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 perce