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Portrait of an Artist: Rithmaka Karunadhara ’26

November 3, 2023

Chris Dehney
DRAMA KING: Rickey Karunadhara poses in Pickard Theater. Originally from Sri Lanka, Karunadhara was nominated for and won national awards in Shakespearean theater.

Rithmaka (Rickey) Karunadhara ’26 is a triple threat: actor, writer and director. In Masque and Gown’s performance of “Macbeth” last weekend, Karunadhara played Macduff and the Captain, captivating the audience with his raw emotion, passion and stage presence. Karunadhara’s ability to take on the roles with such skill is no wonder—he has been involved in 26 productions over the last ten years, including one play he wrote and directed himself.

An international student from Sri Lanka, Karunadhara began taking part in English theater groups when he was nine years old.

Once he transitioned from primary school to upper school (grades six through 13 in Sri Lanka), he joined his school’s drama circle and participated for seven years in the All Island National Competition, a Shakespeare competition that draws young actors from across Sri Lanka. In 2018, Karunadhara won the award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus in Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors.” In 2019, he starred in “Richard III” and was nominated for Best Actor.

After competing in the All Island National Competition, Karunadhara joined theater groups founded by his school’s alumni.

“My school had a bit of a professional kick, and a lot of people did theater after they graduated and started their own theater companies. Alums started going, and they’d get us involved, too. That was a great opportunity for me because I got to be a part of all these public shows,” Karunadhara said.

One such show was “Grease Yaka Returns,” a play that grapples with racial issues in Sri Lanka and explores the “corrosive effects of [social] fears” in the country. Karunadhara played seven characters in the performance in addition to his position as stage manager. The play was judged Best Play of the Year in Sri Lanka at the 47th Annual State Drama Awards in 2019 and won nine additional awards, including Best Direction and Best Original Script. Karunadhara then went on tour in India with the cast, performing the show in New Delhi and Uttarakhand.

“Grease Yaka Returns” was only the beginning of Karunadhara’s performance tours. Before coming to Bowdoin, Karunadhara wrote and directed his own play, “Yauwane,” which went on tour in south and central Sri Lanka after its sold-out opening shows in Colombo, the nation’s capital. The play explores the experience of young people living through Sri Lanka’s economic and political crisis.

“We raided the president’s palace and had 150-day running protests in the country. I was part of these protests, and I decided [to write] a play about [these issues] because what it was like to be a young person in Sri Lanka was really changing at the time. Schools just stopped functioning. There was no fuel in the country. There was no electricity,” Karunadhara said. “Everyone either wanted to leave the country or wanted to [stay] and do something, but they couldn’t. So there was this paralysis that everyone who was young was experiencing, and the play [talks] about that.”

For Karunadhara, theater is most powerful when used to inform people about social and political issues.

“I’ve always had this dream of doing theater as a means of educating people,” Karunadhara said. “[Theater] humanizes big world problems and makes [them] digestible in a way that really reaches the masses.”

Karunadhara found his cast members for “Yauwane” through connections he had formed across the country during his years competing in the All Island National Competition. Because his play also served as a commentary on the stubbornness of Sri Lanka’s older generations, it was important to Karunadhara that the cast reflected this critique.

“[The play] was a protest in its execution as well in the sense [that] everyone who was a part of the production was under the age of 25,” Karunadhara said.

“Yauwane” literally means “youth” in Sinhala, but Karunadhara wrote the first part of the word as an English transliteration (“Yau”) and the second part of the word in the original Sinhala script to create a play on words. “Wane” alone means “wound.”

“When you really analyze it, it means a hurt youth, or a wounded youth,” Karunadhara said.

Apart from stage acting, writing and directing, Karunadhara made his cinema debut in 2020, briefly appearing as a bully in “Funny Boy,” directed by Deepa Mehta, which earned him an IMDb webpage.

Once at Bowdoin, Karunadhara joined Masque and Gown and took an active role in its productions, but “Macbeth” stands out to him in particular.

“This was the one that really touched me,” Karunadhara said.

The production of “Macbeth” coincided with a complicated time in Karunadhara’s life, and he found rehearsals to be a freeing space where he could escape from personal problems. He also felt a connection to Macduff’s complex character.

“The reason I’ve been doing theater for a long time is because theater has been my therapy…. I don’t have to deal with any [constraints]. I can just yell, scream, punch, do whatever I want. I get to shut off everything and just be there,” Karunadhara said. “It’s always lovely to connect some kind of personal experience to a character. It just makes it more real…. So the play was great because I was playing a character who was going through a very complicated emotional arc.”

Karunadhara emphasized the importance of finding a balance between preparing for a scene and letting that scene take its natural course.

“When I’m on stage going through the same sequence over and over again, it’s always a battle to retain the authenticity, retain what makes it original, retain what makes it something that people can feel with me. And that comes when it doesn’t seem rehearsed, even though it is rehearsed,” Karunadhara said.

Karunadhara plans to continue being a part of the theater community at Bowdoin, hoping to write and direct a play in the spring for One Act, a Masque and Gown event in which students write, direct and perform one-act plays.

“Macbeth” director and President of Masque and Gown Ava Grandfield ’24 not only emphasized Karunadhara’s talent, but also praised him for his supportive presence within Masque and Gown.

“He’s an incredible actor, but I just had the most lovely time working with him, and that’s what stands out the most to me,” Grandfield said. “He’s been constantly so encouraging and positive toward his scenemates, which is just so important—even more important than acting ability. And I think that just comes naturally to Rickey. It’s who he is.”

Editor’s Note: The Orient’s software was unable to render the original script of the Sinhala word “Yauwane.” A link to the Sinhala script can be found here.


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