The Phnom Penh building that was touted last year as the new national theater is nearing completion, but even before it raises its first curtain, the venue’s critics are many.
Patrons seeing the theater, located on a dusty plot behind the Spark nightclubs on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, for the first time may be struck by the fact that its main stairs lead to a blank wall. Some may notice the absence of a wheelchair ramp or even a foyer for the public to congregate. And patrons may be puzzled by the full-glass bathroom doors giving passersby an uninterrupted view of people going in or out of toilet stalls.
But these seemingly poor design features are not what concern performing arts professionals the most. With maybe weeks until the building is completed, the biggest issue could be noise.
The building’s sheet metal roof acts like a loud drum when it rains, drowning out music and artists’ voices on the stage, those familiar with the building said in recent interviews—many asked that their identities not be revealed for fear of repercussions.
“The artists and officials at the Department of Performing Arts are upset because whenever rain comes down, it makes a loud noise on the corrugated metal roof, and so they cannot perform when it rains,” said Chan Vanna, director of the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Materials and Equipment.
Charged with designing the new theater, Chan Vanna said his department had first consulted artists to discuss performance requirements.
But when plans were sent to the ministry for review, the initial design was changed, he said. “Even the roof and the color of the theater are different from our original concept,” he said.
The theater also lacks a catwalk for technicians to install lights or props above the stage, and lighting panels in the ceiling are directed at the audience seating area instead of the stage, artists said.
Fred Frumberg, whose NGO Amrita Performing Arts produces shows in the country and abroad, said the lack of proper venues for Cambodia’s cultural performers is a “crisis.”
The new national theater could have been an opportunity to create a small, intimate jewel of a performing space regardless of its size or location, said Frumberg, who has worked with Cambodian artists for more than a decade.
Performing artists, however, will be inheriting an inadequate facility in the new theater, he said.
“The building is full of faults… it’s really sad,” said one theater professional.
“You don’t put windows on the wall behind a stage,” said another artist familiar with the new site. Plus, he added, there is no space to the right and left of the stage where performers could make quick costume changes, keep props or wait to make their entrance.
Expected to be completed seven months ago, efforts are being made for the new facility to open as soon as possible, Mao Keng, performing arts director for the Ministry of Culture, said Thursday.
Ith Chamroeun, the department’s deputy director, said the theater will seat 300 and the roughly 10-by-6-meter stage can accommodate between 100 and 150 artists.
But the Ministry of Culture seems to be downgrading the facility even before its public debut: According to Ministry of Culture Secretary of State Khim Sarith, the venue should not be considered the country’s national theater.
“It is just a rehearsal hall in which we can also organize performances,” he said.
The theater was said to be the replacement for the 1,200-seat Bassac Theater, the original national theater and 1960s architectural landmark that was gutted by fire in 1994 and demolished early this year as part of a government land deal.
There are no plans at this point to build a national venue of that magnitude, Khim Sarith said.
Both the Chenla Theater, which is a private facility, and the state-owned Chaktomuk Conference Hall charge rental fees that many productions cannot afford. And the remoteness of the Royal University of Fine Arts’ campus, which relocated to Russei Keo district in 2005, rules out public performances there.
With so few venues to perform, traditional artists have difficulty making a living, said Buth Channa, a masked Lakhaon Kaol dancer who also teaches at the Secondary School of Fine Arts on RUFA’s campus.
“Artists who are modern singers seem able to earn much more money than us because they get many opportunities to perform in television shows,” Butha Channa said.
“But there is not even one traditional or classical arts performance per week [on television],” he said, noting that such performances are only broadcast at Khmer New Year or during national festivals.
With little opportunity for traditional and classical artists to work either on stage or on television, he said, “I’m concerned those arts will be lost one day.”
Unesco, however, is discussing with the Ministry of Culture the possibility of building more venues, said Teruo Jinnai, Unesco’s representative to Cambodia.
One option would consist of setting up inexpensive, small to medium-sized permanent theaters under huge tents with hard roofs over their stages, he said.
“The other option is a large national theater that would be the pride of the country,” but would require sizeable funding, Jinnai said, adding that such a facility is a dream of his which he hopes to see built one day.
“A distinct building on the river, like the Sydney Opera House, could become a landmark that would associate Phnom Penh again internationally with contemporary arts” and serve as the country’s modern signature piece, said Charley Todd of the NGO Cambodian Living Arts.
“A visionary private donor who contributed such a facility to the nation would gain merit by bringing the…arts of Cambodia onto the world stage,” he said.