Photograph courtesy Mind Adventures, by Deshan Tennekoon

After opening night of The Traveling Circus on the 26th of November 2009, a small group remained behind long after the show finished. They sat dotted around the small amphitheatre, not speaking a word. Theatre practitioners, writers, political activists, diplomats, NGO workers.

I felt very alone and very afraid as I walked out into the arena to meet them.

I’ve been asked a fair bit if I deliberately set out to make an anti-war play. The Circus has been the subject of dissertations and a post-graduate thesis, been included in discourses on post-war political theatre and set Mind Adventures on a journey of discovery towards this seemingly impossible goal of Reconciliation.

Was it intentional?

At the turn of 2009, I was simply frustrated. None of the plays I had read came even close to articulating what was going on in Sri Lanka. At the time, I was researching devised theatre and the Northern Ireland peace process, and came across philosopher Paul Ricouer’s theory of ethical memory: the notion that memory shapes identity, and that a nation cannot move forward after protracted conflict unless the experiences and stories of both victors and victims are acknowledged by all. It challenges the arts in particular to open up space for new dialogue and share diverse narratives.

However, it was not until Groundviews got wind of the production and sent a reporter to ask some difficult questions, that I was actually forced to confront and rationalize what I was doing and why.

I think every artist has what Augusto Boal calls the ‘cop in the head’. That inner voice that screams (in my head, at least) ‘Stop! This is terrible! This is the worst thing you have ever made! Cease and desist! Do not pass Go, do not collect 200, go straight to Jail!’

“So, this is what happens when a bunch of Colombo’s arty thespians take it into their heads to draw recent events on an allegorical map and shit all over it. Based on a short story by someone who calls himself MASii, The Travelling Circus by Mind Adventures is a cheap knockoff of Salman Rushdie in his Haroun and the Sea of Stories phase…

What follows is a ghastly wallowing in pseudo-intellectual pseudo-empathy; an ostentatious indulgence in sententious frippery at the expense of the very people it claims to speak for.”

I had knocked down the cop in my head to make the Circus. This review – one of the first, if not the first, published reactions to the show – revived her. ‘I told you so’, said the cop, rising up and dusting herself off. ‘I told you so!’ I went quite numb.

I didn’t know what I had made. I didn’t know what I had done. Had I completely taken leave of my senses? Did I actually get it so very very wrong? Did no one understand what I had tried to do? In the days that followed, I was deeply mortified. Was I really the pretentious charlatan described in that review? I didn’t know what to think. Then, this:

…this is a production that will be invariably interpreted by those closed off to any perspective other than their own as theatre condoning the violence of the “Other”. The resulting diatribes will attempt to name and shame the production and its actors as those blind to, in particular, the causes for and conduct of war – jus in bello and jus ad bellum. Yet it is precisely here that, to coin a phrase, these critics will lose the plot. Tracy’s play is about a deep humanism that transcends violent factionalism, self-serving definitions of peace, pyrrhic victories and petty justifications for violence.

This review from a virtual stranger, coupled with a message from Prasanna Vithanage (also a stranger), brought me back from (to quote The Princess Bride) ‘the cliffs of insanity’. In the wake of the following overwhelmingly positive responses, I decided to persevere with the show instead of killing it.

Back to opening night. Back to that few who stayed. Back to when, heart in my mouth, I could only muster ‘Well?’

Slowly, the silence broke with quiet words ranging from ‘it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen’ to ‘it’s the best piece you’ve ever made’ to ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what you’ve made’ to ‘ It’s too soon. It’s too fresh.’

If you who haven’t seen it, here’s a quick picture:

A post-modern fable, the Circus takes the spectator on a tour of the recent past and potential future of those who have been displaced by war, weaving a marvelous, tangled web of Island folklore, Western pop culture, ancient and recent Sri Lankan history, and striking visuals that mirrors the uneven patchwork of a 21st world. This is irony with a razor’s edge…

…the Circus never allows its audience the comfort of falling into the easy dream of a more traditional storyline.  Rather the play assaults the viewer with bizarre songs, dances, and placards, with characters transforming into animals, forcing you to make sense of the 30-plus-years of war that finds its proper metaphor through a child’s eyes…

While the show was running, the government announced that the gates of Manik (Manikkum) Farm would be opened and the IDPs given a measure of freedom of movement. On December 1st 2009, the day after the show closed, The Guardian amongst others, reported that 10,000 occupants were bussed out of the compound.

It was too soon. It was too fresh. The Circus’ burlesque and mash-ups were just too shocking for some.

How does one deal with the trauma of a nation?

I suppose I began with what I knew. That irony and distance are essential to social activism. The practice of disputing and disrupting core messages dispersed by hegemonic authorities is not new. We are all indebted to theories and tactics, artistic and political, of the past – in my case, Bertolt Brecht.

So I took a Sri Lankan story that I adore and set it upon a classic Brechtian framework. Love or hate the play, it is out there. The original story The Boy Who Speaks In Numbers by Mike Masilamani was picked up after our tour to Chennai, went on to be published by Tara Books, was given honourable mention for the South Asian Book Awards this year and listed in the White Raven catalogue for 2016.

For the Chennai show (2011) at the Metroplus Festival hosted by The Hindu, we reworked the Circus, incorporating feedback that we had received from the first run.

The work became a play within a play, with the refugee characters frequently stopping the action to reflect on their personal circumstances, which we constructed for each actor. These stories and accounts were taken, almost completely verbatim, from the Human Rights Watch Report (Sri Lanka) of 2009.

We staged it in Colombo before heading off to Chennai, and found the changes well received. Chennai’s reaction was heartening:

 “…I laughed some, I smiled some; but for the most part, there was a lump in my throat. The message “Nobody ever really wins a war” came through loud and clear. I loved that they chose to tell such a politically charged history through the stories of individual lives. The tragedy is uniform everywhere; it becomes irrelevant which side you’re on.”

Also in 2011, I was commissioned to create a play based on reconciliation. On my blog I wrote:

“I suppose the biggest stumbling block for me… is that I don’t believe that… we have even begun to understand the pragmatic realities that accompany the full implications of that word. Yet, it is on everyone’s lips. ‘Reconciliation’, along with ‘reparations’, ‘nation building’…it’s just so many words…”

Rondo deliberately had nothing to do with Sri Lanka. It was an absurdist myth that investigated the impact of violence upon a community by examining its collective memory.

Subha Wijesiriwardena as budding activist ‘O’ in Rondo. Photography: Deshan Tennekoon, 2011.

The late Sunila Abeysekera picked up on my reluctance in her review:

“And so, what about reconciliation? When the reality is too complex and difficult to even attempt to represent it…when the silences and absences that surround you are too enormous to be taken apart in a piece of theatre…”

I didn’t know how to then. And I don’t know that much more now. Cultural Activism is a murky realm. It has become apparent that Reconciliation means many things to the many actors in this field, rarely finding inter-factional/disciplinary consensus on its definition and interpretation.

As a company, Mind Adventures has found truth only in the idea that ethical memory must be founded upon the sharing of diverse stories.

How does one attempt to effect reconciliation? What have we committed to? This is a heavy burden.

As an artistic collective, we have constantly tried to find solutions to the questions,

How does one memorialize the trauma of a nation?

Who are we speaking to?

Who are we speaking for?

Within the discipline of theatre, we are encouraged to challenge the status quo, to persevere towards the ultimate realization – that the right kind of theatre has the power to change minds and change lives. Since 2009, we have created a range of stories, presented in a variety of styles, which have examined the concepts of conflict and tolerance, impunity and justice. We have shared all these with our most immediate community.

What have we achieved? What have we learned?

Commenting on ‘the importance of the collaboration of critical theory with praxis’ in Cultural Activism: Practices, Dilemmas and Possibilities (2010), editors Begüm Özden Fırat and Aylin Kuryel state:

‘The engagement of critical theories with activist practices opens up a productive space where different epistemic coordinates of the political stance(s) can be theorized. It is only through this theorization that the limitations, dilemmas, and paradoxes of these political practices, as well as their achievements and possibilities can be illuminated.’

Here’s what I have learned.

Up until this year, I had been working on the assumption that a general desire for reconciliation already existed. Now I understand that the desire for reconciliation needs to be awakened.

This month I have had two vastly different, vastly illuminating experiences: a two-day workshop on dance in conflict resolution and a two-day conference on reconciliation with other artists, activists and academics.

Both have helped me to comprehend and articulate my experiences that have ranged from being highly rewarding to completely disastrous. I am grateful for these lessons.

Lesson I 

‘Choose the right partners’ – Jonathan Hollander, Artistic Director, Battery Dance Company

In May, I was extremely fortunate to make my Sinhala theatre debut with the Janakaraliya troupe. The play we staged was Kaerakena Keliya, the Sinhalese version of The Travelling Circus. The current Janakaraliya ensemble core has been working together for 7 years, are bi-lingual (some tri-lingual) and their synergy is immediately apparent. What I valued and admired the most was their habitual questioning of all aspects of the play and their ability to take any theme and situation that arose and apply them with focus and clarity to the larger questions of conflict and tolerance in our country. These are the hardest working artists/activists that I know of, with tried and tested experience in reconciliation-based work and discussion. It was truly a privilege.

Emboldened by this encounter, I agreed to another collaboration based on reconciliation with a different, majority Sinhalese-only speaking cast. This process did not go nearly so well.  In the following weeks, the company became, for me, a microcosm of our country and within our interactions I began to see parallels with issues that we face as a nation.

If a group of artists could not understand each other or reconcile enough between themselves to create a short tri-lingual performance, how much more convoluted the process for our entire country.

The Art must not overtake the Activism. That’s the Dilemma. When we allow this to happen, we undermine the tactics by which we should achieve the true purpose of our work. It’s difficult, very difficult. At some point for an artist, the production aspect kicks in and in looking at the aesthetics of imagery we may lose sight of the bigger picture and inadvertently subvert the act of ‘disrupting’. There is always that danger, no matter how experienced one is or how well meant the driving intention is.

So in a milieu where a ‘reviewer’ has recently credited one of my theatrical peers with ‘inventing or discovering’ already established modes of social satire, we must become our own strictest critics. Thus re-thinking and re-exploring creative concepts is a healthy way of examining and grappling with the sometimes confrontational relationship between theory and practice, the artist and the activist.

As a company, Mind Adventures decided earlier this year to pause, take stock and evaluate our individual and collective motives.

Lesson 2

‘Spread some light’ – Parakrama Niriella, Artistic Director, Janakaraliya Drama and Theatre Institute

I came away from the two-day conference on reconciliation with the knowledge that everyone is still tentative, figuring it out. This is reassuring to know: that one is not struggling alone and that this doubt and questioning is shared across the board.

From Professor Uyangoda, the proposition that the concept of reconciliation does not historically exist in our culture, nor in our vocabulary. Reflect on the history of this country. I found this fascinating. From some, the proposition that reconciliation on the whole has not been successful thus far. Others who reject the term altogether. Some advocate not getting involved until invited. Some say focus on the intra- not the inter-.

What stays with me?

Janakaraliya’s Logananthan Rasiah (Loga) describing what habitually displaced communities have experienced over 30 years or more. A group of plantation Tamils, for example, by multiple displacements, ending up in Vavuniya and then being forced into the jungles beyond. People so used to gore that they have become completely de-sensitized. They don’t want to talk about the war, he says. They want to feel, to experience a moment of happiness.

What are we doing? Why are we doing it?

Do we/What do we share with the generations of people most directly affected by our communal violence? What do they want to see?

What stories shall we choose? How shall we choose to show them?

Do we re-enact how our countrymen and women set fire to each other and laid waste to our land? Who should see that and why?

Parakrama Niriella speaks softly. He seems very tired, and Loga tells me they haven’t had a break since June. Janakaraliya cannot afford the luxury of pause or philosophical speculation. We must always persevere, says the leader of an organization that knows more about the ground realities of conflict resolution than anyone I know. All artists must come together, work together, and together we must endeavor to spread some light for those who have been through our darkest times.

For now, for us, that’s something to go on.