Fullbright Scholar intern Apeksha Atal explores Chiang Mai’s vibrant and burgeoning performing arts scene in this four part series.
Stephen Turner arrived in Chiang Mai from Chicago 15 years ago after a stint of travelling around the world. An artist at heart, he soon found himself seeking out opportunities to engage in theatre around the city but was disheartened by the lack of a scene. At the time there was no English language theatre community, leaving little room for a native English speaker to engage in a meaningful way. There was a gap for the western theatre lover, a gap that Turner knew he needed to fill.
Soon after retiring from the international school where he taught, Turner, with the help of some English teacher friends, opened a branch of The Gate Theatre, originally based in Northwest Indiana, right here in Chiang Mai.
The now well-established Gate Theatre was, and still is, a place for thespians of all experience levels to come together and produce quality productions. The non-profit boasts a repertoire of some truly impressive productions, including well-known titles such as Driving Miss Daisy and Steel Magnolias. The theatre has also produced some original pieces from playwrights in the Chiang Mai area, such as Erin Kamler’s Land of Smiles, which was workshopped at the Gate Theater and went on to receive critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in 2014. The theatre has also brought some Thai works to the stage, such as Big Hunk O’ Burning Love by Thai-American playwright Prince Gomolvilas, a play that carries a charming sense of innate Thainess in its storyline.
While he has created a much-needed haven for retired, aspiring, and curious performing artists, Turner is certainly not the only player on the scene.
Another performing arts space was born in 2015, when Lawrence Tolefree, or ‘Binkey’, arrived in Chiang Mai. Back in Chicago, Binkey had been involved in countless Open Mic nights. “I’ve performed at and hosted them for years, so when I got here four years ago, I was looking for something similar.”
“A friend of mine had a house that foreigners stayed at all the time. It didn’t really have a name, people called it the Farang House. At first it was empty, and a little depressing. It had these light blue walls that we’ve now spray painted and decorated. Now it’s a colourful space.” Binkey started living at the house and soon was hosting open mic nights.
“For me, performing in general is therapy, a way to express myself and get things off my chest when things are on my mind and in my heart. That’s why we started calling it Healing House — it’s a place where people come to heal.” The rest is history. Healing House now hosts open mic nights every Friday. The event is so popular in fact, that they’ve had to relocate to larger venues from time to time.
“I remember, around three years ago I went to Healing House on a whim,” said Magie Hogan, an English teacher and improv instructor in Chiang Mai. “It’s amazing. You go and you’re surrounded by expat artists and activists from all around the world.”
When Hogan came to Chiang Mai, she was at the tail end of a backpacking adventure around Southeast Asia. Originally from Kansas City, Hogan had put her passion for improv and theatre on the backburner, focusing on travel and teaching. Healing House, however, opened up new creative avenues for her.
“I wanted to create a place, sort of like how Healing House created a landing pad for people to just come and start performing and sharing and connecting in that way, I wanted to create the improv version of that.”
Improvisational theatre, more commonly referred to as ‘improv’, is theatre which is improvised on the spot. This is often performed in groups, with prompts taken from the audience. It involves a lot of thinking on your feet and can take extensive practice to get the hang of. Until recently, Hogan had primarily been using improv in her classrooms to help students gain confidence in speaking English. Now, her aspirations have extended to the greater Chiang Mai community.
“I really wanted to start performing and practicing with people in the community, but to perform you need a troupe. Improv wasn’t really a thing here, so I realised I needed to start teaching improv before taking it to the next level.”
Each of Hogan’s classes has a theme. I arrived at the Cube No. 7 cafe one Sunday afternoon with a friend to check it out for myself. I’ve watched a lot of improv, both live and televised, but I’d never really voluntarily participated before. I don’t think I could have ever predicted that a small lofted room in a rustic Chiang Mai cafe would be the site for my first workshop.
The theme for the class we attended was “gibberish”. Hogan challenged us to let go of conscious thought with a series of interactive, goofy exercises that were equal parts fun and challenging. Towards the beginning of the class we set boundaries for both physical and verbal interactions with the other strangers in the room, but by the end it felt like we’d all gotten a little closer.
I wasn’t surprised when Hogan told me that a lot of people come back and get together for even bigger projects. For example, Hogan has joined forces with her boyfriend, Alex, an avid Dungeons and Dragons fan to create ‘Quest Quest’, an on-stage role-playing game. The show is now part of the Chiang Mai performing arts festival circuit that included festivals like Jaitep and Woke Folks. It has a sort of cult following, mostly made up of expats and foreigners, interestingly enough made up of many of the people that attend events at locations like The Gate Theatre and Healing House.
In a melting pot like Chiang Mai, it’s no surprise that yet another, albeit more nascent, community has found spaces for expression. The thriving arts scene in Chiang Mai is nothing, if not eclectic, and it’s encouraging to see how new players are able to further contribute to the overall theatrical culture of the city. Perhaps engaging between nationalities is partially hindered through language barriers, and perhaps this furthers a divide between different language speaking populations, but as places like the Gate Theatre, Healing House, and Hogan’s Improv have shown, these spaces also open new avenues for cross-cultural engagement.
At the Gate Theatre, plays like Big Hunk O’ Burning Love and Land of Smiles have actually managed to attract Thai audience members because of the Thai themes they touch upon. “When we put up Land of Smiles, the audience was almost two-thirds Thai. It was great.” Turner recalled fondly.
Hogan too explained how she’s been thinking about further engaging the Thai speaking community with her work. “When I teach English, I basically just do a lot of improv with my students,” she laughed, which gives her hope for bridging the gap between language communities through improv. “It won’t be easy, but I’ve definitely thought about it.”
The process of intertwining the English theatre community with native Thai speakers is certainly a slow one, but that hasn’t inhibited the growth of the performing arts community, nor their efforts to better integrate with Thais.
Take the aforementioned “Woke Folks” festival, for example, which was founded in January 2018. “I wanted to share everything, all the love I had experienced in the last year I had spent living in Chiang Mai, and I wanted to do it in a week – put everyone’s knowledge and experiences and art up on a stage.” Core organiser of Woke Folks, Tyler Mann jokingly added, “I like to tell people that Mohamed went up a mountain and came back with Woke Folks on stone tablets because that’s kind of what happened; he went to Pai and came back like ‘Okay, you guys, hear me out…’ and pitched Woke Folks to the team.”
Over the past two iterations of the Woke Folks, the festival has grown substantially, bringing in performing artists along with visual and tattoo artists, musicians, dancers, poets, filmmakers and other comedians. Ali described the festival as a sort of networking opportunity for artists, since it offers opportunities to meet and learn from both international and local talents. “It draws people of all kinds, of all ages,” Ali explained, “expats, people who travel, families, healers, other artists and collaborators, scientists, and business people.”
Of course, the expat performing art scene is still young and growing, but the progress it’s made since its inception is promising. As Mann puts it, “When we first got here the scene was small, there weren’t many spaces for farangs to perform. There was this kind of sense of having to hide our performances and our arts, in our living rooms and in backyards. But now there’s a greater willingness to perform in the open and share our arts and creativity… Chiang Mai is a cradle for expats and really supports this incredible community of multicultural artists, both Thai and foreign. In all the places I’ve ever travelled, I’ve never been anywhere that so specifically lends itself to fostering this community of supportive and collaborative creatives.”
Seeing expats bring their own culture to the table is, in a way, a contemporary continuation of a tradition that has come to define the spirit of Chiang Mai. Afterall Chiang Mai is, at its core, an eclectic city. For many it’s a creative haven, where some of the brightest minds in the country can gather and innovate. For many it’s home, a safe space for expression and space for to belong.