Monday, October 10, 2016

Nandun Dissanayake says it all

I watched AnandaDrama’s Dracula at the Wendt about a year ago. I had strayed in about an hour or so earlier, to peruse an Exhibition that was in play at the Harold Peiris Gallery (Kumar de Silva’s “Nostalgie05”, which I had visited on its opening night but which I wanted to see again without the crowd). I had time, I went through the photographs he’d taken in Paris and which adorned the entire Gallery, and sat down on one of the few chairs laid out for visitors that night. On my way back I was greeted by someone I couldn’t recognise at first. Dilshan Boange.

Dilshan was with two others: Yohan Ferreira, theatre activist and founder of Drama Sri Lanka, and Jith Pieris, playwright and himself an activist. Naturally I took to conversation and pretty quickly, we were conversing on this, that, and everything else connected to the theatre. Dilshan had come to peruse the photos. So had Yohan. Jith, on the other hand, had come for Dracula.

We talked about Dracula. We talked about AnandaDrama and how it had risen over the years. We went across some names and stopped at one. Nandun Dissanayake.

Jith was, as I remember, excited. He talked and waxed eloquent on the man. I don’t remember what he said word to word but I do remember that he had nothing but praise for him. Yohan and Dilshan agreed with what he had to say, while Dilshan (who would review Dracula about a week later) added that he had as much potential in drama as he had in comedy. Being a dud at acting and actors I had nothing to say, except a question I always had when it came to people like Nandun. Now was the time and so I asked all three of them: how does he get into his characters?

Jith chuckled. So did Dilshan. Having worked with the man, Jith knew the answer best: “He doesn’t. I doubt Nandun plays anyone other than Nandun. And I doubt that he privileges any other model when adapting to whatever play he’s in.” The other two agreed wholeheartedly. Barely a week later, writing on Dracula, Dilshan would give his two cents: “With time, will this rising star, be the next Freddie Silva or Eddie Jayamana or Sri Lanka's Will Farrell, I wonder.” Now Dilshan writes what he feels and doesn’t give blank cheques too easily. So I wonder: has this up and coming actor who’s more or less established now become a class in himself, and if so, what’s the secret to what he’s done so far?

He knows acting. He knows how to blend in with whatever role he gets. He knows how to differentiate one character from the other, and has hence come to realise that inasmuch as actors tend to come with their own notions of how they should carry on with their trade, what matters is being eclectic. True, he isn’t exactly in-your-face with his eclecticism. But he has realised he should cultivate it. Big time. That counts, after all.

I spoke with Nandun about a year back. I began the conversation by asking him that vital first question: was he always for the theatre? “No I wasn’t,” he replied, “There was a time when I thought that science was my thing. My first love was chemistry. I wanted to become a physicist or physiologist. So I worked hard, shunning the performing arts and every other interest I had until then. Naturally I thought I had a potential in what I loved, that I could carve out a career from it. As it later transpired, I realised that I could not.”

This was around the time he did his O Levels. He chose Science for his A Levels but, having realised his interests in other paths less travelled, he joined the Drama Club of his school, Ananda College (which had by that time formed AnandaDrama) in 2010. His first real encounter with the theatre (if you could call it that) was with a competition called “Lineup” and organised by Nalanda, where he wound up playing Lady Regan in a production of King Lear.

It would of course be fatally easy to say that he fell in love with theatre, for the truth of the matter is that Nandun fell in love with a great many other things: “I didn’t merely move on to the stage. I realised my potential in literature and language. There’s no real division within the performing arts, and so theatre, despite being the most ‘live’ of the arts out there, is connected in more ways than one to the written word. That’s probably the most illuminating point I took in during my last few years at Ananda.”

His school had “baptised” him, needless to say. He moved on rather quickly thereafter. Having acted in King Lear, he took to Shakespeare. He also got into contemporary theatre. He read books and he immersed himself in his craft while pursuing his studies (in law). He familiarised himself with characters from plays that hadn’t and haven’t been staged in Sri Lanka, like Marlowe’s Edward II (“It’s a pity Marlowe hasn’t been properly introduced to audiences here”). He was initially involved with AnandaDrama, but soon enough he was with other established movers and shakers of the industry: in Ruwanthi de Chickera’s Grease Yaka and in Jehan Aloysius’ Bengal Bungalow, the latter staged earlier this year and both of which I unfortunately missed.

In an industry where money is the least concern (well, theoretically) and talent and merit the only entry password, how has he felt about these last few years? Nandun has his views on the theatre and all guesses are that not everyone may agree with them. But one thing stands out: he believes in the role of the actor so strongly that he’s become an authority on the subject. I prodded him. He opened up.

“Well, first and foremost, actors can only emulate reality. There’s more than one reason for this of course, including the fact that in the theatre, you are always in communion with the audience. You can’t project reality, you can only reflect it. Reflections are imperfect. So are actors. I for one am not entranced by this school of thought that emphasises on fidelity to realism as the baptism of fire for aspiring actors, not because there's no substance in that but because in this industry, we are yet to reach a point where we can turn back and say, ‘Enough with this illusion, the show’s over and I am not acting anymore!’”

Speaking for myself, I’d say he has a point and just as importantly, practises what he preaches. With other actors his age, you know where the performance begins and ends, but with Nandun you are never really too sure. He makes you think that he’s acting when he’s not. He makes you think that he’s moved on with his life when he has not. I doubt he himself bothers to differentiate between performance and reality, between illusion and truth, something he admits on his own account when he tells me, “People say I confuse life with art. The truth is I don’t know what my real self is. I project my roles into my social life. I compound many of them into one when interacting with people. Forgive me for it if you must, but that is how I have conducted myself as an actor.”

Can he aspire for more? Of course! Sure, he doesn’t think that life is art but he has gone a long way in proving that it is. He concedes ground to individualism, but he hasn’t privileged it to the extent where he loses his originality and metier. In short, he is well read, means well, knows his stuff and knows it well enough to spot out pretension from performance, and imitativeness from ingenuity. Will he move on to the Sinhala theatre soon? “That remains to be seen. I still have a long way to go, after all.” Indeed. And we will be there with him as he traverses that long, arduous way.

Jith was correct, we can conclude. He has no other model. Not because there isn’t any, but because he knows himself. As much as we do.

Written for: The Island YOUth, October 9 2016