For hundreds of years traditional Thai story and dance comprised most of what was called the ‘theatre scene of Thailand’, and rightfully so. Over the past 50 years, as more expats have settled down and called Thailand home, they have brought along pieces of their own culture. Adding to this, just as Californian hipsters go to the east to study yoga and bring back the teachings of their favorite gurus more Thais are traveling abroad, bringing back pieces of western art, culture and performance.
With this salad bowl of culture getting tossed about, Bangkok residents are seeing western style theatre increase in popularity. For many this is an exciting turn of events in a city up to its skyline in bars, nightclubs, restaurants and shopping malls!
A brief history. The first snippets of western theatre in Thailand show up in documents from around 1959 with The Amateur Community Theatre and British Dramatic Society. Over time these groups faded way and in 1972, Bangkok Community Theatre was formed. For many years BCT was the country’s western theatre stronghold, possibly the only group consistently giving both amateur and experienced actors a chance to put on and attend theatre in English. This initial drop in the khlong, soon rippled out with the formation of The Gate Theatre Group in Chiang Mai 8 years ago and in 2008 the formation of Pattaya Players.
However for a professional actor hoping to find a version of Broadway or The West End in Asia, the scene was still disappointing. For many of the troupes and groups, theatre was their hobby. Though all of the community theatre groups audition, screen for talent, and work hard to put on the best show possible, they are mostly voluntary and unpaid. So the scene is still not bringing in the level of performers who work theatre as their job. (I could go into the frustrations of voluntary artists, you wouldn’t ask your plumber to work for free would you, but I’ll save that can of worms for another day).
Fortunately, it seems the times are changing. Over the past 10 years we have seen BEC TERO bringing in international tours of large scale shows, proving that Thais, at least Bangkokians, want and will pay to see western musicals. Additionally, over the last 5 years the nation has seen an emergence of small professional groups. B-Floor, offers experimental theatre in Thai. Broadway Babe, throws classical American musical theatre into the mix with her Vintage Nights series that started in 2013 with a vision to bring more locally produced musical theatre to Asia. Chulalongkorn created its black box theatre Crescent Moon Theatre. And Democrazy Theatre offers outside companies a space to put on small shows.
To support the growing popularity of western theatre, classes are being formed outside of school for children as well. Where there was once MIFA and Fusion, there is now a full range of schools. Musical Theatre for KIDS, established by Kristen Rossi emphasizes showcasing the American songbook as well as modern favorites, Curtain Up Drama is another group for kids, and The Culture Collective Studio is soon to launch a school and professional theatre troupe.
Will Bangkok be the Broadway of the East? If you’re in the group of people already exhausted with the current options of party venues and watering holes, you can certainly hope so. But only time will tell. One thing is for sure, the theatre scene is evolving, interest is rising and it is fun to be on the frontier. Performers, Thai and Western a-like, are pioneering theatre in Southeast Asia. Let’s see where the adventure takes us all.