Sri Lanka, Week 2: A long, hard look

Some of the staff of Sunbeach Hotel
Some of the excellent staff of Sunbeach Hotel. Left to right: Nirosh, Chathura & Hasantha

Welcome back. In my first blog post I didn’t speak much about art. Truth is I don’t like talking about theatre. It’s not because I’m not good at it, it’s the opposite in fact. I’m too good at it and never know when to shut up. But it doesn’t serve the art. Recently I read an essay by Diana Wynne Jones outlining how she wrote her brilliant Fire & Hemlock. It is a great essay but I did find that a tiny part of the magic of the book was lost after she showed us how it was done. Making theatre, making any art is sometimes like making sausages. If you knew what went into it…

So what is this blog for? I could tell you about my days here but that would run and run and would never be much more than a travel log. Anyone reading would gain little insight into my work since I prefer to let the work speak for itself. I’ll not overthink it (a mistake I often make), belt away and see what happens.

Day 8: Monday 9th November 2015

Today I sit with Chaminda and he tells me about certain Sri Lankan traditions such as the annual milk ceremony. This happens every year on the night of the August full moon. Each family spends the day preparing a milk and rice powder concoction. Every family has their own recipe and the preparation of the food is a long, complicated affair. The coconut milk must of course be fresh. The rice is worked continuously so as to produce the finest powder. The whole process takes hours and results in a sheet of rice milk that is then eaten by the family. The rice ceremony is also carried out on the same night in the temples and the resulting food is shared with the less well off in the community.

Today, before dinner, we each semi-formally present to each other what it is we are working on here and what is we hope to achieve. This is a very useful and inspiring meeting. We each have fifteen minutes to talk and we decide to go in alphabetical order. Which means I go first. Talking about who I am, where I come from as an artist and what I hope to make with my tea ceremony invigorates my imagination. It is wonderful to hear the passion of the other artists and to feel the sense of support we have for each other.

Yet I can feel that old fear again. That fear that has been with me for as long back as I can remember. I’m not sure what it’s a fear of. I’m embarrassed to admit that it might just be I’m scared stiff of work.

I’ll not worry about it though. It was there at different times during the processes for Decision Problem and ASP. Both times I found myself frightened that I wasn’t doing anything. And then it passed and I worked and created excellent theatre that I was very happy with. So have faith, it will come.

Day 9: Tuesday 10th November 2015

Neil brings us to the site of the future Suramedura. It’s about a ten minute tuk tuk drive from Sunbeach, in the countryside/jungle on a peninsula on the lagoon. It has a very different feel to the hotel; it is quieter and feels more contained. Neil later shows us the plans for the residence and it is most impressive. He hopes to be finished by next year. It is great to know that future Galway artists will come to this wonderful place and make great art for six weeks.

We take a boat trip on the lagoon, rowed by two local fishermen. There’s no doubt about it but this is a beautiful place. We see another monitor lizard (there’s some confusion as to what the Sri Lankans call them) and all around us flying sprat spin about the surface of the water.

There is a temple on the lagoon and we visit it. Juri and Martin have been here already. It is impressive. Nobody seems to be able to tell us how old it is or how old the statues and paintings are. The Buddha statue is stories high and exudes a palpable power. All the artwork looks like it was made yesterday. The statues are not like the white marble statues of Western European Christianity but are painted in lifelike colours that are almost garish but not. The temple is a square building with the Buddha statue in the centre, surrounded on three sides by corridors. These corridors are populated by statues in tableau telling different Buddhist stories. I want to learn these stories. I would like to have a local come to this temple with me and explain the tales to me. Some of the stories are viciously bloodthirsty and play against the “wouldn’t hurt a fly” notion that some of us have about Buddhism.

Outside the temple walls are decorated by roof-high black and white illustrations that again tell different stories. The style of illustration is unnervingly similar to the art of graphic novels. The women are all obnoxiously well endowed. There is a quality to these drawings that simultaneously unnerves and attracts. I must return.

Later, before dinner, Neil discusses an issue that has been bothering me since I arrived – the fact that there is only one woman on this residency. He apologises to Stefi in particular. He says that never before has it worked out so lopsided and that, while he is averse to quotas since he dislikes rules in art, he will have to now work out some way to ensure that future residencies have a fairer gender breakdown. I am grateful for his honesty and am happy that the problem has been talked about.

By the way you will be glad to know that my feet are pretty much back to normal. I can walk again. I hope I have learned my lesson and never again go walking on the beach under the midday sun.

Tonight Neil, Martin, Matteo, Samson, Steffi and I go to a local beach bar that Neil recommends called Ranjith’s. It’s a mighty spot with plastic chairs, plain tables, 70’s rock and the surf is practically coming in on top of us. We have a few glasses of the local coconut liquor arrack and I end up dancing in the sea. Lightweight.


Day 10: Wednesday 11th November 2015

Oh. My. Head.

Ranjith’s is a dangerous spot. I was quickly joined in dancing in the surf by Martin and Samson. Stefi tells me today that the old locals in the pub were freaked out and politely asked us to leave. I remember now. Sorry Hikkaduwans for scaring you; it was my first night out since I arrived.

I waste the day in what should be the simple task of getting a Sri Lankan SIM card for my phone. I eventually succeed.

I spend some time in my room telling myself the stories I have discovered since coming here. I already have some good stuff.

Day 11: Thursday 12th November 2015

I get it wrong today.

Juri and Matteo invite me to join them in some performance work. But my plan this morning is to go into Hikkaduwa town and find a teapot and kettle. I have no success finding the utensils I want. I might have to turn to the tourists shops after all. Coming out of the shop I see all bar one of my fellow artists across the street. Juri and Matteo have just finished some street performance and they are all excitedly recapping the event. And I could have been part of it.

I came here to collaborate but so far I have refused to. I have been working by myself for so long now that I didn’t even realise I was doing it. Well not anymore. I ask the guys if I can join in in future and they say they’d be delighted to have me on board.

I visit the fruit and veg market with Juri and we look at some clay utensils that may be of use to us. Afterwards we traipse around electrical stores looking for big cardboard boxes. Juri has a street performance piece that he uses to great effect. He wears a large box (like a fridge would come in), with holes on the sides for his arms. In each hand he holds a marker and he invites passers-by to write on the box. Simple but effective apparently. Only thing is, nobody will give us boxes or tell us where to find them. We offer to buy boxes but to no avail. Nonetheless it’s always fun arseing around Hikkaduwa with Juri.

In the tuk tuk back to the hotel I feel like I am on the cusp of breaking my (much too much fun) idleness and making something real. Good stuff.

This evening, just before dinner, I watch #WakingTheFeminists live from the Abbey (have I mentioned that I love technology?). I am blown away by the passion, anger and resolution of all present. I vow that when I meet Lian Bell again I’m going to give her a pretty intense high-five. I am of course personally gratified to see my wife make her Abbey debut as one of the brilliant speakers onstage.

Mná na hÉireann are awake!

I’m going to bed. Night.

Day 12: Friday 13th November 2015

After breakfast we all travel down to the rocks and the fishermen’s village where we plan on staging our end-of-residency performance. I think Juri and Martin were the first to find this place and they couldn’t have chosen better. There is a small trawler set aground here that is slowly falling apart. It isn’t a relic from the Tsunami but the result of a business enterprise that hit hard times. Martin and Juri hope to transform this boat into a massive musical instrument. It’s a great idea.

Standing with your back to this boat and facing out to sea, there is a large rock formation to the left. I climb it with Neil. I look back at the boat and tell him about images I have been having of me slowly emerging out of the sea and walking towards the audience. I tell him perhaps I might instead walk from the rocky height and slowly approach the boat where the lads are playing music. Neil suggests that I make a massive flag that I can wear strapped to my back. This idea delights me. Later I decide that I will follow Juri’s and Matteo’s lead and create a costume from found materials. I have never made my own costume or props and the notion excites me. Here is something I have never done before and that is part of why I am here – to create art that is different to what I usually do. I am not the best with my hands so such a project would be a welcome challenge.

I also have a new idea about incorporating a tuk tuk into my performance. Tuk tuks by the way are three wheel taxis that run on a scooter engine (in fact they have handle bars instead of steering wheels). I want to drive one on the beach if I can. I’ll rig it out with a sound system and it will fly my flag.

Tonight we all experience the suspense of waiting to hear whether or not Galway has made the European City of Culture 2020 shortlist. A city holds its breath… Yes! We’re there! Congratulations to all the crew of Galway 2020. I trust you’ll have some crack when you get home.

Oíche mhaith.

Day 13: Saturday 14th November 2015

Juri and I go exploring looking for quality bamboo for his instruments, my flag pole and our masks and costumes. We don’t find much bamboo worth using but we have a fun morning exploring more of the local area. We discover that Sri Lankans, when asked a question, do not like to admit that they don’t know the answer. So we spend the morning being brought from homes to hardware shops to holiday apartments to more homes, constantly being explicitly told that they next place will have what we are looking for. No bamboo but fun.

At a bus stop we meet a woman who is desperate to tell us her story. Since she was a little girl all she dreamed of was marrying a white man and moving to Europe. Then, a few years ago, she succeeded in doing just that by marrying a German man. But some administrative error meant that she could only stay in Germany for a short length of time at a time. (This wasn’t entirely clear. She was speaking to us in German which Juri can kind of speak and I can’t at all speak). She made a number of visits to Germany but could never stay. Then the man abandoned her. He changed his number and his email address and she could no longer find him. Now she is stuck here as she put it. She is worried that she might never be able to marry a Sri Lankan. She thinks that there is some black magic involved and she is being cursed. “Thank God I had no children with that man,” she tells us. “I am a woman, not a dog,” she tells us.

And now I must make a confession that I am shamed to admit. The woman who told us this sad tale in an intense yet sober way frustrated me. She put my back up and I wanted away from her so we could get back to what it was we were doing. Yes this was partly because I couldn’t understand what she was saying but that wasn’t all of it. Juri was happy to listen but I was not. I don’t realise this until later when Juri mentions how impatient I was to get away.

I am not near as good a man as I could be. I say I want to collect stories. A woman comes to us with one and I want to run away.

Tomorrow I will try to be better.

After lunch I perform to some Hikkaduwans for the first time! Matteo, Juri and I perform some street theatre in the fruit and veg market. Juri played his dwarf character (still not sure how I feel about that), Matteo is his angry, crazy man (who is bizarrely loveable) and I played a white-socks-and-sandals wearing fruit and veg inspector who for some reason came across as a Scór na nÓg judge (hard to explain). It felt so good to be playing with other performers again. The locals were equally amused and bemused. One guy wasn’t very happy with us. At one stage he threw a coin at us and showed us a gesture that pretty much meant, now fuck off. Some of the other merchants said to Steve (who was with us filming), pay no heed to our friend he’s crazy. Steve said, your friend’s crazy, what about my mates?!

A good day. Tired now. Night.

Day 14: Sunday 15th November 2015

My second week draws to an end.

It is an old idea that you have to go abroad to find out who you are at home. It is a right idea.

I am beginning to learn who I am and what drives me and holds me back. I say I wish to make theatre that gives my audience the franchise to decide where the play will go. Yet I am afraid to give over control of my work. I say I want to collaborate with other artists but I am reluctant to do so. I say I want to engage with Sri Lankans yet I run a mile when a woman comes to me with her story.

The last fortnight has brought home to me my limitations as an artist. Now I hope that in the four weeks ahead I will discover the will to change, to let go.

And I can’t think of a better place to have a long hard look at myself than this beautiful country.

See you next week.

Galway 2020  UZ Arts

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