It’s close to 6 p.m. and the three wheeler driver throws me a dubious look when I tell him to take me to Rio cinema in Slave Island. Once there, I’m happy to leave the cinema’s two solitary patrons to their film to follow Subha Wijesiriwardena and Tracy Holsinger on their way to a rehearsal. They slip through a grilled gate, which opens onto a long, nearly unlit corridor. It’s hard to believe this poorly lit, grimy building was once a hotel – despite the decorative little foot bridge complete with broken slats over an empty pond.
A scene from the play
Emerging from the corridor, we find ourselves in a small open space where the cast of ‘Paraya’ have begun to gather. It’s a rainy day and a slick of moss and water coat the bottom of a derelict swimming pool. The hotel itself stands empty – slender trees grow in cracks in its walls. Scorch marks on the hotel’s blackened facade are a reminder of its dark history. It’s looked like this since it was thoroughly looted and torched in the ’83 riots and now only the first floor is occupied by lodgers who make do with the simplest of facilities. Under a few bare light bulbs, the cast get ready to do a run-through.
The audience today is small, something which the Mind Adventure Company intends to replicate when they stage the play later this week. ‘Paraya’ is being billed as an immersive theatre experience and is perhaps the most ambitious – in terms of the size of its cast and the complexity of its narrative – of the few productions that have already been staged in alternate venues. Thematically, it follows in the footsteps of the Company’s productions like ‘The Travelling Circus’ and ‘Rondo’ – the action playing out in a painstakingly built alternate universe plagued by many of the same maladies that cripple ours.
“Everybody,” says director Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, raising his voice to quieten the melee, “we are going for a full run.” I gather this means the play will loop, running twice. Arun is running through everyone’s cues, answering questions, but he finds time to direct their guests. “Audience, when you’re watching it, you can follow any one of them through the play. Pick somebody and just go with them – go where they go. At some point you’ll have another chance to pick someone else. Spread out. Don’t hang out in a place waiting for something to happen. That’s basically it.”
From the scene in the courtyard, I choose to follow a new face I’m curious about – ‘Paraya’ marks Shehara Silva’s return to the stage after a long hiatus. But while I eavesdrop on the incendiary conversation that follows, I can hear other scenes playing out around me. This happens throughout the play – sometimes the sounds rising to a shriek of agony that is perfectly believable in this grim little space. Outside in the main corridor, a shady Ryan Holsinger lurks, offering passers-by something from his bag of illicit treats. Subha and Prasad Pereira (one conscious, one not) are partners in a silent, grotesque waltz.Walking from room to room Tracy Jayasinghe, Ruvin de Silva and Chinthaka Fernando have something to hide while Thanuja Jayawardene, Tracy Holsinger and Brandon Ingram have pain to inflict.
They brush up against each other – passing by on the street, adversaries in a game of torture, competitors in a power struggle, victims hiding from other victims –in a multiplicity of encounters. They don’t wait for an audience, the action continues regardless. I realise soon enough that this play requires I actually have a strategy and that, in a sense, I shape my own experience. It’s a fresh and challenging approach and I’m not entirely certain how it will work with a larger crowd. I’m not even certain, having watched one run through but not the second, that it’s possible to grasp every thread of the narrative – entire conversations went unheard, more than one twist twisted without me to witness it. What I am though is curious, curious to see what the play’s final form will be and whether The Mind Adventures Theatre Company will pull this one off–which is why I’ll be going back for more of ‘Paraya’.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on September 15, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by M.A Pushpakumara.