Piumi Wijesundara

Performance requires competence alongside focus, confidence, control and a sense of effortlessness that transfers the source material to the stage. Directing a performance requires even more as the director is the person who pours the energy into the cast and crew, ensuring smooth deliverance, however complex the script is. Piumi Wijesundara is an emerging dramatist who has been gaining momentum in the past few years in the English theatre scene.

Piumi has been an enthusiast of the arts since she was a child at Mahamaya Girls’ College, Kandy. She had the opportunity of widening her horizons at the Department of English, University of Colombo, when she followed a BA (Hons) in English, where she focused mainly on theatre. She is a Producer, Director and Actor for Stages Theatre Group, and has been a part of several productions including ‘Dear Children, Sincerely’ and ‘Love and Other Objects’. She was also a part of the play ‘Grease Yaka Returns’ performed by Ananda Drama, which won the award for Best Play at the State Drama Festival 2019.

In June, the production ‘Ovaryacting!’, an empowering and educational depiction about menstruation, performed by the students of Methodist College and directed by Piumi was recognized as the Best Play at the Annual Inter-School Drama Competition organized by Royal College, Colombo. Daily ARTRA spoke to Piumi about the play, her experiences directing and her future aspirations as a theatre practitioner.

Tell us about your background and interest in theatre. How has it grown over the years?

Since I was young, all the things I wanted to be could hardly be contained on a piece of paper. I am a creative writer, an artist, an actor, a reporter, a theatre director and out of all my practices I found one profession that enables me to encapsulate all the things I wanted to be: a theatre practitioner. Not only could I, as an actor, slip into the shoes of all kinds of people from all walks of life, I could also (as a director and playwright) create worlds and impart meaningful messages to an audience full of people from all stations and walks of life. This, to me was the turning point in my life: when I heard the call of theatre and saw its ability to create awareness, compassion, empathy and magic. I have been moved by people and I have seen untold stories. For me, theatre allows just that: a chance to tell an untold story, create empathy, impart a message and move people.

In terms of a journey my interests grew in the classroom performances at school, and at the University of Colombo where I had the fortune of encountering academics and practitioners in the performance arts such as Ruhanie Perera and Prof. Neloufer De Mel who further piqued my interests. I have also been lucky to meet amazing mentors who have pushed me further and actually jolted me into the English theatre industry in Sri Lanka itself. At Stages Theatre Group, with director Ruwanthie De Chickera I had hands-on experience engaging in research-based, politically conscious theatre while gaining international exposure. I also had the opportunity to work with Jayampathi Guruge, who also helped me evolve as a dramatist.

What does theatre and performance mean to you, both as a scholar and as a practitioner?

To me theatre and performance, especially live performance, is about that ‘magic’ that is created in that moment when the performer, space and the audience just ‘connect’ or relate to each other. The beauty of theatre for me is those ‘aha!’ moment, key moments we remember in certain plays, sometimes because of the way a certain line was delivered or because we can relate to the actor or character or otherwise just the sheer condition we as an audience were in when we watched it! Theatre for me is really about this ability to connect, relate to and transform not only an audience, but even oneself as an actor/ writer/ director in the process. Theatre for me, both as a scholar and practitioner is really about investigating the human condition. There’s a quote by Augusto Boal that I absolutely love that sums up my feelings in this regard: ‘Anyone can do theatre, even actors. And theatre can be done anywhere, even in a theatre.’ I think that’s just the beauty of it, the fact that we are all really acting, every day of our lives.

How was the idea for 'Ovaryacting' conceptualized?

I’ve had the chance to work with the students of Methodist College for the past three years creating original devised plays for the Royal Drama Competitions. What I found in the last two years, given the topics tackled, was that both the actors and the audience have really been receptive. So, this year I thought, given the nature of the audience, and also using the fact that we have a large all-girls ensemble to our advantage, why not use this platform to create a play that gives voice to a much silenced topic in our society that is specific to these girls: periods.

Of course, the moment the suggestion was thrown at the girls it wasn’t received so well. And yet, so many of them stayed, so many of these young girls really felt a need to educate society about the reality of menstruation just because of the discomfort they have to face in their everyday lives due to the stigma attached to periods. It was also born out of my own personal experience in an all-girls school. ‘Ovaryacting’ was actually a play born out of the necessity to fill that void, that gap in our education system that skips the lessons in health books; and that gap in our society that prevents from even girls from initiating the conversation themselves. How can we expect boys and men to understand the workings of our body, when we ourselves are not willing to take that first step to initiate the conversation and break the silence?

What is it like to direct students passionate about theatre?

Working with students brings on so many layers of understanding as a theatre practitioner as I have found over these three years, and it has really been a learning experience for me as well. You are dealing with so many stakeholders when you are working with young students: first we have the students themselves, who essentially, are young children still grasping the workings of the world; then you have the parents; and then you have the school and administration. How do you take artistic risks while also negotiating with these stakeholders? This has been something I’ve really learned is important in the process. The communication and understanding between all of these people is key to a successful production with students.

Working with students who are truly passionate has been amazing. On the one hand they are unafraid with their creative expression, and sincerely believe in the integrity of their performance. There is commitment, passion and fire in these students that inspire me as a director as well. Interestingly, another thing that has really hit me when working with young students in theatre is how often we, as adults, forget that children are watching us. Sometimes as I audition students I see their portrayals, and interpretations of the adult world to such a level of precision that it really makes me weigh my own words around the kids. I think if children showed us how we acted, and we saw ourselves played out in theatre as often, we would all really rethink our own daily ‘performances’.

What can we expect from you in the future?

I will be taking up a Masters Degree in Theatre Directing at the University of Essex, UK in the academic year 2019/2020 to really focus my now scattered artistic energy, fully, to theatre directing. Upon my return, I hope to contribute to creating original Sri Lankan theatre and collaborating with local and global theatre artists as well. An area I also really hope to contribute towards when I return is theatre in education in Sri Lanka, as I really believe theatre can be a very powerful tool in education: as the ‘Ovaryacting’ production itself showed us when we had young boys in the audience actually go home and google a bit more about menstruation! So, yes, in another year, you will see me back here, in the theatre!

Image courtsey : Murclive.com 

ARTRA is Sri Lanka’s Art Magazine exploring curated content on Sri Lanka’s visual art, performance art, applied art and written art. Launched in 2012, ARTRA Magazine is a compact monthly art read providing a comprehensive understanding on Sri Lankan artists, art events, monthly art calendars and the Sri Lankan design landscape. In sum, all you need to know about art in Sri Lanka.

17th July, 2019 Performance Art