The performance presented Friday on the stage at the Khmer Surin restaurant in Phnom Penh will be in the best tradition of studio theater: scenes from the American play “Ruined” produced during a workshop for stage directors and set designers as an experiment rather than an actual show.
What will probably not be apparent to the audience is the fact that, under the guidance of trainers who rank among the world’s foremost Western stage directors and set designers, the approach used for the performance represents a complete departure from the way Cambodians usually prepare a show.
Since Feb 15, a small group of Cambodian actresses who aspire to direct plays and artists who plan to specialize in set design have been taking part in a workshop organized by Amrita Performing Arts with support from the US Embassy.
The directors’ training is being done by the American opera and theater director Francesca Zambello. In the course of her career, she has been named to France’s Order of Arts and Letters, received the Olivier Award from the Society of London Theater three times and has collected a Best Production prize in Japan and the Helpmann Award in Australia. She is scheduled to direct operas in Washington and Beijing over the next three months.
The set design workshop is taught by Peter J Davison, a British stage designer for operas, musicals, theater and ballet with a long list of awards and prize nominations to his name.
Up until this month, Amrita’s director Fred Frumberg had resisted the offer of Ms Zambello, whom he has known for many years, to do a workshop in Cambodia. To learn from the best takes more than working with the finest in a field: one must have reached a certain level of knowledge to truly benefit from it, he said.
Since the workshop was to be about a Western way of directing shows that is fairly foreign to Cambodia, workshop participants had to have seen the benefits of this approach to be open to it, Mr Frumberg said Friday. But now that these actresses have performed under the direction of Dutch writer/director Annemarie Prins several times, he felt that they were ready for this.
In Cambodia, said Mr Frumberg who has worked with Cambodian artists since 1997, performers tend to set up shows by committee, with everyone putting his word in on an equal footing. At times, he said, “it becomes a bit of a free for all.”
A performance requires a leader with a vision of what the show will be, he said. “When you have one person who’s got that vision and really mans the controls and sort of navigates the others through that process, you end up with a show that has a very clean, clear point of objective.”
“There are many a cultural aspect that I would never want to superimpose because it works well for them. But there are some aspects which, I think, could stand to be more slim-lined and work better,” Mr Frumberg added.
“What we’re working on is…how directors and designers work together to create a show before you even have actors: how they work out the set, how they work out the ideas for the sets. All the things that go with understanding a script for both directors and designers,” Ms Zambello explained on Thursday.
During the first two days of the workshop, actresses and artists sat down together and read the play they would use in the workshop as part of learning, Ms Zamballo said, “how you tell the story, how you make characters, how the characters connect with each other.”
In the designer’s workshop, Mr Davison has had students build models of the set. This is the best way to show a design to a director, he said.
In the coming days, he said, “we’re going to play around and see how they can make the space tell the story, the same way the actors tell the story. The set also has to help, where you put a chair, where you put a table in a space can create the drama.”
The model was also a way, he said, “of getting [participants] to be aware of the audience’s point of view and a three-dimensional space. Because they’re normally used to working in two dimensions–one dimension really as graphic artists. But theater is a three-dimensional art, so it’s just making that leap.”
This concept of space on stage was a revelation to both actresses and artists in the workshop.
“I had never imagined that performers on stage could move forward, closer to the audience in order to create a bond between them and the audience,” said actress Chhon Sina.
“To me, this is a new technique…as I’ve learned at [the Royal University of Fine Arts] that artists were required to keep one to two meters from the front of a stage in order not to perform too close to the audience,” she said.
“We, artists, never knew that there are four walls on a stage,” said dancer and choreographer Chey Chankethya who is assisting Ms Zambello in the workshop.
The sessions also are helping her understand the role of directors. “If we cannot make clear decisions and don’t even know ourselves what is needed, the artists, creative team as well as stage designers will feel sorry and lose confidence,” Ms Chankethya said.
Actress Khov Sotheary said she finds this technique to be invaluable of directors and designers preparing a show well before performers are brought in. And artist Kong Tharath really liked the idea of their working close together from the start–it takes mutual understanding for the performance and set to complement each other and make a show more successful, he said.
The workshop will end Friday with the presentation of four scenes from the play “Ruined,” which earned US author Lynn Nottage a Pulitzer Prize for drama last year.
A drama with moments of humor, the story takes place during a civil war in a bar and brothel in the Congo jungle. Workshop participants may decide to set it in Cambodia, Ms Zambello said.
The play will be in Khmer with English subtitles and, while only one stage design will be built for the performance, all stage-design models conceived for the show will be displayed.
The performance held at Khmer Surin restaurant, located at 9 Street 57 in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district, will start at 6 pm. Admission is free. Advance passes are available at Amrita’s office.