Sri Lanka Week 5: “It’s about love, isn’t it?”

Sambodhi 1
photo by Stefanie Oettl

Welcome to my penultimate blog post about my Suramedura artists residency in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. You can read about week 1 here, week 2 here, week 3 here and week 4 here.

As always I am grateful to UZ Arts and Galway 2020 for providing me with this opportunity.

This is a shorter post than before. I have less time to write as I spend more time on the work.

Day 29: Monday 30th November 2015

I spend the day working on things for home. Galway Theatre Festival 2016 application is in! It’s a little frustrating losing a whole day to non-Suramedura work but the good news is that I have cleared my slate and can spend my last two weeks here concentrating on my tea ceremony and Moving Through.

Tomorrow I am getting the material for my flag and for my sarong.

Early night tonight.

Day 30: Tuesday 1st December 2015

First of December, Merry Christmas everyone!

Sambodhi 2
photo by Stefanie Oettl

Today we go to Sambodhi Home. It’s a centre for people with disabilities and we’re here to help Samson and Stefi with a mask-making workshop. We work with around 20 adult women and one man. We sing as we work at applying strips of plaster to the clay moulds that Samson and Stefi built with the folk here last week. We laugh a lot. During a tea break Juri and Samson sing and we all sing along with some of the women getting up to dance.

Sambodhi 3
photo by Stefanie Oettl

How did we find this amazing place? Well Juri was writing an application for a festival in France and he needed some help with his French. He met a French girl working in a nearby bar. She helped him out. They got to talking and she told him about a place where she volunteers called Sambodhi Home.

Sambodhi 4
photo by Stefanie Oettl

It is a joyous and calm place. I am so glad I got to go there.

Tonight we all have a night out.


Day 31: Wednesday 2nd December 2015

I work on the tea ceremony. I almost have my 12 stories at a point where I am happy with them. I will work on learning them from here on, tweaking them as I do. I still don’t know what to do about non-English-speaking members of the audience. Do I use an interpreter? How will that work? Or do I allow the emotion of the stories to speak for themselves? The stories are different to what I expected. Some of them are collected from Sri Lankans, one from Juri. Others are a sort of spoken word reaction to my visit and might be performed in a chant. I like them all.

On and off during this residency I have been beset by fear. I don’t know where it comes from (though I have my suspicions). It kills me. It stops me from working, from trying and from engaging with others. Worst of all I don’t notice it when it is happening.

I decide that the Tea Ceremony in Sunbeach is a ritual to exorcise fear and pessimism. The Tea Ceremony at Dodanduwa is about connection and community. I will work with the students who will be my cup bearers on Chekhov centres and atmospheres. The tea will be served in silence. Then, at a given point, the bearers play a game. The winner then replaces me in the tea-making circle. I join the cup bearers. Then we sing as a call and response:

We are the cup bearers

We are the troublemakers

We are next in line

We are doing fine

This is the here and now

This is how it’s going down

This is how it’s going down

This is how it’s going down.

The second verse will be in Sinhalese. And the students will write it.

I am almost certain that none of this will be how it will be.

A good day today.

Day 32: Thursday 3rd December 2015

Another good day today. We walk the route for Moving Through at Dodanduwa and put down all that we have. We also agree on most of the transitions. It will be a very good show I think.

The people here at Dodanduwa are all very welcoming. One family invites us to their home for tea and cake. We have a lot of fun with the kids.

I have my 12 tales. Now I need to learn them. The students arrive tomorrow. I will have my cup bearers, I hope.

All coming together nicely.

Oíche mhaith.

Day 33: Friday 4th December 2015

I spend the morning learning my twelve stories. After lunch I do the same. It is remarkable how quickly they are coming to me.

The stories (I should call them something else because they are not really stories in the traditional sense) are excellent. In order they are:

Daily Disposables – a sort of magical-realism story that came to me a couple of days after I arrived.

Abandoned – Juri and I met a woman at a bus stop and this is her story of how she met and married a German man, moved to Europe only to be deserted by this man and deported back to Sri Lanka.

Faruk! – based on a story Juri told us about a man he met in Tunisia who tried to sail to Italy.

Run from the Sea – the woman who runs the nearby Tsunami Centre told this story to Stefi about her experience of that day.

Bring Me Home, Lord – a spoken-word piece I wrote on the balcony of my room in Ella.

Abandoned Again – an embarrassing story about my refusal to listen to the woman who told us the story about her abandonment.

Outbreak – a spoken-word piece about peace.

Puke – based on a strange dream I had of home.

Diesel – a spoken-word piece that I wrote at Colombo Fort Train Station.

The Here and the Now – a spoken-word piece about digital communications.

The Temple in the Jungle – a simple story that came to me about a man who is brought to a temple in the jungle and what happens to him there.

Sit. Wait. – a spoken word piece I wrote waiting in the visa office.

So with that I have the beginning and middle of my ceremony in Sunbeach. Now I need to find an ending.

The students arrive from Colombo. We expected seven, we get five. That’s ok. We expected boys and girls, we get all guys. That’s not ok and it pisses me all the way off. I don’t know why there are no women but there is nothing we can do about it now. Them’s the brakes as Fiach would say.

The lack of female students changes how I imagined the cup bearers would perform in the tea ceremony at Dodanduwa. So now I need to find some way of invoking a female presence with a bunch of young Sri Lankan men.

Neil arrives. Yeah! We end up in Ranjith’s. Course we do. Course we bloody do.

Day 34: Saturday 5th December 2015

Curses on you Neil Butler and you too Ranjith and your fecking bar and your arrak.

Ok. Get up John, you have a workshop with a bunch of lad students with differing levels of English.

Well I quickly find out that they’re not lads, they’re young artists. We walk in the space and I ask them to relax, walk normal, breathe normal. Funny thing is, when you ask people to be normal they behave any way but. I give them coconut shells to carry and offer to (imaginary) audience members. The tea will be in the coconut shell (Juri’s idea). It’s not easy to pretend to give tea to people so I ask Juri to join us for a moment. They bring the tea to me and Juri, walking slowly and smiling as I asked. It looks ridiculous and not a little scary. Juri says it’s mechanical and he’s right – it’s all surface. So I ask them to stand in a circle and we work on some Chekhov centre technique. It is difficult to explain to them because everything I say has to be translated. In truth nobody gets Chekhov straight off and I am a much better performer than a teacher. I ask them to imagine that they have a golden ball of healing light in their belly. (Warning! Descriptions of the theatremaking process can sound such inconsequential, fanciful fluff but it does work if it’s done right and isn’t fake.) I say let the light fill you and when it does, open your eyes. I say be patient, the feeling will come and not to fake it. If you have the feeling but lose it, stop and start again. I explain again and again that this is not something you fake.

They struggle with it. They want to act the feeling rather than feel it. Two of them are standing with their shoulders hunched, trying with all their might to get it. I help them to relax and loosen up. Things improve a little but it’s slow work and I only have them until lunchtime. I decide to move on to atmosphere work. I say we want to create a welcoming atmosphere for the audience. Suddenly, like a switch closing, one of the guys (the one who slightly reminds me of Samuel T Herring for some reason) says:

Welcome! The feeling is welcome. We have a light of welcome for the audience in our centre.

He has it and he speaks quickly in Sinhalese to the others. They all get it now and they walk in the space and towards me with a genuine warmth and a real smile. We try it with the coconut shells and the difference is huge. They genuinely wish to offer tea as a gift to the audience.

I ask them afterwards what they felt towards the audience. One says respect, another says peace, another happiness. The tall one who has the least English says:

It’s about… it’s… it’s about love, isn’t it?

Job done.

Cup Bearers
The Cup Bearers.
l-r Gimantha Charith, Geethan Shalinda, Samith Ravihara “Ravi”, Dasun Silva, A.M. Nimesh Chathuranýa.

After lunch we go to Dodanduwa and walk the route with Neil. More work on transitions.

Getting there, getting there.

Day 35: Sunday 6th December 2015

After breakfast we go to the market with Juri, Samson and Stefi in costume to drum up some publicity for Moving Through. This is fun. I particularly enjoy the reaction the guys get out of young children. The kids can see the magic and are shocked by it. I buy five small clay pots for the cup bearers. They look better than coconut shells. I might have to bind them in coconut rope so that they aren’t too hot to hold. This is my first visit to the Sunday Market and it is something. I particularly enjoy the food market where the air is full of the smell of spices and the sounds of people negotiating deals at the top of their voices.

Men of Dodandowa
The Men of Dodandowa
More Boys of Dodandowa
More Boys of Dodandowa

After this I go to Dodanduwa with the students to rehearse the ceremony in the space. Of course all the work on centres from yesterday disappears so we have to work a little on finding that again. We develop a simple beginning and an end. This is provisional because I still think there’s something missing. I will work on it by myself during the week and I will have the students again on Friday morning for a very short length of time to nail it. I remind the students that the tea ceremony is the last part of Moving Through (excepting the Afro-Sri Lankan singers) so it is up to us to close it strong. We rehearse what we have a few times in the blistering hot midday sun, running back to the shade for notes. The students are hard workers and attentive even though I sometimes worry that they are reticent to say that they aren’t understanding something. Good work.

After lunch I go swimming with Neil and the lads and I get up on a boogie board for the first time and sail all the way into the beach. Great fun and a possible wonderful beginning for the tea ceremony!

One week to go.

Galway 2020  UZ Arts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s