The library at the British Council has been left open after hours for a photo shoot. Actors cluster around tables near the entrance, debating their choice of costume and using a dark window as a makeshift mirror while they apply make-up.
All the lights are on – illuminating the rows of bookshelves and the listening corner, a nook for the children’s section and another devoted to magazines, all monitored by the librarians’ counter. When the actors move, their bodies are segmented by shelves, my view of them framed by, obscured and revealed by the spines of books. With a few steps they move from an adult world into one designated suitable for children; from the space dedicated to a reader already immersed in a language to the seat of a learner struggling to master it. It’s all these sharp juxtapositions that make this a very nice library, but an even more interesting performance space.
The Floating Space Theatre Company has an affection for unusual, intimate venues, and an interest in creating unique productions that arise from and respond to their surroundings. Now, this large room is to host ‘OverWrite,’ billed as ‘a performed journey through books, exploring challenged literature, bodies, memories and lives.’
Floating Space co-founder and Director of this production, Ruhanie Perera explains that she and Sanjana Hattotuwa, founder and curator of the citizen journalism website Groundviews, conceptualised the production together. They began with a focus on banned books, but were soon interested in the contexts of the banning – what did one era consider obscene or another see as a politically inflammatory piece of writing? How did that change depending on who was in power and where and when it was happening?
It was clear, the banning of these books represented quite directly a rejection of certain lives, memories and spaces, a conflict of context and a challenge to free thought, but the group is equally interested in books that subverted censorship and slipped through the cracks. “It starts with the banned book but then it gets bigger,” says Ruhanie, and as if the frame zooms out we can see the political context, the effect of time passing, of landscapes shifting, of memories in conflict.
In the matter of the selection of texts, audiences can expect a particular emphasis on Sri Lankan and regional post-colonial literature (expect writing inspired by The Partition to be included) and in a nod to its collaboration with the British Council, the production will also draw from books in this library.
“There are the obvious choices,” says Ruhanie, selecting Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ as an example but then the group weren’t particularly interested in the obvious, instead they’re approaching writing as “challenged literature.” ‘Shame’ by the same author, for example, provided them with an alternate entry point into a reading that still raised questions of censorship. “Thus, literature, or writers, speaking for times of political upheaval or complexity has become an interesting thread that we’ve followed,” says Ruhanie, “We’ve also looked at writing that can be considered dangerous; writing that has endangered people.”
These literatures that were both challenged and challenging were often removed from libraries – their lives as books interrupted, detracted from. Some have become infamous for their sexually explicit content, but in this realm of fantasy, perhaps more than anywhere else, what is acceptable is always subjective. ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by D. H. Lawrence, for instance, inspired such controversy that it took over 30 years before the unexpurgated edition could be published openly in the UK. In ‘OverWrite’ they’ve chosen to read simply from the section where a woman stands looking at her naked body in the mirror and to then juxtapose the reading with other, more contemporary pieces, that draw on lesbian writing and women’s sexuality.
‘OverWrite’ will also wade into the sometimes murky waters of children’s literature. Walking through the cheerful children’s section at this library Ruhanie talks about ‘Tango Makes Three’ – a children’s book that was banned on the basis of the two parent penguins in the story being same sex parents. “In some instances the book has been brought back into libraries and bookshops in the ‘adult’ fiction sections,” she says, asking, “What are the adult fears that govern these spaces of fantasy?” (Even the classics weren’t always spared: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was banned in some countries for anthropomorphism – for the writing of humans and animals with the same complexity.)
“The child’s space in ‘OverWrite’ is a space of the speaking of things unspoken, the space of retelling, the space of play. In this sense, we draw on the texts and contexts of banning, to create a new story and reimagine a functional space in the library.”
The 50-minute performance will entail some light walking, and with no reserved seating, audiences are encouraged to create their own journey – to make choices as they sit, stand and navigate this space. Though this will not be the first time Floating Space are making adventurous and creatively demanding choices in their staging, Ruhanie says each time still feels like going out on a limb – “one is always concerned about your relationship with the audience,” she admits. Together, she and Sanjana have discussed how they would like to navigate the changes that technology has wrought on the reading experience. “It changes our sense of text. And how we witness. It also becomes an invitation to the audience to participate in this story of writing,” says Ruhanie.
Certainly the production is likely to demand more of audiences than a more conventional show, but there’s a very real pleasure and a sense of participation in that, as Colombo audiences have begun to discover in recent years. It will be interesting as well to see how the choice of readings could affect the listener – faced with the socially taboo, the politically controversial or the merely private, how do we simply sit with the words and no less crucially, with each other as part of the same audience?
OverWrite will be performed at the British Council Library on October 25, 26 and 27, with up to three shows running daily starting at 6.30pm. (*Monday night’s first performance starts at 7pm, with a special post show discussion scheduled for 9pm after the final performance for the evening. Anyone interested is welcome.) Please also note that the readings will also draw from work that can be considered ‘adult literature.’
This performance is directed by Ruhanie Perera and conceptualised by Ruhanie Perera and Sanjana Hattotuwa. It is performed by Jake Oorloff, Tracy Jayasinghe, Venuri Perera, Ashini Fernando, Tehani Chitty, Dino Corera, Thanuja Jayawardene and Jay Kuru-Utumpala. OverWrite has been created with the support of The British Council, Colombo.
Tickets are priced at Rs 800/- and will be available at the British Council starting October 18th (Monday – Friday 9.30am to 4.30pm at the Arts Unit and weekends 10.00am – 4.00pm at the Library.
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on October 19,2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Floating Space.