Fairy tales come true
By Priyangwada Perera
Ceylon Today Features
They were the cutest bears I have ever seen. The Father bear and the Mother bear with their Baby bear, made a perfect family. Their acts were so perfectly choreographed. But then, it is not Goldilocks that enters the bear-house. It is little Ruwanmali. The play unfolds with each scene stealing our hearts. From actors to dialogue, music and dance to action - in the audience you forget your age.
Being a grown up, I was wide-eyed and delighted watching Punchi Walas Pawula: the Sinhala adaptation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, written by Somalatha Subasinghe. The play is directed by Chandana Aluthge. The dramatists of the Somalatha Subasinghe Play House, Kotte were practicing hard for the annual Somalatha Subasinghe Theatre Festival for Young Audiences when we met them.
One of the oldest disciples of the great playwright, theatre director and artist the late Somalatha Subasinghe, Dr. Chandana Aluthge spoke to Ceylon Today. "I was a part of Subasinghe's team. She represents an era in the development of modern children's theatre in the country. I worked with her from 1981 and she somehow realized that I had a knack for it. She wanted me to study the subject. At the same time Somalatha Subasinghe wanted to make sure I studied well at school too because she did not see serious theatre, paying for my bread and butter. Then I went to university. I also went abroad and studied how to work with children and work for children," said Dr. Aluthge. The man who spoke of all this is an academic. Dr. Aluthge is attached to the University of Colombo, working as a Senior Lecturer in Economics.
Challenges are many
"The challenge for children's theatre artists is an ethical dilemma," started Dr. Aluthge. "How are we going to price our tickets in an affordable range? I being the father of two children if the theatre tickets are at Rs1, 500 each, watching the play with my children and wife would cost me Rs 6,000. Furthermore, watching a stage play is not even included in the family budget's priority list. "It is a challenge for us. We have to pay our actors the going rate. At the same time, we have a social responsibility to charge less," Dr.Aluthge explained.
Dr. Aluthge studied how children's theatre is done in other countries. "We used to train actors. To act for children, you need special training. We have a very generous group of people who trained with us. They are here to carry the legacy forward." The Somalatha Subasinghe Theatre School was established in 1981 and since then, there have been several batches. In this school, one arm is to produce theatre, one to train actors and the other arm is to engage in creative activities with children.
Professional theatre for children
Do children come to them, asked Ceylon Today. Interestingly enough, Dr. Aluthge said "We don't do theatre with children. Instead we do professional theatre for children. But we work with children taking all the good qualities of doing theatre with children and teaching them little things: social awareness, different forms of art and human behaviour. This is like a culture study - the kind of education schools lack. We don't teach but create situations. Children enjoy themselves. With no books or pencils they learn a lot with humans."
Mayura Kanchana has been a part of the team since the year 2000. He came to one of Subasinghe's workshops because he loved to act. "Then I learned that this was much more than just acting. Socio- political, economic and aesthetic values are a plenty for us to learn. I was a very backward student at school. But I developed my self confidence and personality through drama. Kaushalya Fernando and Chandana Aluthge helped me in it. "Geetha Alahakoon, is the daughter of music director Jayatissa Alahakoon. Dhanushka Dias graduated with a class from the University of Visual and Performing Arts. He was also lecturing there for some time and now teaches drama at Ananda Central College, Mutwal. Thiwanka Ranasinghe is an all rounder, a multi faceted young man who works with them while working for different companies," said Dias making introductions. Dias added, "Those who are not accepted for other subjects are the ones who go on to study drama. No teacher wants a "weak" child." Dhanushka Dias mentioned that it is the 'job market' that the curriculum is concerned about. For that they make a machine and not a human being. What is the use of brilliant skills if the heart has nothing humane in it."
Dr.Aluthge studied for his Advanced Levels while coming for drama practices in the bus, reading his book with the aid of a small torch. "Parents have told us that their children have been transformed. They are more confident. Our education does more to break a person than raise someone. At present, with even scoring 70 marks a child is sad." At present, they have hired the Battaramulla Lion's Club Activity Centre on Saturdays and have workshops for children. "From 1990, we have had non-competitive children's theatre productions for children. Here, it is not the children who act but trained adult actors perform for children. We focus on precision and finish. A child will notice these. They will hear the music we have used. They will see the actors dancing, running and jumping and think 'I too might be able to do that.'"
Commenting on the practical side, he said, "We have this festival twice a year. Our challenge is to find money. We do it on our own, out of our interest. We have taken leave from our jobs, adjusted our personal schedules, put aside our family matters and dedicated ourselves simply out of genuine interest and concern." Dr. Aluthge said, "It is a challenge to the creator because the child is very creative. At the same time, the logical reasoning of a child is very different. We have to be extremely creative. To get a child to sit still on a chair for half an hour is a challenge in itself. A child cannot come and watch a play on his/her own. So, our dramas appeal to both parties.
The modern interpretation
These might be popular children's stories. But they interpret it in the modern context. The busy life styles, the robotic way of life, emotional needs that cannot be met with material things are provided children with. Being an adult and looking back at children from the point of an adult is not practical.
"Rathmali is Red Riding Hood. Some of the fairy tales are very violent. Our mentor Somalatha Subasinghe told us as a child how she felt very bad for the wolf. In all the fairy tales she has used, the conclusion is different from the original. The lesson is of compassion and gentleness." When Dr.Aluthge approached some schools to show their plays, certain principals had said that Rs.200 was too much to ask from parents. "One principal from a primary school said these were not for their children. The problem lies with adults. It is the world we have created for our children. We want children and adults to come and experience the difference."
(The Somalatha Subasinghe Theatre Festival for Young Audiences will take place from 8-10 December at the Lionel Wendt Theatre at 3.30p.m and 6.45p.m. Walas Pawula on 8 and 9 December, Ratmalee and Punchi Apata Dan Therei are on 10 December)
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