After four visits to Sri Lanka over the last four years working with Mountain Flower Playback Theatre and watching them grow and flourish, I had decided it was time to move on and explore new territory. There is no Playback Theatre in the South-East Asian countries around Thailand, other than Singapore, so it seemed a natural area to visit to see what could be offered.
At this stage, I only had three weeks, so I decided to limit my travels to Thailand and Cambodia and conduct some research into possibilities, but where to start? I had gone to Sri Lanka with an introduction but had no contacts this time. I’d been told that Playbackers from Singapore had visited Cambodia, so I got in touch and learned that work had happened but had petered out – no leads.
Then by chance, I received a newsletter from a Theatre group in Northern Thailand among my junk mail and replied. It wasn’t clear where they got my email address from, but it was genuine and did lead to a meeting in Chiang Mai with one of the directors. The timing and short notice of my visit meant that it wasn’t possible to work with this group at that particular time, but I did get to meet a local contact in Chiang Mai that led to an afternoon workshop introducing Playback Theatre at the Studio of Thai / Japanese Butoh dancer Sonoko Prow. That short notice meant that we were four participants and I, but that wasn’t going to stop us.
I love the way that stories emerge in Playback Theatre and the social mapping exercises that preceded the Playback focused on the usual topics of origins and in this case, the personal qualities and strengths that are important to participants. It’s the commonalities that are bonding. We also looked at the shadow-side and it was this aspect that was to provide a rich vein of stories around work, family dynamics and the corruption that exists in society, by the last story the topic had flipped to one of success due to persistence. In a short introduction to Playback Theatre, I only teach one simple short non-narrative form before going into story. My view nowadays is that the fundamental value of Playback Theatre is the empathy that gets drawn out between participants and that’s my main focus in a short workshop along with the importance of the PT ritual. Should a short workshop inspire further interest then then the nuances of Playback Theatre can be taught then from a foundation of empathy.
One of the participants above had told me of a mindfulness-based rehab community further north near Chiang Rai in the area known as the Golden Triangle. I emailed them and got a phone call the next day inviting me to visit. I had planned to head back to Bangkok and make my way to Cambodia, but changed my ticket and caught a bus going north arriving at New Life the following morning after an overnight stay in Chiang Rai.
The New Life Foundation was most welcoming and after a discussion with the director Julien Gryp, I suggested offering a dance and movement workshop which was accepted. In all, I spent three days at New Life taking part in community life, enjoying meeting some of the residents and volunteers and did the workshop on the last afternoon, before catching a bus back to Chiang Mai.
New Life is inspired somewhat by Plum Village and the work of Thich Nhat Hanh. Julien has lived as a Buddhist monk in Thailand and the values of mediation, compassion and harmonious living are embedded in the daily life at the Centre. Following on from that, I gave my workshop the title of Opening the heart to the feeling of self. In the Buddhist tradition, the concept of Shunyata (emptiness of self) lies at the heart of meditation, in the sense, that the self (who we are) cannot be grasped. Yet we have a feeling of substance from our bodies and a feeling of self through our mind and emotions which from the Buddhist viewpoint, leads to suffering. (Wikipedia has a good description of Shunyata).
In my workshop, through the medium of dance and movement, responding to and enjoying the effect of the music on our bodies, we moved through a series of exercises designed to evoke the vulnerability and tenderness of being human through to compassion and acceptance. The workshop took place in the Listening Hall, a beautiful rustic building in the heat of the afternoon.
It was then time to leave and begin my journey to Cambodia. It was my first visit to Cambodia and as I was reading a compelling account of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge (River of Time by Jon Swain), I was somewhat naively not expecting the commercialism of Pub Street in Siem Reap while 36% of the town’s population apparently live below the poverty line. I spent a few days there and visited Angkor Wat before getting a bus back to Bangkok. One of the souvenir vendors at Angkor Wat told me how they have to pay a monthly bribe to the police to be able to sell their wares. Obviously, Cambodia needs more time for me to get under its skin and away from the (understandable) concept of being seen as a tourist and a source of income. Sadly, I wasn’t able to visit the school that my friends support as I was unable to access my email to get the details. A visit to the school would have likely given me a different perspective and helped me to escape the tourist persona that seems to be imposed on visitors. That impression wasn’t helped by the excessive fee charged by a local volunteer agency, which otherwise seems to do good work.
I returned to Bangkok and spent my last few days there. I found it a bit overwhelming as a city, it reminds me of the film Blade Runner. What’s always interesting about travelling and staying in hostels, is the number and variety of people that you meet. I heard of a visit to Myanmar which is just beginning to open up to visitors and I was given the name of a social project there to follow up. So over the next few years, it’s my intention to continue to explore Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar and see what I can offer and how Playback Theatre can be used to share the rich and varied stories of the region.