Sunday, August 6, 2017

Lithmal Jayawardhana: The profile of a performer

Old people fascinate me. So do young people, though for qualitatively different reasons. They fascinate me because they have stories to tell and these differ from age-category to age-category. For obvious reasons, old people have a lot to tell, far more than anything their younger counterparts can or ever will. This, however, is not a hard-and-fast rule. The truth is that although their stories are fewer in number, the lives some young people lead are a poor indicator of their age. Fortunately for me, as a writer, I’ve met quite a number of them. Including Lithmal Jayawardhana.

I first came across the name somewhere in 2013, when MTV organised the first reality TV show involving school debating here, The Debater. Two schools had reached the finals: mine (Lyceum International, Nugegoda) and his (Ananda College). For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out which would win. Our team was good, theirs was good and in many respects better equipped (after all we were young), but at the end of the day, watching Lithmal speak convinced me what the outcome would be. We lost.

I saw him again as an actor about a year later, after I began writing on the theatre and in particular the English theatre. I saw him dance, I saw him sing, and I saw him perform at dinner parties and just being himself. The truth is that, even with all these lives, Lithmal to me remains a curious paradox. He enchants you and then distances you. He concentrates on both the now and the thereafter. His eyes often give the impression that he’s looking into you while looking away. With other artists his age in general, there’s a rift between the performer and the person. I’m not entirely sure whether that applies to him, though.

His story goes back many, many years, long before he entered school and preschool. Actually, it begins the moment he started to dabble in the arts. “My first love was dancing and drawing. I was born into Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, Thriller, and Heal the World. I saw him dance on TV and, though I wouldn’t have taken in what he was saying, I was interested in how he conveyed his feelings through his body. Added to that was a veritable onslaught of Disney cartoons, which got me to draw.”

Having entered preschool in Kohuwala (“I was the first to be enrolled there”), he then took to music after the lady who ran the place (“Aunty Sue”) ensnared her children with the piano and the organ. We are the musical instruments we take to from an early age, which probably explains Lithmal’s affinity for the piano. “Those first impressions were vital to my later career,” he contends, “It was under Aunty Sue that I got rid of my stage fright. It was under her that I began singing. And talking.”

Ananda College was different. It had to be. There, he fell under the influence of his first real teacher in the arts, Vidyarathna Fernando, who taught dancing and was very much conversant with the pahatha rata tradition. “Vidyarathna sir knew almost all forms of dancing, because at the end of the day, whatever the culture it’s derived from, it’s about conveying what you feel through your body. I continued for two years, and would have been about nine or 10 at the time, in Grade Four.” This had been followed by Pipena Kakula, a little like, but actually more, much more, than a talent show.

Being a total stranger to this concept, I ask him to explain how it worked with him. “It all began with a teacher called Mrs Dulcie Fernando. I believe she later wound up as the headmistress of the primary section, though I’m not really sure. Pipena Kakula had no criteria to fulfil, no prior experience to list out if you wanted to enter. Back then teachers knew parents and parents knew what the teachers thought about their children. It so happened that Mrs Fernando asked my mother to enrol me. She willingly obliged. One thing led to another, and eventually I found myself among four students who were being trained to announce in front of a crowd.”

It wasn’t just announcing of course, since all four of them danced and sang as well. “We were out of pitch, since we hadn’t learnt to do either properly,” Lithmal grins, “At the time I thought Pipena Kakula was trying to get us to try out different activities. Looking back, however, I realise now that it was actually getting us to concentrate on what we excelled at. In my case, announcing.”

All that, however, would be repressed when he entered middle school and shifted gears to his studies rather seriously. “There is a blank chapter in my life from Grade Six to Grade Nine. Apart from picking up the guitar and violin, the latter less so, I let go of my love for the performing arts in favour of a stable routine: going to school, coming back home, studying, watching Scooby-Doo, just chilling out.”

Fate works in curious ways and in Lithmal’s case, it would take him away from that banal lifestyle. “What happened was that I got into debating. I wasn’t even in the Debating Society at the time, back in Grade 10. I was dragged to it, supposedly to fill in a quota for an upcoming series of tournaments. I was first asked to speak for three minutes on any topic I wanted. Then I was given a topic to speak on for two minutes. My first real encounter thereafter was with the Sri Lanka Schools Debating Championship, organised by the Faculty of Law at the University of Colombo. To say the least, it opened my eyes. Even more so when the same people who took me to debating dragged me to another activity I fell in love with: drama.”

The first play as such to feature him was the Ananda College Drama Circle submission to the Inter-School Shakespeare Drama Competition in 2010, Macbeth. He had acted as a messenger there. The following year, he took part in his Circle’s production of The Tempest, again submitted to the Competition. He had been Ariel there, a more significant role. “I found myself returning to those pursuits I had abandoned,” he remembers with a smile, “After my O Levels were done in 2012, I studied hip-hop dancing under Natasha Jayasuriya at the Deanna School of Dance, for about two years. In 2014 I studied ballroom and Latin dancing under Kevin Nugera for six months. Though I left both, we keep in touch.”

A detailed enumeration of each and every play he’s been taken in would, of course, be impractical. Suffice it to say that he has acted again and again and has made us feel his presence well beyond that esoteric circle which crowds around the Lionel Wendt these days. I remember those gifted twins Sarith and Surith Jayawardena highlighting rather firmly that for all the fame they have received, their single biggest audience continue to be the aiyas and mallis at school. The same can be said of Lithmal, which is why I’m not surprised when he tells me that he’s been heavily influenced by the people he’s met at Ananda. “It’s a totally different culture there. You tend to make friends with the son of a CEO and the son of a sweeper, often in the same classroom. It’s a social leveller actually, not just an institution.”

Drama and debating (and with regard to a certain radio company which hired him in October 2014 as a show host and news presenter, announcing): these are the pursuits which continue to define him. His debating record has been as colourful as his acting, needless to say. “Since 2011, I have been involved with tournaments here and abroad. That year, I went through my school to two of them: the Sri Lanka Schools Debating Championship and the World Schools Debating Championship, the latter in Dundee, Scotland. In 2012 I captained the College ‘A Team’ which went to Ipoh, Malaysia for the Asian Schools Debating Championship, the same competition I went to in 2013 in the Philippines and last year, as the Coach, in Kuala Lampur.”

By his own admission, Lithmal loves the spotlight, though not to the extent of hankering after it. “Except for professionally directing my own play, I have been involved with every aspect to the theatre, from backstage management to scripting to coaching to assisting. I can’t say whether I’ll get to direct anytime soon, but my main obsession, if you can put it that way, has been acting. Always. The people I met at Ananda, who sustain our English theatre today, like Nandun Dissanayake, Rajitha Hettiarachchi, and Nishantha de Silva, gave me the push I needed. The same can be said of my juniors, people like Lakshitha Edirisinghe, Thilina Udayaratne, and Vidura Manoratne. In fact if I admire the way they act, even better than I used to at their age, I freely admit it. To their faces.”

Malinda Seneviratne, writing on Vihanga Perera, probably the only poet and novelist his age who has become something of a celebrity here (minus the accretions which develop like calluses around writers like him), implied that youth and arrogance are related: “Reminds me of the man who said that if a list was made of all the humble people in the world he would be No 2, and added ‘If I don’t talk about myself, who would?’” I’m not sure how that applies to Lithmal, though. In any case, what he’s done is clearly enough for him to be on top of his list. Performers, after all and unlike us critics, are a different breed altogether: lively, brash, assertive, and sometimes cocky. Lithmal is all these. Perhaps that’s all I have to say. For now, at least.

Written for: The Island YOUth, August 6 2017