|Could you tell us about Bangkok Theatre Network (hereafter BTN) in some more detail? We have heard that before Akaoni there was little interaction between Thai theater people who belonged to different theater companies.
That’s correct. By nature, Thai actors are rather egotistical and their pride doesn’t let them interact with other actors of companies much. And, because the companies perform one or two works a year, the audience isn’t very large either. In conditions like that it isn’t really possible to spread contemporary theater to the general Thai public. So I thought that each company should not only do their own productions but also interact more and try to create an environment where we could all bring performances to the public with greater frequency. In about 1992 there was a call to start a network between the companies, but the effort failed. Then we tried again and again it was unsuccessful. Akaoni brought a third chance. The Japan tour brought everyone together around Mr. Noda, and it was like a party every night. We spent all the days and nights together. In that environment where it was not just work but personal interaction as well, there was meaningful exchange and finally everyone agreed that we should start a network, and that was BTN.
There is one more factor behind the founding of our network that I have to mentions. That is the presence of the director of the Japan Foundation’s Japan Culture Center in Bangkok at the time, Mr. Junetsu Komatsu (present standing director of the Shibuzawa Ei’ichi Memorial Foundation). Mr. Komatsu had a greater interest in Thai theater than most Thais, and he would often call me when he needed information about some aspect of Thai theater. For that reason I would also call other theater companies often in order to gather information. In the process I was able to establish relationships of mutual trust with the other companies. And I believe that we would not have been successful in establishing our network had it not been for those relationships of trust.
BTN was initially launched with 10 member companies, including Makhampom. At one point we were up to 12 companies, but now we are back to 10. That is partly because we have a policy of removing companies that are not sufficiently active from our list of members. Our network was organized in 2002, but we aren’t officially incorporated as a [non-profit] organization yet. In the future I hope to see us become officially registered as a foundation. We also have individual members including about 30 theater professors and instructors from ten universities, and about 50 members of the press and journalists. There is no membership fee for these people, but we do have the members cooperate in publicity, seminars and the like. We also have universities that give their students credits for working on our festivals or as volunteer staff for BTN.
BTN is funded by membership fees and special members (operating committee members) pay 2,400 baht a year (approx. 72 USD) while general members pay 1,200 baht (approx. 36 USD). Since these membership fees are so inexpensive, we cannot operate on these fees alone and we can’t keep any permanent staff. For office space, we use one area of a friend’s office. However, as we have continued to make significant achievements, starting this year we are receiving support from a government-related organization as the Bangkok Theatre Network Project.
What is the aim of BTN?
The most important aim is to strengthen the position of Thai theater people and the theater world. In order to achieve that aim, we get people from the theater audience, the mass media, artists, critics, educators and other people from a variety of fields to become involved in BTN as central members.
What are the main activities BTN is involved in at the moment?
Our central program aimed at raising society’s awareness of theater is the Bangkok Theatre Festival since 2002 that involves about 30 theater companies.
In addition to this, we conduct seminars about the running of theater companies and performances and acting and theater workshops. At times we also organize collaborative productions between different theater companies and their performances. One example is the Tokyo performances of the play Nogyo Shojo (Girl of the Soil), which is not only a joint production of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space and BTN but also a collaboration between Thai actors from different companies.
I would like to ask you about the joint production work between BTN and Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space. How did this collaboration come about?
I received an invitation from the assistant director of Tokyo Arts Theatre, Hiroshi Takahagi, to direct one of Hideki Noda’s plays. At that time I thought of not directing it myself but making this an opportunity for some talented Thai director, so I consulted BTN and we invited Mr. Noda to Bangkok and held a workshop. After this workshop there were seven directors who said they wanted to direct the production. Among them there were three directors that I thought would do something interesting with a Noda play. They were Nut Nualpang, Nikorn Saetang and Damkerng Thitapiyasak. Nut has an especially good knowledge of Noda’s works. Nikorn has outstanding directing talent, and Damkerng is excellent at adapting foreign plays and staging them in a very Thai theatrical manner. All of them are also excellent actors as well as directors. It was decided that Nut would be director, but Nikorn and Damkerng also were given roles as actors. The actors were chosen by us in a workshop organized by BTN. To choose the work to be produced we had the plots of seven Noda works translated and from them we chose Nogyo Shojo. We felt it was the work that had the most in common with the Thai life.
Nogyo Shojo is a contemporary style play, but when you directed the Makhampom company version of Akaoni you did it in the style of Thailand’s traditional popular comedy theater, “likay.” Why did you choose to do it in the likay style?
Likay is an art form that has developed along with Thai society. It is one of the few arts that has maintained traditional aspects but also kept relevance to contemporary life so it doesn’t become outdated. When Mr. Takahagi made me the offer of directing a Noda play, I immediately thought that if I were to direct it myself I would do it in the likay style.
Likay is originally a Malay art form, which means it emerged from Islamic culture. Therefore, I thought to set the play in southern Thailand where many people of Malay descent live. And yes, since it was to be a special commemorative project for the Japan-Mekong Exchange Year, I also thought to set it in a village on the Mekong River, but if that were the case, the bottle that is set afloat could never come back like it does in the original story. (laughs) So, I thought that it should be set in a seaside village in southern Thailand and use music that sounds exotic to the Thai ear.