Last year, American Erin Kamler came to Chiang Mai to launch a production of a new musical, Land of Smiles, which is about sex trafficking in Thailand. The show premiered at the Gate Theatre in Chiang Mai, and starred many local actors.
Land of Smiles Chiang Mai cast.
“I’m not overstating it when I say that show and that experience changed my life forever,” says Erin.
Land of Smiles tells a little-known story: In northern Burma, the army is systematically attacking and slaughtering ethnic minorities. Some of these minority women migrate to Thailand and become sex workers to support their families and keep their people alive. But American aid workers are putting these women in prison for being “victims.” The story is one that turns on its head nearly everything we think we know about human trafficking.
Now, Land of Smiles is poised to make its European debut at the world’s most prestigious international theatre festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But first, Erin and her team need to raise at least $20,000 to help cover transportation, housing and production costs. That’s why Erin has started an Indiegogo campaign to raise the much-needed funds.
Now back in the States raising money and preparing for Edinburgh, CityNews caught up with Erin via email to learn more about her groundbreaking production.
CityNews: What is your background? What led you to take on the subject of sex trafficking in Thailand?
Erin Kamler: I know this answer will “date” me… but I’ve been writing and composing musicals for over twenty years. I started working in the theatre as a kid in Ann Arbor, Michigan and my plays were being produced off-Broadway by the time I was fifteen. Parallel to this, I travelled to Thailand as a sixteen-year-old AFS Exchange Student and studied at a Thai high school in Bangkok. So my roots, in a sense, are in both musical theatreand Thailand.
Even back then, I could see that labor exploitation was happening all around me, and I wondered about the lives of the migrant women from Burma and Laos who I encountered day-to-day. I knew I wanted to somehow explore this topic and this issue, and write about it, but I had other things to do in the meantime (such as go to college, launch a career in the music business, get married, all that!) It’s taken me twenty years to combine my two deepest passions. In doing so, I can honestly say that this is probably the most exciting and satisfying project I’ve ever pursued.
CityNews: Can you give a brief synopsis of the play? What did you hope to accomplish by making it?
Erin Kamler: Land of Smiles is a new musical about the trafficking of women in Thailand, as seen through the eyes of sex workers, grassroots activists, NGO employees and other members of the anti-trafficking movement. Based on field research including over 50 interviews with NGO employees, sex workers rights advocates, migrant labourers, government officials and others, Land of Smiles presents an objective view of the perspectives of these stakeholders, and shows that the fight against human trafficking is much more complicated than it seems.
The story focuses on the aftermath of a brothel raid in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand. Lipoh, a young Kachin (ethnic minority) migrant from Burma, seems to be underage, making her an automatic “trafficking victim” in the eyes of the law. Emma Gable, an NGO case worker from Cedar Falls, Indiana is sent to prepare Lipoh to be a witness in a trial to prosecute her trafficker. Emma must convince Lipoh to be the person everyone sees: a trafficking victim. But Lipoh is unwilling to cooperate. She insists that she is eighteen, and was working in the brothel willingly. Not only that—she wants to go back.
What transpires is a journey into Thailand’s anti-trafficking movement—a world burdened with politics, morality and the rhetoric of human rights. Through hearing Lipoh’s story, Emma discovers that atrocities are being committed against the Kachin people of Burma. But these atrocities are overshadowed by a narrative about trafficking that serves the needs of the anti-trafficking movement, rather than the women it is trying to help.
The show is designed to serve as a platform for dialogue and awareness about human trafficking, a subject that has recently exploded onto the international stage as one of the most disturbing, complex and, many claim, pervasive issues of our time. Often dubbed “modern day slavery,” the focus of the movement that has sprung up to stop trafficking has been to “rescue” girls from situations of labor exploitation—specifically having to do with sex work. The problem with these tactics, and the entire movement to end human trafficking, is that often the most well intended of advocates do little to empower the women they are trying to “save.”
CityNews: What exactly was your role in the production? Did you do most of the work alone or was it a team effort?
Erin Kamler: I conducted the research that the show is based on, as part of my dissertation work at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. So I essentially served as researcher, writer, composer, music director and (in Chiang Mai) co-producer. Despite my having taken on way too many roles (!), the show was, and continues to be a full team effort. My husband, Rick Culbertson, is an incredibly talented theater producer and director, and directed the show in Chiang Mai. He’ll be producing and co-directing at Edinburgh. And we have an amazing, all female cast of actors coming with us, as well as designers, choreographer, stage manager, etc. Theater is all about team work.
CityNews: You said that the show and experience changed your life forever. In what way? Can you expand on this a bit?
Erin Kamler: Before doing my research in Thailand, I think I held the belief – as many people the West do – that sex trafficking is a simple phenomenon, that sex work and sex trafficking are inherently tied together, and that the well-meaning policy makers of the West can fix this problem if we just work hard enough to do so.
What I didn’t understand, is that the issue of sex trafficking is actually extremely complex, and not anything like what we often assume it to be. I didn’t understand that the anti-trafficking movement itself – while led by well-meaning advocates- is based on crippled policies, practices and moralisms that reinforce Western values, rather than taking into account the experiences of the women they’re designed to serve.
Listening to these women’s voices myself, and ultimately partnering with them on this and other research projects, has changed my understanding of this issue, and of the role of Western advocates in the developing world. The whole process has opened my eyes, made me a stronger person and – I hope – a better researcher and artist.
A scene from the musical.
CityNews: A musical about sex trafficking sounds like a pretty bold take on a delicate subject! What was your experience like, making it and performing it? What were the challenges? Any surprises or unexpected results?
Erin Kamler: What surprised me most about the Chiang Mai production was how open and receptive our audiences were. I was honestly concerned about bringing the show to Thailand, where the inspiration for it was born, because it would mean performing the show for people who have a real stake in these issues – NGO employees, migrant women, members of government, etc. Some of the audience members were the same people who had participated in my original research. This was scary!
But what happened in Chiang Mai was truly amazing. Rather than being defensive or shutting down, most of our audience members wanted to engage in dialogue around these issues after seeing the show. Many of them participated in focus group discussions that we hosted, and those discussions continued to reverberate for several months after the show had closed. It was a truly heartening, wonderfully participatory experience.
CityNews: Why did you choose Chiang Mai as the location of the play’s debut? Were you happy with the choice?
Erin Kamler: Yes, for the reasons I mentioned above… Chiang Mai could not have been a better place for us to debut this work!
CityNews: How did you manage to get the play to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival? Will there be any changes or adaptations for an international stage?
Erin Kamler: We’re in the process of getting to Edinburgh now…but we still have a lot of fundraising to do. We connected with a wonderful production company, Fringe Management, here in Los Angeles and our producers, Rick Culbertson, Greg Franklin and Lynn Marks are working tirelessly to make this production happen. I have had to make some tweeks to the script and score in order to cut the piece down to 85 minutes (it ran about 2 hours in Chiang Mai), which has been a challenge, but I’m confident that this will be an improvement for the Edinburgh production.
One thing we’re really excited about is that we are bringing two of our Chiang Mai cast members, Yardpirun Poolun (a Thai actress from Chiang Mai University) and Ann Fink (a Chiang Mai-based American actress) with us to LA and Edinburgh. It we’ll be a truly international cast, and we’re thrilled about that!
Another scene from the musical.
CityNews: Tell me a bit about your Indiegogo campaign. Why did you choose this route? Is it proving successful? Do the proceeds from the musical go toward fighting trafficking?
In addition to traditional investors, we are working to raise $20,000 on Indiegogo. This process is going very well, and we’re reaching the halfway point after only two weeks! It’s been thrilling to see so much support pouring in from people who have seen the show (such as members of our Chiang Mai audiences), or have heard about it and want to support getting this message out there. But we still need help!
Since the musical is intended to be a platform for dialogue and communication about the issues, not explicitly part of the movement to “fight trafficking” (in fact, the show is fairly critical of the way many organizations go about this fight), we intend to continue hosting post-show discussions following the Edinburgh performances, rather than giving proceeds to anti-trafficking NGOs.
CityNews: What are your future plans and aspirations, both for the production and for yourself?
My hope is that the Edinburgh production will expose the show to a wider, international audience. I’d like to see Land of Smiles travel to London or New York, where it can be received by audiences who need to see it.
As for me, I’m hooked on my work as a researcher-artist, and I plan to continue doing this work while dividing my time between Thailand and Los Angeles. My next project focuses on the trafficking of Kachin women on the Burma-China border, and I’m fortunate to be partnering with the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand, a Chiang Mai-based CBO, on the project. I will also be affiliated with Chiang Mai University during the 2014-15 academic year, while finishing up my PhD.
To donate to Erin’s campaign, visit her Indiegogo campaign.