Promoters Concerned That New National Theater Is Inadequate

Performing arts promoters in Cambodia are voicing concern that the new national theater—tucked away behind Spark nightclub on Mao Tse Tung Boule­vard and, as of Wednesday, covered with the dust of construction and a partially finished paint job—will not meet the arts community’s needs.

The iconic 1960s Bassac Theater, which has long served as rehearsal space for the Na­tional Theater Company despite being gutted by a fire in 1994, was transferred along with the surrounding land to tycoon Kith Meng, CEO of the Royal Group of Companies, in a 2005 agreement with the Culture Minis­try. The agreement provided for the construction of a new theater.

Vann Molyvann, Cambodia’s famed architect who built the 1,200-seat Bassac Theater and maintains that it could easily be renovated, said Wednesday that the theater has served as a spiritual center for the country’s artists. “If the new theater can’t provide the same, it will be counterproductive,” he said.

The new theater, which is smaller than the original, is undergoing construction that will hopefully be completed by the end of October, said Mao Keng, director of Performing Arts for the Culture Ministry.

Its interior is far more basic than the Bassac’s cantilevered staircases suspended over pools of water. It only has room for 300 permanent seats, and, Mao Keng pointed out, standing room for 175 additional spectators.

Designed, according to him, by a Culture Ministry team of architects, the exterior of the new theater harks back to the original one with its deep red color and silhouette, sporting a cone similar to one formerly atop the Bassac Theater.

Mao Keng said he had been waiting more than a decade for a theater space that isn’t burned out and rundown.

“The roof at the old one caved in,” he said. With this new performance stage and downstairs training area, he plans to expand the department’s cultural programs.  There is room for parking and an adjacent office to aid cohesiveness of the department, Mao Keng said.

But the location prompts many questions. Sandwiched between apartment buildings and a commercial complex, the theater is hardly visible from the road. It remains to be seen how accessible the theater’s main entrance will be down a narrow path off Street 173.

Charley Todd, senior project adviser for the NGO Cambodian Living Arts, said the new location was a disappointment.

“It’s sad for the arts that they are not given a higher priority…not considered important enough to have a good location,” he said. “Every­one loved the old building.”

Suon Bunrith, cultural coordinator for the NGO Amrita Per­forming Arts, said that it is too soon to tell how the arts community will weather the move.

“If the artists have a place to perform, it could be good,” he said. “I can’t say yet how the move will affect traditions. My concern is the theater: Do artists have a proper space?”

When the north campus of the Royal University of Fine Arts was moved from central Phnom Penh to Russei Keo district in 2005, staff and students were affected, he said.  “The road there is bad…. Numbers of students have dropped.”

Mao Keng said he thinks the location of the new theater is a benefit because it is more central than the riverside and closer to where the artists live.

He said he is sympathetic to the hundreds of artists who have been protesting the move and the $300 compensation they are being offered, adding that it’s normal to miss what one leaves behind.

“Two-thirds of the artists have accepted the [$300] offer, and the rest will once they understand what we are trying to do,” which is to improve the state of the arts, Mao Keng said.  “Classical dance, folk dance, popular dance, shadow puppets, music and other forms [of art]—every week, every week!” he said, waving his arms excitedly overhead outside the new theater.


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