Theatre in all seriousness

Saturday, 11 January 2014 10:41 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Sashane Perera comes across as a very serious type of person. He takes a little time to warm up and start talking. This is also reflected in his choice of first big production project: French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Men Without Shadows’. This apparently is his preferred genre of theatre. Scripts that if done the right way leave a lasting impression in the minds of an audience more attuned to hard issues being discussed on stage. Having lived in theatre and cut his teeth on the Shakespeare scene from the age of 14, Sashane has had quite some success both acting in and directing the bard’s plays and right now is about to present his own take on Sartre’s existentialist drama on 7, 8 and 9 February at the Lionel Wendt Theatre, Colombo. Weekend FT caught up with Sashane to talk about him, his style of production and originality. Following are excerpts: By David Ebert Q: What is ‘Men Without Shadows’ about? A: Men Without Shadows has had a lot of traction in the theatre circles here. It was written by Jean Paul Sartre, a French philosopher, so the Sinhala version of the play has been happening since the ’80s and they have done the play quite a number of times. I was able to catch a play early last year; I had read the script before and I found the script to be extremely compelling in terms of the plot and the themes it brought out. Sartre is known to write about his philosophy which is called existentialism and it’s a pretty deep subject if you delve into but in essence it talks about and individual being ultimately responsible for his or her own decisions and being accountable for those decision without passing the buck to somebody else. In his philosophy he examines the existence of a higher element or a higher being but we’re not trying to stay focused on that during the play. The moment you mention ‘Men Without Shadows’ to anyone who knows the script or the play, they usually think that the focus is on the political element of it. There is a huge political element to the script and the setting but we as a group of people who are performing the play, we want to focus on the general theme of the play which is the philosophy that Sartre wrote about as opposed to the politics and war that’s involved in it. Lots of people would want to draw parallels to Sri Lanka but we aren’t trying to go after any of that. To us, the underlying themes have a far greater impact to say, you and I, as general people who watch the play than the political aspect of it. Q: What is it like directing your first big play? A: I started directing the inter school arena in the Shakespeare arena. I started just as I left school at D.S. Senanayake College in 2007. I co-directed with one of my fellow cast members when Ave Maria, Negombo won in 2007. After that I have been directing DS for the past three years where they won in 2012 and runners-up the year before. I‘ve had decent success there but this is a different ball game. Directing a play of this magnitude obviously takes. Q: What made you choose this script? A: There were a few options on the table and I read a few scripts but this one, when I read it I kind of had the people in mind who might want to play it and so I didn’t have huge auditions for people. It was purely having individuals in mind who could play that character and were willing. To me what hit me about the script is that if you take the setting away, the kind of questions that the script asks the individual is relevant to anyone and is relevant to any period of time. Basically the script revolves around six members of the French resistance who try to attack a village and the get captured by the Vichy Army and then they get thrown in a cell. So in the course of the two hours of the play, they keep questioning themselves individually about the cause and the decisions they made in life. What Sartre says is that in a moment of crisis you tend to question yourself, you tend to question all the pin points of your life way more than you do. The crisis situation is that they tried to attack the village, they got caught and they have the possibility of dying. But at the end of the day when you take that setting aside, there is a point of time in our lives where we question our existence, what we’ve done and the relationships we’ve had with individuals. Q: What drew you to drama – was it the love of theatre or acting? A: I started acting in school and I before that I was never into theatre. In terms of my family background, they were never really into theatre. It was the acting that got me. The rush of it is tough to explain but I started when I was 14 and I have never stopped liking it. My first play was King Lear and I played the fool and then onwards I acted in different plays especially with Stage Light and Magic. So I am really happy that I am directing this for SLM because that’s where I kind of met everybody and got exposed to all the big names in theatre. I did my first acting stint for SLM out of school in R&J one of Feroze’s big productions. I had the opportunity when I was really young to play alongside some of the biggest names such as Marsh, Jerome, Krishan Silva, Swasha and Shanuki. I played miniscule roles in those plays but the opportunity I had acting with them and what you learn from them is pretty big. I also studied performance, getting up to ATCL for Trinity, so the technical knowledge I gained from that whole experience added to the experience I had on stage where I could understand it more from a more educated perspective. Q: How does theatre benefit young people? A: In terms of directing my experience has been a lot with schools and I haven’t been out of school for long as well. So I’m not saying that other activities are bad or anything of the sort, but when you look at the environment today and the skills that you need, acting actually builds confidence especially in Sri Lanka, it builds your language skills, it gives you the capability to go in front of people and perform, which you need regardless of whatever environment you are in. I’m in a corporate environment today and I know that the capabilities that stage has given me in interaction and networking skills, the ability to just go out in front of an audience and deliver and be comfortable with it adds a lot of value to what you do. You might be doing sports but going in front of an audience and building a brand for yourself is something that’s really important, which kind of separates you from the rest and that ability stages gives and that important for young kids. I’ve seen a lot of kids grow because of stage, kids who were shy, kids who didn’t want to get up on stage and perform, kids who had public speaking fears who just came and acted because there were a group of others who supported you as opposed to you doing it as an individual activity. Q: Being from a family with no theatrical background, what was their reaction to your choice of the stage over more traditional activities? A: My dad was heavily into sports and I started off playing cricket in school. I represented school in cricket and then I stopped at one point and it started with one of my English teachers who pushed me to go and take part in an intra-school speech competition where we had to compete against kids in your own class, and I failed miserably. But at the same time I got exposed to the type of people who kept pushing me to do it. I actually started off debating rather than in drama but it was part and parcel of everybody who was in that society. In terms of the reaction from home, they have always been pretty open-minded about the things I did. Both my mom and dad have been really supportive about this and even now I have rehearsals at home and it comes with the territory that you rehearse at odd hours. Like in school, your director comes in after work – they used to come after 7 p.m. and so we had to rehearse till after 11 p.m. or like now it’s the flipside and I have to work until 7 p.m. and then get directly into rehearsals. So they’ve been very supportive. Q: How do you balance work and theatre? A: It’s not easy if you sit and evaluate it because l realised last year that I stepped into a zone that I’ve never been in because I started working two years ago my job role shifted mid last year and then I took on directing two schools for Shakespeare – Bishop’s College and D.S. Senanayake. Both got into the finals but then the amount of work that went into it and the toll it takes on you as a person is amazing. Q: What would your dream theatre project be? A: I like big productions and the production aspect of it. I still do a lot of lights for other shows. The production, the element, the sets, the movement, all of that hits me a lot. You can say tickles my senses so I like big productions and I have a few in mind but the amount of capabilities that you require in addition to acting, you need people who can act, dance, who probably backgrounds in ballet and other genres of dance and a budget that you would really be stretching it a bit in Sri Lanka in order to make it viable. Q: Who has inspired you most in Sri Lankan theatre? A: Feroze is definitely up there; Chamath, who is acting with me now, he was a couple of years senior to me in school, and he was the guy who directed me when I won Best Actor in 2005. So those two figures have backed me in whatever I did and helped me a lot. In terms of directing, I learned a lot from Feroze and I think I’ve also learnt a lot from the people I have worked with and if you name a big theatre personality, I would have worked with all of them in some capacity. My teacher from Trinity, Mrs. Hettiarachchi, who overlooked the technical aspects because to me acting was just doing what I thought it was and it ended there but to see it from a characterisation perspective and to add colour to it, you learn when you study theatre. So that changed my perspective on all of it. She was a big influence. I like watching. I learn a lot from what other people do. I don’t think I’m original because of that. I see something and I figure out one or two different ways of doing things but it’s still something I’ve seen. Q: So how do you bring originality into a script like Men Without Shadows? A: If I am doing a play, I try my level best not to go and watch it. I know I watched the Sinhala version of it  but what I’m doing on stage is different to what I saw there; setting-wise, portrayal-wise, there are two schools of acting they act differently. It’s one of those personal things where you don’t want to do something someone else had done. I don’t personally encourage my actors to go and watch the play or even a YouTube clip. I know they have though. Q: What is your type of theatre? A: I like serious theatre and I’d love to do the Pinters; I like absurd theatre. It’s not something done here much but I love serious theatre and I love the element of acting when it comes to serious theatre. Because not everybody can do a two-hour stint and make it interesting and that’s the challenge that we face with this script. To make it challenging and to make people want to sit through two hours of absolute seriousness. Pix by Lasantha Kumara