“You asked for it, Georges Dandin, you asked for it.”
Molière, Georges Dandin, Act I, sc. vii
On May Day, I had the pleasure of seeing DRAMSOC 2011, the so-called “Inter-Faculty Drama Competition” organized by the Ceylon University Dramatic Society. DRAMSOC always brings back fond memories; memories of joyous, collaborative theatre work; recollections of how decades long precious friendships began in the background of those productions. Even though I never studied at Peradeniya, this particular event always had a prominent place in my cultural life. I still try my very best to get there every year. Feeling nostalgic, I go there to meet some of my good old friends, talk about good old days, and have a nice time admiring the talents of the younger generation.
I had no intention of writing anything about this year’s event until I saw a blog post by Mr. Vihanga Perera, a recent graduate of Peradeniya, now a university lecturer. (I invite you to go there and read it before reading this any further) After slowly digesting the shock effects, I thought I should not refrain from sharing some of my observations. If the above mentioned blogger was just a student, I would have ignored his comments with a smile, taking it as a youthful outburst of frustration, anger and disappointment. But now he is a published author, a lecturer and a “responsible figure” from whom a reader would expect much more reasonable and convincing arguments, supported by much more truthful facts than what is available in his article. The students who participated in this competition might look at him as a source of critical engagement, inspiration and guidance; I am not entirely sure about it, but I assume so. If they take his comments on DRAMSC 2011 seriously, in my humble opinion, the effect would be far from constructive. If a total stranger reads his essay without seeing the DRAMSOC 2011 itself, he/she is likely to conclude that it was an utter organizational failure combined with extremely average performances with the only exception of one brilliant play by a group from the Faculty of Engineering of which Mr. Perera seems to be a cheerleader of sorts.
The first impression I got was “he is on a fault finding mission”; a randhra gaveshaka approach. After expressing his dissatisfaction about the so called defeat of the EFac play, he goes on criticizing the selection of plays, judges, announcers, their “grammar mistakes” and everything; detailed attention has been given to each and every tiny little aspect of the organizational matters, but theatrical elements of the plays in question are missing. He has taken these things very seriously, as if he is reviewing the Festival de Cannes. Is he trying to take some revenge from a certain section of the students? Is this written with some sort of a grudge about something that we do not know? I have no idea about what went on “behind closed doors” or what are the political/factional/personal tensions and connections between these young lecturers and the students. Therefore, I can only talk about what I saw that day, at EOE Pereira Theatre. By doing so I wish to make the record balanced and do justice to those who took part in this wonderful event. Why am I doing this? Simply because I was there, and I witnessed something totally different.
How to critique a play? A comparative look at “Behind Closed Doors”, “Lost Souls”, and “Welikada ‘71”
To begin with, I think we can agree that aesthetic enjoyment and taste can be a subjective matter(to a great extent). However, there are certain things that I wish to point out:
According to Mr. Perera, “Welikada ‘71” was a “well-coordinated performance – and their commitment to serious drama is a cue for contenders…” and “…the presentation carried an energy which was as good as any good play I have seen at recent DRAMSOCs.” “…the powerful performance by the Faculty of Engineering, who came up with “Welikada 71”, which almost arrested the cup from the five-years-in-a-row champions the Faculty of Arts.”
In a previous blog entry, which was published weeks before these dramas were staged, he hinted that the Faculty of Arts is likely to be defeated this time:
“Some inside sources tell me that this can be the year where, after an elapse of almost a decade, where the dramatic plum is taken away from the Faculty of Arts.”
WHY? and HOW? Probably Mr. Perera had the opportunity of seeing these plays during the rehearsals and made an early comparison? What exactly is this “internal source” that could predict a victory of a competition weeks before the competition was held? I do not know.
However, what I saw on the 1st of May was different. The play ‘Welikada ‘71’ was not “well coordinated” at all when compared to both “Behind Closed Doors”(Faculty of Arts) and “Lost Souls”(Faculty of Medicine). These are some of the weaknesses I noticed: the way they used the space, the way the performers interacted with each other, lighting, costumes, stage design, props, colours, facial expressions, and vocal variations and delivery. In my view, these are some of the most essential elements that need to be considered when evaluating a theatrical performance. I am able to show you some photographic evidence hoping that it would demonstrate my points better. (Please click on the images to view them enlarged.)
Their approach to stage designing and props was not consistent enough.
See here for more
For some scenes, they took a “realistic” path and for some others it was entirely abstract. In the end it was evident that they haven’t given a serious thought about this aspect at all. Compare the following scene of the court with the others where the lawyer, the activist and the prisoner meet each other.
Movements and interactions: Most of the time, actors and actresses were sort of glued to a certain area/location on the stage. They didn’t move around freely. These pictures will speak better than thousand words.
The Prisoner(best actor) remained there on the left side, almost glued throughout the entire scene while the actress stood on the other side. In fact there were two such scenes where this weakness was clearly evident. Their interactions were limited to a certain set of stereotypical and predictable gestures. Yes, we are so used to this type of “acting” in teledramas. It’s all about dialogues. You can simply follow the “drama” by listening to it while doing some other work. But when it comes to stage acting, I think we have a right to expect something more substantial and heavy weight than this! Make up and costumes were not stage friendly. They became monotonous, flat and dull as you can see. So, when you look at the general, broader picture, “Welikada ‘71” was not strong enough to give a competition to both “Behind Closed Doors” and “Lost Souls”. “Lost Souls”, in my view was ahead of “Welikada ‘71” in many ways. They knew what exactly to do on the stage. It was evident that the interactions were carefully created and planned. Direction was good.
Based on the theme and script, Mr. Perera asserts that “Welikada ‘71” had more temporal relevance than the others. From here he moves on to make a flat, simple statement that this production was the best. This is an extremely weak argument. Anything about a man in the death row is a serious business. Yes, I agree. But that does not make a drama about such a man special. Ok, a man is destined to receive capital punishment as a result of some flaw of the judicial system. This is a topic; a theme; a subject. This could lead to any of the following:
1) A public speech at a Pradesheeya Sabha election rally
2) A poem
3) A novel
4) A painting
5) A drama
6) A TV talk show
When you select one of these paths, things begin to get more and more complicated. You have to employ the “grammar” and techniques of the selected medium. If you simply wish to deliver your Pradesheeya Sabha election speech, it doesn’t require much. A TV talk show? These days, it doesn’t need much of a commitment either. But, if you plan to do a drama, you HAVE to think about all the above mentioned theatre elements. You have to utilize and coordinate these elements in a way that would assure a better end result. And I think Efac students were less successful in these fronts. Unfortunately, Mr. Perera takes the approach of an outdated literary critic. He looks at the theme, and probably the lines written in the script, and then concludes that this is an exceptional performance. Maybe it looks good when you read or listen to these lines. But the Efact group did not act it out well enough. They failed to do justice to the theme.
I should not go on and on criticizing a university play like this, but given Mr. Perera’s sweeping generalizations, somebody has to raise these issues. And I believe that the students who did these dramas will find this disagreement useful. They will surely benefit from this. They will be able to look at these issues consciously, next time they undertake a production. Becoming a cheerleader of this or that team would not provide ANY constructive criticism at all.
Having said that, now I have to show you some examples from some of the other dramas in question. See the following set of photos from “Behind Closed Doors”.
They were successful in creating powerful visual compositions. The actors and actresses were very good at interacting with each other. Movements were genuinely relaxed, and well coordinated. Actors, props, empty space and of course, colours equally contributed to these compositions. Furthermore, these compositions were organically connected with the theme, and they were crucial in emphasizing and sharpening the expression.
Have a look at this physical contact that make the composition better. Compare it with some of the photos from a similar situation in “Welikada ‘71”. They hardly made any physical contact with each other or with the props. These little things fire up dramatic compositions, dramatic situations. And also, look at the lighting. Also, don’t forget to observe their facial expressions, colours, costumes and other supporting components.
In fact, both “Lost Souls” and “Behind Closed Doors” were well coordinated, well presented. Acting was better, and different from the teledrama-like approach of the EFac group. Their interactions were better, and facial expressions, vocal delivery and variations were far more well controlled and planned. When compared to the rigid, limited movements and vocal performance of the “Best actor” Gihan Edirisinghe, Channa Munasinghe(Lost Souls) who won the award for the best supporting actor was outstanding. He was really relaxed and he looked very comfortable throughout the entire performance. He had a wider range of vocal variations that did justice to his role. It was a real treat to see him performing. Once again, I invite you to have a look at some photographic evidence.
“Behind Closed Doors” was the most complex and impressive out of all the five plays. All the four performers, Crystal Baines, Danuka Bandara, Namali Premawardhana and Niluka Perera did justice to their roles. Costumes, lighting, props and colours contributed to the bigger picture. A minimalist, yet profound approach. Crystal Baines was the best actress, without much of a contest. Why? Why didn’t any of those actresses from “Lost Soul” win anything? I am not interested in interpreting or disagreeing with the judgements of the panel, but this is a very interesting question. What’s so special about Crystal Baines? What’s so good about Namali Premawardhana?
In my view, Baines and Premawardhana were the only actresses who were able to liberate themselves fully from the influence of teledrama acting. Almost all the actresses in “Lost Souls” showed this weakness of overacting and they made the atmosphere overtly melodramatic. Yes, it was a comedy, but it didn’t require that much of overdoing. (Yes, our audiences are so used to and much more comfortable with that type of over acting which produces cheap laughter.) In the end, overacting damaged the larger picture. In addition, they appeared to be sometimes lost on the stage, specially when the others were in the foreground. They automatically drifted away from where they were and lost consistency. When they had to come back to the foreground, they had to start anew. I would like to compare this, once again with “Behind Closed Doors”. Baines and Pramawardhana had things very much under control. Given the complexity of the structure of the play, they had to come up with quick, yet subtle changes in their composure and facial expressions. The situation dramatically changes upside down, challenging both the audience and the performers themselves. It was a demanding situation for an actor/actress. In order to deal with this, they had adopted a subtle, minimalist style of acting.
In this context, when you look at the full picture, when you look at the entire performance, “Welikada ‘71” lacked too many things to become the “best play” and overthrow the others. “Behind Closed Doors” was always a few steps ahead, when you look at the overall performance.
I can go on and on pointing out more differences. But I’d rather let these photos do the talking. It is astonishing that Mr. Perera does not present a single theatre related comparison other than the “temporal relevance”!!!! All of his other comments are simple flat statements asserting “this was good” and “that was bad, boring, unfunny” etc. What an arrogance! One should at least be sensibe enough to appreciate the time and commitment given by each team. It takes so much to prepare, rehearse and present a theatrical production. That alone deserves some respect.
Announcers, organizers, grammar etc.
This is very amusing indeed. Mr. Perera presents a grossly inaccurate account of almost all the other aspects of the event. He exaggerates the mistakes. He writes:
“Perhaps, the judges bought into the “high school” atmosphere, which the DRAMSOC had sponsored by the choice of announcers they had installed on stage. To say the least, the announcing was horrible and a grammatical disaster. The male announcer, in particular, should not have been there.” He continues: “It was a classic parody of a Grade 3 Class Assembly. And their sense of humour was soooooo not funny.”
Why is this? I can not help suspecting some sort of a personal grudge here. Mr. Perera is adamant that the presence of the announcers could not be justified. Yes, I too noticed that the announcers were a little bit nervous at the beginning. This could happen to anyone when facing a massive audience. But to be fair, these announcers recovered fast, and did a commendable job. After all, this was an event entirely organized and presented by the students! And English is the language of the colonizer. It is not my first language. It’s the second language of most of these people. Why make such a big fuss over two or three grammatical mistakes during a four-hour event? Is this the end of the world? I am unable to understand. Get a life, and move on!
Maybe he fails to see these theatre related issues because he is neither a proper theatre critic nor a continuous practitioner in the field of theatre.
Mr. Perera sees DRAMSOC almost entirely as a “battle”. As you can see, he is actively supporting one group of students by giving them a ”dirachcha lanuwa” that their play was the best. As I explained, this is a very harmful approach. He is misleading not only the the students, but also his entire readership. First of all, DRAMSOC ‘11 was a theatre festival. Competition is a matter of secondary importance. I don’t think the audience was primarily bothered about who wins what. They came to enjoy theatre. As Professor S. W. Perera(senior treasurer of DRAMSOC) and Muditha Dharmasiri(president) correctly write in the souvenir, this is largely about harmony, friendship and doing collaborative work. Prof. S. W. Perera writes: “I would also hope, however, that this exercise will result in lasting friendships among students of all participating faculties in the University.” Muditha Dharmasiri adds: “DramSoc is an inspirational meeting place for young dramatists and a great opportunity to work together as a team. Theatre is essentially a collaborative effort in which every individual is expected to devote their talents and skills to achieve a common task. To me, here lies the significance of theatre; it is all about US; not me, myself and I.”. Secretary Pradeepa Senanayake adds some more insightful thughts: “Hence, DramSoc ‘11 has given the undergraduates another opportunity to work as teams and develop the interpersonal skills …”
Mr. Perera fails to understand the spirit of this culture. He creates and fuels utterly petty battles between groups of students, providing extremely wrong arguments that has nothing to do with theatre. Why? I do not know. But I would like to know why…