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JARUNUN PHANTACHAT――One of the most active and important figures of contemporary theater in Bangkok

Interview / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals with whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

As an actress: What made you decide to participate in PRATTHNA: A Portrait of Possession?

Akane Nakamura (hereinafter Nakamura): On June 27, 2019, PRATTANA: A Portrait of Possession will premiere in Japan (at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre). It was world-premiered in Bangkok in September 2018. In December of the same year it was premiered in Europe at the Centre Pompidou, Paris. It is an international collaborative production. It was during 2016 that Jarunun Phantachat first came across PRATTHANA as we were conducting research. You studied journalism at Chiang Mai University. While a student, you actually entered the art world. When I did research in Chiang Mai, you kindly created a list of interviewees, ranging from theatrical artists through artists to filmmakers and researchers. This allowed me to get to know the realities of the art scene over there for the first time.

After that, you introduced many people to PRATTHANA, but what made you to decide to participate in it in the first place?

Jarunun Phantachat (hereinafter, "Jaa"): First, it was good timing. I had time for myself. Second, Mr. Toshiki Okada came to Bangkok to hold a workshop. Since I very much liked his Five Days in March, I took part in the workshop, which was really interesting as I expected. I wanted to know how he made actors move in that way. How was his script performed on the stage? I had a keen desire to participate in the process, so I decided to join him.

One scene of
Photo by Sopanat Somkhanngoen

Nakamura: When you were a student, you presented your work of art at an art event hosted by Uthis. So, you had previously had a connection with him. What impression did you have of the original novel?

Jaa: I read the novel before I started to rehearse the play. As I am more or less of the same age as Uthis, past situations in the novel brought back my memories of those times: "Yeah," I said to myself, "it was like that back then." I was at one with the novel as I was reading it. For example, the novel has a scene in which "an artist works in a small gallery" (referring to Project 304, run by curator Gridthiya Gaweewong*1 ). In fact, I used to work in the gallery, so the scene vividly quickened my memory. I was thoroughly immersed in the narrative universe as I read it. It is a great work of literature that discusses a contemporary political society in Thailand. It i s a wonderful novel. I praise this work not because he is a friend of mine [laughs], but because I personally admire it. At the beginning it's a little difficult to identify with the work, but once you get through it, you can read it in one go. I was very much impressed.

*1 Gridthiya Gaweewong
An artistic director of the Jim Thompson Art Center. In 1996 she obtained an MA in Arts Administration from the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2011 she became a PhD candidate at Chulalongkorn University (Bangkok). In 1996 she co-founded a non-profit art space called "Project 304" based in Bangkok, followed in 1997 by the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival (BEFF).

Nakamura: This work likens the sexual intercourse that the protagonist in his twenty years has had in his life to contemporary Thai political history. It therefore repeatedly refers to sexually heavy clashes. Uthis is a man. Some female readers have opposed to the way he depicts women, especially in his treatment of sexual expressions. What do you think of this?

Jaa: I was never irritated by his sexual depiction. When I was reading the novel, I wasn't aware of my gender. You are right in that the novel is full of both male and female sexual acts and sex scenes. It also describes gay sex. But I saw the fluidity of genders. As I read it, I saw the body through sexual acts. Sexual intercourse represents youth or people of the age who indulge in sex, or the elderly with aging bodies. Since I read it from such a perspective, I was never displeased. Sexual acts are depicted as a tool for expressing people's ages, which did not make me too emotional when I read it. But I was most irritated by his funny Thai fonts*2 , of which there are many. Apart from this, I was OK with its content and descriptions [laughs].

*2 Uthis Haemamool has expressed a world where characters are absorbed in frigidity at the end of his Silhouette of Desire with Thai fonts that are shaped like sexual organs.

Tell us about Toshiki Okada's directing process.
How did you collaborate with the scenographer Yuya Tsukahara?

Nakamura: In translating PRATTHANA into Japanese, seven translators and interpreters were involved. How do we interpret the Thai features that can be translated into double or triple meaning? It was very hard to verify each sentence. Besides, Mr. Okada's script does not fix the persons. The character of the protagonist is not fixed as she or he. This is one of his characteristics, which is hard to translate. Moreover, unlike in the so-called concrete theatre plays, a role is not fixed to an actor. The actors must embody the Okada method through rehearsals via interpreters. As an actor, I guess you had some challenges. How did you characterize his direction through the process? What did you discover?

Jaa: Speaking of his direction, I was first impressed by the relationship between Mr. Okada and Mr. Tsukahara. When they came to the scene for a rehearsal, they gave space to each other and respected each other. I was moved by the way they worked together. Yuya (Tsukahara) did his job as an artist. When he thought of a scene, we were confused as to what it was going to be like. But Mr. Okada seemed to already have the whole picture. When these two merge, very interesting meaning emerges. "Oh, that's how they see Thailand!" I discovered many things.
During rehearsals we did not get the full picture. All we had was fragments after fragments. But I think they had deep discussions backstage. The way Mr. Okada and Mr. Tsukahara worked together was very interesting. Then interpretation came in. We did not ask what the script meant, but we thought of its imagery. Unlike conventional directors, who are eager to interpret or give meaning, Mr. Okada gave considerable freedom to all of us.
Mr. Okada polished his script many times; from the first draft up to the fifth. As I also repeatedly read it, I certainly felt that the image had changed. Mr. Okada very much focused on listening to Thai actors' opinions. "What do you think of this word?" He checked with the actor for its interpretation; he also checked how each actor who had the line expressed it. This was reflected in the script, whose narrative structure changed over time. I was impressed with it every time I read it. By the fifth draft some parts were significantly transformed, though what Mr. Okada wanted was certainly there. I thought he paid proper respect to his co-workers.

 One scene of
Photo by Takuya Matsumi

Nakamura: Could you tell us more about the relationship between Mr. Okada and Mr. Tsukahara?

Jaa: For example, in one scene, Yuya asked a Thai actor to gird his loin with a sort of belt, which he pulled, saying "Move it!" The actors didn't understand what it was for. Yuya said he was going to put it into the scene. In wondered: "What did Mr. Okada focus on? Was it the script? Or what Yuya was doing?" Everything Yuya did was very detailed. I could not fathom how it could relate to the whole. As to "movements", Yuya held a fascinating workshop on movement, which had an impact on Mr. Okada's direction. Probably, Mr. Okada's other works do not contain such movements though he rightly took them in, giving freedom to Yuya.

They actually saw what they could not have seen had they been Thai people living in the country of Thailand. On the day when we had a rehearsal on the stage, one actor said, "I feel like we are really playing in a heap of garbage" when we stand on the stage. We felt so on the stage. But when I saw it as a spectator sitting in the audience, I thought it was as chaotic as it could be but was very beautiful. So, that was Thailand. There were stalls, beautiful and not so beautiful buildings, and alleys, giving rise to vivid chaos. This was what they saw and artistically represented: the structure of representation, the language of the script Mr. Okada had chosen, and what the production showed – "These things," I thought, "are shown to people outside Thailand." If they had seen the political situation of Thailand like people within the country, they would have had no idea. But seen from outside, it becomes clear how this chaos impacts a person's life and what is happening to her. That's it. Rehearsals helped to clarify many points. They had chosen what the Thai people would not, but if they had been Thai, they could have concentrated on who and what is right or wrong in that confusing time and circumstance.

What does this mean? You have repeatedly performed and toured worldwide?

Nakamura: After PRATTHANA was world-premiered in Bangkok in August 2018, it was performed five times in Bangkok and four in Paris. As you repeatedly performed, did your understanding of the work or stage direction change?

Jaa: My understanding of the directive policy deepened. The play has the structure of a play within a play. An actor becomes a "character" of the narrative or a "spectator". The actor who plays the role of a spectator observes what is going on on-stage, frequently showing her back to the actual "audience". Such is the plan of the stage direction. When the premiere actually began in Bangkok, I saw the "spectators" on the stage showing their backs to the actual "audience". When I saw their, I mean, the actors' reaction, I was able to understand that the actual "audience" could see the protagonist's, Khao Sing's story with the "spectators'" reaction. This helped me to understand why the stage direction emphasizes the presence of the "spectators" on the stage and how I should perform as a "spectator".

Nakamura: Did you notice any difference between the Bangkok audience and Paris?

Jaa: The distance between the stage and the Bangkok audience was overwhelmingly close, probably because of the seats and content. The contemporary Thai people knew what was happening in society, and how they reacted to these events back then. The performance created a common experience in the audience, who were taken back to the actual past. I really felt this. Sometime I saw members of the audience crying. As I saw them, I was also moved.
If I compare the Paris audience with the Thai, the former was like people who tasted strange dishes whose flavor they could not imagine. I can easily imagine that understanding the complicated social and political context and what happened in characters' life events was burdensome to the audience. They did not understand the language, so they had to rely on subtitles. It must have been a heavy viewing for them. I was surprised to see members of the audience leaving during the performance; especially when I was performing, I secretly felt sorry as I thought my performance was that bad, and I wanted to shout, "Come back, don't go!" [Laughs] Or at other times, I felt the great events in this tiny little country were so uninteresting to them. But I can understand it. A story can be too removed from ourselves.

Nakamura: What do you expect in performing in Tokyo?

Jaa: It's not clear what I can expect in Tokyo. A violent event in Thai politics killed a Japanese journalist. Although this is not referred to in the play, it can help you to understand and take interest in what is happening in Thailand and how it has come about.

In actuality, the political chaos that started a decade ago and continues to this day can be a sample of society in a period when ideas of technology and many other things are changing. I don't know how long the period of change will last or whether society can change during that period. What is certain, however, is that I am very tired of the current events [laughs].