Performing lived histories: working through our war, and post-war lives
Within the working scope of the company, exploring a performance making practice organic to our own growth and evolving sense of being became the focus of the company. We became preoccupied with the technique of storytelling as a means of making a theatre that could speak through the silence of the war. And so, performance work such as ‘The War Reporter’ (2010), ‘The Gaza Monologues’ (2010/2011), ‘My Other History’ (2011/2012) and ‘Forgetting November’ (2015) are indicative of how the series of choices we made to consistently engage with the stories told in the landscape of the political upheavals experienced within the specificity of the years they were performed during.
As young theatre practitioners although located by then in the terrain of the post-war, a country at war was the only country we knew and we wanted our voice and critical response to the larger politics that framed us to be present within the work. The spirit of Floating Space’s art, although not strictly a ‘political theatre,’ reflected the concerns of a community, and that of artists living and working in that community. The four productions mark also our continuing commentary, informed by lived history, on violence against journalists in the country, war as seen through the eyes of children, the narrative of displacement and the post-war struggle for memory and memorial. We were also making simultaneous choices over the form of the work, as well as build an argument for ethical considerations around working with lived histories.
The War Reporter
(Performed in Colombo in March 2010 in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, the German Cultural Centre in Colombo)
German playwright Theresia Walser’s Die Kriegsberichtserstatterin was translated for performance by Prof. Asoka De Zoysa for Floating Space Theatre Company in 2010. The choice for the title ‘The War Reporter’ was both artistic and political. The production responded not only to the war on journalism and the freedom of expression but also the apathy that such violation was met with in Colombo.
Abstract in aesthetic, the performance was set within a garden party where there is much anticipation caused by the proposed announcement of a promotion to be made by Director of a Language Institute. ‘The War Reporter’ pivots around the entrance of a young woman who relentlessly penetrates this bubble of the elite and the genteel, with their own special flavour of petty backbiting, polite chatter and finger food, with reports of war. As the Institute’s need to protect ‘the language’ it is responsible for grows in pitch, the group becomes almost oblivious to the war reporter who interrupts with her reality of a life completely altered by war. I have seen people dead, says the war reporter, in an attempt to convince. And yet, the people dead, the numbers of lives she experiences and tries to report on to those who will not listen fails to penetrate the group of people so tightly-knotted by their individual circumstances. The performance thus brought into focus the hegemony of culture and language that resonated in the context of the Sri Lankan conflict.
My Other History
(First performed as part of Unmaking Time at the Park Street Mews Warehouse, Colombo 2011, the production was also featured at the Galle Literary Festival in 2012. In October of the same year the production also toured in the cities of Jaffna and Kandy.)
Awarded the Sunethra Bandaranaike Trust Grant 2011, Jake Oorloff created ‘My Other History’ as part of (Un)making Time; a project to support new theatre-making initiated by the Sunethra Bandaranaike Trust. Reconciliation was the theme suggested by the Trust, and the performance focuses on a history and experience of displacement and dislocation as a result of war in Sri Lanka. The inspiration for the script was found in a short text titled ‘Home Town Jaffna’ written by D. Subramaniam, who was forced out of his home due to the conflict in the area of Jaffna were he lived. The plot follows his travel to Colombo and eventual return to his place of origin.
Set in a time of Sri Lanka’s move toward political reconciliation, ‘My Other History’ explores the idea of reconciliation as a moment of remembrance, a process of letting go, an act of listening as much as that of confrontation. While emphasis is placed on a reconciliation that is political and collective and pivots sometimes on a notion of moving forward that does not acknowledge its past, this is the story of the personal. ‘My Other History’ is set in the present, while referring to a past that plays out through the memory of a young man and his conversation with his mother who tries to connect her son to his past, and to what is her history. It hints at the history of a people denied of land, memory and life; it touches on a family’s sense of belonging in the context of their experience of displacement and their understandings of being patriotic or even their ability to love their country.
(Performed in September 2015 at the Harold Pieris Gallery in Colombo, the performance was created as an extension of the event ‘Watch this space: Framing the past, untying the future’ curated by Groundviews.)
The performance ‘Forgetting November’ explores the idea of memory and the process of memorialization, as much as it considers the long and difficult process of moving on from the personal and collective traumas experiences in times of political upheaval and militarized societies. Responding to the politics of time and context, it problematizes the idea of public memorials, meant to stand as repositories of grief, and bear witness to a collective history.
Working with young actors: exploring the possibilities and limits of storytelling in contexts of war
The Gaza Monologues
(Performed at the Goethe Institute, Colombo in October 2010 in collaboration with Ashtar Theatre, Palestine and at the Park Street Mews Warehouse, Colombo in February 2011 on invitation by the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, as the 67th birth anniversary commemoration performance of assassinated academic and activist Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam.)
The performance ‘Gaza Monologues,’ over the performance-making period, slowly evolved into being referred to as ‘Our Gaza’. The name came about when one of the young actors introduced the work to a journalist previewing the performance. ‘Our Gaza,’ in many ways, captures the storytelling objectives that lay at the heart of this performance-making project, and the emotional connection to ‘story’ that became the driving force behind the work. Our intention was to work with young performers and audiences on war and conflict-related stories, while creating spaces through storytelling in the ‘making’ period of the performance to bring into focus personal stories of young people responding to the war and its different realities in Sri Lanka.
The point of departure for this storytelling work was a series of monologues devised with the children of Gaza by Ashtar Theatre, based in Palestine. The monologues, developed in workshops, spoke of the realities of war as experienced by children; they also spoke for a collective psyche of a generation born into, growing up in and altered by experiences of war. The performance questioned the politics of armed conflict in ways that confronted a local audience that had been largely supportive of a government’s decision for a violent end to the war in Sri Lanka.
Our continuing conversation with form and space: locating silence, displacement and disembodied realities
(performed at The British Council Library in Colombo 2014 with the support of The British Council and Groundviews.)
Thematically, the site-specific textual performance ‘OverWrite’ was framed around the idea of ‘silence’ and ‘silencing’: a theme familiar to the body of work produced by Floating Space. In this particular work, the performance worked with the ‘site’ and ‘situation’ of the book – using the British Council library space to locate the work that dealt with the banned book and silences in texts around bodies, memories and identities.
The approaches to text that we played with in our performance making process were many and varied – extending to the digital text: we read directly from books that have been banned, like Lady Chatterlay’s lover, for example. And, through the reading, we question the context of banning; the obscenity trials over seven sex scenes written that were considered ‘explicit.’ How do societies decide what is obscene? The text was then juxtaposed with a series of readings on bodies, gender and desire that are connected to this single woman considering her body to allow for a multiplicity of perspectives on the subject.
Alice in Wonderland was banned in some countries for anthropomorphism – for the writing of humans and animals with the same complexity. And Tango Makes Three was another children’s book banned on the basis of the two parent penguins in the story being same sex parents. In some instances the book has been brought back into libraries and bookshops in the ‘adult’ fiction sections. What are the adult fears that govern these spaces of fantasy? The child’s space (in terms of the physical children’s space in the library, as well as the conceptual space of ‘imagination’ and ‘possibility’) in OverWrite became a space of the speaking of things unspoken, the space of retelling and the space of play. In this sense, we drew on the texts and contexts of banning, to create a new story and reimagine a functional space in the library
There were also the obvious choices: Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. And, in such cases, it became more interesting for us to avoid the obvious, approaching writing as challenged literature. Shame, for example, provided us with an entry point to reading work that is telling of censorship. Thus, literature, or writers, speaking for times of political upheaval or complexity has become an interesting thread that we’ve followed. We’ve also looked at writing that can be considered dangerous; writing that has endangered people.
Text was also made apparent through technology entering the space through the computers left in the space for audiences to be a part of an act of participatory writing, thus changing the sense of a performance text. And how we witness text. It also worked as an invitation to the audience to participate in this story of writing, which would then be incorporated in the closing scene of the performance each night.
(Performed at a private residence in Kotte in Colombo in December 2012 and March 2013, as a collaborative project with movement artist Sally E. Dean, supported by the Arts Council, England and The British Council.)
In 2012, Floating Space began work on ‘Unearthed’ – a performance work that was framed by the poetry of feminist writer Adrienne Rich (Twenty One Love Poems). Working with site-specific responses to space and text, the work was created in a house over a period of six weeks.
Using Skinner Releasing Techniques to unlock the body and its response to space, as well as linear conceptions of space, the work played out as a series of scenes – absurd and emotive – that played with the sense of ‘home’ in terms of ‘place’ and ‘intimacy.’ The fragmented sense of experiencing the performance was linked to the fragmented sense of life and embodiment that is the sensation of reading Rich’s text on sexuality and desire. Culminating in a meta-theatrical comment of life as performance, the performance text engaged with the performative elements of a poetic text in the making of a performance work.
In keeping with the company ethos of exploration and experimentation we collaborated with the U.K. based, Sally E. Dean Performing Arts Company, combining our storytelling practice with Sally’s movement and site-specific performance practice to create this performance which dramatically shifted something of the expectation of our work. For us, this was an important step in understanding our own practice vis-à-vis a different approach to performance-making informed by movement, and the first of many collaborations with artists from different backgrounds and disciplines.
(first performed at the Punchi Theatre in Colombo in November 2012 as a part of the Colombo Dance Platform under the curation of Ong Ken Sen, and as an installation at the Park Street Mews Warehouse in Colombo in March 2013 as part of the literature and contemporary art festival Colomboscope.)
What became one of the more interesting aspects of ‘process’ in this performance making experience was the dimension of researching statistics and qualitative research on internally displaced persons living in post-war Sri Lanka, and the resulting exploration of ways in which this research found its articulation in a series of ‘installation-scenes.’
Using the principles of installation art, the six different ‘scenes’ in the work titled – Marginalised and Vulnerable, When I came here, Reasons for wanting to return home, Conditions of home, I can’t go back and Don’t know/ Not sure – were built as ‘installation scenes’ through which an audience could walk through with some degree of freedom over choice of scene order, approach and participation. The sensation of the walk-through loop created in the form of the performance was born of the overwhelming sensation of walking that was communicated in the research conducted through interviews with internally displaced persons.
Housed within a warehouse in a shared space with a contemporary visual art exhibit showing work responding to the conflict situation in Sri Lanka, the performance worked with the layers and textures of the exhibit, which created an interesting layering and situation specific dimension to the work. ‘Absence’ marks Floating Space’s entry into the visual art space and community in Colombo.