Conversation with Delon Weerasinghe, Winner of the Gratiaen Prize 2005

Delon Weerasinghe and I had a brief chat a few weeks ago that led to this email interview where I asked him details about his Gratiaen Award winning script, Thicker Than Blood and his thoughts on theatre in general.

Delon went to S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. He has provided his services as a fixer / filmmaker to many foreign film / documentary projects filmed in Sri Lanka. His clients include the BBC, NBC, CBS, ITV and Channel 4 among others. Delon has been involved in the local TV/Film industry since 1997. In that time he has worked on many local and foreign productions and has come to be recognized as a promising TV director and Filmmaker.

Chatting with Delon brought back memories of College drama and a renewed sense of hope for a resurgence of good English theatre in Sri Lanka through a new generation of playwrights.

1. When I first read the script in 2002 I was impressed by the script – its maturity, its tone. Was this your first script?
Yes, if you mean was this the first complete play I had written. No, if you mean was this a first draft. No one ever reads my first drafts. It takes a long time before I’m comfortable enough with a script to let other people read it. This is also because I’m acutely aware of how much influence a comment could have on an early script regardless of whether or not it is justified. Although a bulk of the writing happens in one go, there is a long process of refining and editing. This crafting process takes a very long time with me. The play has evolved with my perspective and understanding of the issues. As I think should be the case as it is difficult to do justice to such a complex subject in one sitting anyway.

2. What compelled you to write the script in 2002?
I actually wrote a short play when I was in College hoping it to enter it for the inter-house drama competition. It was two scenes between an old man and a soldier that looked at the war in a rather philosophical way. But the tone of even this little playlet was deemed too strong for a school performance. I virtually forgot about the script and writing plays until 2001 when I attended a Royal Court Theatre workshop in Bangalore and they encouraged me to expand on this script. I was first reluctant to as my attitudes towards the war had changed significantly since I was 16, but agreed to attempt it. Rather than concentrate on a story of a soldier in the warfront, I built the play around the existing war scenes and placed the new scenes in an urban family setting. I worked on it further during my residency at the Royal Court in London in 2001. The play was fully written by then, but the process at the Royal Court really helped shape and tighten it.

3. Why did you enter it into the Gratiaen so long after it was written?
I kept missing the call for entries. Even this year I barely made it. I went to hand the script in on the evening of the last day for submissions. When I got there, the security guard told me that the office was closed. He suggested I look anyway. There was one guy there, and I handed the script to him and left.

4. Why did you choose 2000 as the year in which the action takes place?
All aspects of the timeline have been carefully researched so as to be as accurate as possible. For example, the war scenes are placed in May 2000, at the tail end of some of the worst fighting of the war that saw a strong LTTE push on the Jaffna peninsula and a significant loss of ground for the army. But in terms of the play, it is the parliamentary elections of 2001 which anchors its timeline. Everything else is placed relative to that. Although the play actually ends around 3 months before the elections, I wanted to capture the unique sentiment of that context. The prospect for change and peace for the first time in a long time, the war fatigue felt by ordinary people, and the revival of chauvinistic nationalist politics all set to the backdrop of the most violent election in Sri Lankan political history. All this creates a rather rich backdrop for a play. I also see these elections as being the stage on which the politics of many years to follow will be played. So for a play that on the face of it deals with war and peace, I thought placing it in this context would give me the maximum opportunity to explore what people were thinking at the time.

5. What are the central themes you explore through the text?
Personal integrity and patriotism and their sometimes strained relationship in war. I was quite interested in trying to separate the concept of chauvinistic nationalism from patriotism. I was trying to do this because I saw a vast majority of Sinhalese (including myself) as being moderate. But it seemed that the outspoken voices of that time were those of chauvinists and bigots. I wanted to ask whether it was possible to disagree with the outspoken voices of the time and still be a patriot. Because at that time, it seemed that it was unpatriotic to question the war. But this is a war against our own people, maybe it is unpatriotic not to. After all, the methods we use to prosecute this war today could make the difference between the war ending tomorrow or not in our lifetime.

6. Your characters articulate a spectrum of issues and emotions, from sexual tension to child soldiers, from nationalist politics to estrangement from family – to what degree is Thicker than Blood a Morality Play?
Although I have attempted to capture somewhat the morality of that time, Thicker than Blood was never intended to be a morality play. It somehow amuses me that I should be seen in any shape or form as a moralist. I am not. Neither are my characters. They are all flawed. The fact that my protagonist chooses according to his conscience in the end, says more about the convictions of his character than mine. The more reactions I get to the play, the clearer it becomes that my attempt to create characters that are as real as possible, has allowed people to read into the play a clarity that may not be there in the script. In my opinion that clarity comes from the strength of their own convictions drawn out by how real the situation appears. For example, I have had people come up to me and say they completely agree with what the chauvinistic politician has to say in the play, and they wish more writers would write from that perspective. My initial reaction was panic, because it was not at all my intension to give credibility to that character’s point of view. I considered “demonising” that character so that people would get my point. But I realised that was the point in creating real characters. People who have different values from me are not necessarily bad people. Neither is their point of view invalid. If I needed to demonise a character in order to discredit him, then I am just a bad writer. I think in the end, I have said very clearly what I wanted to say without having to resort to blatantly “good” or “bad” characters.

7. Kithsiri, the politician, emerges at the end of the play to be the understated king maker, with Suresh, the ex-soldier, as an expendable pawn. How do you think violent conflict in real life parallels that which you’ve highlighted in your script?
Well, I think people would reject the play offhand if they thought that could never happen. One has only to talk to real soldiers on the ground to find out how much like pawns they feel in the hands of politicians and even their own commanders.

How it feels to be celebrated as a patriot but feel like a pawn.

8. You mentioned at our first meeting that you are searching for economy of language – to express more with less. Why?
My primary objective is to tell a story. To me “literary art” is the art of communication. I think to use complex words or structure to tell a simple story displays a lack of writing skill and is simply an exercise in vanity. Even a professor of English can understand a simple form of the language, but that doesn’t really work the other way around. Besides, if you are writing ordinary people as your characters, you have to allow them to speak as they would in real life. I have met many people walking out after plays saying “I didn’t get it”. This “emperor’s new clothes” attitude by play producers can only damage theatre in Sri Lanka. To think that the audience didn’t get what you were trying to say because they were “young” or “stupid” is to tread on dangerous ground indeed. Thicker than Blood was designed to work primarily on two levels. First, a simple story that an audience could follow easily. And second, complex characters that could add a great deal of depth and dimension. The idea was, that while audiences were following the story, they would fill the story with the amount of depth they required.

9. Is the economy of language for you limited to written expression or does it extend to stage action as well? In Thicker than Blood, for instance, there is no frenetic movement – action is taut and circumscribed to forward and centre-stage. Why do you choose thus?
I do not agree that the action is circumscribed at all. Actually, my attempt was quite the opposite. Setting the action of the scene is the job of a director, not a playwright. By minimising stage directions, I was encouraging the director to take a free hand with interpreting the action of a scene. Therefore I have only described actions that in some way are essential to creating the context.

10. You also mentioned that you wished to capture the nuances, the dialects, the argot of conflict and the timbre of peace. Why is capturing the way people speak so important to you?
I think you’ve misunderstood what I meant here. Although I have focused on creating speech traits in characters to help in making them distinct, I was not trying to be true to dialects or nuances of speech. My aim in a way was quite the opposite. There is a school of thought among writers and academics that we need to exploit “Sri Lankan English” more in creative writing in order to make it more accurate and natural. But that will only work when your characters actually do speak Sri Lankan English. But what happens if your characters speak Sinhala as I believe my characters do? Is it accurate to make them speak the patois that is Sri Lankan English? So is it then right to create a character who can articulate perfectly in Sinhala as a man who speaks broken English? I do not think so. For centuries writing has had a simple way of dealing with characters speaking other languages. Shakespeare didn’t resort to writing bad English to indicate his characters were speaking Italian or Latin. He simply wrote them speaking in the best way to get their point across. I think this is an argument for academics which I promise to take more seriously the day I read an academic paper on Sri Lankan English written IN Sri Lankan English.

11. Other works, such as the short film on the Bindunuwewa incident you shot for SCRIPTNET, explore the world through the eyes of children. Why?
For probably the same reason one would use an image of a helpless fish for a commercial on the scarcity of fresh water: maximum impact.

12. I found the child actors in your short film deplorable. Is this endemic and indicative of a dearth of professional acting schools?
I doubt there are many professional acting schools for children of that age anywhere. So the short answer is no, I am not inclined to blame the bad performances by the children in that film on anything other than my own inexperience. Working with children is difficult for many reasons. Unlike adults, children do not feel the need to put on good performances because they get paid for it or because of a love for the craft. They do it because its fun. So when a child stops having fun while acting, the director has an uphill task. All the shots with the children in that film were shot in one day. For a child who is required to memorise a script she received in the morning and to sometime do up to 30 takes in a 60-shot day, it could stop being fun very quickly.

13. What is it about theatre that attracts you the most?
Probably its unpredictability. Every stage performance is unique. Unlike a film where the performances are same every time you see it, there is a sense of anticipation in a stage performance no matter how many times you see it. Because every night is different, as it carries potential for disaster, mediocrity and brilliance. Sometimes even all three.

14. In school, I remember you to be immersed in books. I would have thought you would have gone into the English novel more than theatre. Was this something you thought of?
I have actually never considered writing a novel. I don’t believe I have the patience. Also, novels are a bad idea for writers who are obsessed with brevity. I would probably spend the better part of a decade trying to write a novel if I tried.

15. What role, if any, does theatre in particular, and arts and culture in general, have in conflict resolution?
Well, unless you can get the people making the big decisions about the war to act in a play and kill them all during it, I would say a very small role. In my opinion, wars might be started in the name of various causes, but they continue because there is personal profit in it for some and no way out for others. Unless and until these people are put under pressure to end the war, it will continue. That being said, I think arts and the theatre have an important role to play in the healing process after conflict. There is so much misinformation in war that sometimes it is only many years after a conflict that people discover what ordinary people on the other side were really thinking. I think in a way that’s what my play is also about; a record of what people like me were thinking and feeling about the war at the time. If the war were to end today, 50 years from now, I do not think that anyone who didn’t experience it would be able to figure out what it was like to live during these times. No amount of news stories or academic overviews could really help understand what motivated us to do and say what we did. That’s where I think a play like this could be useful. And that’s important because only true understanding of what it was like to be at war will keep it from happening again.

16. You are only the second playwright to win a Gratiaen. Do you feel theatre is neglected and under recognised in Sri Lanka? What prevents the growth of the industry?
I think playwrights have done quite well at the Gratiaen considering how few original plays have been produced during the past decade. There must have been hundreds of novels, collections of short stories and poetry produced in the same period. So on the face of it; one stands a better chance of winning a Gratiaen with a play than with another kind of writing. So the way forward might not necessarily lie in giving plays more awards, but in giving new playwrights with no track record a chance. Today, it is nearly impossible for a new English playwright to put a play on stage. The hall hire is forbiddingly expensive. Add to that the cost of sets, costumes, printing, rehearsal space and you have a budget that would break a small bank let alone an individual. You can forget about finding sponsorship because no one is interested in putting money into a play by an unknown playwright. I know, because a few years ago I was that playwright. After I won the Gratiaen, a lot of people wanted to know when I was going to put the play on again. And they were very disappointed when I told them “never”. But my question to them is, where were you when I put the play on as an unknown playwright? That’s when I most needed your support. When I was trying to get enough people though the door so that I pay the cost of the hall hire, where were you?

17. How does one overcome these challenges and encourage young scriptwriters to develop their talent?
We need to go and watch these plays. When we go, we must also be prepared for mediocrity. If the play is bad, we must say it is bad. But we must still go to see the next one. It is appalling to me that we can do this very thing for the biggest theatre productions but not for the small ones. We should be less willing to encourage mediocrity in theatre productions which charge us twice the ticket price and have multi-million rupee budgets, but we do. We hate ourselves for having spent a lot of money to be bored out of our wits but we go for the next one. But when we see an unknown person or group putting on a play, we don’t go. It may be bad, but then so was the biggest show of the year. But if it was good, we will never know what we missed. So the question is, if a play is put on and nobody sees it, was it any good?

18. What are you currently working on?
I am planning to publish Thicker than Blood after which I intend to turn it into a film towards the end of 2007. In the meantime, I am working on a few television projects for a foreign client. I also plan to publish a collection of “Kenny’s world” columns later this year.

19. Will you stick to theatre and film or should we expect a larger literary palette from you in the future?
I think I will stick to what I know in the short term. Can’t say what I’ll be doing further down the line, but for sure my next few projects will be film related.

20. Finally, as an artiste, what is your prognosis of Sri Lanka?
I am not someone who finds it fashionable to bash Sri Lanka. We have our problems but I firmly believe that we have much to offer the world. But the biggest obstacle to creativity in this country is that a few people who have no business to do so, have set themselves up as the guardians of our “culture”. It is true that we have a 2500 year old culture. But it is ludicrous to interpret that to mean that we must live to ideals that are 2500 years old. Culture is expression and the need for expression is where all truly creative ideas are born. Isn’t expression more imperative to people living in the present day? But for political reasons, the powers that be are more interested in preserving the culture of a people who have been dead for hundreds of years. The inability of a few (or even many) to accept ideas which squeeze their comfort zones does not mean that they have any right to restrict that expression. I am now talking specifically about Handagama’s film which the minister has vowed not to release. Allowing politicians to make decisions as to what is “moral” and “culturally acceptable” is like letting a cat burglar decide economic policy for the next decade. If you disagree with what someone has to say, don’t buy their book or don’t watch their film. In a country where 75% of the films screened bear the “Adults only” tag, it seems laughable that a local film would be singled out as “lewd”. But then we have always known that there have been two standards for white and brown. So it should come as no surprise that a white boob is seen to be acceptable while a brown boob is deemed lewd. So if the sin here is sexual arousal, then I think the whole country is now clear as to what turns the honourable gentleman on…

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