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Inspiring environmental change through timeless folk tales: The Sri Lankan Folk Tale Series

World Environment Day 2021 falls on 5 June. The theme for World Environment Day 2021 is “Ecosystem Restoration” and it will see the launch of the United Nations (UN) Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Ecosystem restoration can take many forms: growing trees, greening cities, rewilding gardens, changing diets, or cleaning up rivers and coasts. Part of the thought process behind the UN Decade on Ecosystem Regeneration is that this generation (and the one immediately after it) is the generation that can make peace with nature.

Children are our best hope for a sustainable future, and as a step towards creating that sustainable future, performance art company Power of Play, in partnership with the Sri Lanka Environmental Exploration Society (SLEES), will be hosting a series of theatre-based workshops through the month of June to reach out to children and connect with them on issues related to the environment. 

This Sri Lankan Folk Tale Series is managed and performed by Power of Play, sponsored by the SLEES, funded by the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme with the support of the Australian Government. 

 

Harnessing theatre to effect conscious thinking and behaviour shifts

Founded in 2011, Power of Play harnesses the highly adaptable nature of theatre and performance to tell stories and create experiences with universal appeal and cultural diversity in a way that breaks down barriers and brings different communities together. Working with the SLEES, Power of Play will adapt and perform four of our most beloved folk tales, Puhul Hora Karen Dane, Yakek Kanna Badagini, Nariya Raja Una Hati, and Thoppi Welenda, and using these folk tales illustrate the importance of environmental awareness and sustainable living. 

SLEES President Ruwan Weerasooriya, who has headed the SLEES since its inception over 30 years ago, explained that the SLEES’ main focus is to engage with communities and build knowledge and awareness on environmental issues, which is what led to their partnership with Power of Play to build awareness among children on environmental conservation, reducing waste, improving food security, home gardening, and other small steps that children (and families) can take to live more sustainably, saying: “Young people have the energy to learn about these things and you can easily explain it to them.” He added that the younger generation learning about environmental sustainability from a young age will result in a more conscious population in the future. 

Power of Play Founder and Artistic Director Sulochana Dissanayake also spoke about the importance of connecting with children on issues like environmental conservation at a young age, stating: “Children are musically easier to reach because they don’t have so many in-built perceptions yet; they’re still fresh off the boat in a way and it is easier to connect. Adults are pretty set in their practices and it is difficult to have effective behaviour change in adults (it’s part of the reason we’re called adults), because they’ve been around for a while and are used to doing things a certain way.”

 

Professional consultant – traditional drums, dance, and folk songs Sankha Jayalath (left) with Power of Play Founder and Artistic Director Sulochana Dissanayake

The Sri Lankan Folk Tale Series

The Sri Lankan Folk Tale Series will take place over the four Saturdays in June, starting from this Saturday, 5 June. The programme will feature four popular folk tales that have been curated by Power of Play because of how they can align with the message of climate change. The target audience for the series is from the ages of four to 12.

On 5 June, Power of Play will perform Puhul Hora Karen Dane, using the folk tale about the ash pumpkin thief to address food security during these times of scarcity and uncertainty, how to minimise food wastage in our own homes, why organic food is important, and the power of home gardening. 

Saturday, 12 June will see the performance of the famous folktale Yakek Kanna Badagini, which will use the story of the yaka invading the gamarala’s home to talk about deforestation (the yaka only visits the gamarala because the tree he lives in has been cut down), the importance of conserving forestation, being mindful of indigenous communities, and people who already call the place you’re moving into “home”, limiting paper use and replanting trees and rethinking the concept of beauty to include zero waste, and how going vegetarian even twice a week can have a major impact on fighting climate change. 

On 19 June, Power of Play will perform Nariya Raja Una Hati, the story of the jackal who fell into a paint bucket and is hailed by the other animals as a king because of his new appearance until they figure out he is a jackal. Nariya Raja Una Hati will be used to address water scarcity, highlighting how less than 50% of Sri Lanka has access to pipe-borne water and urging children (and adults), especially in urban areas, to be careful with how much water they consume. 

The final instalment in the series, Thoppi Welenda, will be performed on 26 June and will focus on the loss of natural animal habitats and how humans clearing animals’ natural habitat leads to conflict between the animals in that area, urging children to figure out ways for humans and animals to co-exist. 

 

Telling recognisable stories to inspire positive change

Dissanayake of Power of Play explained that the four folk tales being performed as part of The Sri Lankan Folk Tale Series have been adapted to make them resonate better with children of today and inspire them to look at how they can, individually and as a group, work to create a better world. 

“I’m excited to be able to talk about environmental impact through these folk tales,” Dissanayake said, adding: “These stories are timeless. It’s how our ancestors taught all of us important things. Each story has very important morals and we’re happy to be performing these stories through the lens of climate change to see what kids can change for the future.” 

 

The Sri Lankan Folk Tale Series will be performed from 10.30 to 11.30 a.m. on each Saturday of June (5 June, 12 June, 19 June, and 26 June) via Zoom and will be streamed live through the Power of Play Facebook page. Zoom participation is free – registration required. Please visit the Power of Play Facebook page for more details (www.facebook.com/powerinfoplay).