An ode to all women

Jehan Aloysius

In today’s world, we’re told that women are given their equal rights, and the representation of women in any field is on the increase – be it the Medical Field, legal, engineering, educational and defense.

Gone are the days when the “woman” used to be everybody’s doormat, being recognized as a weak character that needs “masculine” supports, not being able to take decisions. But tables have turned, where women are encouraged to follow their dreams and pursue different career Paths. Though the world has changed, still there are certain stereotypes who think that “women are there to be controlled and trampled”. Especially in the Asian culture we see this issue, where it is very difficult for a single woman to survive – being harassed from all angles physically as well as mentally, facing challenges from the society and beyond.

Drama and theater is one way of conveying a message or expressing your emotions to people, an audience which share the same mindset and respect others opinions. They are modes of expressions – expressing how you feel and what you have to convey. In the local Arts and theater scene, “Women’s Empowerment has been brought up by many different playwrights, and over the years it has been a much discussed subject. Jehan Aloysius , the famous Sri Lankan playwright who has produced several plays on controversial topics such as University ragging , titled as the ‘Rag – the musical’ seems to have something new rolling up on his sleeve this time , as an encouragement to all women , and also as a “love letter” to all strong and empowered women in today’s society, and also as a good response to all those self-centered “gender stereo types’’ , titled as ‘Venus united’.

The story of ‘Venus United’ revolves around three women who attend a drama therapy workshop, and incidents which take place thereafter. Categorized as a ‘concept musical’ , this adds a vast difference from the standard, plot driven musicals.

This is expected to create a discussion among society and contains bold lyrics and songs which were written based on various testimonials. Overall, the play is sure to have some unexpected surprises, and so much more.

Jehan , as a full time theater practitioner, has been involved over 60 productions of the English and the Sinhala language theater. In addition, he has been associated with the Royal Court Theater of London, Art of Banglore, Theatrum Botanicum of Edinburgh , Brave Theater festival of Poland, Rikskonsertene of Norway , the British Council , and also at the national drama school of Drama of India. In 2001, he founded Centre stage productions, a multi-talented theater troupe which produces original theater in Sri Lanka. They conduct theater workshops with schools, theater troupes, and amateur dramatists of both English and Sinhala circles, and have many ground breaking theater achievements to its credit. Showing his talent in drama and theater overseas , Jehan has played lead roles at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has produced theater and workshops in Norway , Poland , Scotland , Qatar and India. Since ‘Venus United’ is in the making and just about to be released, we had a brief chat with Jehan , which was at the4 same time interesting and also informative.


Q: Tell us a little bit about your new drama, ‘’Venus united ‘’ what is the theme based on?

Venus United was written in 2018. It features strong female characters in a contemporary and universal scenario. This ‘concept musical’ is more introspective than the standard, plot-driven musicals. It contains bold lyrics and songs that were written based on various testimonials. The show is situated ‘somewhere, someplace’, allowing audiences to relate to the identifiable characters and scenarios. As with ‘Rag - The Musical’, we hope ‘Venus United’ with be groundbreaking in exploring new themes in original musical theatre, which would be discussed and appreciated beyond the confines of theatre auditorium and also beyond our shores as well.

The story of ‘Venus United’ revolves around 3 women who attend a drama therapy workshop. They are joined by a fourth woman closer to the end, which helps to ground and gather the themes. The book, music and lyrics are composed by me, while my long-time musical collaborator and dear friend, Avanti Perera has arranged and performed the tracks.

We hope the show becomes a point of departure for discussing and debating the themes of the musical. We have found that ‘Rag - The Musical’ played a significant part in drawing international attention to the issue of ragging.

Some of the themes explored in Venus United:

* Equal opportunity.

* Divorce, break ups and moving on

* Ambition and making and taking opportunities.

* The liberation to fully explore their sexuality.

* Empowering individuals and through building a sisterhood though shared experience.

* Challenging gender stereotypes and roles of the woman in contemporary society.

Q: What made you produce a play like ‘’ Venus united? ‘’ was it a real life experience?

As a man who has felt it necessary to create new literature and roles for women in theatre, I feel the show is a love letter to all the empowered and strong women in my life.

I also understand that women need to negotiate and manage multiple responsibilities while also participating in the arts.

The obvious responsibilities which most women manage of children and home in addition to working on their own career, while also supporting their spouse or partner’s career as well. Also the mental and emotional vulnerabilities and challenges that women also go through. These challenges are also faced by men, of course. But society often seems to leave women in extraordinary situations rather underappreciated. Also, the dilemma of supporting the success of their partners, while not posing a challenge to their masculinity. Similarly, battling internalized patriarchal attitudes and hierarchies is also something that I know many women tend to face each day.

I’m thrilled that my hopefully empowering songs will be previewed very soon, by 4 strong women, of course. The fully staged show will follow thereafter based on the reactions and suggestions offered at the previews.

Q: Was Arts and Drama your first choice, or was it just a co incidence?

I always wanted to be a movie director. And someday I may do a movie. But I studied in the English Department of the Colombo University. I also studied International Relations and Sociology. I find that I use all I learned in my theatre work. My BA dissertation which was based on two years of interviews, case studies and practical work, with the English Language Training Unit, was on psycho-linguistics, where I recommended a drama technique to address the ambivalent integrative motive of the Lankan second language learner. Theatre was to be a tool used in the classroom for altering negative attitudes to the English language speech community. Since the tsunami, I gave up my job in advertising to focus on theatre for social change. I studied techniques and formulated approaches to address social issues though theatre. I established the Stage Hands Project in 2005, which is funded by the proceeds from our own theatre performances. We have conducted workshops in various communities around Sri Lanka to help communities deal with disaster, reconciliation and social issues. Since 2009 I also started working with the disabled. We have created some truly inspiring work with injured soldiers from Ranaviru Sevana and the Sunera Foundation over the years. In all these projects, the process is more important than the production, and when the show itself if a success, it’s a bonus. The transformative and positive affect of creating theatre is obvious in the performers in these shows.

Q: Do you think English drama has been given enough recognition in Sri Lanka?

Let me answer that by changing it to ‘original’ English language theatre. I believe that more support is needed from theatres, backers and even audiences to encourage young new writers and creators to stage original work. The danger of creating essentially replica shows can affect originality when it comes to acting, directing, staging, sets, costumes, music, lighting and even the marketing material. All these are created from scratch in an original production, in addition to the script, and in an original musical the lyrics, music and vocal and musical arrangements as well. All this effort needs to be appreciated more. I’m thrilled that we have a fantastic overseas community of followers of Centre Stage Productions who really appreciate this when we tour overseas and represent Sri Lanka at various international festivals every year. We have travelled from Poland and Norway to India as well. Last year we earned excellent reviews for ‘Pyramus & Thisby’ when we represented Sri Lanka at the Theatre Olympics in Delhi and Kolkata. This year too, we had a standing ovation when we performed by play ‘Stormy Weather’ at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav in Mysore and Delhi.

Q: When you produce a drama and write down a plot, what comes firstly to your mind?

In a musical it’s the theme and music first, next the characters and then the dialogue and lyrics.

In non-musicals, it’s the characters first and plot. The characters generally ‘write’ the dialogue themselves once I place them in the situation or scene. There is always a much, much longer period of rewriting that follows the first draft. Major changes and rewrites often are the result of readings that come after the initial drafts. It takes around 40 drafts before the final rehearsal draft and master script which is made just before a show opens. Changes continue after the show is staged of course.

Q: You have produced theater and workshops overseas as well. Do you see a difference between the Sri Lankan theater and those overseas? What are the techniques they use?

It’s impossible to state the technical differences in a short answer here. But one thing I do see is that actors overseas are generally well trained and have actually studied theatre. That allows them to really be regarded as ‘professional’. In Sri Lanka creating show often means that I have to use 80 percent of the time and energy to teach all the performance skills needed to most of the actors I work with. Untrained performers need to learn voice projection, diction, dialect, breathing, rhythm, posture, movement, dance, choreography, stage fighting, singing, creative expression, method acting, character analysis, as well as how to work in a group and being a great team player. We have literally a handful of trained professional actors in Sri Lanka who can actually command that status. When we work with professionals who know these skills, we can create a show in weeks rather than many months. This makes it so much easier for directors, who don’t have to train while directing. My troupe Centre Stage Productions hopes to expand our series of workshops to teach these skills in depth to those who wish to develop these skills.

Q: Out of your plays, what was the most memorable one which also received a good response?

I love all my shows, since most of them have been staged more than once? Some have been staged nine times, such as ‘Pyramus & Thisby’ and others 3-5 times as well. ‘Rag - The Musical’ is very dear to me since I worked on the show for 15 years and various staging before the final show. We received standing ovations each night and were featured in the BBC on radio as well as in the press, which was then published around the world. We had a similar reaction to my ballet production with the injured soldiers and deaf performers, ‘An Inspired Swan Lake’. That too was featured in the BBC and CNN as well as in dance and disabilities arts magazines around the world. We had a wonderful reaction in London at the ‘Unlimited’ festival for disability arts when I made a presentation of the work.

Q: Any advice for young artistes?

As much as it may seem to be a cliche, I always advise and encourage young dreamers to work on making those dreams a reality. Also never give up on art in order to focus on career, since if you keep at it art can indeed become your career. Keep learning and expanding your creativity, and above all, always be original so you can inspire others.

Q: Looking back at your career, how do you feel?

I have no regrets. Creating original work has allowed me to travel the world, taking Sri Lankan theatre and culture to Europe and Asia. It’s also wonderful to know that the scripts and plays I’ve created have been studied in universities since 2002, as well as overseas. I’ve had the privilege of being presented to British Royalty such as Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall and Lord Lowe on various occasions and also be featured this year by the British Council Sri Lanka in their 70th Anniversary celebrations. The actors are like family to me. I have a loyal Centre Stage Family that meets regularly and looks out for each other. We have recently also opened the doors once more to train newcomers in theatre skills and management, which do this every three years.

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