Gung-ho newcomers and tireless veterans

Highlights of this year's Bangkok Theatre Festival

M.O.V.E. Theatre's Kuang Qi from Taiwan took four BTF awards. Photo: Teeraphan Ngowjeenanan

And yet another Bangkok Theatre Festival (BTF) has come and gone, almost in a flash.

Since 2002, it's been the largest performing arts platform and gathering place of gung-ho newcomers and tireless veterans, of students, amateurs and professionals, of classical, folk and experimental performers. One thing about uncurated festivals like the BTF is that you never know what you're going to get. Theatre critics complain about the lack of quality at the BTF every year, but we manage to find a few shows that surprise and excite us every year as well.

The festival took a big leap this year by collaborating with a new performing arts platform, Bangkok International Performing Arts Meeting (BIPAM), which models itself on events such as Japan's TPAM (Performing Arts Meeting In Yokohama). In less than a year, BTF and BIPAM's organisers managed to put together two pre-festival events -- Performing Arts Expo by BTF for high school students looking to earn a degree in the performing arts, and Bangkok Theatre Festival Asia Focus, featuring three productions from Thailand and Southeast Asia.

Last week, BIPAM held a series of lectures, presentations and roundtable discussions led by Thai and foreign producers, art managers, artists and academics. The BIPAM showcase brought together six productions from Thailand, Taiwan, India and Switzerland.

The ambitious and visionary young bloods behind BIPAM are trying to push BTF towards a more professional direction by actively tackling issues that have been neglected by the festival for years. Understandably, the financial support is so meagre that making the festival happen every year is already an ambitious undertaking.

And yet, an artist-run festival is not a sustainable model or one that is conducive to growth. Perhaps the BTF needs to start thinking about a more creative and practical management model that will allow the artists to create more and manage less, or not at all.

The way the festival documents and archives performances and festival-related materials has also been dismal. The festival programme in print and online still lacks basic information. Many shows at the BTF provide no information about the production, the company or members of the cast and crew. What's more troubling is that BTF organisers who are veteran artists don't see the importance of record-keeping or foster a culture where artists value their own work or have a sense of history.

The BIPAM team is eager to improve the overall management, quality and image of the festival by stepping in as a producer, creating a performing arts archive, and developing a curated portion of the festival.

The BTF is necessary for Thai performing arts and artists. But after 15 years, the festival's only statement to the Thai public and the international performing arts community shouldn't only be: "Theatre artists in Thailand exist and are making art." The image of the BTF has always been one of friendliness, like a harmless and uncontroversial party. That should remain part of the festival.

But art and artists thrive on conflict and tension, not harmony. The BTF is the biggest non-commercial and alternative performing arts platform in Thailand. And it should remain open and not curated, like the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, whose tagline is "Defying the norm since 1947". If the BTF wants to be more relevant and reach a wider audience, it can't keep holding up an image of only escapism and entertainment.

As an artistic platform, it needs to respond more specifically and urgently to what's going on in society. When Thailand has been going through such political instability that has directly and indirectly affected the development of society and the arts, a theme like "Sharing Moments" for an art platform is not only unimaginative, it also reflects a complacent and docile attitude. An art festival should have a rousing spirit, not a passive and peaceable one.

Traditions near and far

What I've come to realise this year about the BTF, or rather what I am reminded of, is that it provides a great opportunity for people in Bangkok to see works by artists from other provinces in Thailand and traditional performing arts from here and abroad. The younger generation of Bangkok theatregoers, art enthusiasts and theatre critics, myself included, too often neglect these artists or dismiss traditional performing arts as boring or not cutting edge enough. I'm of the opinion that any art that exists in the present is contemporary and that, despite institutional possessiveness, all art forms inevitably change as we change. This year, the programme included traditional Thai puppetry used in a Western-style musical in Nemirath: The Musical Puppet Show by Tookatoon Studio and Theatre, Ayuthaya Khon by Kai Kaew Karn Lakorn (The Land of Arts) troupe and The Exotic Enggang Tribal Dance by Bali Indah Dance Studio, to name a few.

Process makes progress

Two of the best performances I saw at the festival this year are works-in-progress. A Theatre Unit: [X-Division]'s staged reading Hari Raya: The Unwritten Scenes Of A Family Reunion was a moving and intimate experience where audience members took off their shoes before entering the performance space, like entering a Thai home, and sat on the floor around the large rug in the middle of the room. Young playwright Nasrey Labaideeman tells the story of a Thai-Muslim family visiting their relatives in Malaysia with both humour and touching insights. I can't wait to see the full production of this play. The third phase of a Singaporean-Thai collaboration, Open Waters, a play about home and urban living, was also exciting to see. Its second phase was presented at the BTF Asia Focus. The number of collaborations between Thai and non-Thai artists have markedly increased in the past few years. This and more investment in the process of a play will help open up more Thai artists to the world and improve the quality of Thai productions.

The passing of a pioneer

The Thai theatre community lost an important and beloved member. Mime artist and pioneer Paitoon Laisakul died of a heart condition at the age of 55 on Nov 8, just days after the festival began. He could still be spotted around the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, BTF's main venue, the weekend before his death. Paitoon was known by his stage moniker Konnakhao and founded Konnakhao Mime troupe in 1984. He was one of the first artists who pushed for the BTF to happen and was always a prominent presence at the festival. He was also behind the founding of pantomime in Bangkok and started Kon Rak Mime Festival in 2016. His students were many, among them the Babymime trio, the most successful and popular mime troupe in Thailand. A Babymime member, Nuttapol Kummata, said: "Laughter can heal anything. Phi Aun [Paitoon] was like a doctor, always healing others, even on the day of his passing. But the [memories of] his laughter will continue to heal everyone." The last piece Paitoon created, Magic Box, was performed by a troupe he helped form a few months before his death, Young Lady Konnakhao, as a tribute during the BTF's closing ceremony on Sunday. The troupe comprises two female mime artists and students of Paitoon's, Churarat Tangchitnob and deaf mime artist Chalisa Donmon. Magic Box is their first show and about death and loss. According to Churarat, Paitoon created the piece knowing that his time was running out.

The International Association of Theatre Critics–Thailand Centre (IATC–TC) held the Thailand Dance and Theatre Review 2017 award ceremony on Sunday to honour Thai productions of this past year and Thai and international productions at the BTF. Find a full list of nominees and winners at the IATC–TC Facebook page at

Young Lady Konnakhao performs a tribute to the late Paitoon Laisakul. Photo: Teeraphan Ngowjeenanan

Dance icon Narapong Jarassri accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award. PHoto: Naphatrapee Suntorntirnan

Directed by Japan's Oriza Hirata and performed by an all-Thai cast, BTF's opening act Bangkok Notes won Best Play. Photo: Teeraphan Ngowjeenanan

The cast of Man Kor Ja Pang Pang Noi, which includes director Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, took home the BTF's Best Performance by an Ensemble award. PHoto: Naphatrapee Suntorntirnan

Amornsri Pattanasitdanggul tearfully accepts Best Performance by an Ensemble award with fellow cast member and director Dujdao Vadhanapakorn. B-floor Theatre's Blissfully Blind won in all the four categories in which it was nominated. Photo: Naphatrapee Suntorntirnan

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