Aside from the fact that your author gave the worst possible rendition of a brutish intelligence officer when called upon to enact a scene, the event succeeded in getting people to think about and articulate resolutions to the performance based on an actual incident.
Theatrically, a couple of things stood out. One, the acting could have been much better. Theatre in Sri Lanka often annoyingly confuses shrieking, shouting or screaming (which have their specific uses on stage) with projecting one’s voice, and Anupama Lakshi Dias playing the role of a journalist was particularly afflicted in this regard.
A group of us were also very partial to the Ruwanthi’esque style of Forum Theatre, where you didn’t rewind the entire production to the beginning to incorporate audience reactions. It was just a waste of time, and Guru should have just got actors to play out some of the comments / ideas from the audience in a linear fashion or as scenes that fleshed out an event, character or alternative path / ending.
Comments made by the rather annoying John Martin, Director Pan Centre for Inter-cultural Arts UK at the end, suggesting that the media and legal mechanisms could be leveraged better to combat censorship ran the risk of turning Censored from forum theatre into the theatre of the absurd. I intensely dislike it when an individual, particularly one who is so demonstrably ignorant of the growing and multi-faceted challenges to media freedom, FOE and human rights advocacy in Sri Lanka, attempts to ‘make sense’ of the production and tell us what we should be thinking about when driving back home. Thanks but no thanks – the raison d’etre of Forum Theatre is not to preach simplistic feel good catch-phrases, but to stimulate conversation on tough issues with no easy resolution.
While the goons from the B&S National Intelligence Bureau looked suitably thuggish and uncivilized, it would have been useful and more interesting to counter the stereotype. In 1973, Philip Zimbardo (now Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University) carried out a classic, but highly controversial, experiment to investigate the psychological effects of imprisonment. The details of this experiment are in the public domain and make for interesting reading, but what is noteworthy here is that Zimbardo demonstrated through his experiment the power of social, institutional forces to make good men and women engage in evil deeds. This is a phenomenon that I’ve written about in the Sri Lankan context in The banality of evil and is actually a theme picked up by a recent, viscerally compelling web campaign against torture by Amnesty International,
We then thought about the interrogators. We needed some kind of narrative structure to counterbalance the images of the prisoner in pain. Our thoughts were about how torture de-humanises everyone, including the interrogator. The part of the interrogator was played by Richard Loudon, an actor and member of Sheffield’s seminal Forced Entertainment. Stress Positions is all about time duration. It’s not short, sharp, shock. So we imagined the interrogator in our film just simply waiting, getting bored… and talking to his daughter on his mobile phone (a simple, ordinary daily life type thing). We found this juxtaposition probably more authentic and chilling than if we had cast the interrogator as some kind of psychotic.
Watch AI’s Waiting for the Guards – the Director’s story here.
Audience reactions were interesting. One comment that amused a group of us came from a woman seated up front who suggested that giving up the name of the friend under interrogation was betrayal. Clearly then, we were privileged to have in the audience possibly the only human in the world who will never, ever, ever give up information under the duress of water-boarding, stress-positions and sleep depravation. One other person asked for the ‘nationality’ of a character on stage to be made more explicit, forgetting perhaps that we are all Sri Lankans. Another woman (a foreigner), who actually did a remarkably good job enacting the role of an office manager who firmly stands up to the intrusion of intelligence personnel in search of an employee, simply missed the point that Guru articulated afterwards – you wouldn’t find them in real life.
I’ve found the commitment of Beyond Borders to strengthen and support youth activism and the meaningful participation of youth in democracy, governance and rights issues and processes is extremely admirable. BB’s strength also lies in its ability to use a range of media – from theatre to web activism – to widen and deepen vital debates amongst youth and other audiences. It’s really heartening to see issues such as the freedom of expression taken up for discussion and public scrutiny through forum theatre. It is precisely here that BB scores over the traditional media freedom organisations in Sri Lanka, which sadly to date do not and cannot engage youth as equal participants in their work. This is also why I am looking forward to the event I am co-organising with BB this Saturday as an opportunity flesh out some of the issues that cropped up last evening.
I hope they stage Censored again, and importantly, take it out of Colombo. Not enough of this theatre is done in Sri Lanka today.