Power to the powerless

Saturday, 7 January 2012 00:59 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Cheranka Mendis

Theatre, like music is a language that has the power to break barriers, carry messages across continents and express thoughts that are otherwise hard to convey. Theatre builds individuals, links cultures and rebuilds lives.

Theatre is in many ways a powerful tool that has, over time, found to be an excellent mode of communication; especially forum theatre, also known as interactive theatre where the audience gets to remake scenes and bring in their ideas to stage.

Start of Shakthi

Shakthi theatre group, an initiative of British Council Sri Lanka (BC) is probably one of the best examples for how drama can develop a person and foster harmony among different groups.

Instigated in 2008 when the Council decided to promote the concept of forum theatre in war affected areas in the Eastern and Northern Central provinces, the group today consists of young men and women speaking of social issues that are most often ignored in their communities.

The dramas are usually performed by people of a community to an audience of people from the same community, as a means of effectively communicating messages on fundamental social issues.

“This form of theatre was first introduced in 2005 as a post tsunami programme,” an official of BC said. “It started with British Council Sri Lanka inviting John Martin of Pan Intercultural Arts of London to train a core team of trainers to carry forward the programme in Vakarai in the Eastern Province, Hambantota in the Southern Province and in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s metropolitan capital city. The trainers were given theoretical and practical training. It was a train the trainer program of sorts.”

Later on in 2008 the program was used as a post-war rebuilding program, training people from Sinhala and Tamil communities in Batticaloa (eastern province) and Polonnaruwa (north central province).

Starting with a cast of 25, Shakthi has trained a large number of men and women in all rural parts of the country. They work with institutions such as the Abhina Academy and Centre for Performing Arts among others to touch more lives in the process.

Going places

With a few exceptions such as one performance in Colombo, one in Geneva at the ‘ACT2’ Cultural Relations and Conflict Resolution Conference organized by British Council Switzerland and in London at an event organized by Pan Intercultural Arts UK in 2010, the groups most often stay away from Colombo and instead concentrate on problems in their communities.

However with BC Sri Lanka hosting the South Asia Regional meeting in Colombo this week, Shakthi gave a special performance last Wednesday at the Council grounds. Attended by well over 70 guests, the FT was a success. Starting with a song that expresses the need to wake up from misery, the act is done in Tamil and Sinhala so that interventions can be done in languages comfortable to the audience.

Experiences and thoughts

Poopalasingham Preth-eepan, one of the main trainers of the group told Weekend FT that he along with Nalinda Premarathne (one of the main people behind Shakthi) that a large number of people have been trained. “We operate in two groups. The Vavuniya group has since 2008 performed almost 33 times. The Sinhala Group has performed 300 times and the reactions have been amazing.”

Recalling an incident, Pretheepan stated that after a performance in Batticaloa a 15 year old girl has come on stage and told one of the actresses her main worry- early marriage. “She came and said akka, my father wants me to stop my education and wants me to get married. I am only 15 I do not know what to do,” he noted, “we advised her to go and talk to her father and explain matter. For everyone’s luck her father also had been in the audience. After seeing our performance and the interventions made by the people in the village he went home a changed man. He did not force her to get married and gave his blessings for the little girl to continue studies.”

“This is only one such incident. When people come and tell us these stories we are elated as we know in our way we have touched someone’s life.”  They are in many ways the proof of the effectiveness of forum theatre.

He expressed that Shakthi focuses on key social issues in the villages the groups live in.  These issues include child abuse, alcoholism, teen marriages, widows, violence against women, mothers leaving families behind for overseas employment disrupting the stability of the family unit etc.

Developing themselves  

Project Coordinator British Council Hamzi Haniff stated that almost all actors and actresses in Shakthi are war affected people. “What they perform is all what they have experienced first hand. These are incidents they have gone through which makes it all the more special.” She added that from the initial stages, everyone involved in Shakthi has shown signs of development.

“By performing in front of audiences and interacting with each other, all of them have developed themselves. It is evident in their behaviour. No longer are they smiling shyly looking down and not meeting our eyes when they speak. They are friendlier, chatty and looks at ease which was not the case when we started working with them.” By discussing the issues they portray they learn and grow along with the audiences as well. “Some issues are very vulnerable. But they have always managed to handle it well,” Haniff said.

“They believe in their traditions and they get up to fight for a balance for it. They accept that some are to the extreme and that modern thinking should be mixed with traditional thinking.”