Third article of the report : Contemporian spoken drama in Thailand, an imported practice which is still in its infancy but promising .
Bangkok, Novembre 2014
Reading time : 25 min.
In the city of smile, the most delicious dishes are these from the street-food restaurants, the alley cats have shortened tales, and people line up to wait for the subway or the BTS. But if these little things are quite easy to identify, what about the cultural habits, and more specifically… about theatre.
James, an actor from UK settled in Bangkok since 2007, decided to join the professional theatrical circuit of Bangkok about one year and a half ago. He tells us :
“Thai theatre is still in its infancy in many ways. There isn't a particularly strong tradition of going to the theatre, and it's rare for shows to run for more than 10 or 12 performances. This means that there is very little money to be made, and actors are typically only paid for performances. So when people are essentially volunteering their time for the entirety of a rehearsal process, it's not surprising that they want to enjoy it and take a more laid back approach than you'd expect of a cast who were being paid to turn up on the dot.”
We also met the members of the Democrazy Theatre Studio (that you may have seen in the video from the introduction article), a space run by a groupe of involved artists, located in a small street of Lumpini's district, in Bangkok. On the terrasse in front of the entry, people from the staff or volunteers attend a bar where you can by a beer or a coffee to drink sat at one of the tables of the terrasse, waiting for the beginning of the show. The night we were there, to see The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, a friend of the main actress was managing the ticket sales, which was also located outside, since it is rarely less than 20°C at night in Bangkok. The studio includes 7 permanent members but many volunteers come and give a hand that keeps the place alive. It was founded 6 years ago by a group of artists, including Pavinee and Kao, who describe us the place and tell us about the context in which they began :
Bangkok is not the city where it is the easiest to open a place like this one. This industry is newly settled and the audience is only little receptive to what they offer. Indeed, even if none of them gives up, the Democrazy members and the other ones tell us that daily, the first lack is the audience.
“Thai people started to put English subtitles because Thai audience was not enough.”
(Bonnie, Bangkok Community Theatre)
“Our audience is mainly expats of 50 years old.”
(Ryan, Bangkok Community Theatre)
The expats from Europe, America and Oceania are an essential part of the audience (almost half of the seats when we went there), whereas in 2010 they represented only 1.5% of the population. This figure charts how scarce is the local audience, then we can understand subtitles has become necessary for the small theatres.
Nonetheless, there are some shows that work very well with Thai people. For your show to be part of them, all our interviewees told it to us, it is very easy : you just have to hire local celebrities, whatever their acquaintance with the theatre stage.
Pavinee and Kao tell us about it and describe their relation with the audience.
One of the advantage of the lack of audience is the possibility to deal with all the topics they like, or almost all the topics. Indeed, this more or less voluntary discretion allows them not to draw attention to themselves, especially regarding the government. Even if there is no official censorship committee in Thaïlande, like in Iran or Singapore, the Thai artists watch their words. The King and I, for instance, a play adapted from Anna and the King of Siam, a novel from Margaret Landon, is truly forbidden. It relates the true story of Anna Leonowens, a widow who used to work for the court of Rama IV in the 1860’s. The scenario shows Anna “helping” the King not to act like a “barbarian”. It also praises the puritanical morals of the Victorian England in comparison with the practices of the King of Siam’s court. Therefore, the play and the other cinematographic adaptations has been censored, under the equivocal pretext that the veracity of Anna Leonowens writings was widely controversial. Was the play really censored simply because it was based on doubtful sources, or did it became forbidden because in Thaïlande, you don’t speak about the King, period? Well, I will not respond to that, I liked Thailand, I would prefer to be able to go back...
Whatever the answer, neither the members of Democrazy nor the others would take the risk to perform it. But since the government don’t take them seriously and since they do not consider theater as enough followed to be able to put them into trouble (at least not yet), some of the young artists assure to be willing to transmit a political message through their creations.
Thai artists knows they are playing with illegality, or at least with something that could become illegal very quickly, in case the productions would have too much impact. And actually, the pressure do not seem to come only from the government : it happens that the audience itself cause some problems to the artists; for example by fear that the topics are not only politically incorrect but also effectively forbidden.
Politics is topic which is hard to tackle in Thailand, more specifically, the taboo is about royalty. Indeed, it is forbidden to blame the King publicly. The applicable penalty is several years in jail, whatever you are a Thai person or a foreigner staying in Thailand.