After three decades at the top of Thai entertainment and drama, producer Takonkiet Viravan faces perhaps his biggest challenge yet. He speaks in a rare interview with Phatarawadee Phataranawik.
Takonkiet Viravan has been called “the wizard of Thai stage and television”.
Viewers got their first taste of the director’s magic in 1990 when he conjured up TV drama “Nangfah Siroong” (“Rainbow Angel”), which earned two Golden Television Awards.
By 2007, Takonkiet had outgrown the TV studio and opened Thailand’s first privately owned grand theatre, a 1,500-seater to house his show “Waterfall”, which made its US debut in 2015.
Meanwhile the Prasarttong-Osoth family, one of Thailand’s richest, and the owners of PP Television, bet Bt1.9 billion he could apply his Midas touch to One Channel, their new digital baby.
Takonkiet knows all about successful gambles.
Three decades ago the son of former finance minister Amnuay Viravan ditched economics after doing a semester at Boston University to please his dad. He returned home for a master’s in communication and theatre.
“Thailand’s theatre scene back then was very much in its infancy,” says the man who friends know as “Boy”. “Surviving as a professional dramatist was impossible.”
“I really love theatre, but I want to keep my focus broad,” he says. “I’m happy with all the things I have done so far in life.” Takonkiet Viravan. Nation/Tanachai Pramarnpanich
The super-busy director was teasing a melody from a piano as we sat down for an interview at his Channel One office high in GMM Grammy headquarters overlooking rainy Bangkok.
“My love for theatre started in high school in the US. After I left Boston University and returned home in 1990, all I wanted to do was theatre,” he smiles.
“But it wasn’t the right time. When I came back I had to find a way to support myself. The next best thing was television.” Boston had also given him a love of theatrical shows on TV.
The fledgling director launched into TV with entertainment giant GMM Grammy and hit instant success with “Nangfah Siroong”. The show won Best Creative Play for Society and Best Play for Youth, and suddenly Boy had graduated to the big time.
A year later he took another leap and opened his own TV production company, Exact Co. With Channel 3 and 7 producing all their shows in-house, Taknokiet made his debut as an independent on Army-owned Channel 5 with the drama “Sam Num Sam Mum” (“The Three Brothers”). The show transformed a group of Grammy singers into actors and went on to become the longest-running Thai TV drama, airing from 1991 to 1998.
Centred on the cosmopolitan city lives of three brothers living in a condominium, the series collected the Best Youth Drama and Best Screenplay awards in its first year.
“Sam Num Sam Mum” marked a watershed for soap opera in Thailand with its contemporary hybrid of Western culture, Thai tastes and bittersweet storylines. Gone were the traditional syrupy stories and happy endings.
The blend of romance, struggle and unhappy love proved just as successful in his follow-up show, “Rak Nai Roy Khaen” (“Envy Love”), proving Thais had embraced the change on their screens.
But the producer-director says uprooting viewers’ tastes is no easy task. “To be honest, arty, serious plots are not Thais’ cup of tea. I eventually realised that most of the audience enjoys love stories and family-theme plots with entertaining storylines,” he adds.
So far, the formula has worked for Takonkiet in more than 40 series, spawning dozens of awards. Like Hollywood, the Thai entertainment scene spans the genres of music, television and theatre. Working with GMM Grammy, the director unearths young singers’ hidden acting talent by challenging them to hop genres. Why choose either music or TV when a win-win solution is at hand?
After hitting one peak of fame in drama, Takonkiet took aim at a different summit – talent shows. In 2003 he shook up the industry with “The Star” – a reality-TV-style singing competition made by Exact and broadcast on Modern9 TV.
The show launched first-season winner Sukrit “Bie The Star” Wisetkaew into teen-idol heaven. Takonkiet honed Bie’s singing and acting chops and packed him off to the America in 2015, as lead in his Broadway-style “Waterfall”.
“The Star” set the trend for reality shows in Thailand, opening the door for “Academy Fantasia”, fashion-model showdown “The Face”, cooking competition “The Iron Chef” and a chorus of locally made TV singing contests.
In 2004 Takonkiet took probably his biggest leap by launching a theatre production company that also imports foreign shows. Theatre remained his first love and Senario Co was going to deliver for him. But when he then announced plans to build the country’s first musical theatre, a business friend balked.
“My friend advised me, ‘Just produce the software – the theatre – and find some businessmen who can build the hardware – the venue,” he says.
No investor stepped forward, but Takonkiet went ahead and built his theatre on the top floor of the Esplanade shopping mall, facing the Thailand Cultural Centre.
“The owner wanted a magnet for her mall. With favourable rent, I finally have my new ‘home’ here. The theatre has a regular programme of musicals.”
“The Phantom of the Opera” made its Thailand debut in 2013 at the Muangthai Ratchadalai Theatre. Photo courtesy of Scenario
The foundations of the Muangthai Rachadalai Theatre go back to the US and Takonkiet’s enchantment on seeing “The Sound of Music”. Performances here range from Western-style musicals and Broadway classics to modern Thai shows.
Lacking government support, Thai theatre has made a home in television, hotels and cultural venues like the Goethe Institut and Alliance Francaise. Thai dramatists have also had to build their own venues, with 1991 seeing the arrival of Bangkok Playhouse, the capital’s first privately run drama space, now renamed M Theatre, on New Petchburi Road.
A year later, National Artist Patravadi Meejudhon built her eponymous open-air theatre across the Chao Phraya River in Thonburi, before branching out to the seaside in Hua Hin. In 1999 another National Artist, Chonprakan Chanruang, founded the 300-seat Moradok Mai, now operating on Bangkok’s fringe in Pathum Thani. The boom in boutique playhouses means the capital now hosts dozens of small theatres.
But Takonkiet’s Muangthai Rachadalai is on a bigger scale altogether. Its 1,500 seats were all sold for “Ban Lang Mek” in 2001, 2002 and 2007, for “Bangkok 2485” in 2004 and for “Fah Jarod Sai” in 2007. “Khang Lang Phap” (“Behind the Painting”) in 2008, “Mae Nak Phra Khanong” in 2009, “Lom Hai Jai” in 2010, two runs of “Thawipop” and three of “See Phaendin” (“Four Reigns”) met the same success.
Dancing in from overseas have been “Miss Saigon”, “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera”.
But overall commercial success has proved elusive.
Costing Bt500 million, the Muangthai Rachadalai Theatre was supposed to break even within six years, yet a decade later it’s still losing money.
Does Takonkiet still want to keep it going?
“Having my own theatre, I can continue staging my musicals and export productions. Moreover, it is a real theatre school for many Thai performers.”
Here, the country’s few professional musical actors can “learn by doing”.
Director Takonkiet Viravan trains American actress Emily Padgett, centre, to perform traditional Thai dances for his latest Broadway show “Waterfall”. Photo courtesy of Scenario
Meanwhile the success of “Waterfall” in the US has encouraged other impresarios to turn local stories into musicals, hatching a golden era for Thai musicals with dozens of commercial productions.
For “Waterfall” Takonkiet teamed up with Broadway choreographer Dan Knechtges, Tony award-winning writer Richard Maltby Jr and composer David Shire, who has two Grammys and an Academy Award on his mantelpiece.
“The most difficult thing in bringing a Broadway-style Thai musical to the West is how to connect with Western audiences and culture,” says Takonkiet of the work based on the classic romance novel “Khang Lung Phab” (“Behind the Painting”).
“Working with Western production teams, we need to adjust our attitudes,” he says.
In Pasadena, “Waterfall” won praise for opulent production values but also stinging criticism for a story deemed “cliched” and “banal” by some reviewers.
“‘Waterfall’ is to Broadway-quality musical theatre what an amateur watercolour is to a landscape painting hanging in [a museum],” wrote the Los Angeles Times theatre critic.
“Criticism for me is normal,” shrugs Takonkiet.
This month he’ll re-stage his box-office musical “Four Reigns” in Bangkok, based on MR Kukrit Pramoj’s story of Thailand’s journey to modernity through the eyes of a girl named Mae Ploy.
His other big challenge is turning One Channel into a success.
“Working in digital television is not easy. We have to merge both ‘on air and ‘online’ together,” he explains.
The channel is still losing money, but the Prasarttong-Osoth family has injected Bt1.9 billion in the belief that Takonkiet is the man to turn things around.
“The new investor understands our mission and she has allowed me to create witty content with popular appeal,” he says. “Digital television is new here, we have to learn more about this business. This game is far from over.”
At age 51, he’s also busy building the next generation of producers-directors. Is there another Takonkiet about to roll off the production line?
“Just one is enough!” he quips.
“Juggling television and theatre isn’t easy. It requires a lot of effort. One person can be good in theatre and another can be the best television director. But I haven’t yet found someone with expertise in both.”
Theatre, reality shows, TV series and managing a digital TV channel: Which gives him the most satisfaction right now?
“I really love theatre, but I want to keep my focus broad,” he says. “I’m happy with all the things I have done so far in life.”