Sri Lankan theatre activist Ravindra Ranasinha advocates the use of theatre as therapy. He says that he is working to take dramatherapy beyond a clinical practice

The appeasement of human conflict is at the centre of everything Sri Lankan theatre activist Ravindra Ranasinha does. Through his 25 years translating and directing plays in Sri Lanka, he chose to enact stories that would deconstruct the causes behind social and political conflict. In his present avatar as a dramatherapist, Ravindra uses theatre as a direct tool of healing for personal, internal conflict. In Kochi to address postgraduate literature students on how to use their theatre texts as therapy, Ravindra says his transition from the stage to counselling rooms was seamless, because addressing conflict threaded through both.

Plays in translation

The plays Ravindra has presented reflect this preoccupation. Among his major productions are Sinhalese adaptations of Ken Kesey’s book One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Tankred Dorst’s Freedom for Clemens, Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Diary of Anne Frank for adults, as well as Johanna Spyri’s Heidi for children. “While the stories differ, thematically they all centre around man’s struggles which lead him to perceive himself as helpless. They then go on to reveal that conflicts are of human creation, but when one looks inwards, rather than at others, there is a way out,” says Ravindra.

From a production perspective, Ravindra’s plays range from the absurd and surreal to realist works, but his experiments with theatre have always aimed to bring the audience closer to, and more involved with, the action. He says. “This was how I slowly realised that the experience of theatre was more than just spectatorship. It worked as catharsis for the viewer, which is an idea the ancient Greek philosophers expressed.”

Processes of dramatherapy

Dramatherapy, thus, uses the exercise of theatre as a method for counselling. “It involves two basic processes,” explains Ravindra. “The first is called over-distancing: it creates a fictional world for clients - through folk tales, fairy tales, clay modelling and sculpture - where they feel comfortable and unthreatened. Eventually, the client sees connections between the problems in the imaginary scenarios and their lives. When they begin to touch upon solutions and insights to issues in the imagined world, the therapist begins under-distancing: this brings the issue in the real world closer to the client’s awareness.” Ravindra says the entire process must be a sustained one, which in time empowers patients to retain their learning experiences for good.

Ravindra adds that besides adults, he has found dramatherapy to help children with developmental challenges such as autism, Downs Syndrome, cerebral palsy and mental retardation. “When you work with these children over several years, I’ve observed that dramatic elements such as impersonation and pantomiming help them progress faster.” Ravindra adds that applying dramatherapy in Eastern cultures is different from doing so in the West. He says, “The belief systems here, Buddhism for example, naturally inculcate self-help by encouraging people to look within for peace; so they understand the basic premise of dramatherapy easier.”

Ravindra is now involved in research that takes dramatherapy beyond a clinical practice, including its transcendental and spiritual aspects as well. His book ‘Dramatherapy in Sri Lanka’ which was launched this year, addresses these discussions.

In its theatre practices, Sri Lanka and India now have much in common, observes Ravindra, although the early days differ. “Traditional Sri Lankan theatre was exorcist in nature while India’s was not. Modern theatre in Sri Lanka began in the 1950s with Professor Sarachchandra who travelled to many countries from the US to Japan and India to try and create a ‘modern Sri Lankan theatre’. He used elements from India’s Kathakali and Japan’s Kabuki, and those elements continue today,” says Ravindra.

Currently, Ravindra works as a dramatherapist consultant with four organisations in Sri Lanka. His hope is to someday begin an institute that would train counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists in dramatherapy. “There is a need for it to be included in curricula across the world. It is a holistic method of treatment that does not look at the patient’s symptoms but at his personality as a whole, helping him to get deeper in touch with who he actually is,” he concludes.