Life Theater

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Iron Bamboo begins with a prayer, actors and musicians sitting before a shrine, as they do before every performance. This time, however, the shrine is onstage, and the performers are praying in the very play, their backs to the audience. They complete their devotions and pick up shadow puppets, made from carved leather and mounted on two bamboo sticks. As the fantastic shapes play against the illuminated scrim in front of the actors, the performers' bodies, normally behind the backdrop, become as much a visual affect as the puppets themselves. It's a startling inversion, the artifice of theater put on display, as if to remind us that the performance we're watching is inextricable from the artists themselves.

The majority of the performers are in their late teens and early 20s, and have played an important role in creating Iron Bamboo and other works in the repertoire of theater company Sovanna Phum, the sole independent troupe in Phnom Penh. “The performers shape the play, too,” says Mann Kosal, a smiling man who performs a dizzying number of roles onstage -- drumming, handling puppets, singing -- and behind the scenes as Sovanna Phum's artistic director and head puppet maker. “I need feelings from [the actors]. I only show them the way a little bit -- 30 percent. Seventy percent is up to them. I explain about corruption, ask them, ‘What do you want to do about this part?' Some think a long time, invent movements.” As a result, the play – an ongoing production – constantly evolves and changes.

It's an ambitious approach, especially for the play's subject matter: Iron Bamboo addresses much of modern Cambodian history -- the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, the killing fields, the years-long United Nations operation afterward -- and goes so far as to satirize present-day economic and political corruption. Considering that many of the performers are too young to remember much of Cambodia's past, Mann's methods provide a unique way to learn about their country's history, and to shape it through their own artistic interpretations. As for the country's fraught present, “We live in a culture of conformity. And of fear,” says Mann. “Here, I'm trying to change fear to freedom.”

The resulting work spans generations and artistic genres. Unlike other Khmer cultural performances, Iron Bamboo draws on multiple disciplines all at once: Circus performers bend and twist alongside classical dancers; a $1,000 bill made of tanned leather floats by, held up by actors staggering and shouting over their wine and beer; three groups of adversaries take the stage -- monkey-dancing men from the classical dance tradition wielding knives, women dancers with sticks, a big man prancing around -- in a scene that reads like a not-so-veiled jab at the endless disputes between Cambodia's three primary political parties.

But for all of the jaw-dropping acrobatics, the hyperkinetic force of the performance, one of the quietest moments has the strongest effect. A lone puppet is held up behind the scrim -- a man in shackles, a familiar sight to anyone who has seen the countless portraits of former detainees at the Tuol Sleng prison, the former Khmer Rouge central detention center. Now a museum, Tuol Sleng is just around the corner from Sovanna Phum's headquarters. Some 14,000 to 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng during the Khmer Rouge years; seven came out alive. The figure drifts over the backdrop, flanked by dancers holding candles in their cupped hands. It's a moment of remarkable, tragic beauty.

“That scene is about the suffering of the Cambodian people,” says Mann. The figure makes an appearance several times in the play, as if to say that suffering is not confined to the Khmer Rouge period alone. As for the circus performers who contort and balance their way through precarious situations, Mann tells me “they represent the Cambodian people, too,” with their tenacious flexibility and desperate willingness to bend to survive.

Iron Bamboo is a passionate reflection of Sovanna Phum's goals: fusing traditional arts with modern stories and commentary, balancing a preservation of the past with a nurturing of future artists. Their dedication to classical forms of performance is clear: A previous performance I attended featured a flirtatious “coconut shell” folk dance, two classical dance excerpts from the Cambodian version of the Ramayana, and songs played on traditional instruments. But their unorthodox approach, Mann says, has sometimes put them at odds with the more traditionalist state institutions like the National Theater or the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA).

“At RUFA, you can't mix instruments and forms,” Mann says, frowning. “ … Sometimes students come here to learn different forms. … Masters say this is wrong. But we need to do something new based on our experiences, our feelings. We can't just follow the old masters.”

More than 10 years ago, Mann himself studied at the RUFA and performed with the National Theater, where he discovered a shadow puppet lying unused in a back room. Fascinated by the figure, he taught himself how to make the puppets through a weeks-long process of tanning and curing leather hides, drawing out forms, and puncturing and carving out the final shapes. He later joined forces with a French circus performer and former RUFA instructor, Delphine Kassem, who was starting up a small theater space for Cambodian artists in Phnom Penh. The going was often rough. In 1997, current Prime Minister Hun Sen staged a violent coup in Phnom Penh, and tourists stopped coming to Cambodia, nearly starving the fledging group off the stage. But the tourist industry picked up again, bringing European and American faces back to the audiences, alongside the numerous Cambodia children who flock to watch the weekly shows. Sovanna Phum now draws on the skills of 85 performers and has launched collaborations with others from Indonesia, Thailand, and England.

It's also become a school of a different sort. “Students must have something from their ideas,” Mann says. “We invest time in students so they can change the world. Some say what we do is contemporary theater, but I say it is life theater.”

He turns, smiling, and taps a hide he has strung up next to the stage. It sounds a low note, like a drum.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent. She first reported from Cambodia on a Pew International Journalism fellowship.

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