Celebrating 20 years of theatre in Sri Lanka, Silent Hands Theatre Company, together with Sri Lanka’s premier podcast hub Podhub.lk, will be organising the first-ever online Shakespeare competition titled “Distanced Shakespeare”.
The organisers are extending an invite to all schools/alumni to participate in this brand-new venture; as of now, all details including criteria and excerpts have been shared with schools and upon confirmation of participation by 15 June, which will be the closing date for applications, the competition will go live from 1-3 August.
If 2020 was just as any other year, at this time in the school calendar, students would be gearing up for the Inter-School Shakespeare Drama Competition hosted by the Colombo YMCA and Rotary Club of Colombo North or “Drama Comp” hosted by the Interact Club of Royal College. The pandemic, and therefore the times that we live in, has made it so that such extracurricular activities are no longer an option, and the organisers of the event are hopeful that this would be a satisfactory alternative to keep those theatre enthusiasts in touch with their craft and provide a creative outlet.
We spoke to Silent Hands Theatre Company Co-founder Neidra Williams on this new venture and their partnership with Podhub, where Neidra and Jehan Bastians have been hosting a podcast titled “On the Boards”, discussing English theatre “from the point of view of the actor, director, audience, and crew”. Neidra stated that in furthering their relationship with Podhub.lk, they conceptualised this venture and have since created all the necessary criteria and are in the process of putting together the demo to finally jump into it.
She said that while this will not replace the experience students have in a live theatre setting, it would be a new medium, allowing those young thespians and directors who would have otherwise been involved in the drama competitions have a chance to showcase their skills.
What’s the future of English theatre?
Since we had Neidra on the line, we thought it apt to get her opinion on the future of English language theatre as a whole, in reference to the current state of the world and also the journey it has had in the island.
Having started Silent Hands as part of a group of theatre lovers working backstage providing their services to other directors who needed services such as stage management, lighting, and sound management, she shared that eventually they moved into bringing down plays which they will then produce. However, she said that while it still was not an easy task, back in the day, things have got far more difficult with regard to putting together an English theatre production.
She shared that speaking only for the English theatre side of things, she can say that there’s a limit to where a theatre company can go without corporate sponsorships, and for the past five years, things have got more and more difficult in obtaining such support, owing to the fact that there has been a saturation in the industry and the reach is just so limited.
Those who consume English theatre are largely Colombo-based and the audience is numbered. For corporate sponsors to gain interest, there must be a quid pro quo and that simply does not spell favour for the sponsors, and those who do secure sponsorships are often those who have loyal supporters who have pledged their support no matter what.
Considering that a major concern seems to be that the audience is limited, when asked why the theatre scene has not collaborated with the Sinhala and/or Tamil theatre groups to create for a larger, more integrated audience, she said that it is owing to the very different cultures surrounding the two/three theatre environments.
She said that while Sinhala theatre is often full of professionals who have adopted theatre as a full-time job, this is not the case in English theatre; they are people who maintain day jobs and simply cannot assimilate to the schedules and culture around rehearsals and outing together a show. “A Sinhala production is often something in which the actors would gather and rehearse from nine to five and then do it four days a week, whereas the English theatre folks simply cannot do that,” she said.
Adding to this, she said that there is also an issue in infrastructure; there is the Lionel Wendt, then there is the Bishop’s College Auditorium, and “of course there is the Nelum Pokuna, but who can afford that?”. And the way English theatre works, it would run for three days in total and then that’s the end of the show, whereas Sinhala theatre productions would run on for several weekends, therefore it is not so profitable to either party to invest in English theatre as it stands now.
Neidra also touched on Lankan English theatre being eternal “amateurs”, about which she said she was not referring to the skill level, because “if you take any of these companies and give them a broadway setup, they can give them a run for their money”. However, the title of “amateur” comes from the fact that they are not full-time theatre professionals and because primarily it is not original work that is shown. But that is not the case with every company.
If you take the well-known Workshop Players, their goal is to bring to Sri Lanka productions from abroad which Lankans would otherwise not have the opportunity to see. However, you have plenty of original playwrights creating shows these days, but there remains one fact about Lankan audiences, which she said is a generalisation, but for the most part they tend to “like what they know”. They are not likely to pay Rs. 5,000 and watch a show they have never heard of; the already established stories and titles are a better bet.
Finally, on a closing note, considering all of the many issues faced by the English theatre scene and also with the global pandemic very much at large, we asked Neidra whether she sees a positive growth in the industry at all in the coming days, to which she said that it can certainly go one of two ways.
She said that with the Shakespeare drama competitions, along with the education system going through review and opportunities being offered to well-rounded individuals, the interest in fine arts has been seeing a revival. When once students were encouraged to focus only on their grades, they are now encouraged to seek out diverse extracurriculars – sports, arts, etc. – and so there has been a resurgence in interest in theatre and with that, there are more artists bitten by the theatre bug entering the workforce, and not just actors but directors, lighting, makeup, and other professionals who will be looking to get involved in the theatre scene.
As someone who does a lot of directing for school-based competitions, she is aware of the trends that school culture has adopted when it comes to theatre. “It is now cool to do theatre; all the hot people and confident ones will take part, whereas back in the day, athletes, tennis players, and ruggerites who would not have even come close to the scene are looking to be a part of it – to have even a non-speaking role,” she said.
Therefore, with this newfound interest, the industry is either going to be highly saturated, which could be both a good and bad thing, or there will be a wonderful growth where it creates a broader audience either way. Theatre is here to stay, and with the youth showing some real interest, the pros are outweighing the cons.