This trip marks a number of firsts for me. I’ve never flown into Bangkok via Don Meung Airpot, I’ve never taken a bus in Bangkok and I’ve never travelled to a foreign country JUST to be mentored by a director (good vibes for traveling in the future to work as a director and/or actor!).
I arranged to meet Tua around 4pm, which would have been enough time for me to haul myself to the hotel, check-in, get my bearings and meet him. It is a straight forward plan, except I didn’t know what would happen after that.
The type A in me had prepared to share some workshop material from the recent La Mama trip, but it said, how can you show up like that? What do you want to learn? You can’t just show up with nothing either! The Substation and National Arts Council will not be happy! The Type B in me just said, go with the flow. Absorb as much as you can. Okay, type B takes the lead.
I am to meet Tua at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre. I have been to that building about 6 years ago, during my first trip to Bangkok. Then, it already was a beautiful building but as an outsider, all I saw were a few empty shops. Now, there’s a exhibition hall at the top level, but the rest of the space are still occupied by shops and cafes. The theatre space that is there now used to be a visual arts gallery converted into a modest but functional black box. I will learn from Tua later that this shiny building situated right next to the behemoth mall Mahboonkrong (MBK) is a project initiated by artists. It took decades of fundraising, lobbying for political support and approval, and administrative work. The artists run the shops, sell their own wares. It may not look like an Esplanade but it’s something important that a grassroots artist-led initiative created a contemporary art presence in the middle of the city.
I arrive at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre about 10 minutes before 4pm. He is rehearsing there in the afternoon and performing in a show in the evening. I am to meet him backstage in between.
Arriving on the fourth floor. I smile politely at the guard and walk confidently through the doors marked restricted to staff only. No need to scan pass (hur hue, lame Esplanade joke).
I peek my head under a large metal shutter frozen in mid-air such that only a rather short person would be able to walk through without bending over. At the far end of a large concrete room were two tables. On one table, sat a single incandescent lamp and a mirror placed on its side. The beautiful Kop is just starting to put on her makeup for the show. Around the other table sits a couple of men, none of them is Tua. There is a moment of, who’s this dude. I am out of earshot and within scrutiny. The walk towards the table feels like eternity. I ask, in impeccable Singlish, if Tua was around. One of them, Nikorn of 8×8 Theatre, immediately lights up, you from Singapore? Apparently, Tua had told everyone that I was coming. I am no stranger.
I first see Tua while he is taking a nap. Tua would sheepishly explained later that he is ill and at the end of the day, after directing and then performing at night, he usually still works into the wee hours clearing work for the upcoming Bangkok Theatre Festival (of which he was the director), his next show, and simply catching up on his own personal life. He says he is more than happy to be so busy. Now that’s a Type A! Naps are a must!
I am been 10 minutes early and do not want to impose on important rest. Graciously, Nikorn shows me around backstage and introduces me to people, including Kop, who incidentally worked on The Necessary Stage’s Mobile Cities around the early 2000s. She knows Harash, Alvin and Ivan. We trade stories for a bit.
4pm: Tua wakes up and gets a bit of a shock seeing me beam sheepishly from the table. It becomes the perfect first meeting. Formal pleasantries are thankfully brief, and the conversation flows. We discuss schedules, I would watch his rehearsals, watch other shows playing while I’m here, and meet other directors. Type A is appeased. He shares stories of his work, experience and life. Type B is extremely happy. We have chemistry.
That night, I have my first taste of Thai theatre at 7pm. I sit in the front row of Demon Hero (Mayayak) and watch an amazing work directed by Nikorn. It is an epic story taken from the Ramayana. A deserter demon who didn’t want to kill during the war against humans and gods is sentenced to death. Sick of the war caused by his king demon father for kidnapping Sita, Prince Indradit commands the prisoner demon to take on the form of Sita to be killed in battle. This effectively ends the reason for the war and makes the demon a hero in death. Tua plays that demon.
Nikorn explains that he seeks to explore working with Le Coq’s mask work within the Thai traditional Khon form. It is beautifully executed, an excellent piece of theatre that demonstrates the possibilities and importance of a clear physical text.
Ill and exhausted, Tua still takes me out for supper and we continue chatting.
It is a first meeting but immediately, I sense how special was this opportunity to meet this extremely generous person and to observe his work. He is a unique man filled with passion for theatre, his entire being is driven to lift Thai contemporary theatre.
This is going to be a great learning experience.