When the roof of your practice theater is leaking and you can’t lock the doors to keep props and instruments from being stolen, something has to be done. That’s what the students of Yike, a traditional musical theater art form at the Royal University of Fine Arts decided recently. Tired of waiting for the government and private donors to solve their problems, a group of undergraduate performing arts students have taken matters into their own hands.
They are putting on a fund-raising performance of traditional Yike theater this weekend and next weekend, hoping to raise enough money to repair their theater and, if there’s any left over, to help out students who are in dire financial circumstances.
The four performances of “Preah Koh Preah Kao” are being put on by more than 50 students and teachers, 22 of whom are studying Yike specifically; the rest are from other performing arts disciplines.
Four musicians accompany the show on traditional instruments, while a sung narrative links the scenes together. Almost all the cast and crew join in with the chorus singing, which gives the music the eerie effect of coming from both the visible performers and from backstage.
Chheang Chhordapheak, a fourth year Yike bachelor’s student, is directing the show. He described how the idea for the fund-raising performance came about, at a rehearsal in the practice theater earlier this week.
“We have been having problems with our building, and so we thought of doing a fund-raiser to get some repairs done,” he said. “We wanted to come up with our own initiative to solve our own problems, and we also wanted to raise public consciousness of the traditional art form of Yike.”
Yike is a much-loved art form that combines comic and tragic elements with musical theater. “Preah Koh Preah Kao” is a sad tale of two brothers who are sent into the world and given magic powers by Buddha. Preah Koh is born as a cow, and Preah Kao as a human being. The two end up trying to save the Kingdom of Cambodia from a Thai invasion, but fail, and are locked up in a palace forever by the new Thai rulers.
During rehearsals this week, the students performed with impressive skill and enthusiasm, despite intense heat and dilapidated surroundings.
“It goes beyond being dedicated,” Chheang Chhordapheak explained. “We’re willing to sacrifice everything we have to bring audiences back to Yike. Everyone gets involved, helps out and we all try to stretch any donations as far as they’ll go,” he said.
The show’s production coordinator, Fred Frumberg, is overwhelmed by how passionately the students have approached the project. “Their enthusiasm is amazing, they really are rising above the problems they face at this school,” he said.
“They’ve realized they can’t sit around waiting for funding to arrive, and that they have to take matters into their own hands,” he added. Frumberg helped the students raise funding from the Albert Kunstadter Family Foundation to support the production.
There’s nothing new about celebrating initiative at the university, according to the Dean of the Faculty of Choreographic Arts, Proeung Chhieng. “A big part of the teaching here is getting students to take responsibility for themselves. What’s unusual here is the funding,” he explained. “Giving responsibility to students is just part of the evolution of the school.”
As well as supporting the spirit of self-preservation, the production is also giving a much-needed boost to the Yike art from, Chheang Chhordapheak said.
“It’s essential to keep Yike alive, because Cambodian people adore this tradition: it’s an essential component of Khmer culture,” he explained.
For this reason, the students have stuck very closely to a traditional style in the show, and although some modifications to the style of the scenery and costumes have been made, it will be a very conventional production.
“‘Preak Koh Preah Kao’ is a very old story which has been performed for centuries,” Chheang Chhordapheak said. “We have rethought some of the text, applied our knowledge of the Yike tradition to revise the look of the show, the scenery and the staging, but generally have kept within the traditional style.”
“Preah Koh Preah Kao” was produced in collaboration with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Performances are on Nov 16 and 17 at 3 pm and on Nov 23 and 24 at 6 pm at the North Campus Theater of the Royal University of Fine Arts, near the Old Stadium. Tickets are available at the theater and cost 3000 riel; any additional donations to the theater repair project are welcome.