Eleven-year-old Sot Thy hasn’t had much opportunity to mete out justice to those who have harmed him. But last week the former street child was a juror in the court case for a corrupt and devious child abuser. Fitted out in robes of litigation several sizes too large, he frowned as he furiously scribbled notes with an outsized pen only slightly smaller than himself. His verdict of “guilty” was nonetheless easily reached. The scene took place on the stage of the Royal University of Fine Arts last week as part of “Poverty Meets the Cheat,” a play developed and performed by over 50 former street children and children who have suffered abuse. From the harsh realities of life on the streets to a dream-like world of dragons and spells, the play spoke eloquently of the children’s troubled histories and the mental escapism needed to survive them.
Mr Cheat, the play’s lead role, is a character many of Cambodia’s most vulnerable have met before. Toting a flashy mobile phone and screeching around town in a big Toyota Camry, he sweet-talks a group of street children into going with him to a holiday island where, he promises, they will have everything they have ever dreamed.
His promises are lies, and the children become trapped in a world of overwork and abuse. An escape attempt is foiled, and as punishment, Mr Cheat confiscates the children’s voices. Only the strength of their imaginations can spirit them out of his clutches.
“Poverty Meets the Cheat” was produced by the David Glass Ensemble, a British drama company that has worked with street children around the world, and Friends/Mith Samlanh NGO. The workshops were part of an international series directed by the ensemble called “The Lost Child Project,” which aims to help abused children express themselves through drama.
Reclaiming the freedom to play and imagine is central to the Lost Child Project; self-determination is written into its ethos from beginning to end. The plot of the play was compiled from drawings, stories and ideas the children produced during a week of workshops. From Mr Cheat’s cigar all the way through to the outcome of the plot, the children were responsible for every decision in the process of creating the play. “They feel like it’s theirs, not ours, and they’re excited by that,” said Mike Ashcroft, one of the four British dramatists who led the workshops.
Children’s rights to self-expression was the main theme of the play. “I was amazed at how the children were so sure of what they wanted to say,” Ashcroft said. “We wanted to raise the issue of sexual exploitation in the play, but we weren’t sure how to introduce it into the workshops. But we didn’t have to. The children came up with a story that symbolizes the issue perfectly by themselves.”
The project was funded by the British Embassy as part of its campaign to raise awareness of child exploitation, pedophilia and the child sex tourism industry in Cambodia. “This kind of arts-based project is something of a new departure for [the British Embassy], but I’m really excited about how well it’s gone,” said British ambassador Stephen Bridges.
Standing on the sidelines at a recent rehearsal as the room seethed with the energy and noise of 50 dancing, singing, smiling children, it was clear to Bridges how successful the project had been. “The issues are here, they exist in these children’s lives, and all that’s needed is the resources to give them to opportunity to express them,” Bridges said.
Mr Cheat’s theft of the children’s voices and their fight to regain the power to express themselves was one of the play’s most affecting scenes. The children languish in a silent, shadowy world, their mouths gagged by strips of white cloth. Only two dragons, born out of ordinary eggs that have mysteriously grown and grown, can teach them the courage to tear off their gags. The scene expressed the strength of childrens’ imaginations and their power to transcend abuse.
That scene was popular with the actors, too. Standing in a cluster of girls after one rehearsal, 14-year-old Sri Yan and her friends talked excitedly of the upcoming performance. “I like the scene where the dragons teach the children to be brave and swim away from the island,” said Srey Yan.
Experiencing theater so directly clearly made a big impression on the girls. “If I have the chance, I would like to be an actress in a film,” said 14-year-old Yee Kolab, before collapsing in giggles along with her friends.
David Glass, the dramatist who conceived the project, insists the power to imagine is inherent in all children’s minds, no matter their circumstances. “This project is all about giving children the opportunity to play. That’s how children experience and explore their world, however dark a world it may seem to us,” he said at one rehearsal.
Mr Cheat was played by a four-meter puppet, whose dangling limbs swung menacingly around the stage. His giant, abstract frame cast long shadows over the children; his voice barked from a megaphone while their mouths were gagged. Childrens’ rights to self-expression are priceless, the play seemed to say, in a precise echo of the idea behind the workshops.
The project bought together children ages 8-18 from seven NGO’s that work with children who have a history of abuse. Initially the children were nervous around one another, especially those who came from outside Phnom Penh, Ashcroft said. But while voicing their common experiences, a strong sense of cohesion was formed.
“I think what has really struck us is the strong sense of a group that emerged between the children,” Ashcroft said. “As they began to play together [in the workshops], a sense of mutual trust was established really quickly.”
Finding a way to express common experiences was easy, once the children were encouraged to play around with whatever ideas came into their heads. “I think if you get a group of people together in a room who have an experience in common, they will eventually discuss it,” Ashcroft said. “You just let that happen.”
Ashcroft spoke of comments made by children during the workshops that were shockingly direct. When asked how he felt about a decision on the play’s storyline, one child replied: “It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s filled with emotion.” Another insisted: “I want to show my scars.”
“Poverty Meets the Cheat” dealt with the issue of child exploitation so powerfully that Friends and the British Embassy plan to take the play on a tour of the provinces in hopes of reaching more children whose voices have been silenced by abuse. Although details have not yet been finalized, Sebastian Marot, Coordinator of Friends NGO, is keen to take the play to areas that are notorious for child rights abuses, regardless of how the group may be received.
“We were initially thinking of going to Battambang, Siem Reap and Kompong Som,” Marot said. “But then we thought more about it and realized that it would be more interesting to go where there are more Mr Cheats around, like Poipet and around the Thai border.”
A book is also planned about the process of making and performing “Poverty Meets the Cheat.” It will be designed as a workbook for other NGOs to use for similar projects worldwide.