Sri Lankan student in Blue Lake, California on doing her thesis online
By Bernadine Rodrigo
Considering the times and the need for social distancing, Dell’Arte International – School of Physical Theatre at Blue Lake California added its annual thesis projects online, posing a different kind of challenge for students.
Veenadari Lakshika Jayakody, a wonderfully expressive Sri Lankan student of theatre, took on the challenge and is hopeful her cause comes through.
Veenadari’s passion comes from storytelling and she strives to effect some change through her stories. She is completing her Master’s at the Dell’Arte International – School of Physical Theatre and her thesis project is titled “Once Upon a Time I Was Addicted to You”. It is the result of an ensemble working over 10 weeks to create a one-act play online between Sri Lanka and the US. The international production is inspired by true events and features a victimised female.
Each year, the school conducts a big theatre festival at their in-house theatre to allow students to present their thesis projects. Veenadari is also one such student who until the whole world went into lockdown, was looking forward to presenting her thesis play at the school’s theatre. However, she is unable to do so now. However, the school has given their students a different kind of opportunity; similar to many other things, the thesis projects too, are going online.
Titled “Frame By Frame – the 2020 Thesis Festival”, the projects are scheduled to go online between 14-24 May.
Overcoming the challenges
Creating for online brought with it a different kind of challenge for Veenadari and her classmates. Speaking to The Morning Brunch, she shared that since the day cameras came into play, it kept getting in the way of the authentic feel of theatre. There were many times she had to remind herself that it wasn’t a film she was acting in, but rather a play.
“I always had to keep in mind that it’s not a movie. We are play actors, not filmmakers,” she said; she does not have the option of getting scenes wrong and redoing them. Even if it is done on camera, with only her on stage, it has to be done in one go just as it would have under normal circumstances.
She is determined, nevertheless, to give her viewers an authentic experience and do the best she can under the conditions, because to her, this is not simply her thesis; it is her telling a story she has wanted to relate for an achingly long time, and she will not rest until it is told.
Although she is pursuing her higher studies in the US, she wants to tell the story of a Sri Lankan – more specifically, that of a Sri Lankan woman – that came to her around 10 years ago.
Between 2008 and 2012, while Veenadari was doing her Advanced Level (A/L) examinations, she witnessed the media coverage of a series of incidents relating to murders and rape of women. She said that it affected her excessively; as a school student, the thought of these events terrified her and this feeling doubled when she started to fear for herself.
She recalls how difficult it was to just sit and study while thoughts of these incidents swirled in her mind; how her parents, who were worried about her, decided to stay by her side, just to allow her some peace of mind so that she may study. Even still, she was in fear and this fear lingers, she said, until such time she is able to proclaim it and expresses herself to the public.
She is not at all reluctant to speak of her personal experience in terms of troubles faced by women, especially in our country because, “this is something that all women face”. While some are unfortunate to have become victims to these crimes, living with this fear is part of the daily life of a woman. And this is what led her to her calling in theatre as a feminist artist.
Deciding to grab the opportunity given to her by her university, she collaborated with a colleague of hers, Jayampathi Guruge from the Stages Theatre Group in Sri Lanka, to bring the show to life. It follows the story of a victimised female character who has undergone so much agony that she cannot remember who she is anymore.
Veenadari recalls how in the real story that inspired her play, the criminals weren’t actually found; this was another factor which frightened her, and therefore the character in her play too still does not know who the perpetrators are. She is just confused and scared.
However, Veenadari said that when justice cannot be served, the best thing to do is move on, understand your self-worth, try to return to some sense of normalcy, and try to achieve happiness. “So many people get stuck trying to make someone else happy,” she said, adding: “Sometimes we think of things like love as fairy tales, but many times it can be these very things that hurt us. What is important is that we learn how to move on and find what makes us happy.”
Using her body to tell the story
She said that her story is very delicate and sensitive, as it focuses on a great number of gruesome issues such as abuse suffered by females and also female status in society, a topic which she believes many people might find offensive.
Something else she believes will not be well received by the local public here is her style of acting, which is different to the normal play-acting one might be used to. Her form of acting is known as physical acting, which does not in fact, as one might assume, merely denote being physically present on stage. It is a style of acting which tells a story through the movement of one’s body.
Veenadari spoke about how, funnily, she had to convince her mother that “using her body” to act did not mean she was going to be revealing her naked body on stage, and recalled how difficult this was. It is simply acting through movement. Therefore, she will be performing alone, as the single lead character, moving to the audio track she prepared with help from Jayampathi and her another friend named Nipuni Sharadha, a local actress.
“Every time a movement is made, it tells a different story,” Veenadari said. “Even if I act, when I re-watch it, I see that the movement tells much more than I thought it would.” This means that she has to get every single movement right and also keep in mind what and how the audience might see and interpret, if she wants her story told correctly.
The story also follows a circular structure, which means it ends where it began – a point we found intriguing. However, initially, Veenadari wanted to add a much greater mix of Sri Lankan traditional acting methods, such as with masks and also including a style known as “kolam”, but unfortunately, as those who were supposed to support her in this endeavour were unable to get flights to the US, she and Jayampathi had to give up that idea.
Her supervisor, whom she sought help from eventually, inspired her to do it in the simplest manner possible. Veenadari then began to write letters projecting her feelings to her mother, father, brother, and, being a Buddhist, even Lord Buddha. These letters were not to be sent but instead were to be used to make a script, which thankfully, she was able to do. Soon enough, she had her play.
It will be recorded and posted on YouTube on 16 May and can be found under the title, “Once Upon a Time I was Addicted to You”.
Following this, Veenadari will be graduating in the very near future. She hopes that when she returns, she can start spreading her message in Sri Lanka. She said that she is unsure about how her words will be received as she wants to address many taboos in our society. Notwithstanding, she is adamant to try and get people to talk about things that need to be talked about. She understands that she, being a woman speaking about women’s issues, is going to face great challenges, but says that it is time she stood up and did something.
Furthermore, she also plans to promote physical and abstract theatre. She believes this is very suitable for Sri Lanka as, based on her observations, our traditional acting methods have a very “heightened focus on physical movement”. Additionally, Sri Lankans are very expressive in the ways of body language so she believes this form of acting might naturally reach out to the people.