Storytelling is an undervalued art. You only realise this when you hear or see badly told stories. We won’t go into badly-told stories here, because that would be, well, too much drama. But suffice it to say, the power of a good story cannot be underestimated.
Power of Play (POP) uses the power of storytelling and mixes it with the even more powerful medium of theatre to create meaningful stories that drive social change. Founded in 2011 by Artistic Director Sulochana Dissanayake, POP is a company that utilises performing arts for communication, with a special focus on puppetry and theatre. As an organisation, POP has held empowering women and girls close to its heart since its inception.
Through 2019 and 2020, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, POP created and implemented a powerful story on women’s rights and gender roles through the puppetry play “Why, Saama?”, a story that follows a day in the life of Saama, a little girl from a normal family. Throughout the performance, stereotypical questions on gender are cleverly intertwined and addressed, with Saama questioning stereotypes and looking to the audience for their views, creating a safe, inclusive space for children to enjoy, learn, and engage in the presence of their teachers.
To date, “Why? Saama” has engaged with 8,870 students and teachers across the country. In 2019, it entered the State Children’s Drama Festival, winning second place in the “Best Play of the Year” category, and awards for Best Stage Management, Best Costumes, Best Music Composition, and Special Jury Award for Best Choreography.
Ahead of International Women’s Day (IWD), Dissanayake and POP have partnered with GIZ to release a series of videos on gender, communal responsibilities during and after a pandemic, fake news, and being conscious of the information we spread. This new campaign, which launches on IWD (8 March), marks not only a new turn in POP’s mission to end cycles of violence and abuse against women and girls but also marks 10 years of the POP journey.
The Sunday Morning Brunch chatted with Dissanayake for more insight on the campaign and what she hopes to achieve.
POP is celebrating its 10th year this year. What has been the most memorable and momentous part of the journey?
Proving that you can make a living out of your passion! Wherever we go, we’ve been blessed with fellow artists who truly love what they do, and that passion is infectious. It is what electrifies our audiences where the impact we leave behind after each show/engagement is tangible. For me, that is a constant highlight of the past decade.
IWD 2021 is a big deal for POP; tell us about the new campaign and what you’ve got planned?
International Women’s Day has always been a red-letter day on the Power of Play calendar. As we have matured and seen many lives all over Sri Lanka, as well as expanded our own horizons to include partners and children, we have come to realise that the biggest wars are fought within our own homes. That is why, when Strengthening Reconciliation Processes in Sri Lanka (SRP) approached us with a concept and campaign for gender equality and ethnic harmony during a global pandemic, we decided we must address this issue first within our own families. That is the root of the problem where unless these deep-seated rifts are healed within our own hearts, we can’t practise equality and mutual respect within our homes. Until it happens at home, it can’t happen outside. So, we picked four very common instances of gender/ethnic stereotyping and picked the most relatable characters from the Mahadana Muththa’s modern golayas (disciples) to tell these stories.
Why the Mahadana Muththa characters for this campaign? What led to choosing them to convey the themes of gender equality?
Mahadana Muththa’s traditional persona and golayas (disciples) were adapted to reflect modern-day Sri Lankans in 2010 – which is when I studied the power of Wayang Goleks (3D wooden rod puppets) of West Java, Indonesia. When I asked my guru (the late Dhalang Asep Sunandar Sunarya from Giri Harja III) why Indonesian audiences still flocked to see the ancient sagas of Mahabharata and Ramayana, his answer was “adaptability”. So, we decided to revive these stories by inserting characters familiar to us – men and women of diverse ages, ethnicities, and opinions. They are you, your friend, your neighbour – or the strangers you see on your daily commute. Therefore, their familiarity was an ideal match to discuss these common issues experienced in all (or most) homes.
Communicating gender equality through theatre and performance is not easy. What was the most challenging part of putting the campaign together?
Honestly, the budget. To tell these stories effectively requires intricate details. Intricacy is expensive. Covid-19 has been tough on the arts so we are grateful for any opportunity to work – but it took a herculean team effort to achieve the output envisioned by our creative team within the budgetary constraints.
Against the backdrop of IWD 2020 and POP’s work with children and young people, what are your hopes and thoughts regarding the new generation breaking the cycle of violence against women and creating gender equality?
We are so inspired each time we perform for young girls and boys. I still recall a moment from our “Why? Saama” tour in 2019 where we toured our little girl giant (the tallest female puppet in Sri Lanka) to schools to discuss why girls and boys should be raised equally. When I asked, “Shouldn’t girls climb trees?”, a little boy answered: “Boys and girls both have arms and legs, so they can both climb trees.” I wish that simplicity could be retained throughout our adult lives.
We also have a lot more access to vital messaging via social media so I truly believe if we can gain a critical mass in our campaigns, we can truly impact the outcome of equality in future generations. But as for anything to be persistent, political will is key. If that can be gained to break barriers faced by girls and women, we can truly become a developed nation.
What’s the next step of the campaign?
We will be releasing two more videos – based on the importance of not pigeon-holing boys and girls to gender stereotypes and the importance of combating fake news to protect minorities. They will be released in April and October. Thank you to our project partners, creative collaborators, live and digital audiences – and our own households – without whom this campaign would not be a possibility.
Watch the SRP and POP Facebook and Instagram pages and YouTube channels for more information.