Shadows of Change: Connecting communities through stories

Wednesday, 7 May 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Sulochana Dissanayake From the era of hand painted pictures on cave walls to the era of filtered images on Facebook walls, story-telling has maintained the power to draw people in and bind them together. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when humans began to tell stories for entertainment, education and communication – yet the joy of listening to a well-told story remains universal. In 2009, I was given the chance to pursue a lifelong passion for a year. In this year, I investigated how performing arts were used to reconcile communities divided by violence. I selected South Africa and Indonesia as subjects. Both countries shared histories of colonisation and turbulent pasts. In these countries I was most struck by how art happened outside of theatres – in schools, hospitals, offices and even on roads; wherever people gathered. I saw fully grown adults reduced to tears or fits of laughter. This opened my eyes to how the performing arts could, with minimal time and resources, be used to make a deep impact. Non-verbal theatre My time in South Africa made me a fan of non-verbal theatre where spoken language is replaced with actions easily understood by any audience. The clever use of puppets and props to clarify the non-verbal messages struck me as an ideal tool for storytelling in situations where differences in spoken languages had only created strife. I knew we could do wonders with such an art form in rebuilding lives in Sri Lanka. In 2011, I was invited by the US Embassy in Colombo to devise a performance for the opening of the American Corner in Jaffna. Having never visited Jaffna at the time, I knew that any performance I conceived would be of little relevance to audiences there. Therefore, I decided to work with a handful of community actors (from the Jaffna University Theatre Department, Jaffna Social Action Centre and Centre for Performing Arts, Jaffna) and we named ourselves ‘Shadows of Change’. After a few honest discussions, we improvised a story on two key issues prevalent in post-war Jaffna – teenage pregnancies and the erosion of traditional Jaffna culture through the influx of modern technology. The entire story was told through facial expressions, gestures, movement, sounds, props and puppets. The lack of verbal dialogue forced audiences to ‘listen with their eyes’ to the unravelling of a story that depicted their daily struggles. There were giggles and laughter, and some running commentary on the action on stage. At the end, everyone was amazed that so much could be conveyed without a word being spoken on stage. Youth development The success of the ‘Shadows of Change’ premiere prompted the US Embassy to fund a performance tour to selected schools in Jaffna in October 2011. We toured ten schools and were commended by the school authorities for tackling taboo subjects with humour and subtlety. The positive feedback from schools and requests for more social issues to be depicted through the same form prompted me to apply for the US Embassy’s youth grant 2013/14 which targeted youth development projects. The goal of ‘Shadows of Change 2014’ was to expand to other areas of the country, namely Puttalam, Batticaloa and Galle, with a return trip to Jaffna, while establishing connections with locally based organisations committed to youth development. Shadows of Change collaborated with the ‘Viluthu’ Human Resource Development Centre for the Puttalam, Batticaloa and Jaffna performances, and Serendipity Trust Guarantee Ltd. for the Galle performances. In each city, the local organisation selected 8-10 youths for the program which included six days of training, creation and rehearsal and two days of touring an original performance based on the key social issues. The Puttalam team consisted primarily of young girls from orthodox Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities. At first, they flatly refused to perform on streets and community centres stating that such public appearances will negatively impact pending marriage proposals. However, once the workshop progressed and it became clear that the aim of the performance was to educate through entertainment, they became more open to the idea of being ambassadors of change in their communities. The key issue in Puttalam was youth marriage. Untimely pregnancies lead to hasty marriages, which abruptly halted education and left little scope for fixed employment. The resulting poverty spiralled into domestic violence and abandonment of children. By the end of the workshops, I was amazed to find the same girls who refused to perform in public not only excelled on stage but insisted we add their communities to the performance schedule! The most memorable performance was at the edge of a large ground where about two hundred people (mostly young males) gathered. I feared the worst – street performances are always challenging and there we were, a primarily female cast, depicting issues of young love, sex and pregnancy to a largely male audience– but that turned out to be one of our most appreciative audiences! In Jaffna, we collaborated with a new team of actors (primarily from Jaffna University and local women’s groups) where the key issue was still teenage pregnancy which, exacerbated by the consequent social ostracism, had in some cases ended in suicide. We drew inspiration from the popular Tamil film culture and hip social hangouts in Jaffna (e.g. Rio Ice Cream parlour) which left the audiences in stitches. The drama depicted an accidental meeting that develops into love and ends in unplanned pregnancy and an attempted suicide – where the chance to “rewind” life is offered to the main characters who take the opportunity to follow another path of completing education prior to committing to a serious relationship. The message was that economic stability was essential to starting a successful family life. Educational motivation After Jaffna, we headed to Batticaloa. It was an eye opening excursion. Viluthu had selected ten post O/L students from the Vaharai area, which was one of the worst affected by the prevalent environmental, economical and political conditions. These students were full of raw talent but had never experienced using performing arts for communication. Viluthu hosted them for the duration of the workshop which transformed into a theatre camp! I was blown away by their commitment, enthusiasm and positivity despite the harsh conditions of life they faced. In Vaharai, severe economic hardships forced students to seek employment at a very young age. This resulted in discontinuation of school, which entrapped them in a cycle of poverty as formal employment is inaccessible without basic educational qualifications. We based our Batticaloa play on a boy who gets discouraged by low marks on an exam and resorts to fishing, despite his mother’s insistence that he completes school. A dream sequence reveals the future he had selected for himself by discontinuing school (where he had to beg on the streets when the daily catch isn’t sufficient for survival) and it motivated him to return to school. Themes of motivation and balancing part time employment with formal education were covered and this performance was genuinely appreciated by school authorities who were at a loss to deal with high numbers of school dropouts. Our most rewarding performance was at the school of the cast where their teachers, friends and family were amazed by the confidence they displayed onstage.  The teenage audiences also raised several poignant questions – such as “how can you instruct war orphans to remain in school when there is no one to support them economically?” and “why are you performing this in schools when all the school drop outs you should be educating are in the villages?” The experience highlighted the intelligence and potential the youth in Batticaloa and Vaharai had to become agents of positive change in their communities. The “miss call” syndrome Galle was a major cultural, social and environmental shift. I knew social media would be more prominent in the south but was amazed to hear that the main issue troubling the youth selected for our workshop was misuse of mobile phones – where nuisance calls (colloquially known as “miss calls”) were sent to unknown numbers in the hope of establishing a connection with the opposite sex. The practical outcome of these “miss-calls” were varied. Some end up in relationships while others end up in entanglements in extra marital affairs or stalking. In further discussions, it was revealed that there was very little space for normal social interactions between boys and girls (even when attending mixed schools). Severe cultural and academic pressures restricted friendship between members of the opposite sex. Therefore, the ubiquitous tuition classes, mobile phones and social media were seen as the only opportunities to mingle. In certain extreme cases the use of social media as an outlet for sexual frustration had – where reputations were “tarnished” by it, led to suicide. We felt it was timely to convey the benefits to be gained by intelligent use of mobile phones and social media and communicate that the choice of utilising a tool for the advantage or disadvantage of an individual/community was entirely up to the user. We devised a performance that tracked the journey of a boy through an English tuition class – where many failed attempts to strike a conversation with a girl pushes him to try out “miss calling” random numbers. Unfortunately for him, all the numbers block him, until in pure frustration he ‘miss calls’ his tuition teacher – and is caught red handed. Yet, instead of humiliating the student, the teacher shows him that his mobile phone can assist him to learn English and contribute to personal and professional development – which would increase his chances of success with the opposite sex. The play ends with the visual display of benefits of intelligent use of social media, where audience members are shown that the success is reachable by the correct click of a button. Actions speak louder than words Galle audiences and school authorities applauded our timely theme. We were also complimented that we proved the adage “actions speak louder than words” by refraining from using spoken language. I was surprised to find out that even though Galle audiences enjoyed the performances quite vocally, very few offered feedback in the post-performance discussions. The culture of being “seen and not heard” was still quite prominent in most of the audiences we encountered, yet the northern, eastern and western audiences were more actively engaged by our novel method of communication. The Southern audiences were a little more laid back in engaging with us but certain schools contributed to thought-provoking discussions. Overall, ‘Shadows of Change 2014’ highlighted social issues prevalent in Sri Lanka. Poverty, domestic and child abuse and sexual oppression were common issues across the board irrespective of religious, ethnic and geographic backgrounds. Our hands-on interaction with affected communities reinforced the urgent need for proper sex education for children to empower them to protect themselves against abuse. The financial empowerment of female heads of households was also a key issue. It is my belief that these social issues must be persistently spotlighted at policy making forums and the economic empowerment of these communities must be made a priority. Internal solutions for most of these social issues will be a natural by-product of such empowerment. (The writer is the founder and artistic director of Power of Play Ltd. An economics and theatre graduate of Bates College, USA  and a Watson Fellow ‘09/’10 , Dissanayake studied contemporary theatre/puppetry in South Africa and Indonesia. She currently promotes theatre as a dynamic tool of communication, education and reconciliation for the corporate, governmental and non-governmental sectors of Sri Lanka. For more information, please visit or email