He wanted to be a physicist or physiologist, but his life changed when he joined the Drama circle at Ananda College
He has been compared to Freddie Silva and Will Farrell by the same critic (Dilshan Boange gives praise with reason, so there’s really no surprise there). He has been identified, rightly and among others of his caliber, as an answer to many of the institutional flaws facing English theatre in Sri Lanka. More importantly, he has been noted for his candid, open attitude, and as he himself puts it, the line between art and real life has blurred in his case: A sign of his dedication and, more importantly, his love for theatre.
When asked about the rift between what’s played out onstage and what goes on in real life, he pauses a little. Life, he explains, is not art. Actors can never capture the essence of reality (at least, not the majority) and for this reason, hard research needs to be devoted into making sure that there’s at least a semblance of reality in what’s being performed in the theatre
He knows acting. He knows how to blend in with whatever role he gets. He knows how to differentiate one character from the other, and has hence come to realize that inasmuch as actors tend to come with their own preset notions of how they should carry on their trade, what matters is being eclectic. Now Nandun Dissanayake isn’t exactly in-your-face with his eclecticism. But he has realized he should cultivate it. Big time. That counts, after all.
Nandun admits he wasn’t always into the theatre. He loved chemistry. He wanted to be a physicist or physiologist. “I was drawn to science. I thought I had talent there. So I worked hard, shunning every other interest I had at that point and honestly thought I was going to make out a career in that area.”
Everything changed after his O/Levels. He joined the Drama Circle in his school, Ananda College, in 2010. That same year, he acted as Lady Regan in a production of King Lear for a competition called ‘Lineup’ (organised by Nalanda College). “That was when everything changed,” he remembers, “Not only did I move into the stage, but I also understood my potential in literature and language. Theatre’s like that, you know,” says Nandun.
Things moved fast thereafter. He took into Shakespeare. He got into contemporary theatre. He began reading. Began studying what he was involved in. From then on, his roles multiplied. He was equally at home with Marlowe’s Edward II and Michael Morpugo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom, with both Shakespeare and Ruwanthi de Chickera’s Grease Yaka. “I have not considered acting as a career,” he admits, but as an afterthought adds, “Not yet.” He winks. Characteristically.
In his guide On Method Acting, Edward Dwight Easty shatters some myths about his trade. In one chapter he writes about James Dean and how, contrary to popular belief, he never really created a “style” of his own. He posits, correctly (given the evidence he lays out), that Dean’s acting capabilities were constrained by his adulation of Marlon Brando, and that towards his last few years he tried to evade this. He failed. As Easty explains, what emerged at the time of his death was an intermingling of two styles: His own (embryonic though it was) and Brando’s.
The point is that actors cannot and will not escape censure for pursuing what they believe to be individualist conceptions of their art. Nandun reflects on this: “Every actor has a limit. He or she has a breaking point. Somewhere. It’s natural therefore that we cannot embody reality. We can only imitate it. Speaking for myself, I privilege individualism, but unlike Dean I do not want to privilege it to the extent of losing my originality and essence.”
He elaborates. “Some like Method acting. Some like sticking to the script. Others like neither, but instead opt for their own styles, which they never define. I won’t say I fall into this latter category, but I will say this: I am at home equally with the Method and the preconceived script. The same goes for improvisation, by the way.”
When asked about the rift between what’s played out onstage and what goes on in real life, he pauses a little. Life, he explains, is not art. Actors can never capture the essence of reality (at least, not the majority) and for this reason, hard research needs to be devoted into making sure that there’s at least a semblance of reality in what’s being performed in the theatre. “With plays you’re in live communion with the audience. You need to make sure both aural and visual aspects of your performance are covered,” he says.
He also argues that what we consider to be the rift between reality and what’s performed in front of an audience is actually one between realism and naturalism. In this he is correct. Yashoda Wimaladharma, an actor he fervently admires (he is selective in her roles, and justifiably so), once told this writer that in Samanala Sandhwaniya she was asked to move beyond realism and embrace the role as she would her own personality (which she referred to as “naturalism”). “I don’t think I can achieve that right now,” he candidly says adding, “Only the crème de la crème can. I have a long way to go, after all.”
Any favorites? “Of course!” he cackles, unrolling his list: Geoffrey Rush, Helen Mirren, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, and Meryl Streep (especially Streep, he emphasizes). What’s pertinent is that he hasn’t pigeonholed himself into one type of acting, which brings the conversation into another topic: The continuing relevance of English theatre in Sri Lanka.
Surprisingly, Nandun offers critique. “Our education system isn’t congruent with the needs of our theater. We drill a visceral hatred of the performing arts into our kids’ minds, and in the end what happens is that our cultural landscape is turned into a cultural desert! That the English theater is perceived to be elitist and even snobbish doesn’t help one bit. In its early years, given it catered to a particular crowd, I conceded that yes, maybe it needed to be exclusivist. But that’s done and dusted. I don’t think such an attitude should continue in Lionel Wendt now. At all!”
He states his opinion here: “We need state support. I am not calling for a sort of socialism in our arts, but I do concede that the government needs to step in and address the fundamental flaws which continue to afflict our theater,” he says. Nandun’s solution might approximate to the guild culture which aided Russian theater during Stanislavski’s time and one which, if adopted in Sri Lanka, might help achieve solidarity for our playwrights and theater practitioners.
The last word should be his, naturally. “People say I confuse life with art. The truth is I don’t know what my real self is. I project my roles into my social life. I compound as many of them into one when interacting with people. Forgive me for it if you must, but that is how I have conducted myself as an actor during all these years. Will I progress beyond English theatre with this approach? That remains to be seen. But like I said earlier, I have a long way to go,” reflects Nandun.Nandun’s eyes twinkle. He smiles. The conversation is over. His career is not.