Life lessons from RC’s Dramsoc – 50 years ago: By Imtiaz Muhsin
It was, maybe around September of 1970, whilst I was studying as a Grade Nine-er at Royal College, that our ‘English Master’ the affable (now Late) Mr. R. S. Kandasamy, popularly known as ‘Kandos’ introduced the idea to our class about the possibilities of our School participating at the forthcoming ‘All Island Inter-School Shakespeare Drama Competition’.
To our young fecund minds ‘Drama’, ‘Shakespeare’, ‘Inter School Competition’ sounded like exciting terrain that invited exploration. Mr. Kandasamy had mapped out his plan of action. He called for a meeting of the ‘Royal College Dramatic Society’ popularly known as the ‘Dramsoc’ at which the proposal was presented and discussed, and it was decided that we should seriously consider participating at this ‘All Island Inter- School Shakespeare Drama Competition’.
It was a new and interesting experience for all of us. I remember a few boys from my class, being asked to read a few lines from some books, and this was how we were being auditioned. Nice!
I did notice that the teachers were impressed with how I read or articulated ‘my lines’. It did give me a sense of ‘impressing’.
At Royal College, there was this room, (a normal largish airy classroom with little furniture) which was known as ‘The Little Theatre’; a rather quaint and intriguing name, and it was here that we used to meet for play-practices. At the beginning, it was during school hours, and gradually we had to present ourselves for practices soon after (maybe half an hour after) school was over.
It was also around this time that Royal College had a new member of staff, and would you believe it, he was an Englishman! He was different to all other members of the staff of Royal College not only because he was an Englishman, but he was young, handsome, almost looked like a schoolboy himself, rode a bicycle to school, and effused a friendly, jocular and an ‘easy to speak to’ personality.This was Mr. AHCT Gates, a graduate from Cambridge University and a Barrister at Inner Temple London, in other words, a lawyer.
So, what was he doing as a teacher at Royal College?
Something (I do not know what), had made him decide to join the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and to come to Sri Lanka as a Volunteer (English) teacher for one year.
And there he was!
He took on the task of teaching English, to us Sri Lankans, with a ‘zest’. His style and demeanor was refreshingly different to the other teachers at the School. He looked on the classroom as a theatre to infuse confidence to his students through the proper use and techniques of language, and in the art of communicating itself.
It was but natural, that Mr. Kandasamy and others of the ‘Dramsoc’ welcomed Mr. Gates as a new driving force to further activate this society.
Within a few weeks, Mr. Gates was able to ‘ring in’ the changes.
The biggest change was that we decided that we were not going to participate in the Annual ‘All Island Inter School Shakespeare Drama Competition’.
The next biggest change (actually this could count as ‘the biggest change’) was that Mr. Gates, along with the other teachers in charge of the Dramsoc, had after a considerable amount of discussions, decided instead to stage a full length play.The play he chose was an ambitious and challenging production, namely Oscar Wilde’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ described as a biting satire on the morals of Victorian society, particularly marriage.
Obviously, Mr. Gates had the ‘casting’ vote (the pun is intended).
The decision was duly approved by our Principal Mr. Welikala.
The ‘Little Theatre’ was where we had our regular play practices, and now we had students from the senior A’Level classes too, taking an active interest in the production.
I (at 14 going on 15) was chosen to play the part of ‘Lady Windermere’ committing me to an enormous amount of time and effort, including a full-dress rehearsal at the Ladies College Hall, on April 4th.
We were all pent up with suspense for the public production, (scheduled for April 9th and 10th) only to be woken up on April 5th with the news that there was an island wide curfew and all Schools were closed!
It turned out that whilst we had been holding our final Full Dress Rehearsal at the Ladies College Auditorium, the JVP, or what was then commonly referred to as the ‘Che Guevara’ insurgents, had launched a well-coordinated attack on a number of Police Stations and in fact had taken control of some of those Police Stations.
What an anti-climax!!
But then, we have always mused on the ironies, that whilst some of the youth of Sri Lanka, were busy preparing for the drama of an island-widebreak-out of this Marxist ‘Che Guevara styled’ insurgency,we members of the Royal College Drama Society were busy producing a play, epitomizing the height of English snobbery – the Victorian era and its elite society!
What contrasts, what drama!
Lady Windermere’s Fan was the first full length play that I was involved in – we could not stage the scheduled public performances, but did stage an ‘all inclusive’ show for the staff and senior students of the school – this was in 1971. Then in 1973, the Dramsoc produced and staged Peter Shaffer’s ‘Black Comedy’, at the Lionel Wendt, and once again in 1974 we staged Agatha Christie’s ‘Mousetrap’ – (the famous ‘whodunit’) – both full length, successful, public performances staged at the Lionel Wendt.
Even though Mr. Gates had left by the end of 1971, he had passed on the baton, so to say, to other teachers. We had some wonderful, dedicated, focused, and hugely respected teachers in charge of the Dramsoc, who set the pace for hard work. Two of these rather outstanding teachers were Mrs. IranganieSeneviratne and Mrs. Monica Jayasekara, both of whom have to be mentioned and remembered with great reverence.
Coming back to the some of the many life-long lessons that I have learned through ‘Drama’, when we look back at our school days, we obviously discuss our common experiences, the different ways in which those experiences have impacted and affected each one of us. Then our discussions turn philosophical, we begin to realize how we have built our life around those lessons, those experiences that have moulded our outlook to life, (and thus our life), and become the core ingredients of our inner psyche – our values and our morals, and at the same time become the identifying ingredients of our outer psyche – our personality and our character.
So, what was it that I have learnt from my association with the ‘Dramsoc’ of Royal College?
Obviously, many lessons. Let me enumerate and describe just three of them.
The First ‘Lifelong’ Lesson – The most obvious and important lesson would be of enhanced communicating skills. When I look at all my school friends and the others around me, I do realize that I enjoy an advantage – a rather superior one – in my vocabulary, my style of writing and especially in my urge and desire for reading, irrespective of the ‘heaviness’ of the book I want to read. I can both enjoy and be receptive to the messages, encapsulated in the book being conveyed by the author
Recently I re-read ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ (maybe after 49 years!) and was really taken by surprise to find that I was (in a way) on what I refer to as ‘home ground’. Many of the phrases and the vocabulary, even the intonation and stress that I use as handles when voicing my feelings and emotions has been tempered into my identity during the rehearsals of playing ‘Lady Windermere’
In fact, I could not get over the feeling, when I was re- reading the lines in the play that “this was me!” This language and the style of communicating was “me!”
I am sure I would say the same thing if I were to re- read Peter Shaffer’s ‘Black Comedy’ and Agatha Christie’s ‘Mousetrap’ even though the plot, the era and the roles are contrastingly different.
So, analyzing this lesson (that had suddenly dawned on me), I figured out that in a play, (in fact it is actually a drama), good recognized writers, who have developed the skill of using language, give dramatic effect – in just (maybe) 80 – 90 minutes – to a complete drama – one which enthralls the audience, one which has to take the audience through plots consisting of twists and turns, as well as plots within plots. In those 90 minutes, the audience has to leave with the feeling that he has been a part of, although a mere spectator, to a realistic unfolding complete drama with an emotion impacting ending!
So, in acting out a drama we have to practise, practise, practise, memorize, stage and enact words, phrases and scenes oozing with meaning. We are provided with the script and use words and phrases designed to give impact and in different situations conveying a variety of shades of meanings. That is the skill of the playwright and this, we gradually begin to appreciate.
We are trained to use unfamiliar (impact) words in unfamiliar settings – both, with ease and fluency and this experience adds tons of bits and bytes to our vocabulary banks and to our ‘use of vocabulary’ scenarios, adding value and enhancing our ability at versatility – a great resource to grace the skills of effective diplomacy and communication.
We learn the use of intonation and stress – that added (subtle) tune to our words, phrases and sentences to convey a plethora of meanings. A question, a statement, an answer, a bit of humour, even anger can be expressed by using seemingly simple words, but with that expressive ‘hidden tune’ – the intonation and stress! This is more expressive and more respected than using strong words with strong emotions.
The Second ‘Lifelong’ Lesson – this would be regarding an attitude to take on new, even unexpected, roles in life. The ‘attitude’ that we imbibe is that in every role there is the audience who have to be kept ‘engaged’. So, though people may think that through drama we learn to ‘act the role’ in actual fact we learn to ‘engage the audience, through acting the role’. The ‘engagement’ part always bears heavily on our minds. People must feel that they are in subtle ways ‘engaged’ with the role we are playing, not just on stage but even in real, hard life.
In acting or in drama we must play roles we never imagined we would have to play, and it has to be played to perfection. The audience wants to believe that this is real; that is the challenge.
Imagine my dilemma; I had to cross many barriers. Firstly, I had to play the role of a female. This was alien to me. It provided a huge amount of banter, fun and humour in class as well as in school. But then, I had to transcend a major barrier. Secondly, I had to imagine myself in England – a foreign country, a foreign culture. Thirdly, I had to transcend time and project a Victorian era, in the society of snobs or the elite (depending on your point of view); one that I had never experienced. I had only just seen the film ‘My Fair Lady’ and begun to read books by P.G Wodehouse. Both of them were of immense help for me to understand my role. Fourthly I had to play the role of a married ‘Lady’ coming to grips with the gossip, that her husband, that she was in love with, was ‘disloyal’.
In acting this role, I believe that there were too many barriers I had to ‘leap across’.
In later life, there have been many instances, where I have had this ‘déjà vu’ type of feeling, that I have been thrust to play real life roles that were far too big for me; the bar was often too high. But then, with this experience in drama, I set about my task of ‘playing’ the role; always having an eye on pleasing and subtly engaging the audience – the stakeholders – they come in many flavours, shapes and sizes.
The challenge of playing the role whilst maintaining my identity, the added challenge of searching for and filling in the ingredients to make it a perfect setting without compromising on principles or on quality was what I enjoyed.
But then it was a heavy and intricate balancing act, the weight on the conscience of trying to always please and engage all the stakeholders; that, was what I found too stressful, and in fact took out the enjoyment.
The Third ‘Lifelong’ Lesson
Imagine that you are on stage, you have memorized your lines and you are playing them out with the other (actors) characters on the stage. On the wings (at the sides of the stage) there is this ‘prompter’ who has been practicing along with all of you, who prompts the actors when the need arises.
Though you are apparently ‘conversing’ with the other (actors) characters on stage, you are in fact delivering a message, a drama, to the audience. You cannot see them, the flood lights are ‘flush’ in your face and they are in complete darkness; behind a thick heavy curtain of darkness.
But you can feel their presence, you can actually feel the vibes, the energy, the emotions flowing from them; you are engaging them, you are acting in sync with their emotions.
You are the conductor they are the players of the instruments in the orchestra, and you feel this energy, this wave of ‘music’ that you are modulating, shaping, taking it along on its twists and turns of the scripted plot. Oh, it is exhilaration.
Let me describe what I call the ‘magic moment’
The stage is set. Behind the closed curtains, the stage is arranged. Everything on the stage (the props) is selectively placed to convey a message. The open newspaper, the rug, the cup, the lampshade everything on the stage is conveying a message. The audience is just settling into their seats. The ‘bell’ rings, the lights go off, and slowly the Curtains open. There is pin drop silence. The spot – lights are flooding the stage and the scene is beautiful. It is like some scene from some Fairy tale. The audience is ‘drinking in’ the setting, and then, there is this ‘heavy, pregnant’ pause, to allow the audience to grasp the message that is being conveyed through what is being displayed, and then at the right moment the actor begins his / her lines. This is the ‘magic moment’ If the actor speaks too soon, the audience miss the ‘pitch’ of the opening bars, they have not yet deciphered the complete message on stage. If the pause is too long, the audience gets restless; it is difficult to re capture their complete attention.
Now the actors, whilst acting keep on ‘reading’ the audience. They can read the laughter; they can read the ‘gasp’ they can read the yawns and the shuffling of feet. Through drama we learn that inner sense to read through darkness, to read even indiscernible signs and work on deciphering the message.
This is an especially important lesson in life.
In life we see many signs to indicate the presence of an All-Powerful creator, designer, nourisher etc. and our curiosity is aroused. Many times, in life, whilst seeking satisfying roles to play, we often get the feeling that life itself is a heavy role and that behind the floodlights of this world, not visible to the eye is our real audience. I would like to identify this audience, get in sync with HIS vibes and recognize the role that HE wishes me to play.
Every religion has their sacred books and scriptures that spell out our missions in life.
So, on the stage of life we have the script, and we can carry it around with us and refer to it as often and as much as we like. We also have the luxury of having many ‘prompts’ around us. The learned theologians, the priests, the monks all those who are devoting their life in seeking this truth or this invisible audience are available for us in our quest for prompts, if we cannot agree with what they say, or they are unable to grasp what we are requesting, then we can always look out for someone else another prompt, who may give us that advice we are looking for.
So, through drama, I think the biggest lesson we can learn is to learn to read the signs even though we cannot see the audience.
It is these signs that I am trying to read, and it is that exhilaration that I seek!
It was the environment that the Dramsoc created, from which I was able to learn these (what I refer to as my) lifelong lessons. So, it has been the teachers and other members of the cast and helpers of these ‘productions’ that have been involved in my learning process.
Let me mention some of them, so that we do realize that the lessons they wouldhave learnt has indeed been valuable ones.
First and foremost, I must mention our English Master, Mr. AHCT Gates, who continued his illustrious career in the legal field, and has been Chief Justice of Fiji from 2008 till he retired in 2019. Well done Sir!
Mention must also be made of the Teachers who helped mold the Dramsoc in the ‘70’s.
I recall with a sense of deep gratitude, Mr. R.S. Kandasamy, Mrs. Indrani Seneviratne and Mrs. Monica Jayasekara all of whom gave unstintingly of their valuable time, and applied themselves with dignity, decorum and tact to ensure that all of us were always learning
And then, some of the members of the cast.
Mention must be made of (the Late) Justice Prasanna Jayawardena, who played leading roles in the plays ‘Black Comedy’ and ‘Mousetrap’.
It may interest readers to learn that Prasanna Jayawardena, secured brilliant results at the Advanced Levels in the Bio-Science stream and obtained admission to the Sri Lanka Medical College.
However, he surprised everyone, by opting to pursue a career in Law, rather than in Medicine. I have always felt that ‘the lessons of Drama’ that he learnt at Royal had to have ‘weighed in’ as a contributory factor to his making his decision to opt for Law, as well as right through his illustrious career, as a Lawyer, President’s Counsel and a Judge of the Supreme Court.
We also had with us, Professor Arjuna Parakrama, Professor of English, University of Peradeniya, Dr. C. Ranil Abeyasekara, Senior Lecturer, Economics and Statistics at Peradeniya University, Dion Schoorman is a former Head of Reuters Sri Lanka, a veteran in the Media field, Father Tony Martyn who went on to become a Catholic Priest, Ravi Algama who is now a Senior Counsel of the Supreme Court. The list goes on and on.
It would indeed be interesting to learn or to read as to what their ‘Lessons from Drama’ are.
Everything I have written here is from memory. It is very possible that I may have mixed up, or missed out, on names and dates. My apologies for the errors and also apologies to all those members of the Royal College ‘Dramsoc’(fifty years ago), whose names I have not included in this article.