Thanuja Jayawardene

A theatrical performance uses the body as a canvas. The artist and canvas become one, emoting expressions. We find actress Thanuja Jayawardene exemplary in embodying this seamless interaction to explore universal questions on human emotions and conditions. Thanuja has played a wide range of characters that highlight how performance speaks of everyday life and everyday sentiments, whether it be through Shakespeare’s Desdemona, a dictatorial goon or a local upper-middle-class woman. In her performances, Thanuja becomes one with her character, finding common ground with them to ensure fluidity. Not only do the emotions of her characters become her own, but we find her body reacting with distinction, paving way to express universal feelings vividly.

Thanuja was an enthusiast of performance since she was a toddler, and represented St. Bridget’s Convent at Annual Shakespeare Drama Competitions. She studied theatre and graduated with a BA in English from the University of Colombo in 2007. Thanuja has a broad outlook to English theatre productions she participates in. She has worked closely since the early 2000s with directors of local and international repute including Guillaume Calderon, Tracy Holsinger, Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke and Ruvin De Silva.

Through our conversation, we explore Thanuja’s approach to performance and several noteworthy characters that she has played, to unravel the role acting and theatre plays in validating human emotions and conditions.

Q | In your opinion, how does theatre provide answers to larger questions of life?

A | For me, theatre has always been a place for reflection, for understanding myself and people better. Engaging in a certain character and understanding their motivations are very relevant to life, always. I could be playing a strange, atypical character and I would still be able to find many things related to my own life. ‘Villa’ (2015) directed by the Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon, for example, was directly relevant. It was about a time in Chile where there was a conflict under the oppressive regime of Pinochet, and three women living in a house that used to be a torture chamber. Even though it was from a completely different time and place, I could still relate to these women’s thoughts about trauma, political unrest and fears of burdensome regime, having grown up in a time of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. I feel like every character I have played has been one where I would find connections to my life. It helps me to understand that certain perceptions I have are not true, or are no longer true. 

Q | Can you tell us more about that sentiment of changing perceptions about the world through performance in relation to a play you have performed?

A | ‘Paraya’ (2013-14) directed by Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke was set in a context that I could relate to on a personal note. It was about power, corruption and extremities of violence. It was quite difficult and taxing for me to relate to that kind of behaviour, but when I was preparing for the character of a state goon, I understood how insecurities and weaknesses in a person could make them hold on to the little amount of power they could have. It never makes it okay for me, but it made me realize that if I was in that same place, I would also probably be pushed to behave similarly. Which is a scary thought, through which theatre has facilitated a sentiment towards changing perceptions and human follies within myself.

Q | How have your performances and character portrayals impacted you as a person?

A | They have helped me to realize that a lot of what I was brought up with in terms of what is acceptable and what is not, is not absolute. There is so much that I don’t know, and realizing that is empowering. To know that you don’t know, and that it’s okay to make the best decisions you can at a certain moment of time. The characters that I have played have so many different layers and angles, and there is no right way in which things must be done. I still have strong opinions, but it has helped me to be at least a bit more open-minded.

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5th July, 2019 Performance Art