By Naveed Rozais
In a world upended by the pandemic, it is more important now than ever to form meaningful connections. Performance art is hardly given much thought as a medium of communication, and this is something that Power of Play as an organisation strives to correct. Founded in 2011, Power of Play harnesses the highly adaptable nature of theatre and performance to tell stories and create experiences with universal appeal and cultural diversity in a way that breaks down barriers and brings different communities together.
In the midst of the pandemic, Power of Play has recently launched a series of interactive Zoom workshops catering to children from the ages of one to 12 to stimulate, promote creativity, and boost resilience in the children in these uncertain times.
The Sunday Morning Brunch caught up with Power of Play Founder and Artistic Director Sulochana Dissanayake to learn more about the organisation, the new series, and how theatre and performance can help build meaningful connections in a world amidst a pandemic.
Dissanayake is a multitalented performer, puppeteer, writer, trainer, and theatre director. Theatrically inclined since childhood, Dissanayake studied theatre and economics at Bates College in the US and has also studied theatre and puppetry in South Africa and Indonesia.
Below are excerpts of the interview.
Tell us the story behind Power of Play and what drives the company.
Power of Play is a company that utilises performing arts for communication, with a special focus on puppetry and theatre. I founded it because I felt that the need of the 21st Century is to reconnect, both internally and externally. As humans with shared experiences and values, finding what we have in common while being as diverse as we are is what enables us to share spaces, resources, and respect.
The core values of Power of Play are kindness, empathy, and mutual respect – to us, everyone matters equally from the tiniest to the biggest humans. A finger puppet (handled artfully) has just as much potential to communicate as a 14-foot giant puppet (manipulated professionally). Any sharing of art – be it a story said out aloud at bedtime or a show staged after months of rehearsals in the biggest auditorium – is a gathering of community. Art brings people together, which is its biggest strength in communication. If done right, you can elicit identical emotions in total strangers, or make someone else stand in another’s shoes, just for a brief moment. That ability to create empathy is the magic of art.
I founded Power of Play as a private limited company in 2011 because, in sticking to our values, I wanted to create a commercial recognition for professional artists. To distinctly say: “This isn’t a hobby. Or a favour. Or a publicity gimmick. It’s a profession, honed over years at great investment and commitment, and it deserves equal respect and financial compensation.”
How does Power of Play use performance art as a medium to engage with participants and what are the benefits of it?
Since Power of Play’s inception, we have travelled around Sri Lanka, from the tiniest communities in rural villages to the biggest blue chips of Colombo, reaching everyone from youngest to oldest in sharing an alternate view of life.
Pre-pandemic, 95% of our work was performed live in child and adult education. We do workshops and performances for children and teenagers and do corporate training for adults. We also do issue-based theatre for communities that find themselves dealing with taboos. In everything we do, we pave the way for people to start addressing the real issue at hand through honest, engaging conversations and to envision an organic solution to the problem. We use puppetry as a vehicle to fascinate the audience, where puppets can vault off defences built against human actors.
Puppets aren’t real – so you can’t get angry at a puppet. Therefore, puppets can say (and get away with saying) things that humans won’t dream of saying. You can also create a lot of fantasy with puppets easier in certain instances than working with humans (e.g. flying, exploding, working metaphorically, etc.) It’s cost-effective because a single puppeteer can bring to life a whole host of characters; if the same show was to include a cast of humans, it wouldn’t fit many budgets available. It also immediately strikes a chord with local audiences as we adapt well-known folktales, so it is like they are meeting some old friends, who have, like the rest of us, changed with time.
How has the pandemic affected Power of Play and the way you work?
The first lockdown pushed us over our comfort zones – physical shows dried up overnight, so it was either adapt or shut down. I have my children to thank (four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter) because even if I would have had the option of shutting down as a business, I couldn’t shut down as a mother.
I had to invent ways to keep them entertained and productively engaged, and put into practice everything we teach/preach in our line of work. As I pulled inspiration from my formal education and work experience and started doing creative home-schooling, the video clips I shared on my personal Facebook page got a lot of appreciation. A work colleague paved the way for our first webinar (I had to google the word “webinar” as I had never heard of it and then watch tutorials) and once I delivered it successfully, I felt a lot more confident and less apprehensive about the way things would “translate” into the virtual.
We also took the plunge and did our first series of Facebook Live videos and the audience reach was mind-blowing. We had never experienced performing to a global audience with viewers from different continents at the same time. The power of the virtual really hit home with that experience, and I began to view it as a vehicle with equal (but different) merits to live performances.
However, each medium has its pros and cons. I don’t think the virtual can ever replace a physical performance – and it doesn’t have to. As long as we view them as separate options, each suited for a vastly different set of circumstances, and adjust our expectations accordingly, it has huge potential.
Tell us about the new series of Zoom workshops Power of Play just launched.
After the success of our first Zoom series (delivered from June-August 2020 during the first lockdown), we have launched a second Zoom series for children aged between one and 12 years old. These workshops are designed as a creative resource for parents working from home with children. Each workshop is curated and delivered by a professional artist, and aims to develop the creativity, critical skills, and emotional intelligence of your child to enhance their resilience to face these uncertain times successfully.
The series will run through November and December, every Tuesday and Thursday, or until schools reopen (whichever comes first). Each workshop consists of four sessions that meet weekly. Children can sign up for all four workshops or mix and match sessions from different workshops to get a glimpse of the variety of action in each unique experience.
Tuesday mornings see a “Sing and Play” session conducted by myself and Paltiha Abeyratne, a musical session in English and Sinhala for kids aged one to three-plus years. Tuesday afternoons see “Sri Lankan Folktales with Loku Gamaya”, a storytelling session for families with kids aged three to 12 years, enacted by traditional dance, drums, and folk songs consultant Sankha Jayalath. This takes place in Sinhala with brief translations in English.
Thursdays begin with a session on “Crafting with Kidspace” in English, facilitated by children’s organisation Kidspace Owner Ranjula Mendis for kids aged four to 12 years, with a “Drama and Storytelling” workshop in the afternoon for kids aged seven to 12 years, focusing on creative skill-building in English and Sinhala conducted by performance consultant, puppeteer, and musician Thiwanka Ranasinghe.
How does Power of Play work with adults? What is it like working with adults in a virtual setting?
For adults, we deliver interactive corporate webinars on effective communication, emotional resilience, self-compassion, and creative/critical thinking – all utilising art and drama. We also customise content according to organisational needs.
Working with adults virtually is infinitely harder than working with them physically, simply because most choose to be in what I dub “invisible mode” (both camera and microphone switched off). So, you are pouring all your energy to teach a blank wall, whilst still, engagement is a priority for HR (human resources).
We are living in an unprecedented time and the amount of stress it applies on adults can’t really be quantified, so maybe it is a little too ambitious to expect them to engage in creative learning at this present moment. But when they do, they usually find it invigorating and learn a few simple tips that can go a long way in stabilising mental and physical health during these challenging times.
What’s the biggest lesson the pandemic has taught you in terms of communicating?
To be flexible. And kind. And communicate with empathy and honesty. Because no matter where you are in life, how old you are, how financially stable you are, or whatever your marital/relationship status is, this is an extremely isolating time for everyone. As someone once said: “We are all in the same storm – but we aren’t in the same boat.” So, I try to remember that in all my personal and professional communications, and it has helped to create a culture of kindness and support in my own home and company. So it works!