And so my first week has passed with PPS, and after a quick introduction to the organisation I was placed with the awareness theatre troupe. They are currently at the last leg of rehearsals and it was great to jump straight in as this was the main reason I came – see to how PPS create and produce issue based plays, what their tour process is and how they engage local audiences. This I hope will help me evaluate my own practice in this area.

The troupes current play is called ‘Migra-Safe’ and it focuses on the harsh reality of illegal immigration to Thailand in order to earn money. The story follows that of a family who have received a loan from an NGO and are unable to pay back the interest. Fearing they will lose the home, they look to Thailand where wages are generally higher than Cambodia. However, as we have just learnt the family are poor, so they are unable to pay for a passport and visa, resulting in the mother allowing her 2 children to drop out of school and cross the border without papers, leaving them exposed to many problems and no support. Working long hours and receiving lower wages than originally agreed, the children are found by Thai police and sent back to Cambodia no better off than when they left.

The group will tour to 3 provinces where illegal migration is identified as a problem, and perform 45 shows to an estimated 300 to 500 people at each. This number absolutely blew me away. The performances take place outside in the middle of a community, and audience are generated by the actors on the day. It was great to share similarities from my work with the troupe, showing pictures of a forum theatre play in the central Australian community of Amata that took place outside the shop. But, as much as there are similarities, there are also differences.

The actual performance runs for 30 minutes, yet the whole affair will run for 1 hour 30. This gives time to attract the audience (through a very dramatic staged ‘medical emergency’) and encourage them to stay throughout. Each performance will run like this:

  • Gathering an audience

Actors spread around the community. Then, one female actor will fall to the ground and ‘faint.’ The other actors will spot this, create some drama and draw community members towards the fallen girl.

When a large number of people are attracted, the actors carry the ‘fainter’ to the stage area and encourage the community members (now audience) to follow. Once there, they reveal it was all a set up.

  • Introduction to the performance

Two actors act as MC’s and introduce the play and the topic of safe migration. Audience members get pulled up on stage and prizes such as t-shirts are given when they answer questions like ‘what does migration’ mean?’.

Another actor then sings 2 popular Cambodian pop songs.

  • The play
  • Q&A

The MC’s talk with the audience and ask 5 questions in relation to the play. Again, they bring people up from the audience and on to the stage.

  • A circus/clowning act

To complete the evening 2 actors perform a very funny circus routine with lots of audience participation.

At first, on hearing of all the activities that take place I had the thought that maybe there was too much going on, and the theme of safe migration may get lost amongst all the entertainment. But this was all put to rest when I saw a test run on Friday afternoon to members of the school. The play’s director, Mony, told me that if Khmer people know that an activity is say, 30 minutes long, then 5 minutes towards the end they will leave. So the circus activities are there to encourage the audience to stay for all of the play, including the Q&A’s. And there it was on Friday, a few minutes before the play ends and you can feel it starting to come to a conclusion, it took just one child to stand and and bang – about 70% of the audience were on their feet and about to head out the door! When they were reminded there were circus tricks to follow the majority returned and therefore stayed for the Q&A.

I feel like most my learning this week has been in regards or the Migra-Safe project as a whole. The play is just one part in a whole program of activities and I was invited to join a meeting with all of the partners to hear more about it. PPS’s involvement is not only the play, but the visual arts school have created an animation exploring safe migration that will be played at each location, plus a comic book that will be given out. Alongside this many resources will be distributed, from hats to t-shirts, to Q&A pamphlets and information cards. There will be 9 training program’s on financial skills and 9 savings groups established, with a focus on educating women. Having this scaffolding around the performance is so important in ensuring there is positive change for the communities reached, yet is something often does not occur. It definitely makes me think about my own forum theatre work, and my need to engage relevant supporting partners as an imperative part of the project from the very beginning, and work together to create a whole program of activities, not just the play.

The troupe have been incredibly welcoming to me, and it I’ve really enjoyed seeing their process. It’s obvious they are very experienced both as performers and creators and I love that it is a very collaborative environment. The way it’s done here is slightly different – a scene is played out, then another actor will get on stage and replace the actor and perform the scene showing how they think it should be done. Then, someone else will jump up and replace that person and show what they think they should do. Before you know it the scene is being repeated with neither of the actual actors in role! It made me smile how in Australia if an actor took on another person’s role to show them how it’s done, the actor would find it insulting. But, here it seems to work really well. This process makes it much easier for me to offer input as verbal communication can be a problem.

This week I have been blown away by the impact PPS has towards the arts in Cambodia, with every member of staff I meet, from artists to administrators having all attended PPS as students. And I’m not talking about just a few people – from musicians to circus performers to actors to teachers, there are so many. Considering that the majority of artists were killed during the time of the Khmer Rouge, you really have to take your hat off to PPS and the way they are rebuilding the arts community in Cambodia.