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Laos Today – Once a Secret, Now Open to the World

Interview / Asia Hundreds

History of Lao Performing Arts

― Can you tell me about the history of Lao performing arts?

Toh: There once was a time when artists from circus, theater, classical dancing, and other fields were sent to study in Russia or Vietnam. I’ve seen their photos. They were mostly government officials or state artists, so they are probably still with those national institutions now. Some have passed away.

Kino (Vannaphone Sitthirath): I remember seeing them perform when I was a child. They all belonged to the government and I think they had to perform under conservative and strict conventions.
The first Lao film Bua Deng / Red Lotus (1988) was produced with a strong support from the government and it was screened in Cannes Film Festival.

Toh: It’s just classical dance, singing, and circus. Shadow theater is still around in temples and small communities, but it is fading. It is a pity, so we are hoping to include it in our production and support its revival.

― Shadow theater is disappearing?

Toh: After the revolution, Lao society changed. The people who put on shadow theater performances in the countryside had to focus more on earning a living. Many of them passed away. The shadow puppets still exist, but not too many people do the shows anymore. The arts were put in the background because it was about survival.

Kino: Those who work in the cultural sectors of the government don’t seem to support it much. It’s hard to understand why traditional shadow puppetry is disappearing in Laos while it continues in Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia.

Kiritin (Kiritin Southiphonorath): The traditional arts used to be for the monarchy. That’s why they were not necessary in the same way after the social system changed. As Laos is now a democracy and things are starting to level out, arts and culture are slowly coming back. I need to be careful how to phrase this, but I would say that history affects the arts very heavily. Thailand preserved its monarchy and did not go through the same political history as Laos. That’s why the arts persevere much better. It’s time for Laos to also restore the traditional, and bring in the new.

―But aren’t the times changing?

Kino: Not really. So censorship is still strict. Hope it will be more open in the next future

Kiritin: Films are monitored and censored very closely because the authorities are wary of cinema as a potentially big booming industry. In theater, you can project and script a lot more metaphorically and indirectly than in films.
Meanwhile, it’s also a dilemma to decide how metaphorical your work can be. If you become too conceptual, you will go over the heads of the audience. In Laos, the audience is not used to critical thinking, to thinking outside the box. You have a history of communist education, where nobody learns how to think beyond what is directly in front of them. That’s why a lot of art is pure entertainment, as artists are afraid the audience won’t understand what’s going on. For example in Metamorfoz, audiences enjoyed the comedy aspects of the show, but not the social message it carried. Censorship is the other fine line we tread. In the end, Metamorfoz translated better to the audience outside Laos within the Mekong area who was more educated about social and political issues.

―Tell us about the work Metamorfoz.

A Photograph of stage


Kiritin: It talks about hydro-power coming to Laos, and also about the coming of age of a young girl. The performance does not explicitly support nor oppose hydro-power, and interpretation is left open to the audience.

Toh: The French wrote the script basing it on fact, and I revised it and provided advice in order to fit it in the Lao context and language. There was extensive research done on the way of life of the Lao people who lived with the river -- whatever happens to the river affects their life.
I like this work because it was new and challenging for me. I liked the story, too. It doesn’t communicate too directly to the audience, but conveys a truth through characters and objects. It makes the audience use their imagination. It’s a good time now to introduce this kind of show today in Laos.

The First Performing Arts Festival in Laos

― In late January 2015, you hosted the Vientiane Performing Arts Festival organized by the Embassy of Japan in the Lao PDR. I hear it was a festival of all the performing arts that exist in Laos, from puppet theater, shadow theater, folk singing, classical dance, contemporary dance, straight theater, object theater, circus, to even breakdancing! From Japan, you invited Kojimaya Mansuke of Asia Mime Creation festival and mime artist Asanuma Chizuko. Congratulations.

Toh: For a long time, I had the idea of holding a festival. I discussed it with my friends and with the Japanese mime artist Champa, and we agreed that we wanted to organize it. Champa arranged for the artists from Japan. And many Lao artists took part.
This was the very first of such an event in Laos, and the first time for me, as well as my colleagues. Most of them had never even experienced a performing arts festival before. That’s why it was a lot of work for me to check on everyone to make sure it was all right.
But it turned out quite good. I hadn’t expected so many people would come to see the performances. Especially the outdoor free stage – the three hour show attracted 1000 people. Around 400 people came to see the indoor stage. I was especially happy that many organizations including government and private groups joined us in this festival. Everyone took part on stage.
But I am so relieved that it’s over. I am so happy and proud because my idea came true and I was able to do it with my friends, with big success. We will have the festival again next year, with an extended number of days and artists from other countries.

―Kiritin, you are a costume designer. Have you been involved in performing arts for long?

  A photo of Kiritin during interview

Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

Kiritin: I've been involved in performing arts for many years, and only the recent few in Laos. But in Laos, there is little to no opportunity for set and costume design. I have worked in film as well as companies like Khao Niew, but there is no budget or skill set to actually produce properly. I can’t build the set on my own, and I can’t dress the whole cast on my own. We lack the personnel.

Toh: We can’t pay for costumes, and often the director has to do everything. I don’t want people to work for free, so Khao Niew staff have to cover up.

Kiritin: For example I designed a suite of costumes for the Lao show, but as much as we wanted to produce them, there was no budget. They are still sitting there now as drawings. There is almost no budget to hire me or complete costumes. It’s nothing personal, but there’s just no point in hiring me without being able to use what I produce.

―Do you think the situation will have improved in ten years time? Government support, for example?

Kiritin: I don’t think there will ever be government support. Not a cent. Perhaps for traditional arts, but not for the private contemporary arts. We get support from overseas companies and development institutions, and I hope the wider Asian network will now take notice of us.
The biggest problem is marketing. Nobody knows what’s in Laos, even within Laos. People don’t know that there is a Lao theater. But once there is publicity, I think the interest and money will come in and we will be able to develop. People who have skills in marketing and networking can make those big breaks. Once that happens I believe there will be a lot of support. But at the moment we’re an undiscovered secret.