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Revolution through theatre

Khru Chang, founder of the Pathum Thani International Theatre Festival, champions dramatic art as the most effective learning tool available to teachers

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The word revolution brings to mind mutiny and rebellion. While there are no guns blazing, revolution is exactly what Khru Chang, owner of Moradokmai Home School and founder of the Pathum Thani International Theatre Festival, is trying to achieve - one of the education system. 

Photos by YINGYONG UN-ANONGRAK

"People think I'm crazy," he admits. "But theatre provides knowledge and wisdom and it has been this way for so long."

Championing theatre as the most effective learning tool available to teachers, Chang's vision comes in response to continuing debate over everything from class sizes, curricula, poor attendances and the gaping discrepancies between public and private schools. He wants to create an education system that will change the country, a system that goes beyond the normal school routines.

But the innovative proposal seeks to address more than educational issues in Thailand. In Chang's own words he is "saving the country" through his passionate commitment to merge theatre and the Thai school system.

To put his ideas into action, the 2nd Pathum Thani International Theatre Festival, under the helm of Khru Chang, brought 130 international actors and theatre aficionados to Thailand from January 28 to February 8. Through performances and workshops, the visiting theatre troupes engaged daily with 200 to 300 Thai students, who came from all over the country.

Moradokmai Home School, Khru Chang's theatre-based learning institution, hosted the festival. Grandson of Thai classical music maestro Luang Pradit Phairoah, Khru Chang (officially Janaprakal Chandruang) founded the school and the festival to promote dramatic arts as a crucial learning tool.

Over the shouting and delighted screaming from students in the workshops, Khru Chang explained his motivation through the Thai epic of the Ramakien.

"For me this is the only way. Why? Because when Burmese rule was overthrown and King Taksin died, King Rama I used theatre to unite the people of Thailand." King Rama I's adaptation of the Indian narrative Ramayana became Ramakien, a story that follows Prince Rama and his wife Sita and their struggle between good and evil. Performed in various theatre forms, it remains Thailand's national epic.

Referring to the current political climate in Thailand as scary, Khru Chang said he has never seen the country so divided. "This is the 'how to'," says Chang. "Inject theatre into schools and we will unite the country."

Despite receiving higher education in secular US institutions, Khru Chang laments the shift to a government-run education system in Thailand over the past century.

"A long time ago education came under religion, and religion is theatre. In a temple, the priest is the actor, telling the story of Buddhism. The community who enters into the monastery is the audience," he said.

Theatre is not a mandatory subject in Thai schools. Rather, it often falls under the extracurricular umbrella. "It is strange and unnatural for theatre to be this way," argues Khru Chang.

The Pathum Thani International Theatre festival, in its second year, was Khru Chang's attempt to amend this change. The halls and rooms of the Sirindhorn Science Home in Pathum Thani, where the workshops were held, were crowded with enthusiastic young students. The budding performers rotated among workshops run by visiting thespians from countries including Russia, Slovenia and India. The walls ricocheted with animated participation in voice, breathing, movement, physical theatre and acting exercises.

Walking amid the buzzing activity, Khru Chang admitted to the festival's hidden agenda, beyond exposing Thai students to a diverse array of theatre forms and creating a theatre network within Thai schools.

"Because of the international guests and the international involvement, my words speak more loudly," he said. "My dream is to make the Ministry of Education realise that they are going the wrong way. It is so stupid not to put theatre in schools. They know nothing about theatre and the government's concept about theatre is totally commercial."

Khru Chang

While theatre brings to mind bright lights and Broadway performances of Cats or Phantom of the Opera, this concept is much removed from Khru Chang's understanding of the art, which focuses more on the process as opposed to the product.

A change in people's attitude and understanding of theatre is necessary, said Khru Chang, who believes in the healing and developmental ability of theatre.

"When you have theatre, theatre brings you to wisdom, and when you have wisdom you don't need too much to be happy."

The viability of Khru Chang's grand plan remains to be seen. Salinee Yensuang, a teacher at Pathumwilai School in Pathum Thani, said only 5 percent of her students are able to get involved in drama and theatre, and that both administrative and attitude changes are required to bring about change.

School syllabi leave little room for dramatic or creative pursuits, with big class sizes, limited time and largely academic curricula, said Salinee.

"Teachers are not trained to teach students about any type of drama. We learn in the old system and the old system focuses on academic subjects, not on performance or drama."

But the problem, according to Salinee, lies mainly with the parents, who fail to encourage and support their children's dramatic development.

"It is an old Thai belief that theatre is not a good job - performance will earn very little money and not give high status in society," she said.

It is this commercial understanding of theatre that Moradokmai is trying to eradicate. At Moradokmai, theatre is the medium through which science, maths and literature are all taught.

Phi Tan, a teacher at the school, said the learning process is not about capitalism, competition or furthering a career. "The Thai education system makes people selfish," he said. "They are not focused on other people, just on their degree, their key to enter the world and get a job."

At 21, Mew has been a student at Moradokmai for three years, and said that through theatre, she has found a new way of life.

"I was bad before I came here. I didn't go to school. I had bad friends. But now I study in Moradokmai, and I think better," she said. "I am learning. I look at everything differently. Drama can heal and change everything."

Cases such as Mew's confirm Khru Chang's belief that theatre can change people's lives. All 30 students at Moradokmai come from outreach programmes or underprivileged areas.

"With me, they get to go abroad, they get to go to festivals in Europe or in Asia, they get to meet people, and practice Buddhism the way it should be. The ones that were drug addicted, now they are completely healed. So for me theatre is a way of life, a way of progress."

While success stories and Khru Chang's passion for his students and theatre are clear, his alternative teaching model does solicit questions over whether theatre-based education is broad and stimulating enough to equip Thai students as informed and skilled citizens.

Jill Navarre, a teacher and director from the US who now resides in India, participated in the festival and will stay on at Moradokmai Home School to direct a Thai adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. She concedes that the type of learning is not for everyone.

"If they want to concentrate on something at a higher level then of course this is not the place for them," she said.

Suggesting that perhaps theatre-based learning is not suited to all students' needs and goals, 15-year-old Chayakorn Kosol from Suankularb Witthayalai School in Bangkok explained that for him, acting was a hobby, not a career path.

"I want to learn in college and become a lawyer," he said.

According to Salinee, however, for those who do dream of a theatrical career it is a tortuous goal.

"Only brave students or students who really are determined to get involved in this kind of job will try and seek the opportunity on their own," she said.

It is still to be seen if the goal of the Pathum Thani International Theatre Festival and Khru Chang's larger vision for the Thai education system will resonate with or be seen as realistic by the wider public.

But shifting this perception is Khru Chang's ultimate goal, and he is both determined and confident in his pursuit.

"We're building a new world. I'm serious. Revolutions can change anything, as we've seen in the past. But you need a rebel to do it. I'm rebelling against the dark side of knowledge. Theatre is the light side, and it will bring you up."

Related search: Khru Chang, Pathum Thani International Theatre Festival, Moradokmai Home School

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