27th year; it’s come to represent so much for the theatre culture in the island. Since executing the massive production that was The Greatest Shows last year, where do they hope to go next?
This year, we really hope to pull back, since The Greatest Shows was such an endeavour and really exhausted our resources.
We are going to start this year, likely this coming February, with a few comprehensive workshops for three different age groups.
While I would like for The Workshop Players to retain their amateur status, I really wish for them to share with the community what they’ve learned.
As for what’s next, since workshops are all good and well, it isn’t a satisfactory feeling if you aren’t working towards an end goal, so we would most likely stage Crucible in October to round up the year.
Finally, in all your years in theatre, which productions would you say were the greatest highlights? Could you name some names? And if you could, in true Jerome De Silva fashion, impart some wisdom on aspiring thespians around the island?
For a highlight, I have to say The Royal Hunt of the Sun from 1977, and many of my students are going to be mad at me because it’s not a musical, but this play was beautiful and it’s certainly a memorable one.
If I had to pick a musical, it’s an odd one as well – Jesus Christ Superstar and of course my directorial debut Oliver! which will always be special to me.
And for all aspiring thespians in the island, I can only say be humble and share everything you know, because the process of imparting knowledge is where you learn.
The Workshop Players’ doors are always open. Whether you want to be trained as an actor, for some social development, or whether you are looking to find family in like-minded souls – don’t hesitate.
Finally, I have to say my greatest gift is my belief in God and Jesus Christ and for everything I am, I have been blessed from above.
Jerome is much loved and adored among his peers and the countless students he’s taught over the years. Here’s but a few of Jerome’s admirers sharing what he means to them as a mentor and a friend.
Shanuki De Alwis
Jerome is my father, my mother, my grandmother, and favourite aunt all rolled into one.
I’ve worked with him for nearly 20 years now.
We first met in a comedy production, him as a fellow actor and my first production of his was The Lion king and since then he has continued to give me a spotlight.
The name I have in theatre is because of him. Everything and anything I know of stagecraft is courtesy of Jerome De Silva, but most importantly, he taught me the value of passing it on, which is what he does.
He’s was never about working with the most talented or most obvious, he’ll see the potential in someone that nobody else can see, he’s that person who evokes your passion in theatre, and this is his magic actually. He means everything to me.
I first worked with Jerome in 2013 in Jesus Christ Superstar.
That was my first most memorable lead role, and since then he was like a father figure to me.
He’s made it possible for me to direct and explore that side of theatre.
He’s a fantastic person to be around, he doesn’t care all too much about what’s being said and what people’s view is of him.
I owe Jerome a lot for all he did for me, and Sri Lanka owes him a lot for all he has done for theatre in the country.
I was just 11 years old when I first met J and since then my life changed exponentially.
Back then, I never really saw myself as someone who would be following theatre, but all that changed after my first play with Jerome.
Being a student of his for over 12 years now was one of the best experiences of my life and words cannot explain how thankful I am that he took me on.
is view of the arts and how to incorporate it into my life changed my perception of things.
The education I received through this and the experiences on this journey had a massive input in my career as a musician/journalist.
Jerome De Silva will always be known as the person who put Sri Lanka on the map in the theatrical field.
We are grateful to J for consistently pushing the field of arts forward and encouraging every single artist.
He is truly a legend.