Young Performers Blend Theater, Circus to Create Health Message

It was not yet 5:30 am at the Phnom Penh train station, and the first signs of dawn were still to come on this chilly Sunday morning, one week ago.

Still, bright lights filled the station, and passengers bound for Battambang province, mostly farmers and workers, were getting their tickets and heading for the platform where food vendors had gathered with their baskets.

In one corner of the station, a group of young women, their eyes drooping with sleep, sat straight on the wooden benches. They had been woken at 4 am when the lights were turned on. Their male colleagues were still sleeping out on the train platform, having swapped the warmth of the station for
sleep.

By 5:40 am, they too were stirring and soon started to fold their temporary shelter a small tent and a mosquito net over a mat. The young men and women of the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak’s prevention troupe were about to start their day’s work aboard the train to Battambang.

Since last October, the 18 members of the troupe have been performing twice a month on the Battambang-Phnom Penh route, once on the way to Phnom Penh and again the following morning on the way back to Battambang.

Blending comedy and drama with acrobatic and magic tricks, they inform audiences about HIV/AIDS and pass on facts on topics ranging from land mines to drug addiction and human trafficking. The project is funded by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris through European Commission funding, and is conducted with the support the National AIDS Authority and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

The morning before, the troupe had spent a couple of hours loading their equipment onto a flatbed carriage that would become the stage for the two 30-minute shows they perform at stations on the way. Their material included a small generator, speakers, sound equipment and microphones, costumes, props, a painted canvas backdrop and a metal frame to support it.

They had left Battambang at 7 am that morning and staged two different shows and six “happenings,” or mini-sketches acted out in the passenger cars. When night plunged the train into darkness, they turned the flatbed carriage into a screening room and presented educational programs on a television set.

It was nearly 11:30 pm when the train arrived at the Phnom Penh station. This left the artists only a few hours to sleep before boarding the train and doing it all over again.

On that Sunday morning, the first staged show was scheduled to take place at the Pochentong airport train station, a few minutes after departure from Phnom Penh. So, postponing breakfast, the technicians set up the sound equipment, and the artists did their make-up and put on costumes well before the train left Phnom Penh.

Right after departure at 7 am, they staged their first happening. Walking into a car dressed like passengers and carrying bags and suitcases, one of them suddenly shouted “Land mine!” They all stopped, and one actor mimed making a phone call. “Hello CMAC? There is a land mine; can you come and remove it?”

The message was short and to the point: People should call the Cambodian Mine Action Center when they find a mine, and they should not try to disarm it themselves.

The troupe members write the sketches so that even people with limited education can grasp the message, said Sam Monny, the Phare educator in charge of the troupe.

“People understand because [we make it] funny and entertaining,” he said.

Their second happening was about HIV/ AIDS transmission. One actor, looking scared, said he could not touch his bag because it had HIV/AIDS. The others explained that one cannot get the disease by touching an infected person or object. In the end, the actor took his bag to the hospital.

The show on stage at Pochentong station was the story of three male divinities coming to Earth to have a good time, human-being-style. One starts taking drugs; the other refuses to protect himself when he visits a sex worker and becomes HIV-positive.

The second scene was a boxing match between an actor wearing a shimmering, pale peach “Condom Number 1” costume and a devilish character, looking ferocious in his spiked black costume, meant to personify HIV/AIDS.

“The Condom Number 1 boxer never loses a match,” said Teh Ley, who played the referee in the bout. “HIV/AIDS only wins when Condom Number 1 is not there.” The audience of about 300 laughed at Teh Ley’s jokes during the match, won by Con-dom Number 1.

The show ended with the actors talking about the dangers of drug addiction and HIV/AIDS, using props to explain how to use and dispose of a condom.

“The performance was great,” said Sin Simev, who watched the show.

“They talked about AIDS and drugs, and this is really important. I had never seen a show like this before.”

The troupe, which specializes in public information, is an offshoot of Phare’s Circus School. It was launched in 1998 in cooperation with the National Circus School of the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

The school is assisted by “Collectif Clowns d’ailleurs et d’ici” (clown collective from elsewhere and here). Created by three circus and theater professionalsÑJean-Christophe Sidoit, Jules Etienne and Joseph Diacoyannis Collectif Clowns gets international artists to hold training sessions at the school on a volunteer basis.

Phare’s professional circus troupe of about 25 artists has performed throughout Cambodia; toured France and Spain in 2003; and will present two different shows in France, Spain and Algeria this year.

Phare is a Battambang NGO created in 1994 by young Cambodians who had lived at the Site 2 refugee camp on the Thai border in the 1980s.

It brought back the idea of using art classes to help young people overcome personal trauma. The prevention troupe has developed shows for educational campaigns on three themesÑland mines, HIV/AIDS and the “Abilities of the Disabled.”

Their work, which often involves mingling with the audience to give information and prompt discussions, is in fact a specialty called Street Theater, said Bob Passion, a French actor with 20 years of stage and street-theater experience.

A member of Collectif Clowns, Passion spent two months at Phare working with the performers, and especially on audience communication techniques, he said. “They are professionals; they just don’t realize it because they are young,” Passion said.

In addition to passengers, the show targets youngsters who haunt train stations, said Khuon Det, the circus school director and a co-founder of Phare.

“We know that most teenagers at train stations use drugs and pick pockets to buy drugs. We want to educate them both about HIV/ AIDS and drugs,” he said. Khuon Det says he hopes to take the show to the country’s ports in the future.

Since they started performing on the train five months ago, the prevention troupe has developed a following, said Chhit Phireak. “Now people in Phnom Penh and Battambang often recognize me,” she said.

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