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Sunday, 22 November 2009

Kekong Arts and Media Fest in The Nation newspaper

a reach as long as the river

written by Pawit Mahasarinand
published in THE NATION on Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Philippine Educational Theatre Association extends its aid to nurture far-flung arts groups and address their social challenges.
Theatre can entertain—and it can also foment change in society. In fact, if theatre's sole purpose were entertainment, it would not have survived the advent of film and television.

Witness the Mekong Arts and Media Festival “Weaving Cultures, Weaving Visions” from November 23 to 27 in Phnom Penh.

Arts groups in the Mekong region have benefited in recent years from funding and workshops organised by the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA), whose Mekong Partnership Project supports initiatives aimed at social transformation.

Considered as the wrap-up event for the first phase of PETA’s Mekong Partnership Project, the festival welcomes artists, media practitioners, cultural workers, students, drama/theatre teachers, advocates, public officials, and development workers in addition to the general public to performances, conferences, skill-building workshops, exhibits, film screenings and other events giving full rein to creative expression to address current and emerging social issues facing the people living along the Mekong River.

Don’t be surprised if you find that there is less number of local stage works here in Thailand next week. While Makhampom and representatives from various groups in the Bangkok Theatre Network are at Festival/Tokyo performing Yak Tua Dang and Sao Chaona, Thai adaptations of Japanese plays Akaoni and Nogyo Shojyo, three other troupes—Crescent Moon Theatre, Khandha Arts 'n Theatre and Wandering Moon Performing Group and Endless Journey—will be in the Cambodian capital presenting works created with PETA grants.

Sineenadh Keitprapai, artistic director of Crescent Moon and recipient of the Silpathorn Award in 2008, tells us that her company has worked with PETA for decades.

“Before the Mekong Partnership Project started, PETA asked me to be a Thai coordinator when they came in to conduct research on performing arts groups in Thailand. Then, I joined the 2nd Mekong Performing Arts Laboratory in 2006 in Hanoi, along with fellow actresses Farida Jaruphand, Jarunun Phatachat, and Suwandee Suanpholrat.”

A result is a collaborative work of the four veteran thespians that was later developed, again with the grant from the Project, into physical theatre production dealing with women-related issues Purgatory (or in Thai title Fai Lang Bap), that was later staged at Bangkok Theatre Festival 2007 and toured to 10 universities, and will be restaged next month at the Crescent Moon Space in the Pridi Banomyong Institute in Soi Thonglhor.

“Before each performance, we talked to our audience, asking them what each and everyone of them think of themselves, how others look at them, and what they want to be in the future, and then present these through images. After the performance, which was while strictly issue-oriented, presented in a somewhat satirical and comic tone, we talked to them again openly, and the conversations went back to the images they drew at the start. One audience, in the presence of their friends, told us that she once got so depressed that she was considering suicide, and that the performance gave her much moral support. This is beyond our expectation.”

They will restage Purgatory at the festival, with one cast change, as Jarunun will be in Tokyo performing Sao Chaona.
Monthatip Suksopha's Chiang Mai-based shadow-puppet troupe Wandering Moon was invited to perform Butterfly at the 2004 Asia-Pacific Women's Festival, its first venture overseas.

“It’s a great exposure for us. The audience there loved our work and we’re offered grants by many organizations,” says Monthatip.

The Mekong Partnership Project blossomed soon after that, and Wandering Moon has played different roles in its annual laboratories ever since.

"The first one in Manila, we’re artists, then in the second and third in Hanoi and Cambodia, we’re facilitators, then we co-hosted the fourth one last year. While the overall theme of these labs centers on gender issues in the Mekong sub-region, the highlighted performance style differs from one to another, depending on the host companies’ interests and strengths—like the focus on puppetry in our lab last year.”

"We've learned a lot and developed a great deal—not only in artistic skills but also organisational and managerial ones. I think this collaboration and journey [with PETA] works effectively partly because we share a lot in common and have a good chemistry, of course there’ve been some obstacles and problems along the way, like any other journey.”

Wandering Moon will present its new work, Reborn of the Butterfly, in Phnom Penh.

"It's slightly different from the two works that were supported by the project, The Untold Story and Forgotten Memory, both of which were continuations of Butterfly," Monthatip says.

Forgotten Memory
"Many people now think we only work on gender issues. Well, we're an all-women troupe, but we work on other issues [outside of the Mekong Project] as well.”
"In Reborn, we're taking a more neutral view and looking at the relationship between men and women as yin and yang—instead of merely strictly women-related issues, like abortion in Forgotten Memory."

Butoh-trained performer and director Sonoko Prow, artistic director of Khandha Arts 'n Theatre, participated in the third Mekong Performing Arts Laboratory in 2007.

"During those three weeks in three cities I learned that advocacy wasn't as scary as I'd thought. When we want to change something or someone, we should start by studying ourselves - and conducting thorough research into the real situation."
Sonoko's Maenam, a final showcase in the 2007 lab, recruited residents of Battambang for the cast of a piece dealing with AIDS. It fuelled a larger production called For Little Less Noise: Maenam the following year, which was also supported by the project.

For Little Less Noise: Maenam
Maenam was presented at Patravadi Theatre and Chiang Mai and Mae Fah Luang universities, along with workshops on both the content and the performance style.

"The reactions varied at different venues," Sonoko says. "In Chiang Rai, where we performed to about 1,500 audiences, partly because we had a slide show explaining Butoh, the performance moved some viewers to tears. In Bangkok most people saw it in terms of production values, concentrating more on the movement than the issues."

PETA's Mekong Partnership Project, she says, has helped the troupe "continuously develop our artistic skills and creation process in the past two years".
“Some members of the troupe even told me the process changed their personalities.”

"Plus, the audience is exposed to a new style of performance and new social issues. Some people, like HIV patients, realise they can actually do more than they think, and that's similar to what our members have felt through this self-realisation process."

Khandha Arts 'n Theatre will perform For Little Less Noise: Maenam at the Mekong Festival.

The festival is a PETA’s collaboration with Phare Ponleu Selpak, Save the Children UK's Cross Border Project and the Centre for Community Health Research and Development.

Funding comes from the Rockefeller Foundation, European Union, Japan Foundation, Heinrich Boell Foundation-Southeast Asia, Terres des Hommes and Ambassade au France de Cambodge.

How does PETA, an organisation based in the Philippines—outside the Mekong region—secure grants from America and Europe?

“I was wondering about that too," Sonoko laughs. "I guess it's partly because they're well established, with more than three decades in this field, and can communicate very efficiently in English."
"Plus, since they're also artists, they understand their fellow artists like us from Thailand."

The Mekong Festival of Arts and Media is from November 23 to 27 in Phnom Penh. Get the details at

For more information about the participants, see www.PETATheater.com, www.CrescentMoonTheatre.com, www.KhandhaArts.org and www.WanderingMoonTheatre.com

Thanks to a grant from Save the Children (UK), the writer has been invited to the festival as a scholar/journalist. More articles will soon be published in The Nation.

written by Pawit Mahasarinand
published in THE NATION on Sunday, November 15, 2009
photos courtesy of Crescent Moon Theatre, Wandering Moon Performing Group and Endless Journey; and Khandha Arts 'n Theatre.

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