By the year 1880 a large number of temporary sheds thatched with zinc sheets sprang up all over Colombo city for the purpose of staging plays as they were the only audio-visual medium available to entertain the residents of Colombo, at that time.
Although these temporary sheds called by such names as Pavilion Theatre, Public Hall, Saraswathie Hall etc were used as theatres, the Tower Hall was the first true theatre to be built in Sri Lanka.
It was built by an able entrepreneur form Maradana who was known as G.D.Hendrick Seneviratne. In a land reserved for a stable he decided to construct a theatre for 800 spectators, complete with a balcony and green rooms. Since the clock tower built adjacent to the main hall was designed to represent the “Tower of London” it was named the Tower Hall Theatre.
The Tower Hall Theatre was ceremonially inaugurated on the Sixteenth of December 1911. On the following day the play-“Pandukabhaya” was staged with Sri Henry Maccallom-the Governor General of Ceylon as the Chief Guest. The Playwright cum Director of “Pandukabhya” was Charles Dias-a lawyer married to the daughter of Hendrick Seneviratne. All costumes necessary for this play had been imported from Bombay. (Mumbai).
At the beginning Tower Hall Theatre was confined to plays written and produced by Charles Dias, but later Lawyer John de Silva’s plays were also shown. This period was named the “The Tower Hall Era” and the plays produced during that time were called Nurthis which occupied a special place in the history of drama in the Island.
After the death of Hendrick Seneviratne Tower Hall Theatre faced a crisis as there was a legal dispute among his children for their inheritance.
In 1930 one F.C. Frank hired the Tower Hall Theatre premises for Rupees 2000/- per month and for the first time he screened a film called “Siren of Bagdad.”
The Tower hall artists who lost their career due to the screening of films in their theatre appealed to Mr. A.E.Gunasinghe - a Trade Union leader who had discussions with Mr. Frank about the fate of artists. With the result there was a settlement to the effect that on every Thursday a Sinhala play should be shown at the Tower Hall Theatre.
After the Second World war during the month of April in 1947 Ceylon Theatres bought “The Tower Hall Theatre” for a sum of Rupees 125,000/-. Consequently Messrs M.Sellamuththu-the Managing Director of “Ceylon Theatres” and Mr. K. Gunaratnam-the Proprietor of “Cinemas Ltd” got together to form “Tower Talkies Ltd” in order to run “The Tower Hall Theatre” as a cinema hall.
Thereafter during the time of Honourable Sirimavo Bandaranayake’s Premiership a proposal to nationalize “The Tower Hall” was accepted and documents were prepared for this purpose. However this proposal materialized after the assumption of Premiership by Honourable R.Prremadasa and the take over of the “Tower Hall Theatre” by the Government on 15th March 1978.
After the take-over an interim administrative unit called “The Tower Trust” under the leadership of the Honourable Prime Minister R.Premadasa was formed to attend to the task of reviving classical plays, called “Nurthis.” Accordingly the outstanding Actor/Director Playwright - Mr.Henry Jayasena was commissioned to produce” Sri Sangabo”- a sort of morality play written by Lawyer John de Silva. The Tower hall Theatre was renovated and the first play to be staged there after the take-over happened to be “Sri Sangabo” which incidentally echoed the perennial song “Danno Budunge” in this birth place of Sinhala Drama after a lapse of several decades. To add to the glamour of this conventional Nurthi, the role of Rakthakshi was originally performed by Chitrsena-the Doyen of Local Dance. “Sri Sangabo” was later performed in China.
In the meantime “Tower Hall Theatre Act” No: 01 of 1978 was enacted on 10th October 1978.and the activities of the “Tower Trust” was transferred to the newly formed “Tower Hall Theatre Foundation” under the Chairmanship of the Honourable Prime Minister R.Premadasa who was ably assisted by.Mr.A.J.Ranasinghe - the first Director-General of the Foundation.
The second Nurthi to be presented by the Foundation was Lawyer John de Silva’s memorable historical drama “Sri Wickrama” depicting the tragic end of the Sinhala kingdom. Mr.Premaranjith Tilakaratna,, a prominent Playwright/Director was assigned with the task of producing this difficult play. In his hands it was adapted as a modernized Nurthi with innovative effects of lighting, formation movements and choral singing. The premiere show of “Sri Wickrama” was held on 2nd March 1979 with a distinguished gathering consisting of the then President Honourable J.R.Jayawardana, Cabinet Ministers and Diplomats. It marked the 164th anniversary of the surrender of the last king of Sinhale.
“Samudradevi” happened to be the third play to be produced by the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation. Mr. Stanley Perera (Stanley Master) himself an Artist of the Tower Hall Theatre tradition was commissioned to direct this play, which had been written by Mr. D.V.Seneviratne a playwright of the Forties. “Samudra devi” relates the tragic tale of love between the Heroic prince Weediya Bandara and Samudra Devi, the innocent Sinhala Princess of the Kotte Kingdom. This play is not a Nurthi in the strict sense of the word and borders on the genre called “Teeter” (a variation of the word Theatre) and contains a very popular lilting song called “Gove..Genu Paradai” which is based on the Portuguese musical variety-Baila.
The music of all three plays was conducted by Mr. Shelton Premaratna- one of the most versatile Maestros in the Island. The choreography was handled by the Chitrasena School of Dancing and the decor and costumes were designed and created by Mr. Somabandu Vidyapathy another Master in the field of Art.
After the demise of Honourable R.Premadasa, Honourable D.B. Wijethunge took over as the Chairman of the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation in May 1993. Subsequently the then Prime Ministers, Honourable Bandaranayake Kumaratunge, Honourable Sirimavo Bandaranayake, Honourable Ranil Wickamasinghe, Hon.Mahinda Rajapakse, Honourable Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, have adorned the Chairmanship of the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation. As for the Post of Director General Mr. A.J Ranasinghe, Disa Weerapana K.M.Abeysinghe, Benedict Kumarage, W.D.W Abeywardana,Ranjith Dharmakeerthi, Ms. Indika P. Chandratilake, Mr.N.W.Weralupitiya and Mr. Douglas Siriwardane have served in its capacity.
Since December 2015, Mr. Lionel Fernando, (Attorney at Law), with Present Prime-Minister Honorable Ranil Wickramasinghe as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees.
Presently Tower Hall Theatre Foundation also functions as the National Centre of the International Theatre Institute (ITI)