Sri Lanka beckons: Harley Erdman travels across the world on a Fulbright
Saturday, October 1, 2016
Saturday, October 1, 2016
Spanish-language theater research, translation, and adaptation is dramaturgy professor Harley Erdman’s thing, and as he began to plan for his spring 2016 sabbatical, traveling to Latin America to work seemed all but inevitable.
However, he says, “I also had this idea planted that I should do something totally new.”
That desire, plus a fortuitous connection with a former graduate student, led Erdman to Sri Lanka for a semester as a Fulbright US Scholar, teaching theater, exploring the country, and making a good start on a new theater adaptation of a Sri Lankan author’s works about the country’s recent civil war.
“I loved it there; it was one of the best experiences of my life,” Erdman said. “I felt really comfortable there, and it’s a place I am going to go back to.”
Erdman said he’d thought about applying to the Fulbright program for years, and with his sabbatical on the horizon, he attended a UMass-organized information session. At the session, another professor encouraged people to try something new, mentioning that he had gone to Sri Lanka and loved it.
Meanwhile, a former grad student of Erdman’s, Kanchuka Dharmasiri, had returned home to Sri Lanka and become a theater professor at the University of Peradeniya. She said to him, “you should come do a Fulbright in Sri Lanka!”
“Initially I kind of laughed off the idea,” Erdman said, “but as this Fulbright opportunity presented itself I said, ‘You know what, I know Latin America really well, I’m comfortable there… I should go somewhere that’s totally out of my comfort zone’.”
He decided that since he’d never been to Asia but had always wanted to go, he’d put together a proposal to teach in Sri Lanka, and Dharmasiri signed on as his "host."
Even with her official invitation, Erdman said, “I was actually very dubious that I was going to get accepted… There’s a presumption that you have a lot of expertise in the country, that you speak the language, that you’ve been there before, maybe even that you have some cultural or heritage relationship to the country… I felt like I had no pluses going for me. But Fulbright, I guess, knew more about me than I did!”
“Fulbright tells you, do your proposal, and then be prepared for anything,” Erdman said.
His original proposal was to teach classes in playwriting and documentary theater, and from there, to work with Dharmasiri and their students to create an original trilingual (Sinhala, Tamil, and English) play. The classes he planned would be similar to what he taught at UMass, just adapted to Sri Lanka.
Shortly before he headed over, however, it became clear that the University of Peradeniya “had no mechanism for my actually doing those things.” Instead, Erdman became a guest instructor in three different classes over the course of the semester. He worked with students in the classics department on Greek and Roman theater, and with students in the fine arts department he worked on modern and contemporary theater.
Though he hadn’t taught Greek and Roman tragedy, it was Erdman’s easiest class — it was taught in English and the students were reasonably fluent.
The other two were a bigger challenge, as students didn’t speak English and there was no translator provided. In one class, he tackled Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, since both had been translated into Sinhala. Since the students had “very little concept of the context of the worlds of those two plays,” Erdman showed them lots of images of both the time and culture in which the plays are set as well as production images of each play.
In the other class, there was a bilingual student, and with her as his assistant, Erdman coached the group through translating and adapting Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a choice he made because of its relatively straightforward language and relatable topic—cell phones are ubiquitous. Together, they translated about half the play and then performed it. The language barrier kept them from the type of discussions Erdman’s more used to in his class, focusing instead on translation and performance.
Even with the language barrier, Erdman was able to appreciate how engaged his students were. He was also astonished at their memorization skills. “If they were translating a scene from Dead Man’s Cell Phone, they would translate it … they would rehearse for 10 to 15 minutes, and then they would be almost off book 15 minutes later!” He noted that students were much more formal in Sri Lanka, waiting, for example, for the professor to leave a lecture hall before exiting themselves.
When he wasn’t working, Erdman got to know the country. He lived with friends of friends at what turned out to be an AirBnB complex, traveled extensively, and marveled at how much at home he felt “even though I was totally out of place in a million ways.”
“I saw a lot of the island, gave some guest lectures, went to different theater festivals. I saw a wide range of such hugely different worlds on such a such a small island,” Erdman said. He relayed a story of coming upon a community festival during his travels and being invited to attend the festivities as an honored guest.
He ran into the occasional cultural difference—when people invited him over for coffee, for example, he expected to drink together and chat, but instead his hosts served him and then left him to drink alone; Erdman learned was their way of honoring their guest.
In his travels Erdman saw how the country’s infrastructure is still recovering from the civil war. The war ended in 2009, and there has been no negotiation and no coming to terms with what happened, said Erdman.
“There’s a lot there that’s just been totally untouched,” he said.
There is a new government now and there’s a feeling of more free speech, Erdman said, although it’s still a place where journalists are occasionally threatened.
“That said, theater’s actually kind of an open space,” Erdman said.
As part of his time there, he and Dharmasiri started creating a play adapted from Sinhalese writer Kumari Kumaragamage’s writing. “The stories and poems that we’re adapting deal with the witnessing and aftereffects and trauma of (the war) from the point of view of women, mothers, wives, daughters who were left behind,” Erdman said.
He described the work as being in the middle stages of the process and said he hoped to see the finished product produced both in Sri Lanka and the US.