In 2014, three friends from three different theater groups—Wichaya Artamart from New Theatre Society, Sasapin Siriwanji from B-Floor Theatre and Ben Busarakamwong from Crescent Moon Theatre— realized that not every kind of theaters was a fit for the companies they each belonged to. The three actors/directors then decided to form a new independent theater group called For What Theater.
They wanted this new company to be a playground for experimenting with the different performances they had always wanted to explore. In their latest project, Little Red in the Ruin, a Thai adaptation of Red Riding Hood, the trio combined live music with puppetry to narrate the story.
Mostly, however, For What Theater wanted to convey messages associated—indirectly—with politics. “Politics is everywhere in all dimensions from personal to social issues,” says Wichaya.
“Our group is theater-based, but we also question the term ‘theater’ because we don’t want to end up being only a theater group. We also want to go further and experiment with other art forms like exhibition, photography and video, as well as with other media forms. We are interested in doing many different things,” Ben explains. Three years and more than 10 shows, not to mention the growing number of their Facebook followers, have somehow proved the strength and success of this venture.
When asked about the growth of the contemporary theater scene in Thailand, Ben replies, “It is growing but not yet strong enough. It’s like a tree growing in a pot that has no one transfer it to fertile earth. Partly, this is because of the lack of government support.” Sasapin adds, “Another factor is the audience. There is more supply than demand. The audience hasn’t grown accordingly to the number of theater performers.”
Seven years ago, Kris Sanguanpiyapand struggled with life after graduation when he realized that he couldn’t make a living out of his theater studies degree. One year later, he had a chance to teach blind students at the Bangkok School for the Blind where he met Sophon Tubkrong, a young soul who wanted to bridge the gap between the world of the seeing and the visually-impaired.
“I invited him to create a theater group,” says Kris. “We found a way to design a new form of theater, one which had two rules: both blind and non-blind audiences must be able to enjoy the show, and both parties need to make the show together. And in the end, it must become a real job.”
Not long after, Kris and Sophon created their first show for The Blind Theater. The audience, both blind and non-blind, were all asked to wear a mask over their eyes, and instead of putting the actors on a stage, the show had the actors surround their audience within close capacity. “If people’s eyes are covered, the one thing standing between the blind and non-blind is darkness,” says Kris. “The mutual experience that both parties can share in the darkness is imagination. And what can stimulate your imagination? Smell, touch, hearing and taste.”
Kris also explains how he introduced the audience to the concept of blind theater. “If the show was, for example, Jack and the Beanstalk, you would have a character that introduces the main elements of the show, like Jack’s outfits or a straw stack, explaining how it feels when you touch it and what it looks like.”
His first show, Ni Tan Hing Hoy, staged three years ago, involved 60 cast and crew members, eight of whom were blind. Kris trained the blind actors himself. “The blind learn acting through their body,” explains Sophon. “The problem is, the picture in our head is not as clear. The easiest way to start is to learn about our bodies through touching and movement because we don’t know what our joints are like, how much our wrists and shoulders can move. That’s how Kris first trained me to know my body.”
The feedback they received was also very positive. “Our first year was really successful. What the audience got in return was inspiration or idea crystallization,” says Kris. Soon, however, there was not enough manpower to sustain production. “We didn’t have enough crew to put up a show. So I made an announcement online that we were in need of front and backstage volunteers to make a play. Over 200 candidates applied and I gave them projects to carry out.”
But that wasn’t enough for Kris, who wanted to bring about more change. Eventually, he went on to build another platform called School of Blind Theater, which allows people who are inspired by their shows to put their ideas into action. “School of Blind Theater is a project where people are encouraged to create activities for the blind under one rule: the activities need to be designed together with visually-impaired individuals.”
It all began at Thammasat University Drama Club where three peers—Thongchai Pimapunsri, Thanaphon Accawatanyu, and Sompak Ounthapan—met, became friends and passionately decided to continue working on stage after their senior year. They decided to form Splashing Theater after the successful run of Splash, a show the trio created for an art festival at Pridi Institute in 2014.
Since none of the three studied drama or performing arts in university, the content and storytelling they have been choosing to work with differ from your usual theater group. “Our scripts are different. They involve movie elements because Thanaphon, our script writer-slash-director, studied films. This is why each of our shows feels more like watching a movie, but live,” explains Sompak.
“I never took drama courses, so I don’t have any drama theories. My work talks about overall problems [in society], states and the feelings of people in our generation,” says Thanaphon.
So far, Splashing Theater has completed six successful projects. The latest show, Teenage Wasteland : Summer, Star and the (Lost) Chrysanthemum 1 managed to contain a trilogy within a non-stop, two-hour show. The cast and crew totalled 14. “The show featured a mix of young adults and middle- aged people, with scripts and references that include animation, movies and books,” shares Pakapol Srirongmuang, one of the actors. “I feel it’s diverse within itself. It’s good that we all come from different backgrounds. If we all thought the same way, the show would have no dimension.”
With each of their shows having gained positive feedback, we ask the trio what they expect for the group in the next five years? Thanaphon gives an immediate response. “I want to have our own space for practice. It’s getting more and more difficult to find a space to rehearse. The available spaces to perform a show are also getting more expensive.”
Thongchai, who also directs, shares another big challenge the troupe is facing. “For a small- scale theater group like ours, I feel like we have so little financial support and it’s very hard to survive as a theater group. In the past few years, small-scale theaters had to gradually increase their ticket prices according to the economic climate. It then became difficult to provide the audience an incentive to see the show. A B600 ticket isn’t something that people can pay for straightaway, particularly those who’ve never seen a theater show before.”
Despite the hardship in finding financial support, the troupe still manages to survive and, in the process, has found a die-hard fanbase. “We have a regular audience that comes to see almost every show,” says Sompak. “We also have some newcomers—students who are assigned to see the show—and each actor also has their own group of fans.”