What does it mean to win the Gratiaen?

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke was awarded the prestigious Gratiaen Prize for his play “The One Who Loves You So”. The Gratiaen annually recognises the best, submitted creative work in English written by a Sri Lankan writer residing in Sri Lanka.

While Arun is the fifth playwright to win the prize, the recognition given to his play is much more notable as his work is an LGBTIQ-themed piece of writing – a love story depicting the romance of two young men, set in Colombo.

In a country where the majority of the LGBTIQ community still remains marginalised and ignored, despite the consistent efforts to decriminalise and be rid of the remnants of a colonial footprint, one of the highest honours bestowed to the island’s literary talent has been awarded to the very factor that has been shunned for many years.

Arun, who is an actor, writer, and director, and a Graduate in Drama and Theatre Arts at Goldsmiths College, London, came into the limelight following the Mind Adventures production “Paraya”, which he directed. Often perceived to be his directorial debut, Paraya set the standard for the type of work Arun would go on to do – immersive theatre productions.
The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down with Arun, now a Gratiaen award-winning playwright, for a quick chat, and below are excerpts of the interview:

Q: Could you take us through the process of writing ‘The One Who Loves You So’?

It came out in a period where I worked intensely, particularly from 2014 to 2015. I wrote and directed four different plays within the span of that year, acted in four other productions, and also acted in a couple of short films as well as an episode of a TV series. I just spent my entire time working – moving from one project to the next, without stopping. Eventually, I was exhausted, so I just took some time out.

It was supposed to be only for three months, but it ended up being a very long time. I still worked long and hard enough as I could afford to, and that’s when this play started to form in my mind. But one of the things that I was particular about was that I didn’t want to do it until I was absolutely ready and certain.

It’s a response to that where I had to literally churn out a show, conceive of it, write it, rehearse and stage it within a month to not going to touch this until its ready. And really from the day I started till the opening night I think.
18 or 20 month is forget so it’s a long long time, a long period of really working it, tuning at it, until it was absolutely ready.

I must emphasise that the play is not autobiographical, but it is, however, inspired by true events.
A lot of people believe that those are the things that happened and that show it went down but that’s completely false, because there’s so much of my actual self in both those characters, it’s not me being one or the other.

Q: While playwriting has always been a part of the Gratiaen, from your point of view as the playwright, how did your thoughts about your won script factor into the brief, when making that application?

Unlike my other works, The One Who Loves You So was a concerted effort to create a piece of writing first and I saw it as such, and the production of it was also more of a way to get the writing across more than anything else, whereas my other works were more about the theatrical ideal in some way.

Even the script was written as a piece of writing; the stage direction doesn’t simply talk about what a person is doing or how they’re moving from A to B, but it is rather a descriptor of feeling and what was occurring at the moment.

I wanted the actors and designers, when they read the script, to have them experience watching the show. I knew it stood on its own because that’s the way it was made to be.

Q: You submitted an LGBTIQ-themed play to an award of which the mandate is to promote and recognise literary works in Sri Lanka. Did you expect to win the prize?

I would be lying to say that I didn’t have any expectation or an idea that I might win, because one does have a one-in-four chance to win.

But with The One Who Loves You So, I sort of heard the noise of that expectation ring – that it may be possible, but still I just shut it all out. Honestly, I was just really happy to have my name in the long list and then the short list, with all the other names.

In fact, I made an effort to make up my mind; I had enough arguments as to why it was not going to happen or why it wouldn’t happen, so that I wasn’t going in with any expectation other than to enjoy the moment. I did it so that anything else would be a surprise.

Q: The same year you started writing the play, the Sri Lankan Government rejected the proposal made by queer activists to repeal section 365 and 365A of the Penal Code, and now we have an LGBTIQ-themed play winning the Gratiaen. Do you think it’ll make an impact on the direction we are headed with regard to queer rights?

I wouldn’t presume and place any sort of importance in what’s happening in my little sandbox that it is going to change anything.

It occurred to me in the last few days that the award had a bigger reach, which I kind of comprehended early on, and if it was to have any such impact on the direction we’re headed, that would be extraordinary, but I doubt it.

But one thing I’m certain about is that it gets the play into the conversations of those who either haven’t heard about it before or wouldn’t have bothered seeking it out before. It could even reach people to whom topics as such are not just stories about queer sensibilities and queer people, but also stories that are unapologetic in their frankness, particularly regarding sex.

And maybe, this will open people’s eyes to see another person as a human being, but still I don’t know if it will go beyond that.

Q: What has been your experience with the feedback for the show?

The play, I think, was more about queer people who felt they were seen, who for the first time might have gone to see a piece of art produced and showcased in this country, making them feel “that’s me”, “I know that”, or “that’s my experience”.

I get a lot of messages from people who feel that the show is theirs. First that and winning the prize really feels great. In fact, at this point, my part of the job is done. What’s left is the conversation between the work and the audience.

The play is not a coming-out narrative, but I came across stories about people who were able to have a better relationship and communication with their parents or loved ones with whom they watched the show; it created a more open way of communication and that is actually extraordinary, especially because that was not something I thought about before. Those moments, I feel, gave the show recognition and validity in a level I didn’t think it’d have.

Q: How do you receive criticism, particularly with this type of a show that falls into the spectrum of ‘controversial’? Do you think people are unfairly critical?

People have been for the most part, if not entirely, kind about it. But of course, I’ve also had in-depth conversations with some people about what in the play didn’t work for them and what they’d have liked to be done differently – sentimental discourse.

However, I don’t necessarily need anyone to come to me after a show and tell me what they don’t like, because I really don’t care. More specifically, I encourage people to engage with it and discuss it in public forums, but it is a false idea, I think, that an artist needs to be open to criticism and need to engage with it. Criticism should exist and it’s important that it’s out there, but the artist should not have to engage with it at all, because in a way, your part is done and there’s no good in someone coming up to me.

It kind of ignores the fact that the art is incredibly personal, and the idea that artists have to be open to and withstand even harsh criticisms is not right; artists shouldn’t try to stop it, but they should never engage with it either.

Q: You’ve been involved in the arts for many years, and you mentioned how you’ve only ever wanted to be a part of the arts even as a child. So what inspires you to keep at it and continue to make what you make?

To be completely honest, I am not really ever inspired by works in the same genre; I never go to a theatre performance and think “that is what I should do”. I always form my own art.

Something that I am proud of and grateful for is that there is this community of artists who are all of the same age group. We all kind of came up at the same time and we are really great friends – we share each other’s works and we can be critical of each other’s work, offering honest feedback. That I really treasure.

Artists like Venuri Perera, Malik Abdul Azis, Muvindu Minoy, Buddhi De Mel, and Imaad Majid are people of whose work I see, and I find the way they think about the way they see the world really inspiring. These make think in a different way; make me go “wow, why am I not thinking that way”.

Q: Finally, what are your thoughts about theatre in Sri Lanka? What’s holding us back from really making amazing art?

I think one of the biggest errors that really hinders English theatre – Sinhala Language theatre does not do this – here in Sri Lanka is not paying people for the work they do.

Personally, I have never done a production where I did not pay every single person involved. And as we progress with each and every production, we pay people a living wage, so that they appreciated for the time and effort they put. This is important because if you do not do so, it will only infantilise the entire profession and reduce it to a mere hobby, keeping it at an amateur level. Also, frankly, it’s an insult to the people who give their valuable time for the production and unfair to the audiences that pay for it.

The idea of charging people ridiculous amounts for tickets and not sharing that ticket money with the people who do the work is absolute insanity to me; I think it’s insulting and really unjust.

In terms of work, what I have always been craving for is more original voices and giving their own perspective of the world. Once again, this is something we just don’t have in English theatre – more people devising their own, original work. While I recognise the place for it, I don’t have any interest in seeing productions of previously published/produced work, which is why I said I don’t go to the theatre to be inspired.

As an actor, I am engaged by it, but as a creator, I want to see more people tell their own story.

The One Who Loves You So will have its second run in theatres in October. So if you missed it the first time, it’s your chance to catch it, which is now a Gratiaen award winning play.

Photos: Krishan Kariyawasam