(Pics by Gihan Dulwala)

Performers of Somalatha Subasinghe’s Play House took part in the hugely successful Children’s Performing Arts Festival 2015 in Gwangju, South Korea, from September 4 to 12. Hat Seller, written and directed by the late Somalatha Subasinghe, was the only South Asian play chosen by the organizers and was played in English with Korean subtitles among 41 acclaimed children’s plays from 11 countries around the world.

“Theater can be used in languages class or mathematics class. Especially when it comes to teaching different cultures theater can become a very useful tool”

Dr. Chandana Aluthge, Artistic Director, who accompanied the performers, speaking to The Nation about their experiences in Gwangju said that it was great to see how the international audience responded to the Sri Lankan play adapted from a folk story.
The Lanka Children and Youth Theater organization (LCYTF) was established with the aim of promoting Children’s and Youth Theatre in Sri Lanka under the guidance of veteran children’s theatre director and playwright Subasinghe. the LCYTF has participated in many international Children’s and Youth Theatre Festivals and conferences in countries like Bangladesh (in 1997), India (in 2001), Australia (in 2001), France (in 2002, 2006 and 2008), The Netherlands (in 2002), and Korea (in 2002).

Mainly involved with children’s and Youth Theater, Aluthge is also a Senior Lecturer at Department of Economics at University of Colombo. As a youngster passionate about theater, Aluthge joined the LCYTF in 1981, which is now popularly known as Playhouse-Kotte. Working with Subasinghe, he realized that he was also ardent in working with children, music as well as choreography.  Playhouse-Kotte provided him with a great opportunity to be part of them and explore all these aspects.

Notebook-of-an-achieverWhen Subasinghe initiated a program revolving around creative activities for children, Aluthge volunteered to support her. He worked with her as an apprentice for more than five years before he came up with his own creative schemes. Since then he has been working with the LCYTF trying to fill the vacuum in Sri Lankan theater by identifying young talent. When he commenced his career, Youth Theater was a new component in Sri Lankan theater. Children’s theater too was relatively new, so he had to put a great effort to face the challenges encountered.

Working with Subasinghe he was able to contribute in making of many highly appreciated children’s and Youth Theater productions including The Hat Seller,  Hima Kumariya, Gamaraala diviya loketa, Walas Pawula’and Vikurthi.  Walas Pawula, the story of Goldilocks – a script written by Subasinghe to suit the Sri Lankan audience was directed by Aluthge.

He mentioned that they had to reproduce some of these plays to suit the modern child enhancing creativity to attract more audience. “Children are very creative. Therefore to meet their level, we need to become ultra creative,” he said. Today, he said, his main responsibility is to take veteran dramatist Somalatha Subasinghe’s legacy forward with the support of his wife Kaushalya Fernando, daughter of Somalatha Subasinghe.

Speaking about international theater he said that the nature of theater performances has now evolved. “At Gwangju theater festival there was a play where the duration was six minutes. There was another production which was only played for an audience of four people where it revolved around a family. This second play was staged inside a setting similar to a doll’s house where the audience has to look through doors and windows to watch the play,” is how he described his experiences at the festival.

Aluthge pointed out that Sri Lanka is still not able to compete with the trends in the international theater. “We have a long way to go when considering infrastructure and facilities. We have a lot of talent and creativity. Problem lies in infrastructure and facilities available to us,” he iterated. He further said that he doesn’t believe a government should he held responsible for providing everything theater needs. “It could be stakeholders, artistes themselves or organizations created within the society taking interest in appreciating theater and encouraging them to grow,” he said. “Then dramatist will be able to create more meaningful and high quality productions,” he added.

As he explained theater is a powerful medium to provoke imagination. He said, “Today our society is keener on providing knowledge to children rather than encourage them to be creative through their imagination. Yet, what is more important is enhancing their imagination.” Aluthge said that supporting children to enhance their imagination will help them to be liberal accepting information they receive. He further said that countries like Korea, who earlier followed a competitive education system similar to us, has now understood the power of strengthening creativity in children.

Speaking further about infrastructure for children’s theater in Sri Lanka, Aluthge criticized drama competitions and festivals currently taking place in the country. “Most theater festivals take the form of a competition which does more harm to children than good due to. Theater is to promote education, entertainment, to understand each other and provide relaxation. If what is there for relaxation becomes a competition itself, will it do any good?” he emphasized.

He pointed out that theater studies too is becoming a regular subject in the school curriculum although educationists have realized that theater studies is an important subject. “Theater is included as a subject in the school curriculum yet how this is been taught is the problem,” he said adding that it should be examined whether it’s done in a beneficial manner to children. He said that by looking at the surface it is difficult to say that this subject is achieving the expected outcome at school.

Theater is not something that can be framed as a particular academic subject in the school curriculum. Aluthge explained that the main expected outcome of theater is studying human behavior. “It can’t be put in the same basket with mathematics or English. However, theater can be incorporated with any subject in teaching lessons,” he said adding that although not taken full advantage of, theater can become a powerful component in teaching-learning process. “Theater can be used in languages class or mathematics class. Especially when it comes to teaching different cultures theater can become a very useful tool.”

When we see the words children’s theater it is assumed that children are involved with the production. This is what is been promoted through state children’s theater festivals and competitions as well. Yet Aluthge disapprove of children’s involvement in theater productions. He said that it is unethical to use children for theater in a professional setting. “We perform, sell tickets and do rigorous training in order to stage a successful play. These are not agreeable events for children,” he said. LCYTF as a professional theater production group uses adult professionals in their stage production for children. “This is what is internationally recommended and practiced,” he said.

However he opined that using children in professional theater limits the scope of productions. “When children take part it is difficult to go into complex situations and it is not recommended to expose them to certain themes during childhood. Yet, today we see a lot of theater productions where children discuss adult themes and participate in complex scenes. I doubt whether this is a good practice for a child in the long run,” he said.