The three stages at the Manoonphol building come alive at the same time as the playhouse morphs into a performing arts centre
Two weekends ago, you might have noticed that the traffic on New Phetchaburi Road between Sois Thonglor and Ekamai was even more congested than usual. And for once the opening of a new shopping complex wasn’t to blame.
The reason was that the Manoonphol building – better known as M Theatre and home to three theatres of different sizes the said M Theatre, Blue Box Studio and Creative Industries – was hosting three contemporary Thai theatre productions at the same time: “Mom: The Musical”, “Goodbye My Love 2016” and the “Day Young Show” respectively. In fact, the performing arts calendar was so busy that I forgot about one production until I walked past one venue’s box office and had to ask, “What’s here?” I should have been fired from this job right there!
Produced by resident company Dreambox, “Mom: The Musical”, first staged earlier this year, is a good example of a Thai stage musical for which the right original story and storytelling technique were chosen. MR Kukrit Pramoj’s short story, as opposed to lengthier novels, was adapted by playwright Daraka Wongsiri, who showed respect for the original story while using her own creativity to fill out the musical. The use of life-size puppets to portray many dog characters was director Suwandee Jakravoravudh’s deft choice, and it was evident that the performers had been through a long process of puppetry training on top of working on their acting and singing for the musical. The show offered a reminder to all theatre producers that with audiences now able to watch TV and movies on their mobile phones, we go to the theatre to experience something different.
As a dog person, I was, of course, touched and moved but after some self-analysis, realised that it wasn’t these four-legged friends that moved me to tears back in January and again in July. Instead, it was the play’s messages about unconditional love and happiness in life. Those strong messages easily cancelled out some production design issues involving the overlaying of set, lighting and video projection design, all apparent in the earlier run and which had still not been resolved. It’s no surprise critics have been saying “Mom” is a strong contender for the year’s best musical since January.
On the second floor of the same building is Blue Box Studio, a flexible and intimate space that has been used by many different theatre groups. And it was Theatre 8X8’s revival of “Goodbye My Love” – “Wan Bok La” in Thai – whose performance schedule slipped my mind. Silpathorn artist Nikorn Saetang wrote and directed this one-hour series of scenes offering different variations on “parting” that’s not necessarily “such sweet sorrow” nor always romantic. The piece included audience participation parts in which we – and with the small number of audience members here, this means all of us – got to read dialogue at the moment a couple was breaking up. The most ingenious, and at the same time hilarious, was the scene in which audience members become guests at a divorce ceremony, commenting about the costs and trouble the hosts have gone to.
With Nattaporn Thapparut’s set design featuring only four clothing stands, four thespians, namely Watcharayu Suradej, Konthorn Taecholarn, Varattha Tongyoo and Suchawadee Phetpanomporn, re-arranged them while portraying different characters in different situations. With the least experience of the four, Watcharayu was lacking in confidence at first but managed to catch up later on. Thanks to our imagination, and theirs, these clothing stands were there not just for hanging clothes but took us to many different locales to experience different stories. And that, we’re reminded, is another reason why we go to the theatre – to exercise our imagination.
“Goodbye My Love” didn’t hit hard on the head or heart but it simmered and lingered long after the end. As ever, one of the delights in attending Theatre 8X8’s productions was listening to a song composed by HM the King – and Nikorn always chooses one that’s most fitting to the mood and tone of that specific play – rather than using the royal anthem like elsewhere. And another delight was the fact that the play was fully surtitled in English, thus allowing a non-Thai speaking audience the chance to experience an original contemporary Thai play.
On the same floor and towards the front of the building overlooking New Phetchaburi road is another flexible space called Creative Industries which hosted Dung Sib Thid’s “Day Young Show”, the life and works of veteran queer performer Day Freeman.
From his interview with Day, seasoned playwright Apirak Chaipanha wrote a script that charted his life from a nightclub performer in the era of cassette tapes to a “single mum” now. To me, the playwright was a little too aware that the audience wouldn’t leave the theatre without clear messages.
The show also featured guest queer performers from a different generation – Wongrawi “Gag” Phanasirirat and Thanison “Piak” Rueangbun – in addition to university professor, celebrity and activist Seri Wongmontha and his “single mum” actress friend Chanana Nutakom plus male supermodel Parunyu “Tack” Rojanawuttitum.
In this, the gay capital of Asia, where we’re so familiar with gay people that we may assume we know all about them, the “Day Young Show” proved otherwise. We got to listen to their saying what they really wanted to say, rather than portraying other characters, making it a unique experience. Credit was also due for director Bhanbhassa Dhubthien who balanced their performing and non-performing parts, although I found Tack wasn’t quite comfortable on stage and the audience didn’t get to see Chanana as a person but the crowd-pleasing character we often see on TV. And my cheeks were wet again when Day shared her experience of raising a son and sang a heartfelt song.
Before this triple bill experience at Manoonphol building, I showed a Powerpoint presentation to a Japanese producer, with photos and brief information of dance and theatre in Thailand today. She was surprised that she didn’t know many works and artists. Are we perhaps over-promoting tourist shows and traditional theatre to foreigners and grand-scale musicals to Thais?
In sum, although originally designed as a medium-size venue, M Theatre, renamed from Bangkok Playhouse to credit the building owner, the Manoonphol family, has provided space for smaller productions that target smaller audience groups. And, on the occasions when audiences cross over, it’s not difficult to make a night of it when all three theatres are in the same building. This concept of theatre complex has also been adopted by K-Bank Siam Pic-Ganesha Centre of Performing Arts, although their small studio has so far rarely been used for performance. Rumour has it that even Rachadalai Theatre is now planning to turn the bar and library area into a small studio.
At press time and throughout this month, all three venues are dark, which demonstrates that the lack of performance space issue was solved many years ago. The increase and development of audiences, both Thais and expatriate, and the lack of any support system for contemporary theatre artists and troupes are pressing problems that still need to be addressed.
Meanwhile, it’s been confirmed that the Culture Ministry’s plan to build another 2,000-seat proscenium theatre as part of the extension of Thailand Cultural Centre has been scrapped.
Didn’t I just mention that we’re not lacking in venues?