Featured image courtesy Janakaraliya.org

In the 1970s and 1980s, Sri Lanka witnessed a marked conflict between the State’s enactment of power in relation to the control of public space, and street theatre’s appropriation of it. The proscenium theatre was allowed more freedom from State control, thus highlighting that there was a distinctly threatening quality to the nature of street plays, which were often more spontaneous and open to greater audience-performer interaction. I will argue that at times these performances opened up a liminal space in which to explore socio-political issues outside of the watchful gaze of the government. Not only did they involve an engagement with contemporary politics, they also performed a cathartic role in an Aristotelian sense by providing a time when the audience could process trauma and loss. This was significant because the populace experienced severe economic difficulties in the 1970s – there was a food scarcity followed by a reduction of the welfare state and an increased liberalisation of the economy under J.R. Jayawardena’s United National Party (UNP) government, which came to power in 1977. As well as this, the polity witnessed extreme brutality during the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrections of 1971 and 1988-90 when youths rose up against the government, and killed those who did not support them, whilst the government reacted by suppressing dissent through murder and enforced disappearances. In addition, violence was being directed at Tamil citizens – July 1983 saw a pogrom in Colombo with murders and many having to flee the country. In ‘Sri Lankan theatre in a time of terror’, Ranjini Obeyesekere describes this as “a period of intense violence… Both the North and the South, cities and villages, were awash with killings.”

Founded by Gamini Haththotuwegama, a playwright and university lecturer, The Wayside and Open Theatre was born in 1974. In such a dark period in Sri Lanka’s history, street theatre represented an alternative narrative to the state’s hegemonic discourse. Haththotuwegama believed that theatre should deal with relevant “socio-economic-political” issues, as well as play a “role in the liberation struggles of the country”. Viewing the scene in Colombo as bourgeois and elitist, he took his plays out of the proscenium theatre, to urban and rural areas, so a whole range of audiences could attend. Not only was he extending the geographical reach of political theatre, he was engaging the labouring classes, the very part of the polity the government was trying to suppress from JVP-inspired dissent. No doubt this was part of the reason why his plays came under the State’s surveillance.

Due to the increasing militarisation of the North of the country, Haththotuwegama’s plays were confined to the South. In order to explore how the Wayside and Open Theatre appropriated space, I will focus on Sinhala street theatre. However, concurrently there was a rich Tamil street theatre scene, which dealt with topics such as the State’s discriminatory policies, as well as the rise of the Tamil Tigers. In order to fully understand the contestation for space, I will explore how the State apparatus sought to perform power through surveillance, censorship, imprisonment and murder; how street theatre as an ideological apparatus claimed public spaces to raise political awareness; and finally how at times, the latter was successful in creating intimate, liminal spaces that transcended state control.

State Performance of Power

According to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, it was originally art, rather than the State, that disseminated ideas and encouraged moral inquiry in communities. However, with the rise of the nation state, particularly under colonial rule, politics came to be the hegemonic, regulating force. He explains that the audience is their “common target” while “the main arena of struggle is the performance space – its definition, delimitation and regulation”. This is a huge task for a government because space is an open, shifting entity as Doreen Massey explains: “far from it being dead and fixed, the very enormity of its challenges has meant that the strategies for taming it have been many, varied and persistent.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, surveillance, intimidation and imprisonment were used by the Sri Lankan State to try and control street performances. These tactics converged when The Wayside and Open Theatre company was performing in Galewela, inside the remains of a shop, which had been partially burned down in the 1983 riots. Interestingly, a location had been chosen where State-backed forces had recently exerted their power; the selection of this site is therefore symbolic, and reflects how the movement was reclaiming a site of violence in order to question government policy. The performance started with a satirical piece featuring puppets, which critiqued authoritarian power. Following this, a play called The Queue was enacted where the absurdity of a capitalist system, always competing to be first, was highlighted. During this time, a policeman arrived – the great irony was that the audience thought he was part of the performance! The closeness of these state and ideological enactments of power is made clear by Erika Fischer-Lichte when she writes: “The phenomenal body of actor and spectator is the existential ground of every kind of performance.” In this situation, the policeman was both actor and spectator, which led to his unease, as well as the audience’s lack of realization and no doubt the actors’ mixed feelings of fear and amusement. The policeman had been informed by an anonymous petition that the plays were critical of the ruling party, highlighting the surveillance aspect; additionally, he questioned why they were performing outside rather than in a theatre hall, reflecting the state’s dissatisfaction with the group’s appropriation of public spaces; and authority was exercised further when he arrested some of the actors. The close ideological and physical contestation of space between the state and street artists is made clear in instances such as this.

As well as performers being questioned and detained, there were times when they were also imprisoned. This was often in conjunction with their JVP political affiliations. Obeyesekere interviewed an actor, who for security reasons went by the name of X. The struggle over space is significant here as he was placed in the state’s foremost authoritarian space, a prison camp in Boosa, yet he and fellow inmates performed a Brecht play, The Caucasian Circle, which deals with the reclamation of land by farmers after Nazi rule. The parallels to 1980s Sri Lanka are clear – the JVP wanted greater democratic rights for agrarian workers and felt suppressed by the government. It is surprising that X and his fellow inmates were allowed to command this freedom in a strictly state-controlled area where the performance of power is at its height. In this way, Thiong’o sees the prison as “a metaphor for the postcolonial space” where “the state performs its rituals of power”. However, this example does not fit with his theory that the state tries to “deny the artist space altogether” because clearly a certain freedom was granted to the inmates. I would argue that the state saw these enactments as symbolic rather than holding political power; perhaps it viewed them as a challenge but not radical in the Boalian sense as acting as a “rehearsal of revolution”. Despite this, conditions were still threatening; Richard de Zoysa, a journalist and theatre personality who worked with Haththotuwegama, was killed in 1990. Although, Obeysekere writes that it is suspected that this was more likely due to his reports on human rights abuses, it shows how performers worked at “the greatest risk imaginable” in the shadow of the state’s authoritarian rule. For this reason, Obeyesekere is too blasé in statements such as: theatre was “free of governmental controls” and “the strict censorship that was exercised by the government on all forms of political criticism and dissent did not seem to affect theatre”. In generalising theatre, she does not acknowledge the added threat that street artists faced, which serves to undermine their daily struggles. The juxtaposition between these comments and Haththotuwegama’s account of the conditions, highlights the discrepancy between Obeyesekere’s theory and the reality on the ground:

“We have been interfered with, questioned by the police, subjected to violence, and actors who have attended our workshops were killed during the terrible time of terrorism in 1988-9 – state terrorism also – when lots of youths got bumped off.”

Street theatre’s appropriation of public spaces

From the repressive measures taken, it is clear that the Sri Lankan postcolonial State had a fear of uncontrolled space. Thiongo’o writes: “the open space among the people is the most dangerous area because the most vital”. The Wayside and Open Theatre’s reach was no doubt a threat to the government who was competing for the same audience but often unable to engage them with the same resonance. This is highlighted by a comment made to Haththotuwegama by a politician who watched one of the plays and said: “What we are trying so hard to communicate, you people said just like that”.

Kanchuka Dharmasiri writes that the company travelled around the South of the country, performing on village threshing floors, in factories, streets, universities, urban slum areas, mines, churches, and temple grounds. With this flexibility of movement, they were able to open performance spaces to communities that lie on the peripheries of the polity, for example, tea plantation workers in Hatton and a marginalized group living on Elugala rock formation in Kurunegala. Haththotuwegama says that this dynamism and ability to perform “in any place, in any form, and in any situation” challenged the government’s ability to control public space using a rigid, repressive apparatus that struggled to cope with such fluidity.










The Wayside and Open Theatre group performing in a public space. (Daily News, 2013)

A major part of Haththotuwegama’s political motivation was to draw attention to increasing commercialisation in the wake of the liberalisation of the economy. During this period, imports flooded the market; there was an opening to World Bank aid; and rapid privatisation, which pushed up the cost of living. Whilst the middle class benefited, the working class struggled under the new capitalist conditions. Haththotuwegama explains: “Violence is not just guns and bombs and fights. There are so many forms of violence, for example, the violence of conspicuous commercialism”. In reaction to this, the movement’s plays were always free and unticketed – yet another way of opening up space, dissolving the concept of regulation and making theatre-going a democratic exercise. In the late 1970s, the group claimed two public and indeed iconic spaces to perform plays on this topic. ‘Wesak Dekma’, performed in 1975, which revolves around the commodification of religion was performed in the grounds of one of the country’s holiest Buddhist sites, Dambulla temple, whilst The Open Economy, performed in 1978, a satire on the uselessness of imported objects, was enacted in the heart of Colombo, on Galle Face Green.

Wesak Dekma is set on the May full moon day, which marks Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing away. It is traditionally a time of reflection and piety, yet in Haththotuwegama’s play, the spirituality is lost in place of despair as a father and son cannot afford any of the items that are being sold in the new commodified version of the festival. The satire begins with two characters asking: “Can one attain merit without money?”. This is clearly an inversion of traditional Buddhist values, which place any form of materiality as secondary to spiritual worth. The seriousness of this question is broken by laughter when the characters come to a dansal – a wayside spot where a free meal is given on full moon days. Normally funded by the temple, in the play it has been commercialised and a “transnational, international, multinational, presents the gigantic, combined pittu dansala”. The language is rhetorical and hyperbolic, mimicking advertising campaigns and the vocabulary of the new open economy.

At this point there is some comic relief, the audience laugh, and the players clap and sing. The next scene introduces the father and son, both adult men. There is yet more comedy as the son who is supposed to be ten years old, asks to be carried. However, the mood soon shifts as the players at the side begin a taunting chant: “Your mother went to Dubai”. The father and son freeze; in the stillness Haththotuwegama reveals the violence of the new economy that has reduced the reach of the welfare state and affected family relationships in fundamental ways. The laughter stops as the pair are isolated in the space and the son asks his father, “Is there absolutely nothing free at Wesak?” Before long, they are surrounded by sellers who repeatedly hassle and ask: “Will you buy?” The space they inhabit becomes smaller and smaller, as they are subsumed by the sellers’ bodies. The atmosphere is tense and nightmarish, far from the joy of traditional Wesak celebrations. Eventually they fall to the ground, representing their oppression and defeat at the hands of the neoliberal economy. The Wayside and Open Theatre had successfully appropriated a public, religious space to comment on the selfishness of state policy.

Perhaps due to the distance from Colombo, the seat of State power and due to the tradition of performing plays at Wesak, this play was not subject to state interference, however, The Open Economy was disrupted by undercover policemen. This fits with Thiong’o’s belief that: “the more open the performance space, the more it seems to terrify those in possession of repressive power.” Galle Face Green is a daring location in which to perform – in the centre of the city, close to the financial district, and on a large area of open ground. As well as being an area firmly within the state’s regulated space where displays of power are regularly enacted in the form of military parades, it is also a popular recreational area where visitors and residents enjoy buying snacks and mementoes from vendors.

The Wayside and Open Theatre created this play in response to what they saw as the ridiculousness of snow being imported for a carnival and the lack of regulation on imports. It is a satire with a vendor selling objects such as an electronic backscratcher and even flexible backbones. Haththotuwegama recalls how the actors were ironically discussing the import of snow boots when a member of the audience interjected and said: “How can one find snow here?” The actor spontaneously replied: “We will import snow also”. At this point, it became clear that this was actually an undercover policeman, and from then on several more plainclothes officers started disrupting the performance and abusing the actors. The fact that the State apparatus felt threatened by this portrayal, suggests that the company was asserting ideological power over the space. Althusser, in Essays on Ideology, writes: “the State apparatus secures by repression…the political conditions for the action of the Ideological State Apparatuses.” In this case, the Wayside Theatre was subverting the concept by creating their own “political conditions”, which is why state powers stepped in to “repress” the display of autonomy that was being appropriated in the heart of the city. An added irony is that the actual vendors, just a few metres outside the direct performing area, were treated differently to the ones in the performance space. Kanchuka Dharmasiri comments on this discrepancy when she questions: “What in fact is the difference between the vending bodies and the performing bodies? Does one help establish the consumer capitalist status quo while the other disrupts it?” One group is operating within the parameters of the state apparatus’ regulated space, whilst the street actors are subverting and destabilizing it, opening up a new space that is not allowed for in Althusser’s theory.

Street theatre’s ability to open space and perform a cathartic role

The spontaneity and fluidity of street theatre makes it challenging for state authorities to monitor – these are also the qualities that allow it to transfer over the liminal boundary between art and life. In turn, this can have a transformative effect on spectators. Haththotuwegama explains:

“Youthful culturists working in Sinhala somehow do manage to squeeze their work through the available power structures, however inhibitive these prove to be. They survive…intriguingly and courageously well – the contradictions and paradoxes of postcolonial Sri Lanka.”

However, in the liminal moments, when a freeing quality is created, rather than viewing space as being created restrictively in the intersections of the state apparatus as Haththotuwegama does here, it is more useful to conceptualise in Massey’s terms when she writes of the uprooting from “stasis and closure” into an area characterized by “heterogeneity, relationality, closeness and liveliness” which “releases a more challenging political landscape.” It is this open space that is so fertile for artists and spectators yet so threatening for the state because it is unpredictable and continually shifting. Accounts of the Wayside and Open Theatre’s performance of You Saw, I Saw in Polonnaruwa in 1989, reveal many of these qualities. The ancient capital, located in the centre of the country, witnessed extreme violence during the JVP insurrections. Haththotuwegama speaks of the importance of fitting a play to a place: “locations themselves suggest specific issues to critique, provocative openings for the creative work to follow…the research is part of the responsible burden of polemics”. The piece reenacts the uprisings – it features actors in black entering the performance space and being killed; their bodies are piled up and then mothers enter searching for their sons. After the action, a song fills the space:

“You break your chains and make a garland

Fly away and embrace the sky

Bring the secrets of the rain god

Come quickly

Come back here.”

Haththotuwegama explains how this was set to a ritualistic melody and rhythm, and is supposed to have a liberating quality. In juxtaposition to this hopeful tone, the performance finishes with a lament: “They were burnt alive/Piled up and burnt alive.” To finish on such a note of pathos reveals the unsparing nature of the company’s plays; it is this candour that encourages catharsis. The reponse from spectators after the enactment is extremely significant. Not only were the group told that the very ground they were performing on was actually a site where bodies were piled in reality, but a woman also came to Haththotuwegama and said , “Your play is about us. You have talked about us”. She revealed that her three sons had been killed and that the lament had deeply affected her. Furthermore, another female spectator approached Deepani Silva, one of the actresses who had played a mother in the play, and hugged her suggesting she felt a closeness, and symbolising a liminal dissolving of boundaries. Examples such as this fit with Fischer-Lichte’s understanding of the fluidity of performance:

“There are the unforeseen and unplanned elements emerging in the interaction between actors and spectators during the performance, which will disturb the pregiven programme…The performance brings forth meanings…the most diverse associations might appear as signifieds like images, ideas, memories, emotions… It is very questionable whether such associations come up following particular rules and, therefore, predictably…They simply emerge.”

For actors and spectators, the experience of performing and viewing You Saw, I Saw, took on a whole new “meaning” once they recognised the depth of the “memories“ and “emotions” it had triggered. There was nothing predictable about this, and in fact, the reaction emerged out of the trauma that had been experienced with the loss of family members; the trauma that was linked to the site; and the violence that had been addressed in the play. Even today, the state has not admitted or built memorials for the youths who were killed in the 1971 and 1988-90 insurrections – it has tried to erase the loss from history. Yet at liminal moments such as this, the Wayside and Open Theatre allowed “audience and actors to reclaim a space of violence…a space for communal mourning”. For this reason, Fischer-Lichte’s idea that “the performance transfers the spectator into a state which alienates him from his everyday life”, does not fit because rather than being transported away from reality, this form of street theatre aims to bring spectators closer to it. This is what gives way to a cathartic experience. In this respect, rather than solely encouraging political action, Haththotuwegama’s plays had a psychotherapeutic effect, helping members of society to process trauma by giving a “voice back to the silenced”.

This transformative experience was able to take place because there was no struggle with or immediate presence of state power. Instead, audience and spectators enjoyed an intimacy, which gave rise to a liminal state. For this reason, it is vital to see performance space as fluid and emergent rather than fixed. At times like this, the state struggles to enforce regulation because conditions are created spontaneously. Therefore, in opposition to Althusser’s belief, there are moments when the “State apparatus” is in fact unable to “secure the reproduction specifically of the relations of production.” Instead, “in this open interactional space there are always connections yet to be made…It is a world being made, through relations, and their lies the politics”.

Reclaiming Space, Critiquing Policy

The state’s performance of power over artistic dissent took several forms in the 1970s and 1980s – it was characterised by surveillance, the disruption of performances, the arrest of performers and killings. Street actors performed in a climate of fear and several of the Wayside and Open Theatre’s plays, including The Queue and The Open Economy, were interrupted by undercover policemen, which symbolised a bodily re-assertion of the state’s hegemonic control. However, in reclaiming public spaces, sites of violence, whether this related to physical violence as was the case with the ground on which You Saw, I Saw was performed in Polonnaruwa, or economic violence as implied by the location of Wesak Dekma in the temple grounds in Dambulla, street theatre artists were able to critique government policy thus encouraging the growth of an alternative political consciousness to challenge authoritarian rule. Furthermore, there were times when the watchful eyes of the government were averted that these plays managed to open up liminal spaces in which performers and spectators came together in collective mourning for the traumatic loss of life inflicted by JVP and state violence.

For this reason, street theatre is just as much a part of Sri Lanka’s postcolonial, national theatre, as its proscenium counterpart. As a form, it poses a threat to the state because its spontaneous qualities and ability to move around the country and appropriate public spaces, mean it can give rise to the growth of ideologies that are “not born in the ISAs but from the social classes at grips in the class struggle”, as Althusser lays out in Essays. Additionally, Thiongo’o explains how national theatre has “to find and define its own space” – “the real national theatre surely lies where the majority of the people reside: in the villages in the countryside and in the poor urban areas”. This is likely why the government supported the proscenium theatre based in the metropolis of Colombo but viewed street theatre as a danger. The Wayside and Open Theatre’s desire to extend and expand postcolonial Sri Lankan drama (Haththotuwegama, 2012, p.232) was part of the struggle to create democratic public spaces. This process gave rise to a very immediate form of interaction between performer and spectator with plays such as You Saw, I Saw, going “to the root of the historical space of people’s experience in order to speak to their immediate presence as they faced their tomorrow”.