Thai Heritage Returns 2011 Blog
And finally… It’s a wrap! Our big day was last Saturday, July 2nd! It’s amazing how much a show comes together when you finally arrive at the venue (Thailand’s National Theatre). We’d been practicing on tabletops, benches and folding chairs and finally came face to face with our a royal chariot, castle wall and forest scenery. It was difficult telling our little ones not too run and play around the stage crew.
Ajarn Thong, the visiting dance professor who did a week-long intensive for us in the spring, performs regularly with the national dance company and came to offer final direction to our performers. Alumni from the THR trips in the 90’s reunited with our then dance teacher, Kru Yuth, who brought in his cavalry of make-up artists and dressers. We aren’t accustomed to our make-up being so heavy (but beautiful) and costumes being corsette-tight (as they should).
The day following the show, our lead performers traded in gold headdresses for helmets and harnesses at Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures – followed by an overnight stay in a farming village. More than just being a performing group – we want this to be a friendship building experience for the kids. We also wanted to complement the week in cosmopolitan Bangkok with rural lifestyle education as well (many of our folk pieces are inspired by agricultural practices).
From the coordinator perspective, it’s hard to tell now much the experience will root itself in our student’s minds. We only hope it will be as formative for them as it was for us ten years ago, and that they will remember this trip like we did and stay committed to the center and the Thai Temple once we return home. If anything, THR has set our brainstorming wheels are turning on how to further develop our students, our programs… stay tuned!!! Follow us on Facebook for further updates and see you at our Bay Area October production of Phra Apai Manee!!!
Here’s a recap of the last week’s highlights leading up to the performance. We had a “museum day” visiting the Museum of Siam – a contemporary “learn & play” exhibit on Thai identities dating back from pre-historic times through the present. The scavenger hunt the museum distributes to students proved a little challenging – but in the least our kids learned how Siam became Thailand and thoroughly enjoyed the “Thailand in the 60’s” room.
Next, we went to Sin Pan Din – an exhibit of artworks at the Ananta Throne Hall made by the Queen’s Vocational Arts Training Center in honor of the King’s 60th Anniversary of Ascension five years ago. Many of the pieces took months and years to make and represent the most elaborate craftsmanship in Thailand. Unfortunately, no photos allowed. On the bus ride, each student shared their favorite pieces.
We also had two performances: a dress rehearsal at the university and an excerpted scene for a nearby secondary school. After the scene, the local high schoolers arranged their own performance of a rhythmic folk freestyle storytelling. We were so impressed with their welcome and reception of our troupe and ended the day with killer bilingual games of “musical chairs” and “telephone.” We warned our older kids not to let the mob of autograph and photo requests inflate their ego too much because there were definitely phone numbers and Facebook names exchanged on our way out.
The day before the performance we had a Wai Kru ceremony to pay our respects to performance deities and ask for blessings for our show. We bought flower garlands at a late night flower street market as well as various fruits as offerings. Kru Yuth, a past volunteer dance teacher from the 2nd and 3rd THR trips (and advisor for this year) led the ceremony – although he recited the Pali and Sanskrit chants faster than we could repeat them, and quickly corrected himself when he told the deities the wrong play title. Oops.
Stay tuned for the next post on the final day of our program: SHOW DAY!!!
After a few days in Bangkok, we asked one of our musicians, Franco (a former ACTA apprentice), “What do you notice the most?” It’s his first time to Thailand. He answered, “What, other than being surrounded by Thai people everywhere?”
Traditional performing arts is alive and well where we are now. During practice this week, it’s been humbling to have former TCC instructors lend themselves and their classrooms to our cast and orchestra. Our troupe of 20 performers has now become an army of over 100, literally – we have a battle scene. Musicians and dancers range from elementary to secondary to college-aged students to counterpart our own.
Our play, Pra Aphai Manee, is a well-known epic in Thai literature. Ironically, it centers around the main character’s seduction by Western culture and the betrayal of his family and kingdom. So our American students perform for a Thai audience with lines like, “What’s so great about the West anyway?” The story was written during the 19th century, so in addition to memorizing Thai lines, the script also has the poetic rhythm similar to that of Shakespeare.
Naturally, our network here is comprised of music and dance instuctors and advocates, but we wonder about the state of Thai performing arts outside this “bubble.” Though we mentioned that there is no shortage of students for our show, it seems like this enthusiasm and dedication stays within this circle – in education, but not necessarily promoted in mainstream media as much as the latest romantic comedy or horror flick. We’ve also encountered some tension between our elders and an emerging genre Thai folks call “contemp” – a shortened Thai pronunciation of “contemporary” – combining elements of Thai costume, dance movements, music with new technology, sound mixing and sometimes borrowing from ballet or modern dance.
We just returned from a weekend excursion to Amphawa, a district in the province of Samut Songkhram – where aside from its renowned floating market, we also visited a foundation honoring the period of King Rama II. He is known for adapting the Ramakian (the Ramayana) for Thailand. Our group got to watch (and briefly join) students training for ‘khon’ classical dance in male, female, demon and monkey styles. Our director asked if they’d like to “adopt” our students for a week. A possible direction for the future...
June 20th is departure day! Looking back on the past few months of intensive prep for THR (Thai Heritage Returns), it’s somewhat surreal that we’ll finally be in Thailand. Reviving this program has involved a lot of “convincing” – convincing ourselves, our team, our partnering university, our community and our new supporters that have backed our local events in recent years – Are there enough students? Is taking them to the motherland still meaningful? Will it be better or worse than the trips from a decade ago?
This year’s program feels like a new incarnation of THR compared to its ’95, ’97, ’99 and ’02 predecessors. Before, our program sponsors were almost entirely based in Thailand, but with the current economy, we launched our most ambitious local fundraising campaign to date – reaching out to program alumni, Thai-owned and corporate businesses and other grassroots events fundraising – most of whom were first-time donors to the Thai Cultural Center.
Our overall management has evolved also. As the first THR alums to co-coordinate the program alongside our founding directors, we’ve paid special attention to asking what did the program give us the first time? What did it lack that we can create now? Both generations still seem to tip-toe around our new working dynamic – we’re still unclear when our opinion is desired or requested, but we have enjoyed bringing our own ideas into the fray – advocating for all students’ spotlight time, giving our older kids a chance to self-govern, creating an edgy look to our program book. Technology has certainly served us well in communicating with our counterparts in Thailand – our participant lists, graphic design and show production. As an intergenerational and international team, but we still rely heavily on late night phone calls for those that are not accustomed to relying on the internet. Facebook, blogging, email marketing and online pledges have also been engines in our campaign – finding vendors and building buzz in both countries.
We have yet to see what our reception in Thailand will be. Have the audiences for Thai classical drama’s dwindled, remained the same or found renewed appeal in Bangkok? Are people in Thailand curious about Thai-Americans? Would Americans in Thailand be interested? Thailand’s upcoming political elections have made it difficult (understandably so) in coordinating with our supporters in governmental ministries – not to mention the usual bureaucratic protocol. We are excited to visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – the ministry that most overlaps with our cause.
Once we arrive in Bangkok, we’ll spend the first few days rehearsing with our partnering schools. We’ll go three full days, back to back, which will most likely take its toll on our “little-ones.” For our next post, and we’ll give you insight into the story and background of our play – Phra Apai Manee!
Time for take-off! Next time we’ll be writing from the Kingdom...
We’re thrilled to be able to blog our experiences with this year’s Thai Heritage Returns, aka THR, a ten-day heritage program in Bangkok. (Please bear with us through the Thai names and institutions.) The Thai Cultural Center of the San Francisco Bay Area has revived the program after a nine-year hiatus, and this will be the fifth time we’ve brought our youth to Thailand.
Over 20 Thai-Americans make up the principal cast and musicians of Phra Apai Manee and the Spell of Nang Laweng – an excerpt from a well-known epic in Thai literature – that will be presented at the National Theatre on July 2. Once in Thailand, we’ll be hosted by our partnering university Ban Somdej Rajabhat University (BSRU), and local schools will join us to complete our cast and musical ensembles. In addition to performing, we plan to visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Parliament House and the Museum of Siam – and only because the kids have asked, yes, we’ll go to a beach. Older students will also have the chance to bond during a rock-climbing excursion and rural village homestay.
These trips do a lot in terms of rejuvenating our center. It’s difficult to keep our youth motivated beyond the chance to hang out with their friends every weekend. The center is completely volunteer-run, and we compete with the other “forces” in our students’ lives – school, sports, family work schedules. But those of us who have stuck with the program and continue to perform will stand by its importance. We get to experience “the mother country” as more than a vacation or family reunion. As alums, over ten years later, we still think back on previous THR’s as a defining experience of our youth. It draws in our families (who stay with us throughout the entire program – and rehearsals), forces our Thai and performance skills, but most importantly, brings us closer together during the six months leading up to show time. For most, the benefits won’t be “felt” until after the program.
We’ll be posting every week until departure (June 20) and as often as we can while in Thailand. So we invite your comments, questions (and support!) from now through the end of THR in early July.
Nicha and Virada