INTERVIEW: Sasapin Siriwanij


INTERVIEW: SASAPIN SIRIWANIJ

ECOLOGY OF REVOLUTION: GROWING THE BANGKOK THEATRE SCENE

By Gregory Keng Strasser

(for the Lab for Global Performance and Politics)

“The strength [of Bangkok’s theatre scene] is that we have a lot of really good artists. Like world quality… artists. And they’re thriving. We are lucky enough that, although our country is not completely democratic right now, our government is not smart enough to kill us already.”

Sasapin Siriwanij, affectionately called ‘Pupae,’ chortles a laugh. She is sitting in a crowded mall on a sunny Bangkok afternoon. For the past week, the city of angels has been covered by a layer of thick smog, but today, as the skies clear for the rays, and the air pollution tracker has dropped to “moderate” status, it’s easier to talk about the wonders of Bangkok.

“We still somehow have the freedom to express, but we just have to be really clever and really careful – and that combination of situations makes the work really, really, really, interesting. And it’s just like you know, when you work with limitations, and you squeeze the creative juice – you get the most intense juice you’ve ever had in this kind of situation.”

“You know this conversation is on the record?” I interject.

“Oh yeah,” she suddenly realizes. “I think it’s fine.”

“If you feel like this will get uncomfortable, let me know and we can adjust. I can scrub a little away.”

“No, I mean it’s the truth. So it’s fine.” She laughs. “Really!”

You often hear in your undergrad programs how it’s vital to work in restrictions, but for the Bangkok theatre community, those restrictions take on more than just four walls. Juggling the rising costs of space rentals, audience development, a cultural bias towards the arts, and perhaps most intimidating, the military junta, Bangkok’s theatre scene is comprised of the scrappiest, and most versatile artists in the world.

Pupae has been active in the theatre scene here since 2007. One of the most important leaders in Bangkok arts, she now serves as the artistic director of BIPAM – the Bangkok International Performing Arts Meeting. She is also a core member of B-Floor Theatre, a company that is no stranger to restrictions, and breaking them. You may have heard about them too: how their plight went viral when the military had threatened to shut-down their performance of Bang La Merd, The Land We Do Not Own unless they could be present at every evening to vet the content. With great negotiation, the show went on, and ironically, the transcript of the call between the officer and the show’s sole-performer was included in the beginning of the play.

But, even that was not the tensest moment for the troupe.

“This show was called Flu-O-Less-Sense. It’s a Thai way of making a pun of fluorescent lights and it was created around the time when we had the crackdown in 2010.” Pupae remembers.

She is referring to Cruel April and Savage May – periods of military violence against the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship that lead to over 80 civilian deaths.

“[It] started when there was already the tension. Then as we rehearsed for it, the crackdown came. So we were right there in the moment. We wanted to document the actual situation that was happening.” She explains. “That was the moment B-Floor really became a company and all the members were full of motivation, full of fire, ready to do what was asked of them. I think that show really marked what is probably known as B-Floor’s signature today.”

“What is B-Floor’s ‘signature,’ exactly?”

“The first thing is that we talk about social-political issues. So pretty much things that people don’t want to talk about! We wanna ask questions – we don’t give answers.”

Questions often abound their productions. B-Floor’s most recent show, a colorful and bubbly dance-movement piece called Manoland envisions the performers in a literal state of Halcyon, living in fantasy. However, the play, which finished its run in Tokyo at the Storehouse Theatre, is a satirical look at how living blithely in fantasy has become a pervasive coping mechanism of the Thais. With only sparse language, much of the show is dance. Some might find this kind of art intimidating, but B-Floor has established itself as a company with something important to say, and Bangkok – she listens.

“Actually it’s better now than before!” Pupae says of B-Floor. “When we first started as a committed company, a lot of people complained: ‘Oh, [you’re] too abstract. [You] make shows too difficult to understand and people don’t wanna come see B-Floor because you don’t know what’s happening and you feel stupid and blah, blah, blah.’ Now it’s better.”

“What do you mean ‘better?’” I ask. “Did you guys actively decided to dumb it down?”

Pupae smiles. “It’s the society. We don’t do anything less than what we have always been doing. We do the same thing, only it gets more difficult, more abstract, and more conceptual. [The society] wasn’t ready back then. It wasn’t ‘trendy’ to be so artsy. But right now it is. And so, even though people don’t understand it, people will try to. They have the effort, they have the interest to dig deeper into this kind of art form. So, it’s not us, really! It’s the people.”

Since the company’s little run-in with the military, B-Floor has garnered an international reputation of making visual and physical theatre. But for Pupae, who recently garnered critical acclaim for OH! ODE a performance piece that combines traditional Thai dance with live-sculpting (spoiler alert: it is her body that becomes covered in clay) – her forray into physical theatre did not come immediately.

“I got involved [with B-Floor] by first joining their intensive workshop and then as I spent time with them during that week, I was invited to perform in their next show.” She explains. “I came from a spoken-play background. I started theatre with plays with characters and stuff where you have a director and everything. So I was invited to perform, for the first time with B-Floor, and their techniques were devising and using physical theatre. And that means you begin without a script, you don’t know who you’re playing, you don’t know what’s gonna happen because it’s totally devised. You’re asked to do weird stuff like imagining you have hair that’s like two meters long growing out of your skull!” She laughs.

“At first, I was a good girl enough to not question too much and just kept doing what what they asked me to do… But then the stuff I tried out in rehearsals actually got picked to be part of the scene! There was this sense of empowerment and even democracy in that way of working; I didn’t know that was possible if you were just a performer and not a director.”

Since then, Pupae has risen to one of Bangkok’s favorite artists. Over the last ten years, she has witnessed extraordinary change in the city’s cultural fabric. The 2010 crackdown excluded, Bangkok was the site numerous protests between the working class Red-shirts, and the loyalist Yellow-shirts; as well as the infamous coup de ’tat in 2014 in which the prime minister was ousted and the military took control of the government. Political tensions have simmered since those days, and the uneasy peace has signaled that the first democratic elections for the next Prime Minister of Thailand will be held in May 2019 – almost 8 years since they last occurred.

This announcement, which came at the end of January, has political leaders scrambling to campaign before the elections, which occur in just three months. By comparison, most presidential candidates for the US 2020 elections have just begun to announce – more than a year in advance.

“You’ve been associated with B-Floor and Bangkok’s theatre scene for a long time. How would you describe how it’s changed?” I ask.

“I would say I entered the community around the time it just passed the struggling time. It was pretty lucky that I came in at a hopeful time of theatre, meaning the time when smaller independent theatre spaces opened. This allowed for more possibility in creating works for companies to make works more continuously. Because before that, the idea of independent and smaller theatre spaces was not yet there.”

Despite the period of flourishing, there are constant threats. The start of 2019 was a rough one for Bangkok arts: Democrazy Theatre, a popular studio space and company, shuttered along with Thong Lor Art Space. Both venues, which were active in various festivals and in their own programming, were forced to close due to the rising cost of rent in the increasingly urbanizing city. Perhaps the most intimidating threat comes from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s desire to take over the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre (BACC) and lease its exhibition and performance spaces to private corporations. Artists and activists have resisted this effort, but the issue is perilous: the center stands in the most popular area of the city – Siam – next to two major tourist destinations, MBK Mall and Siam Square.

Losing the BACC would be a major blow to the Bangkok arts scene. The Centre not only provides showcase opportunities, but also rehearsal halls, community gathering space, and an infrastructure that supports the burgeoning network of Thai contemporary artists. And yet, even at this moment, Bangkok is faced with the oversaturation of artists without the number of facilities to accommodate them. The effect of the BACC’s transition from non-profit into a venue for corporate enterprise could severely disrupt a contemporary arts-scene that has begun to mature.

And though Thai audiences have grown smarter and more supportive of theatre and fine-arts, the numbers have stagnated.

“The problem that we have and have been having for a while is: where is the audience? We have the same audience. And who are watching our shows? And who are we making the shows for? And in the end, [if] you have to drag your friend to see your show, then what’s the point?” Pupae points out.

The growing number of new works outpaces the number of people who want to see it, but Pupae believes that its not necessarily artistic stimuli needed to catalyze Bangkok.

“What I do, BIPAM as well, is I’ve started some workshops, programs, trainings, discussion groups. For me it’s about addressing and recognizing the ecology of theatre. Meaning you don’t have to talk just to the artists. There are other people. There are producers, there are stage managers, there are technicians, there are dramaturgs. And also this coincides with the interest – the emerging interest – of other roles in theatre as well.

“So it’s not that I started it, but I think it comes around the same time that we start to recognize that theatre is not only made up of directors and performers It’s not that! You need this whole crew.”

Pupae makes a valid point. I noticed that, in coming to Bangkok, there were clearly defined roles for directors and actors, yet the perception of other occupations that Americans and Europeans would find fundamental to theatre, had only begun to become materialized.

“Before this, I think there was this vague understanding or belief that the ultimate position in this path is to become a director. And I used to think that too.” She says. “I used to have people coming to me like ‘Okay now you’re a performer, you’re really good at it, when are you going do direct?’

“So you can only grow this way!? I’m like, no! We shouldn’t have to think just that anymore. You don’t have to aspire to be just a director. You can aspire to become the best stage manager you can be, the best producer you can be, the coolest dramaturg, and that’s okay! We should address more of these issues around this ecology because in the end the directors and performers will never go out of the conversation. They are always on stage. So people see them. What about the other people?”

To her point, numerous theatre scenes are sustained on diversifying the participants of theatre. Non-profits have seldom, if ever, relied on ticket sales alone, and wisely turned to patron and grant support. Donors are often viewed as a part of the “family” of the company, and maybe clinically as an investor. Theatres with advanced development structures like Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, even partner with corporations like ComEd to entertain a corporation’s clients in exchange for a bulk of funding support. This ecosystem creates an inter-connected network of patrons who are treated as essential to the production. While the major criticism of this method is that capitalist interests are now imposed on the art, for most organizations it is the preferred method of function. Bangkok, as one of the strongest economies in South-east Asia is positioned to help its artistic scene grow exponentially, and yet that potential has been stunted.

“We don’t have an infrastructure that supports art. It’s not just about money! It’s the infrastructure as a whole. Meaning space, or even more abstract infrastructure like the recognition of the value of art. [The] Arts as a whole is not part of the consciousness. I think it’s still kind of thought of as a hobby or an entertainment. Art actually has value. You do need that. [Needing art] is unthinkable in this country, yeah. So no matter how much you create, no matter how cool as an artist you might be or your work is… Unless you can create instagrammable shows for forever then people would come.”

But it’s not all lost. Bangkok possesses the most agile and hungriest makers in the game now. Hardened by the massive pressure of anti-artistic infrastructure, the new generation of Bangkok theatre-makers impresses Pupae.

“I can see that the younger generation, they welcome opportunities. They welcome critiques. They expose themselves to things like meetings or gatherings, like this,” she gestures to us, “where you don’t meet just your colleagues and your friends who [you] already know – but you meet artists from the other side of the world or you have discussions about other things that would otherwise not have been addressed in the same old community you spend time with every day.”

Indeed, BIPAM is responsible for many of these international meetings: Indonesian, Taiwanese, Malay, Burmese, Filipino, and Singaporean artists gathered for two weeks and exchanged their works at and around Siam. In fact, my own collaboration with Makhampom Theatre Group’s SJ Rachel and Splashing Theatre Company’s Thongchai Pimapunsri was born from these meetings.

So we return to strengths: In addition to the world-class craft, “[The artists] are thriving.” Pupae says. “From the BIPAM point of view, everybody wants to come to Thailand. Everybody wants to come to Bangkok! We’re a great place. You could get lucky and get away with things like, ‘Okay I want this collaboration to happen [with you], but I don’t have the money to support you,’ and some people will be like, ‘But I wanna come to Bangkok. I don’t care. I can come.’ This might not happen everywhere in the world. [But] we have this, and it’s an advantage.” She smirks. “A silly, silly, advantage.”

“Who are some of these new artists that are exciting you now?” I ask.

Pupae, without hesitation, breaks into a glow: “Splashing Theatre. They’re exciting because…when I first discovered them [I had this feeling of] ‘Oh these are like young people!’ But their shows…it’s not immature at all. It’s very artistically challenging. It’s very clever. It’s very memorable in many, many ways, and they just don’t disappoint you! I have to tell myself to go see their shows because I know that I’m gonna get new questions or new explosions in my brain.” She laughs again. “I wouldn’t say I LIKE, like their shows every time. But I feel it’s worth my time always.”

One director in particular from Splashing, Thanaphon Accawatanyu (nicknamed ‘First’), caught her eye. His play, The Disappearance of a Boy on a Sunday Afternoon felt so important to the dialogue of Thai contemporary theatre, that it was selected to be included in the first volume of Micropolitics, a literary effort pioneered by Thai Collective Scripts (TCS) to make Thai works more accessible to the public. Pupae translated the work into English for the volume.

“The other emerging artists – the two that I’ve always had my eye on for a long time: [are] Wichaya Artamat, (nicknamed ‘Best’) from For What Theatre, which is a small collective I co-founded. And the other one is a director-choreographer, Thanapol Virulhakul, who did The Retreat. So these two artists are the two emerging directors who make very, very challenging, challenging work.”

Virulhakul is also included alongside First in Micropolitics. His play, Hipster the King, was actually documented after it had already been performed. Hipster is a devised piece and the text is a hybrid of memoir and script - straddling the line between documentation and analysis.

This play, among the many I have encountered in the city of angels, is illustrative of a city whose artistic ecosystem has developed a new hue. Despite the major tension between juggling the government, the society, and the art; theatre-makers in Bangkok have carved out a proportion of space that leaves a mark. In fact, B-Floor, itinerant for many years, secured its own space in Yaowarat (China town) and has consistently created plays every year for several. Yet, even with the immense success and output, Pupae does not see the company replicating the western-model of artistic programming.

“The western model is very far from what we think about. The public thinks that B-Floor is really big and established, but whenever we look at ourselves, we still think like, ‘We’re nothing! We don’t have anything!’ There’s always work to do.”

Yet for B-Floor, and the rest of the Thai theatre community, the work is not intimidating. There is a wonder, even a sense of excitement, of not following the trodden path. Manoland, B-Floor’s latest, has been produced at least three times now; and the company co-produced The Butoh Festival with a number of Japanese and other international artists as well. They were recently commissioned by the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit to create a family-friendly piece about vaccination and protection against illnesses and flus. The result was a puppetry and movement driven, almost-vaudvillian spectacle that one might see on Nick Jr. called Fishy Clouds. Their upcoming Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will also feature puppetry in a site-specific and Thai transadaptation of the work.

Pupae now travels the world to help unite collaborators back in Bangkok. As a producer, actor, and artist, she’s gone to Israel, Japan, and France – all within the last month. Hers is a career that has lifted and truly established the possibility of transnational artistry in a form that was historically created to survive within its locale. At BIPAM 2018, Pupae curated performances that addressed Malaysian-Thai Muslim identities; historical dance pieces juxtaposing Thai classical dance, contemporary dance, and Indonesian puppetry; Climate-change shadowplays; Korean-opera; and a new Taiwanese drama. Born from a deep appreciation for its older sister, TPAM (originally the Tokyo Performing Arts Market, now Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama), BIPAM has carved out a distinct identity as a chief incubator and platform for South-east Asian performers.

So now we turn to the future. When one embarks on the journey of “being” a theatre-maker, one is faced with arduous opposition and challenges. Especially in Bangkok, theatre is not for the faint-of-heart. Pupae, now hopeful to create a more sustainable ecosystem for the next generation of Thai actors, directors, and practitioners, has simple advice:

“Do it.” She says.

“Just go ahead and do it. Don’t even think about, ‘is it practical, is it gonna work? Nobody’s gonna come!’

Whatever. Just do it.”

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