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A Closer Look at Performing Arts in Chiang Mai: The Budding Dramaturgs of Chiang Mai University

Fullbright Scholar intern Apeksha Atal explores Chiang Mai’s vibrant and burgeoning performing arts scene in this four part series.

I knew close to nothing about Thai theatre when I landed in Chiang Mai in early March, but I was eager to find what I could while I was here. As an English major in university, I read a lot of early modern and 18th century work, which meant a lot of plays — it totally changed my outlook on performances. After reading scripts beyond Shakespeare, it became apparent that theatre was used to do a lot more than just tell stories. Political commentary, social and societal norms, and so much more were heavily embedded into the characters, plot points, stage design, costumes, and songs of plays. Plays therefore served as a lens into the history of a space and era — symbolically, visually, and verbally — and they still do today.

While applying to work in Chiang Mai, it was hard to ignore the weight that its history has on the city’s people, infrastructure, and traditions. There are so many cultures that have and continue to cross paths in Chiang Mai and impact everything from the cuisine to the celebrations that happen here. Of course there was no way to learn about absolutely everything in a single month, but I was able to think of one way to access part of this ever-evolving culture: theatre.

While Googling ‘Thai Theatre in Chiang Mai’, however, I mostly found movie theatres, English language theatres, and traditional Lanna dinner theatre. While these were all intriguing opportunities, it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. This struck me and raised an interesting question: is there ‘Thai Theatre’ in Chiang Mai? If it’s here, how do I find it?

As a first step in my investigation into ‘Thai Theatre’, I decided to turn to a familiar setting to collect information: a university. Chiang Mai University proved to be the perfect place to start, with a thriving Fine Arts department and a brand new Music and Performing Arts programme. I was eager to see what Thai theatre students were learning while preparing for the professional world, and what exactly that professional world entailed.

Kusuma Venzky-Stalling of Chiang Mai University was able to better acquaint me with the Thai theatrical scene, more specifically at Chiang Mai University. Kusuma is currently an instructor in the Faculty of Fine Arts’ Music and Performing Arts programme. The programme is approaching the end of its fourth year at the University, and is expecting to see its first ever graduating class take home diplomas in April.

A majority of the 22 or so students in each year of the programme come from the Chiang Mai area, though there are a few students in the programme that hail from other parts of Thailand, including regions as far south as Nakhon Si Thammarat. No matter where they are from, students are pushed to connect with their roots before they start experimenting. “Without knowing your roots, you have no base to work with,” Kusuma explained. It’s clear that this programme places a huge emphasis on cultural connections, providing students with avenues to preserve fading or lesser known parts of Thai culture, albeit in more experimental ways, under both traditional and contemporary influences.

To make this possible, students are challenged to get as much all-round theatrical experience as possible. Students begin by learning about Lanna culture — covering topics ranging from history to the environment.

“Lanna style is more liberal, flexible, sensual – because it has been influenced by neighbouring countries. If you look at the history, most of the culture and behaviour of the people are totally different from central Thailand. So of course the culture and performing arts reflect those influences. Because performing arts and dances are also born out of stories from local people, you can learn about legends, tales of the locals and develop their own plays and style of performing arts from that,” explained Kusuma.

The course then zooms out to delve into Asian theatre, and then goes even further to expose students to Western theatre. Students are challenged to familiarise themselves with the history of theatre around the world, along with contemporary movements, trends, and themes. It’s a dramaturgical soup that is complemented with training in choreography, music, research, stage performance, and much more.

“It’s somewhat of a ‘duck’ curriculum. Students need to be able to swim, walk, and fly,” Kusuma elaborated. “There are no full-time opportunities for students, or anyone, really, to work in theatre in Chiang Mai. They need to be ready to do anything that comes their way.”

At this point a few things became clearer. Chiang Mai University was producing astonishingly well-rounded music and performance theatre students, and the first batch was almost ready to take on the city. There also weren’t very many opportunities for professional theatrical engagement in the city. So where were these students performing? What were they working on?

As it turns out, these students aren’t preparing to perform in traditional, tourist-facing theatrical performances like the Lanna khantoke theatre that I had come across earlier. “There is a Chiang Mai Dramatic Arts College that trains students for traditional performances. They accept students of a larger age range, from primary school to high school and even college,” Kusuma clarified. The Dramatic Arts College is much more traditional and rigid in its approach to training performers, who go on to perform in ‘touristy’ traditional dance settings, or even become teachers and art leaders in their home districts. It’s a sort of preservation of culture, aiming to pass on to future generations what their ancestors performed for centuries, focusing more on traditional music and dance than storytelling.

“If you look from the western perspective you might question why the Lanna performing arts mostly focus on body movement rather than telling the story — it’s because they don’t have that tradition, it’s as simple as that,” Kusuma asserted.

Chiang Mai University’s Music and Performing Arts programme provides a less conservative approach to cultural preservation than the Dramatic Arts College. CMU empowers its students to experiment, bringing in elements from other cultures to tell stories and honour traditional Thai theatrical tropes. CMU almost brings a different approach to the ‘preservation’ concept. As Kusuma said before, students are expected to be very familiar both with their own roots and the forever evolving theatrical space that they’re entering.

Patitan Paengkhamsai, a fourth year student in the programme, is a great example of how students are reviving certain motifs and archaic traditions with contemporary twists that make them more accessible and interesting to contemporary audiences.

Patitan has loved theatre since high school, and was driven to apply for the programme after hearing about it from a friend. Over the past four years, Patitan has had the opportunity to manage productions, act, and interact with lecturers from around the world. He’s also had great exposure to both local and international culture and theatre.

“We study western theatre to learn about character interpretation. We learn how to read emotions and feelings and things about fundamental staging. We also get to perform in really interesting roles. One time we did an adaptation of A Doll’s House and I got to play Lola.” Patitan laughed as he mimed to show the size of the headdress that he had donned in the show.

For his thesis project, Patitan, who is from a small tribal group in Nan province, has been able to work on something closer to home. “In my hometown we have a traditional rain ritual that’s never really been recorded. I’ve heard about it from my mother and grandmother, and I fear it will die with the next generation, since it’s only been passed down by word-of-mouth. My dream is to go back to my hometown and develop my thesis into something that will sustain my culture and my roots. Maybe I’ll even build a museum. It’s a beautiful thing that my ancestors have passed down for generations, and I want to preserve that and pass it down too.”

Patitan hopes to keep studying after he graduates and become a professor himself. “I want to keep working with theatre, keep preserving my culture, and help other people preserve their culture as well…Theatre is life, it’s the best thing that reflect our stories, our real life stories.”

Stories like Patitan’s are incredibly unique, and have much to offer to the rest of the theatrical world. They not only capture the essence of smaller, unknown cultures, but also bring new insights into the art of storytelling. They’re further developing what ‘Thai Theatre’ is, both with their own eclectic backgrounds and experiences with Lanna culture in Chiang Mai.

“Because of the globalisation, and hegemonic diversity of Chiang Mai, [performing arts in Chiang Mai] are changing, quite dramatically,” said Kusuma who seemed energised by the evolution of theatricality in Chiang Mai. In fact, she even predicts the possibility of a flourishing theatre district in Chiang Mai itself — if someone would give it a home.

Chiang Mai currently has little to offer in terms of medium and small sized performance spaces. This means that students have to find alternative venues to perform, or stick to staging on campus. While this makes for incredibly creative, innovative, and thought-provoking theatre, it lacks a sense of centrality that is crucial for a thriving artist network. Most performances that are put on are advertised using Facebook events and word-of-mouth communication, which explains why I had so much trouble tracking any down. Some of the locations are so unusual, or contained within the university grounds, that it’s difficult for audiences to even stumble upon an unexpected performance to sit down for. This has generated a sense of exclusivity, that only really exists because of the minimal PR efforts at the hands of the artists.

“It doesn’t make me sad, though,” Kusuma assured me. “They love performing because they love creating and experimenting. They’re not concentrating on money and luxury. They’re some of the most daring, experimental, and brave people I know. Their work is so interesting, and it’s because they enjoy themselves and live for their art.” The world she painted in this description is reminiscent of Paris in the ‘20s, with artists meeting wherever they can find a willing host or patron, and collaborating across disciplines and cultures.

Chiang Mai University’s ambitious programme is paving the path for aspiring dramaturgs, playwrights, performers, and producers to bring their individual cultures to the stage and elevate Thai theatre with inspiration from international theatrical trends. While their performances aren’t easy to seek out, they’re constantly being produced, and are definitely accessible to anyone eager to peak into their creative processes. My conversations, while intriguing and informative, did however spark a few more questions in my mind. Yes, CMU is housing and nurturing aspiring performing artists, but what’s happening outside the university’s walls? What more is there to the traditional theatrical background that these students are building upon? Where should I go next?

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