Sulochana Dissanayake is the founder and artistic director of Power of Play. She is a multitalented performer, puppeteer, writer, trainer, and theatre director. She is also a theatre and economics major of Bates College, USA. In this interview, Sulochana begins by taking us through the magical journey that took her to USA, South Africa, and Indonesia to study the performing arts and puppetry. She also discusses her work at Power of Play, how her interactive performances are used for building a dialogue on social issues, and the need of securing the traditional arts through cultural sponsorship.
How did this journey begin for you, as a theatre creator, trainer, writer, performer, and puppeteer?
Ever since I was about two years old, my dad would do little performances with us at home. It was very much a part of my childhood. I think it is partly cultural as well. Whenever we gathered in communities we do sing-alongs. We enact plays at Christmas time; part of my family is also Catholic even though we are Buddhists. Performing arts was very much part of my childhood. I think I took a special liking to it because of that. It was always omnipresent in my life.
As I grew older, through school, naturally, we got into plays, the band, singing, choir, and debating. I always wanted to see how we could do this outside of theatre halls. I was a little perturbed by the fact that our school competitions were, always, and still are Shakespeare. I ask myself, that is important, but what about our own stories? I had little exposure to Sinhala theatre at the time. But as I became a teenager, I started watching Ruwanthi De Chickera’s performances. That was the first time I saw our own stories being told. It impacted me a lot. I remember seeing one of Ruwanthi’s plays and the story happened in a bus. It was very creatively done. I thought to myself, this is impactful. Not to say Shakespeare is less impactful, but Shakespeare has to be done in context to have the desired impact on current teenage audiences.
What made you go to USA to study for your bachelor’s in economics and theatre at the Bates College?
My sister got a chance to study in USA. But when it came to my turn, I actually wasn’t really keen on leaving. However, my parents were farsighted. My dad worked really hard. He and my mom became recruiters for US universities in the process. So, they had insider knowledge on how to apply to colleges. I got a 92 percent scholarship from Bates College in Maine, USA. That was a miracle. I decided to double major in theatre and economics.
I chose those two majors because I was very privy to the fact that you have to have a balance. Nowhere in the world can you make a living entirely through the arts. Especially, in a developing world like Sri Lanka where we do not necessarily have an industry. In a developed country like USA, Australia, or England, you will have stage designers, lighting designers, costume designers, stage managers; you will have all those roles where jobs will be available. But here it is very small.
I grew up with the war. I had only known Sri Lanka during the war time, as a child. I thought there was lots of healing to be done and how could we utilize the performing arts as a means of healing. Those were my key questions when I went to the US.
Could you take us through your time in the US and how your studies at Bates shaped you?
The theatre major gave me the fundamentals of what professional theatre is. For my specialty, I chose stage directing. I learnt a lot about how to make something dynamic on stage and the importance of paying attention to detail.
My very first production in the US was Anton Chekov’s The Anniversary. I directed it. The voice coach of the theatre department Katalin Vecsey came to the rehearsal, and she is a powerhouse. She said you have a printed mug on stage. This was a coffee mug that I had kept on the main character’s table. She said when did printed mugs come out? They had come out way later than the year the play was set in. I realised that this was the level of attention we need to have in a professional performance. That same level of attention gets translated into the text.
It was really deep work, and exhaustingly so. At the end of my fourth year, I was given the responsibility of directing the main stage production for the college, which had previously been mostly done by staff or they fly in a professional director. After 15 years I think, it was the first time they had given a graduating student that opportunity. I had to put to practice everything I had learned in theory.
And, luckily, before that, I got to do an internship at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, one of the top ten regional theatres in the US. I was a directing intern on a production done by Lisa Portes, a professional director. The production was After a Hundred Years. It was a contemporary Cambodian story about how they are coming to grips with Pol Pot’s massacres. I got to see how the director worked with the performers and how tightly the rehearsals were structured. There I really learnt the value of time, and how in a rehearsal every second is utilized.
So, that was my experience in America where I really learned the inner workings of a professional production.
How did you get on with your economics major?
I had equally done well in my economics major, focusing on social economics. I was fascinated by how economics was telling a story through numbers, where theatre is presenting a story on stage. I saw a lot of similarities in the two subjects.
There is a program called Friends of Prisoners’ Children in Sri Lanka. They finance children of prisoners to go to school. So, for my economics major, I chose to see how this monitory amount they are providing in a grant impact the performance and school attendance rates of children. Strictly speaking, you need about 10 years’ worth of data to see any co-relation. We only had about two or three years’ worth of data. But even then you could see a positive impact.
By doing that I learnt how to run a numerical research, what kind of sample data you need, how difficult data collection is in a developing country context. In America, you just need to plug something into your computer and the data will appear in front of your eyes because everything is systematized. Here we had to send policemen on bicycles to the most rural schools to meet the principals and get the data.
What I enjoyed most was the qualitative component of the thesis – the personal stories of these children. The data is too young to support that. But qualitatively, I learnt that these children were outcast by the society. Their villages had shunned them. They could not get jobs when they said their dads or moms were in prison. The fact that a complete stranger cares enough to deposit a certain amount in a bank account for their education gave them a huge sense of self-worth. That, for me, was the most powerful thing about the grant.
What avenues did you consider after graduating from Bates?
After I graduated, there was the question of which route to take, economics or theatre. One of my professors, Chris McDowell, who is the professor of theatre, costume, and scenic design at Bates, said there is a grant called the Watson grant, which allows graduating seniors funding to travel for a full year, following a life passion. You are free to apply for any topic you want. It is very competitive.
So, then I thought that this is it. I am going to apply for jobs but I am also going to apply for this. The writing process for that grant was harder than my entire college degree. That gave me a lot of clarity in what I wanted to do.
I applied and there was an interview. It was not difficult in the traditional way but the interviewer probed in such a skillful way for answers that I felt that this was the most challenging interview I have faced in my life. I left that room thinking I am never going to get it. Later, I got an email from the Watson foundation, which said that I got it. I couldn’t believe it.
I thought that winning it was the hardest thing. I only realised afterwards how hard the work was. The grant says you have to go to a country you have never been to before. You have to make fresh contacts by yourself and pursue this dream, whatever you have, on your own. There is no safety line. You can’t cry and go home. To make matters more challenging, the previous Bates graduate who had got the grant had stopped it halfway and come back. It was too difficult.
Through the Watson grant, you get to travel to South Africa and Indonesia to study performing arts and puppetry. What made you particularly interested in South Africa?
I get to South Africa and to Grahamstown, which is this tiny little town on the Eastern cape. Grahamstown has the second largest performing arts festival in the world – The National Arts Festival of Grahamstown. That’s why I chose to be there. My professor Chris McDowell said you go there at the festival time, you attach yourself to a local theatre group, and then you can see the inner workings of the theatre world in South Africa. You can see the best performances at the festival. That sounded like a great plan to me.
Back in apartheid, black and white actors could not mix and perform on the same stages. The performing arts led the revolution in ending apartheid. They had street theatre, educated the masses, sang freedom songs, and inspired the masses to fight the atrocities of apartheid. Their strikes are huge dance performances and songs. They have so much rhythm in their bodies.
Their traditional languages are a collection of sounds. The majority language where I lived in was Xhosa. So, their ‘x’ is a click. When you walk down the road, the conversations you hear are part of a musical symphony. I was fascinated.
Could you take us through some of the performing arts experiences that you were exposed to in South Africa and how those inspired you?
This theatre company I worked with was doing a beautiful performance called The Swimming Lesson. There are a lot of child rapes and sexual abuse in South Africa and the brutality was at a different level. This story was about a middle-aged woman who had lost her daughter because her husband got half hour late to pick her up from school. Someone had snatched her. The child had shown the mother a postcard before she died of a blue colour beach with a white bench and said she wanted to go there. In South Africa, there is no public transportation. So, even if you lived 5 kilomteres from the sea, you won’t see the sea. Because there is no way of getting there. Going to the sea in South Africa is a luxury for people because you need to have certain economic means to travel. The entire story in the play is about the mother getting to the sea. This little production surfaced so many social inequalities within 45 minutes. It was done so aesthetically beautifully. I thought that this is what we need to do in Sri Lanka. We need to tell our own stories in a way that is pleasing to watch.
South Africa is also a developing country. Theatre companies there are run on a shoe-string budget. They have very little money for props. Sometimes the equipment doesn’t work. You practice so much and this tiny technical glitch can make things go wrong. In America, there is a technical director. He is pretty much an engineer. He will ensure that everything is in tip top quality before the curtain opens. You don’t have that in South Africa or Sri Lanka. Props malfunction. Mikes don’t work. Your six months of rehearsal can go down the drain if a mike malfunctions on stage. I saw the beauty of storytelling being inundated with technical problems because of poverty. I thought this is what I am going to face in Sri Lanka. This is the reality. America was the ideal. So, I had to figure out how to bridge the gap and have a beautiful functioning production that can tell a valuable story.
Did your experiences in South Africa inspired any of your work here in Sri Lanka?
South Africa is famous for its wildlife and we went to see a lot of them at Addo Elephant Park and Kruger National Park. My housemate and I travelled a lot. In Addo Elephant Park, she was pointing out elephants and animals to me. She was saying, do you know why the Zebras have stripes; it is for camouflage. If they stick in a herd, the lions can’t tell them from the background. But if they are caught alone, their stripes highlight them. Then very easily, the lion can kill it.
This was a very powerful idea to me. In 2009, the war had just ended, and there was no middle ground. You were either for or against. It was very extreme. I was out of the country and watching all of this from a distant. I thought how like the Zebra. If you want to not die you have to stick to a herd, whether you agree with the herd or not. If you are caught alone, you are much more likely to die.
That I thought of telling as a children’s tale. My very first puppet show that I performed in Sri Lanka was called Zippy the Zebra. Zippy is a baby zebra who doesn’t want to stick to its herd because he wants to chase butterflies. He is tired of eating grass and drinking water and sleeping the whole day. He wants to be active. To date, it is one of my best shows. Kids love it. It has a lot of African songs in it. The different accents and characters I heard and met there. Most of the puppets, I bought in souvenir shops in Addo Elephant Park and Kruger. It is a one-woman show. So, I can only perform it to a very small audience. But it was very well received.
After Grahamstown you head to Cape Town to get involved in more performing arts. Take us through your time there.
In Cape Town, I interned with a company called From the Hip: Khulumakhale. They included hearing-impaired actors in their cast. That was when I was exposed to the world of sign language. Their performances were non-verbal. It was like watching a picture book come to life. Again, I was fascinated with the power of the medium because they completely removed language. This is the biggest issue in Sri Lanka. If you do a performance in English, only ten percent of the country can understand. If you do it in Sinhala, you are excluding the English and the Tamil-speaking citizens.
We all have a natural language we can understand and that is our body language. You take language completely off and you tell the story through movement, mime, props, puppets, and music.
There I saw a performance called Pictures of You, one of their most award winning performances. This was about a middle-aged married couple and it was done in full mask. In America, you are taught that your eye contact and voice are the two most important things. Here in Cape Town, they had neither. You could not see their eyes because they were in full masks and they did not speak. Yet, it was the most powerful production I have ever seen. It is like a tightly choreographed dance. Every single movement, is a sentence.
So, the same attention I was taught to give to the text in America, I was taught to give to movement in Cape Town. I learned to tell stories without words. It was magical. Still, in my workshops, I teach graphic mime and it is the highlight of the workshop. Children and adults love to tell stories without words. It is liberating. I remember in the US, one of my dance professors Carol Dilley saying, wherever borders fall in a country dance companies are the first to travel, not theatre companies. Because with dance, you do not need language to understand. So, this was very similar to that.
You then go on to study puppetry in Indonesia. What drew you towards Indonesia as a destination?
Another Bates professor, Gina Fatone, is the one who directed me to Indonesia. The reason I chose Indonesia was, she brought this rod puppet to class and made it breathe. I just sprung to life and watched it like a hawk. It was this wooden creature, breathing. I thought there is magic in this. As a stage director, my wheel started spinning and I thought we can do so many things with it. Anything people don’t want to listen to will be listened to, if it is told through this medium.
Gina was teaching us music from South East Asia and she said that this was from Indonesia. She said she knew very little about it because she was studying music there. She also said that there I could meet this guru who was very famous for it – Dalang Asep Sunandar Sunarya. Back in that time, Facebook wasn’t hugely popular. I had no idea how to contact this Asep. I thought, fine, let me first get to Indonesia.
You do go onto meet Dalang Asep Sunandar Sunarya in Indonesia and you learn the craft of puppetry from him. How did this happen?
In getting there finally all my prayers were answered. A professor who was the head of dance at the local university there said she was willing to host me. It is because of her generosity I could enter the country. I lived with her brother’s family in a little house.
In Jakarta, I looked at this massive theatre company called Teater Koma. In South Africa, if you had six performers you had a massive production. In Teater Koma, they had 300 performers. Nothing was enough for them. They had more makeup, more costumes, more sets, more lights; it was like out of control. I saw different value in that. It was a massive production.
Then I went to Bandung where Asep lived. That also magically happened. My host introduced me to the puppeteer and I casually said what is your name and he said Asep Sunandar Sunarya. I still can’t imagine I did that today. In Indonesia, you don’t inform before you go somewhere. So, I go with my suitcase to this total stranger’s house who speaks in a language I don’t understand, my guardian says can this girl live in your house and learn your craft … I still remember my guru just took one look at me. He was smoking and sitting cross-legged in a dark room filled with smoke. He just looked at me and gestured okay.
I think my guru sensed my uneasiness and he introduced me to his son who spoke English. I was accepted with open arms, like a family member. I got to know his entire family. I lived in his house. I was given the most luxurious room in that house with an attached bathroom; that is rare there. And he taught me his art.
What was it like to have been part of his performances and witnessed him practicing his craft?
Their performances were all night long. It is like our gammadu. So, at the beginning, staying awake from 9pm to 3am was very difficult for me. They prod fun at you if you fall asleep. Then I learned to stay awake because if not I would hear my name being announced. Then you wake up and all the villagers are pointing at you and laughing.
Shadow puppetry came to Indonesia from India and it became so famous that when Islam arrived, even though puppetry is haram in Islam, they realised they could not stop this. So, they stylised it and used it to teach Islam. Their puppet shows, even though the stories are from India, Ramayan and Mahabharatha, their versions of it teach the Islamic teachings. They have added contemporary Indonesian characters.
My teacher was so popular, in his highlight, he would have forty shows a month. He did a show in the afternoon and evening. It was two six-hour shows back to back. He passed away in 2014. He is no more and his children are continuing.
I saw the attraction with which audiences enjoyed these shows. They could garner thousands of people in rainy weather to watch these shows. I asked, how are you doing this? And he said, contemporary adaptation. They were telling drama in the Mahabharatha but they have jokes, dances, massive fights, the puppets’ heads explode, blood comes out, and the puppets’ eyes light up. It is very entertaining to watch.
The reason why puppetry and all arts thrive in Indonesia is because life, job, art, and religion are intertwined. Here, they are separate. Our religion has, Buddhism as it is practiced today in Sri Lanka, completely distanced itself from the traditional arts. Earlier gammadu and thovil used to happen in the temple. Artists can’t survive on their own. They need cultural sponsorship. In Indonesia, there is lots of state support and religious support for the artist. The artist has a huge economical demand for what they do. So, their children become artists and puppeteers.
I met the traditional puppeteers of Ambalangoda. Their children are becoming sales people or working in an office because there is no money in puppetry. If there is no money, it cannot survive. So, that is where my economics major kicked in and I thought whatever I do it has to be financially sound.
Back in Sri Lanka, how did you initiate ‘Power of Play’, mixing traditional and contemporary arts and crafts for powerful communication, and what were some of the key work done through the company?
I decided, to register Power of Play as a private limited company. I didn’t want a performers’ collective, simply because there is no respect for performers in Sri Lanka. I can see that even today. After five years of solid work, I can walk into a board room confidently and say this is what we do, this is our price, this is our quality. Earlier, they were like, you work for free? We are giving you publicity, so you do this free, right? This is a profession. And that took a long time for me to build. It was a hard fight to get accepted as a professional; to get that recognition that this is not something I am doing as a hobby.
Again and again, I wanted to perform in a way that was uniquely Sri Lankan. As a policy, even to date we don’t do Disney performances. We chose Sybil Wettasinghe’s stories simply because I felt that that was a uniquely Sri Lankan product. Her style, art, and stories, tell us about a Sri Lanka that is almost non-existent today. I grew up with her stories. But today when you go into a school and say have you heard of Sybil Wettasinghe, very few hands go up. Even parents haven’t read. That was a cultural shock to me. So, I wanted to give a platform to our artists’ stories. We have had a beautiful collaboration with her up to date. It was a great honour to perform her stories.
How have you made the traditional art of puppetry contemporary, to suit today’s society?
One of our performances is Mahadana Mutta Kathandara. Mahadana Mutta, for me, has become a beacon of a progressive society today. Mahadana Mutta’s history is that he is a wise fool. But in our adaptation, Mahadana Mutta has realised that being a dictator does not serve anyone. So, he has employed golayas (followers) that match today’s society.
We used to have five male Sinhala golayas. Now we have Polbamoona’s sister, Polbamooni, who is a female because Polbamoona has gone to Oxford. Then we have Kotu Kithayya’s son-in-law Abdul Nana, who is a Muslim. We also have Indikatu Pancha’s best friend Usi Amma from the North, she is Tamil. Then we have Puwakbadilla’s wife Puwakbadilli, again, female. So, our characters are contemporary.
In the past, it was about a goat who got stuck his head in a pot. Today, it is HIV/AIDS. Back in the day, Mahadana Mutta tried to solve social problems. So, equivalently today, he is addressing the social problems, whether it be dengue, domestic violence, and gender equality.
How have you found puppetry and performing arts as a medium to create social dialogues?
HIV is a social issue. In Sri Lanka, we try to approach it as a medical issue. We are finicky about discussing sex in schools or with university students. And yet they are the most prone to it. If you don’t give them right information, telling the to be celibate, telling them to use protection in a country where buying a condom is harder than buying ganja is useless.
When I was hired to do this production for the HIV/AIDS foundation I actually went and bought a condom, simply to see the experience. It was hysterical. The guy behind the counter reacted as if I asked for drugs. He dropped everything and tried to find a brown paper bag. Squeezed it into the brown paper bag, shouted at the other one in the counter to serve other customers. Pandemonium! I have seen friends drive up to little boutiques and point at the products to get them. It is like we are trying to buy ganja. These are the realties in our country. We can’t live in a bubble.
Through the years, we have created performances that both served a communicative need and is also very entertaining to watch. So, I think that is the magical balance.
How have you been received by children’s audiences?
Our children’s performances are always a hit. People love the way we bring puppets and live actors interacting with each other and also the way the audience gets included in the show. It is very different from watching a proscenium stage show. We believe, for children, it needs to be interactive. They should be able to touch the main character. They should be able to say, go by plane not by bus. Then we should be able to work a plane into the story. Giving children control is important because in our society children have no control of their lives.
So, even in this little one hour we want a child to voice an opinion. We want them to say what we need for a thovile. We just did Labu Gediye Thovile at the Sooriya Village. It was a beautiful performance. And before that we did it at the Colombo International Book Fair. When we asked a child, an audience volunteer, what we need for a thovile, he said guitars, mikes, and speakers. In Sooriya Village, when we asked for a volunteer to become Ethana, a little boy jumped up. We said, fine, you are Ethana. A girl was Bandi Raala.
Even in that protected space, sharing that idea, you can be whoever you want to be is important. Because you are a boy that does not mean that you can’t play a girl’s role. Sending those messages out very subtly and playfully, I believe has a huge impact on social change. So, that’s why we do what we do.
Date of Interview: 9 October 2017
Interviewer: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage
Photos provided by: ©Power of Play