Ten Gems on a Thread II
By Catherine Filloux
Originally published by The Drama Review 48, 4 (T184), Winter 2004
At home we have different mothers, but in the forest, we all have just one.
Soon after I arrive in Phnom Penh in November 2003, I visit Sre Ampil, the
farm/orphanage of a French-Khmer art historian, Monsieur Son Soubert.1
Son Soubert is the son of Son Sann, a prime minister from the 1960s, and his
farm is about an hour from Phnom Penh in Kandal Province. Son Soubert tells
me he has held many positions in the government throughout his life and, during
Pol Pot, he was trained by sympathetic pied noirs to run a “superette” in
Nice, France. My own mother is a French-Algerian pied noir, whose family
settled near Nice. On his farm the air is light, the countryside green, and
Monsieur Soubert’s orphanage hopeful. There is a new orphan, the youngest
child here, who has just arrived today. He is holding a skinny, yellow “doll,”
and when my Cambodian-American friend and translator, Chath pierSath,
asks the doll’s name, the boy says, “Chubby.” When Chath asks the orphan his
name he also says “Chubby.” He shows us how he can touch his nose with his
very pointy, cute pink tongue. We gather around the boy—I hesitate to call
him “Chubby”—and his older brother. The two boys cling to each other.
Chath, Son Soubert, and I are with a Polish-Canadian aide worker and her
Greek boyfriend. We linger around the two new orphans, unable to leave. It
seems we encircle them as if we are the world, all of us from our different
places on the globe. I feel we stay there in a way to send them our good wishes
for life—a life without parents, but still a lucky life, perhaps, in a kind and
gentle orphanage. One cannot see the full picture, of course. As we pass the
girls’ dorm, there are many flowers blooming outside and Son Soubert says to
us that it is obvious this is the girls’ quarters. It looks pleasant and peaceful.
The children wash their old, hand-me-down clothes at a collective well, and
throw them over makeshift lines to dry; the amenities are few.
In the blazing sun we walk through fields to visit the stupa of Son Soubert’s
father, who died recently. It is shaped in a large, wooden, pastel-colored lotus,
which we enter to pray. Later, in the orphanage’s community room where the
children dance and sing for us, I see a picture of Son Sann in China during an
interim government period in the 1980s, and also in the picture is the Khmer
Rouge leader Khieu Samphan, smiling. The food for lunch is delicious, and
the orphans attending to our guest table keep dropping ice cubes into our
cokes, hovering around reminding us to take the various sauces.
I think a lot about Pol Pot when I arrive in Cambodia this trip. I wonder
how a man can destroy a country, all the time knowing it is not one single man
who destroyed it and that the country is not truly destroyed. I feel anger at
Saloth Sar (Pol Pot’s real name), but of course the anger is very useless and has
no place whatsoever to land. What would my anger add to the enormous boiling
pot of anger surrounding Pol Pot? I then think of those who might have
abetted him: the French communists, the Americans during the VietnamWar,
and certainly others. More than anything, I can now conclude that Cambodia’s
frailty, vulnerability, and darkness is not unique to this country but a continuum
of our world. And that when I see this country, I cannot help but see
myself. For none of us is perfect: we struggle with hardship, great mysteries,
and with constant incomprehension. This realization does not make things
better, except that it is humbling.
The students in my six-week playwriting workshop at the Royal University
of Fine Arts (RUFA) are second-year undergraduate B.A. students in classical
and folkloric dance, circus performance, and various types of traditional theatre;
or teacher/students in drama, going back to get their degrees. Thirty students
have signed up for the class, including my moto-driver, Pich Kakada, a
talented male dancer of khaol (mask-performance); there are many morewomen
than men in the class. The assignment will be to write and rewrite a short play
with some relationship, however minimal, to a wat (Buddhist temple). Our
course will end in a two-day Playwriting Works-in-Progress Festival, The Wat
Plays 2003, modeled after the HB Playwrights Foundation’s Festivals in New
York. Because we don’t have time to stage the plays, we will do readings in
which the students will also act. When I explain the nature of a “reading” to the
students they have a hard time understanding the concept, and I don’t blame
them. At the end of each day, there will be a discussion between the audience
and the playwrights.
The Royal University of Fine Arts opened its doors in the 1960s, a visionary
school spearheaded by the talented architect, Vann Molyvann. RUFA had just
begun when the Khmer Rouge ransacked everything. There is currently very
little money to rebuild the school’s infrastructure, including the curriculum
and the classrooms. Lakhaoun Niyeay, or “spoken-word theatre,” is low on the
list of priorities and there are currently very few new plays.
To give some background about spoken-word theatre in Cambodia, I will
start with the inspiring Queen Indradevi, of the Angkorian period, who formed
a dance troupe in the Royal Palace and wrote stories about the former lives of
Buddha. In Cultures of Independence: An Introduction to Cambodian Arts and Culture
in the 1950s and 1960s, Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan provide a delicate
overview of Cambodian theatre: in the all-male theatrical form khaol, the performers
wear masks to reenact stories from the Reamker, the Khmer version of
the Ramayana. In yike, performers use song, stylized gestures, spoken word,
and a narrator to tell the story. The newer bassac theatre came from China in
the 1930s to the Kampuchea Krom region, now South Vietnam, and is known
in Vietnam as hat baoy. These singing performances became audience-pleasers
In the 1960s renowned playwright Hang Thun Hak translated A Midsummer
Night’s Dream into Khmer, replacing some of the gods and spirits with Khmer
equivalents. The Cambodian filmmaker Yvon Hem says, “Khmer don’t like
to watch realite´. They like everything that is exage´re´”—whatever is not reality.
I invite His Excellency Pich Tum Kravel, one of Cambodia’s leading playwrights (the subject of my first article; Filloux  2004), to speak to my
class. Kravel survived Pol Pot and presently works for the Ministry of Culture.
He has carefully documented the history of Cambodian theatre, much of it all
but lost during the Khmer Rouge years. Kim Pinun, the Vice Dean on the
faculty of choreographic arts, who serves as my liaison at RUFA, sets up a microphone
and a fan for Pich Tum Kravel. In the 1960s, Kravel explains to the
students, the government subsidized him as a playwright because at that time
spoken-word theatre was a source of pride for the nation. When Kravel returned
to Phnom Penh from the killing fields, he saw his plays ripped up and
eaten by bugs. Kravel tells the class he believes a political theatre can exist in
Cambodia today. In 1983, he and playwright Chheng Pon worked on a play,
Dam Noeur Cheat Kampuchea (The March of Cambodia), in which there were
100 actors. The play was produced 10 times and the theatre was always packed.
Kravel says he has adapted to many political regimes throughout his life and
has found a way to be political in his writing without insulting the powers that
be. Kravel’s teacher, Hang Thun Hak, wrote political plays, such as Kanha
Chariya (The Ethical Girl, 1955–1960), which is about bribery and corruption.
The police would sit in the first two rows with the script and wait for the
actors to add any extra lines. If they did, they would be arrested, and it was
King Sihanouk’s mother, Queen Kossamak, who protected them.
My friend and translator, Chath pierSath, asks about role-models in Cambodian
society. Kravel answers, “Though it sounds like we are looking down
on ourselves to say this, the younger generation of Cambodians don’t read.
For example, the moto-drivers as they wait for a fare do not read but play
cards, while in Vietnam even a moto-driver pulls out a book.”
“Playwriting is like tearing yourself in two,” Kravel tells the students. You
are both the writer and the audience. He mentions to me in French the trois
unite´s and to the students in Khmer, “time, place, and action.” His ultimate
recipe is: “short, meaningful, easy to understand/hear, visually entertaining.”
As he leaves, Kravel says that the class is especially helpful for the young students.
“All we can do is build a bridge between what we had and what exists
A female folkloric dancer writes for her wat play about a ceremony called
Pchum Ben, which falls during the period of the waning moon. Lured by beating
drums, ancestral spirits, ghosts, and ghouls of hell come to the pagodas for
15 days to wait for offerings from the living, who will receive good luck.
Other wat plays are about a pagoda boy hiding a delicious lobster dish from a
monk; a thief who makes appeals to Buddha; a matchmaking trick played with
an urn of ashes; an alcoholic mother who is visited by a wise monk; a monkey
who inspires a jaded princess; and a Buddhist nun who tries to raise money for
her delinquent grandson.
Two young, female classical dancers display strong talent for playwriting.
Tieng Min Chnas Torl (Hardship Does Not Defeat Honesty) is a witty short
play about a young girl, Mech, and her male cohorts who steal car parts for a
living, taking refuge in a wat. In Ormnach Khmean Kunathor (Tainted Power),
a car owner runs over an old man on a moto and is more concerned with the
body of his dented car than the old man. When a monk coming out of a nearby
pagoda urges the car owner to leave, the car owner pulls out his gun and fires
it threateningly into the air.
Some of the students write Buddhist parables in which fate forces a person
to repent. In the short play Kam Tarm Chorn Keng (Sin Comes Back to You), a
grandmother on her way to a wat is run down by a mean boy on a bicycle.
Suddenly, the boy falls in a ditch and sees the error of his ways.
I also invite playwrights Hourt Sithan and Ros Kuntheara, two of the three
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authors of Robuos Chivit (A Wounded Life, 2001), a play based on a true story
involving sex trafficking, to speak to my class. (The third author is Kim Bophavy.)
Ros Kuntheara is the play’s director, as well. Hourt and Ros encourage
the students to write about social issues rather than falling back on tried-andtrue
In my routine “security briefing” at the heavily barricaded American Embassy,
I learn from a man I’ll call “Chip” that the most dangerous thing to do
is to ride on a moto. When I first enter the embassy, my backpack and I are
thoroughly checked with X-ray machines, my cell phone is tagged and put in
a cupboard along with my moto-helmet. There are more cars in Phnom Penh
now and more fender-benders, Chip says. He also tells me that I should report
any suspicious activity involving people gathering intelligence on members of
the embassy. In Cambodia, the Muslim population, the Chams (also targeted
during the Khmer Rouge time), make up less than four percent of the population.
He tells me there is no evidence that they are involved in anti-U.S. activities.
I also learn about counterfeit money in Cambodia; the main currency
is dollars, and he says people counterfeit expertly down to five-dollar bills.
Don’t be afraid to hold the money up to the light. Also, the police are at best
harmless. Soon their AK-47s will rust and be useless. But all the same, don’t
make eye contact. Bottom line, Chip assures me, things are fine in Cambodia
right now, which makes his job boring. The U.S. is currently building a large
new embassy in one of the prettiest parts of Phnom Penh. The U.S. staff just
held a mural competition for young Khmer artists to cover the large wall that
will surround the embassy.
Shortly after the “briefing,” Chath pierSath and I are invited to dinner at
the large villa of a worldly, experienced state department man, who works at
the American Embassy. He is currently training his Khmer maid to serve a` la
continental style. His home is palatial with room after room, chilling air conditioning,
every kind of liquor imaginable, and a photo of King Sihanouk
shaking JFK’s hand. But neither leader is looking at the other: for one, Sihanouk
is so much shorter than JFK that unless he tilts his head awkwardly up,
he can only look at the American president’s tie. Our host knows everyone;
he is very interested in learning from other people, so he asks questions of me,
being a playwright, and Chath, as a Cambodian-American. He asks Chath if
he thinks villagers harbored great resentment for the city people before Pol Pot
came to power? Where did that hatred and violence come from? Does it date
back to Angkor? Cambodia is Asia’s Poland, the man says, sandwiched between
Thailand and Vietnam, as Poland is between Russia and Germany. I am
later told the man is CIA.
The first reason my students give for not writing about the Khmer Rouge
period is because of the wat theme. Wats were destroyed and monks killed
during the genocide. Many of the younger students in my class were not born
during the Pol Pot time. A Cambodian friend explains that Pol Pot’s righthand
man, Ieng Sary, Brother Number Three, has been taken off the list of
Khmer Rouge perpetrators in current history books because of his “integration”
in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s present government. The “facts” of history
depend upon the regime in power. A Cambodian friend of mine has a colleague,
now 27, who lived in the provinces and as a younger man he and other
students burned a figure representing the King to show their hatred. Now, this
kind of burning is strictly illegal and severely punishable. My friend tells me
he recently did some work on program notes for a performance related to a
famous actress who was murdered a few years ago. The Ministry of Culture
said the notes could not be used in the program because of “the boss.” People
disappear, my friend says. The students in class tell me that the Pol Pot period
was not taught to them in school. The curriculum focused mostly on territorial
issues regarding when, how, and by whom Cambodia’s land was taken.
The older teacher/students in my class categorically say they don’t write
about the Pol Pot time because they are scared. With the recent shootings of
pop singer Touch Prey Nich and radio journalist Chour Chetharith, who
played Nich’s songs, artists are afraid to speak up. The person currently in
power has succeeded in silencing artists by scaring them. I ask them if they
attribute the current poverty, corruption, and lack of “rule of law” to the Pol
Pot time and they say yes. Before the Khmer Rouge period, in the ’60s, there
was poverty and corruption, but not to this degree, they say.
From here the conversation predictably moves to Vietnam, which they say
supports the current government. Thailand, their other neighbor, is also responsible
for working against Cambodia’s best interests, they say. And of
course the Khmer Rouge period brought other countries’ involvement—
China, France, and the U.S.—into question. The current King sided with the
Khmer Rouge movement during the ’70s. A British friend, a journalist who
is present in class, asks if Cambodians are perhaps not always blaming outsiders
and playing the “victims.” The teacher/students forcefully reply that they
voted in the elections but their votes were not honored. They have also been
involved in protests in the past, but because the current government is powerful
in its repression they are less so now. Another reason for not writing
about the Pol Pot time is the difficulty of remembering the nightmarish past,
one teacher/student says. The question of why Cambodians don’t do anything
to change their situation is one my British friend also brings up. An artist who
just graduated from RUFA says that medical and law students in Cambodia
speak openly about the government. They are not dependent on the government
for jobs and they “don’t care” if their words put them in danger.
I imagine that surviving a regime such as the Khmer Rouge would place
persons in a vulnerable psychological state, with their ability to trust eroded
and their instinct to fear exaggerated. I feel the need to honor survivors as exceptional
human beings. I think about the chilling American TV footage during
the Pol Pot regime in which the journalist Ed Bradley sits near a fence on
the Thai border, reporting the violence that may be going on inside Cambodia,
a country closed to the world. I believe the years that went by before the
U.S. acknowledged the genocide, and the years when we supported the Khmer
Rouge because it opposed the North Vietnamese are very important historically.
The world was divided between those safely outside the fence, and those
inside the fence experiencing horror. This question of responsibility certainly
obsessed the Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, leading him in 1946 to create a
new word—genocide—to define this kind of horror. Lemkin spent his life
trying to make genocide an international crime. He is the subject of my most
recent play, Lemkin’s House.
A Khmer acquaintance tells me that if I get angry at the current politics of
the country, I should learn to distance myself from the anger. A turning point
for him was when a big car tried to force his moto off the road—a regular
occurrence. He decided to stay put in his lane and the car owner pulled him
over and held a gun to his head. I’m sweating at a party when he tells me this
story. I feel a heater blowing air at my back.
I deliver a package for a friend to Prince Norodom Sirivudh via his assistant.
Later that morning the Prince calls on my cell phone to invite me to lunch.
I’m taken to a house near Independence Monument, where there are many
guards in many different kinds of uniforms outside. A gate is opened and I enter
the compound and go into an office. On the walls are black-and-white
pictures of royalty. There are neat stacks of paper, some telephones, a sound
system, and a boom box made of wood. There is a snapshot on the desk of the
Prince and his oldest daughter who lives in New York with his ex-wife. After
a while the Prince enters, dressed in a khaki suit. We talk half in French, half
in English, both of which he speaks equally well. He is 52, extremely sympathetic,
as well as sympathique. He insists that I say the informal tu to him, and
that I certainly not call him “His Excellency the Prince,” but by his first name,
“Sirivudh.” We have in common two Cambodian-American female friends,
who are both remarkable young women, involved in legal activism and human
rights. To me these women are the future of Cambodia, and they both feel
friendship and respect for this prince. It is because of them that he invites me
to lunch in his kitchen, and also because the royal family has always been interested
Right now the Prince is in a very difficult position politically. FUNCINPEC
(the Royalist Party) and the Sam Rainsy Democracy Party gained
enough seats in the July 2003 election to share power with the Prime Minister,
Hun Sen, but have refused to work with him because of his strong-armtactics.
When King Sihanouk reprimanded the factions for holding up the process of
governing, they agreed to meet and find a balance of power. These meetings
ended in another stalemate because the head of FUNCINPEC, Prince Ranariddh,
linked the P.M. to the killing of pro-FUNCINPEC radio journalist,
Chour Chetharith. How a balance of power can be reached is at the core of
Prince Norodom Sirivudh’s challenge. Many believe he would be FUNCINPEC’s
best choice for a leader in any coalition.
The Prince admits that he is not always as “good” as bespectacled Monsieur
Son Soubert, whom I mention meeting earlier at his orphanage. There is in
the royal family an appreciation for the good things of life, and the Prince
serves a nice bottle of white wine for lunch. He speaks to me of his house arrest
in 1970 at the beginning of the Lon Nol regime (he was also exiled from
Cambodia in the 1990s by Hun Sen). While under house arrest they never let
him go outside. They tried to break him. To counter his jailers’ intentions, he
constructed a schedule for himself everyday where he would “take a walk”
imagining he was on the streets of Paris, New York, and Phnom Penh. In this
way he got “exercise” and “to go to work.” His goal was to make himself tired
so he could sleep on a regular schedule. He also decided to learn one page of
the Larousse (French dictionary) daily.
Now at night, only when he is sad, he composes orchestral pieces on his
synthesizer. He composed one recently for his good friend and senior advisor,
Om Radsady, who was shot and killed outside a Phnom Penh restaurant in
broad daylight in February 2003. On a CD the Prince plays this very melancholy,
beautiful piece of music for me. He softly sings, along with the CD, syllables
I do not really understand. Perhaps they are “Om Radsady,” repeated
over and over. He has also composed a piece for the Cambodian pop singer,
Touch Prey Nich, who is currently in a coma after having been gunned down
with her mother as they left a flower shop. Nich’s mother died. He offers me
a room in this residence if I would like to stay (there is an eclectic group staying there already, including a comedian having political trouble, traveling monks,
and a male Khmer scholar who needs peace and quiet). He wants to take me
to the seaside at Kep, and tells me not to hesitate to ask for anything for my
class. He spends a long time with me and says he enjoys talking of other things
The Prince tells me that for him there is no way to explain the Khmer
Rouge. He believes that the fact that the people didn’t and still don’t rise up
against their killers, who in some cases live in full view, would never happen
in Europe. “Is Asia more tolerant?” he wonders. If he is put in power, his first
goal will be to do something about the inhumane prisons.
As we confer, presents wrapped in pink paper are delivered by two women
and, with some embarrassment, he perfunctorily opens them and hands me a
book on the royal family, his CD, and a pamphlet with the King’s text from
Cambodia’s Independence. As I leave I am introduced to a Minister of Finance,
walking up the stairs in an expensive, dark suit. He gives me his card. I
know it’s time to go. I am driven back to my hotel in a big jeep by a driver
whose face is disfigured.
A Stone’s Throw Away
In the residential neighborhood where I live there are palatial homes right
next to cobbled shacks of corrugated metal, bricks, and tile. Laundry hangs in
front yards; fruits and fish dry on the roof. There is a lot of construction in
Phnom Penh, and some men are working on the pleasing frame of a roof, right
outside my window. Behind that roof is a tiled blue roof, which shines in the
My colleague and translator for the written word, Kang Rithisal (Sal), regularly
brings me translations of the students’ plays and helps me with Khmer.
“Kicking air” means unemployed. “Crossing the river” is delivering a baby:
it’s a hard job and you may drown. An “orange cat” is a lemon or lime. Sal uses
expressions in English like “a stone’s throw away” and “a comb of bananas.”
Sal’s older brother, Suon Bun Rith, has encouraged Sal to become proficient
in speaking and writing English.
Bun Rith is the Program Coordinator for AMRITA Performing Arts, an
NGO newly created and directed by the deeply committed American Fred
Frumberg. The group produces Cambodian performing arts both in Cambodia
and internationally. Amrita is a Sanskrit word meaning eternity. Bun Rith
tells me his commitment to the arts in Cambodia was galvanized one day when
he was organizing a traditional khaol mask performance. After the show he
noticed that one of the performers had managed to quickly clean off his
makeup and get on his moto to leave. The performer was calling to Bun Rith
from afar, asking if he needed a ride home. Bun Rith realized that the performer
needed to get a fare—the only way he could pay for his makeup. Bun
Rith declined the ride so the performer could take a paying rider. He walked
all the way home that night, thinking about how he might make a difference
in the arts.
I ask Sal, who is in his early 20s, to tell me what he learned about the Pol
Pot time in school. By way of an example, he tells me a complicated story
about a corrupt teacher at the college where he graduated, who seems to be
involved in levels of fraud that sound bizarre and insidious. Sal confides that he
continues to help his friends who still work at the college and are treated like
slaves. A group is trying to fight legally against this teacher but, Sal says, since
the police and legal system are corrupt, they may not get far.
The Wat Plays
In reading interviews of Cambodian artists, I learned that historically many
of the male artists went to wats to study as young boys. In a “Comment” in the
Phnom Penh Post, Nadezda Bektimirova writes:
Monks are trusted by the people, which is why the politicians wish to
use the Sangha’s authority for the implementation of their purely secular
tasks. But as the previous political experience of Cambodia shows, the
monks will be trusted as long as they stay independent of any politicians,
as long as they are neutral and free to express their own opinion on different
I am impressed by the way, from the start, the students jump into the playwriting
process. Discussion and rewrites help them, in varying degree, to consolidate
locales and sharpen plots. A young, male circus artist performs an
autobiographical monologue about how he gave up painting for the circus,
blending his words with circus acrobatics. He and many of the students are
doubtful when I suggest this idea of mixing forms, but the result is exciting
and energizing for both the performer and the audience. In a few cases teachers
give stories to younger students to write. An older male teacher/student
listens attentively when women in the class offer suggestions for his play about
a man who has two wives.
The older teacher/students also sometimes serve as mentors. The actress
Sok Ly, who skillfully performed in my play Photographs from S-21 in 2001, and
is in my class this time, coaches the young, male circus artist in acting for his
monologue, with strong results. My suggestion that Sok Ly and the circus artist
work together is originally met with surprise by both, but the result provides
communication between generations and disciplines.
Our dress rehearsal for the two-day Playwriting Works-in-Progress Festival, The Wat Plays 2003, is on 10 December—Human Rights Day. On this day, my
friend and colleague, Kay Matschullat, who will direct my play about Cambodia, Eyes of the Heart, in New York in October 2004, generously arrives for 10 days from New York to help me and to explore Cambodia. She energetically smoothes comings-and goings
between the readings, stages the sprawling curtain call, and teaches a warm-up for the playwrights/ actors to do before performances. The students immediately warm to Kay’s enthusiasm and openness.
The two-day Festival is held on 11 and 12 December, and both days the audience is filled with RUFA students in their early to mid-teens—all dressed in their crisp black-and-white uniforms. It is a full house, with few Westerners. Out of the 26 short plays, many are about thieves and the absence of “rule of law” in the country. It is difficult for the audience to sit through readings of 26 short plays in a two-day period, and hard for some of the artists to accept that the performances can onlybe readings. The emphasis placed on what has been written is difficult for many of the students and audiences to understand. This is a great lesson: readings are limiting on one hand, and beautiful on another. The possibility of listening to written words in a play is a luxury we tend to forget.
On the first day of the Festival the plays run like clockwork (if a slow clock)
and we have plenty of time for discussion. The young female playwright
whom I find the most talented, the one who wrote about the female thief who
steals car parts, is called to the mike to explain how she did it. Then, promptly,
another audience member tells her how he would rewrite her play. The desire
for an audience to get involved in the critique appears to be a universal in the
theatre, as does the fact that you can locate the playwright in the wings, hovering,
as he or she holds the script, following along with the actors onstage.
The first day of the discussion yields many lectures from male RUFA teachers
in the audience. There seems to be a precedent at the school for older males to
tell students what to do. At one point one such teacher criticizes the lack of
authentic context for true Buddhist thought in The Wat Plays. The fact that
for the younger generation the wat has turned into a new kind of place that is
not always used for sacred worship seems to worry him. Instead of seeing what
the students have written, he reprimands them for what they did not write. I
leap to the microphone to defend my writers, explaining the idea that this is a
On the second day of the festival, the playwrights onstage are more self-possessed
during the discussion and many of them take the microphone to answer
questions and make comments about their plays. When one audience
member asks a female teacher/student why she chose the sad ending for her
powerful play about a brutal rape, she defends her decision, explaining the reality
of such events. Another audience member recognizes that the play about
the car accident is honest in its final violent image: a man shooting a gun into
the air. A Western audience member asks about the use of “ghosts” in some
of the plays and a playwright explains how offerings to dead ancestors bring
luck to the living. There is less lecturing by the male RUFA teachers in the
The six-week course and Festival confirm my suspicion from 2001, when I
taught two brief master classes at RUFA: some of the young Khmer artists are
The clear spirit of fun, play, inquiry and an innate sense of the dramatic are
present at RUFA. The variety of artistic disciplines and ages in the near 30-
person class makes the experience extremely unique. The students’ hunger to
get involved is palpable and, even when I give simple quizzes on the Khmer
reading material I have photocopied for them, the students seem punchy with
excitement, as if this kind of rigor and follow-through are rare. The condensed
nature of the course provides needed momentum and, though the quality of
the plays varies, we are able to establish a cohesive forum for criticism and discussion.
The students’ ability to think outside of their specific traditional art
forms is new and sometimes difficult, but ultimately seems to be enlightening
for them. I see young students’ faces change as they gain the confidence one
gets from trying and succeeding at something brand new.
Frumberg, the director of AMRITA Performing Arts, tells me, “The biggest
impact of the playwriting course and the Festival was nurturing and encouraging
creativity in both thought and writing, and promoting dialogue
among art students and between students and teachers, both of which are
rather groundbreaking and crucial steps in our current development” (2004).
He says he was particularly excited by the number of women who attended
and the amount of talent I discovered in many of them.
The power of playwriting as it is forged in a new way, in a new place, with
new stories that need to be told, is exciting. A breakfast meeting reveals that if
my class is to continue in the curriculum, I will have to find a way to pay the
teacher’s salary. No existing teacher at RUFA will have the energy to continue
my class on his or her salary of U.S.$24 a month.
As Bun Rith says good-bye at the end of the second day of the Festival, he
shows me his new business card for Fred Frumberg’s NGO, AMRITA Performing Arts, which has an orange lotus on it. He explains that a lotus flower grows in dirty water and only needs sun. Some lotus flowers stay underwater and are snapped up by fish before they can see the light of day. Some flowers take longer to surface.
Trees Falling Down
On the last day of class, Kay Matschullat and I see that someone has chopped
all the branches off the bodhi tree outside the theatre. Before we begin our
goodbye party, Kay talks to the students a little about directing. One question
posed by a student is what must a director do if an actor is unable to connect
with other actors onstage? The Khmer answer, given by another student, is for
the director to take the actor out to dinner. Kay explains that she believes there
is a technical craft to acting, which actors need to learn to draw upon. Soon
after, Sal, Chath, and I bring out bananas, gelatin squares wrapped in leaves,
and soda. The students surprise us with a highly colorful frosted cake with violets.
We laugh and blow out the candles together. We dance and sing for the
rest of the class period, some of the students sharing classical dance, circus performance,
and songs. Kim Pinun, my liaison at RUFA, presents me with a
large wooden sculpture of a Khmer woman, breasts exposed, and assiduously
affixes a paper on the back, saying: “Souvenirs—To Catherine Filloux from
Kim Pinun (Cambodia).”
The next day Kay teaches an acting workshop for the professional National
Theatre actors, with whom I worked in 2001. Kay is enveloped by these performers,
who work on scenes from The Wat Plays. Kay and I are told that spoken
theatre students are taught certain vocal inflections for certain emotions.
This casts light on the sing-song style which is sometimes used by actors in
Cambodia. As Kay works with the students, I note that Nou Sandab is hilarious
as well as convincing as the alcoholic mother. Seng Bunaron plays the old
man run down on his motorcycle by the wealthy car owner. Kry Onn plays
the man who comes to the old man’s rescue. Kay and I are told by my friend,
a RUFA student who has just graduated, that Moliere’s L’Avare (The Miser)
was translated into Khmer in the 1960s. Kay observes that Bunaron would
make a wonderful miser in Moliere’s play, and Kry Onn, who has attended the
entire Festival and wants to direct, could direct the play.
I run into the man in charge of theatre operations and ask what happened
to the bodhi tree. He says it was in danger of falling and destroying the theatre,
so they had to prune it.
Back in New York on 15 January 2004, I hear on NPR that Uta Hagen has
died. I call Billy Carden at HB Playwrights Foundation to give him my sympathy.
He quietly speaks to me about her illness and her contribution to the
I go running up West End Avenue in the snow and on my way back home
at 79th Street and West End, by chance I’m stopped by police sirens and a cavalcade
of black cars and limousines, followed by a car with flowers and a coffin.
The sirens blare and cars and pedestrians stop to look at the spectacle. Death is
in the sirens, in the black cortege, in the temporarily hushed intersection of
busy New York streets. You can see family members sitting in some of the cars,
dressed in elegant black.
As I run back home, I think that when people died in Cambodia during the
Pol Pot time, there were no sympathetic phone calls, no coffins, no sirens, no
flowers, no hushed acknowledgment, no reverence. But just days ago I drove
past the beautiful villa of Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s right-hand man, and saw the
guards reverently protecting his wealth and his privacy. Ieng Sary is the man I
indict in my play Silence of God, for currently living a free, luxurious life in
Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, next to the millions who
survived and/or lost family during the Khmer Rouge regime.
In my mind the faces of my students appear: from the 18-year-old classical
dancer who looks like a little girl and writes truthfully about the death of her
mother, to the teacher/student who writes about the brutal rape. This teacher/
student’s hair is still wet from washing when she comes to class after lunch and,
despite the heat, she always looks refreshed. When I talk to her about her
work, she looks me in the eyes earnestly, and when the actors from the National
Theatre perform her play, she blushes. As a playwright I find it hard to
distance myself from anger toward the injustice I witness, as my acquaintance
at the party advised. Maybe it’s the writing bond. The trust given to me for
very little reason, except that these student artists are full of grace, light, and
joy, despite their hardships. A gun, a careless bullet in their path? The air between
all of us is so fragile: life. I can never forget my students’ faces, or their
names—but can a writer dare sign his or her name in Cambodia?
Also on 15 January 2004, the same day I hear about Uta Hagen and coincidentally
see the funeral cortege, back in Phnom Penh activists Chhin Laa and
Keo Chan from Cambodia’s opposition Democracy Party are gunned down
and killed. A week later, trade union activist Chea Vichea is shot dead.
One way to sign a letter in Cambodia is Sok Tuk Chea Thamada. “Peace and
Pain as usual.”
1. This is a continuation of an article about Cambodia, “Ten Gems on a Thread,” which
first appeared in @nd…a New Dramatists Publication, in 2002 and later in Manoa: In the
Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia 2004. In 2001 I did a theatre project in Cambodia, returning two years later on a Fulbright Senior Specialist grant to
teach playwriting at the Royal University of Fine Arts. My most recent play, Lemkin’s
House, will be produced at the Kamerni 55 Theatre in Sarajevo in December 2004. Eyes
of the Heart will be produced by National Asian American Theatre Co. (NAATCO) in
New York, in October 2004.
2003 “Comment.” Phnom Penh Post, November/December.
2004  “Ten Gems on a Thread.” Manoa: In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing
from Cambodia 2004 16, 1:177–87. First published in @nd…a New Dramatists
Publication 1, 1.
2004 Email to author. Phnom Penh, 13 April.
Ly Daravuth, and Ingrid Muan
2001 Cultures of Independence: An Introduction to Cambodian Arts and Culture in the
1950’s and 1960’s. Phnom Penh: Reyum Publishing.
Catherine Filloux is a playwright whose plays include : The Beauty Inside (InterAct
Theatre Co. & New Georges, 2005); Eyes of the Heart (NAATCO, 2004); Silence of God (commissioned/produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival,
2002); Mary and Myra (CATF, 2000/Todd Mountain Theater Project, 2002). Photographs
from S-21, a short play, has toured the world. Her opera libretto, The
Floating Box (composer: Jason Kao Hwang), premiered at the reopening of Asia Society
in New York, 2001 (CD: New World Records). She has received commissions
from Theatreworks/USA; Silapak Khmer Amatak for an opera libretto with Cambodian
composer Him Sophy; and Ohio State University, where she was the 2003 James
Thurber Playwright-in-Residence. She has received awards from the Kennedy Center
Fund for New American Plays, the O’Neill National Playwrights’ Conference, the
Rockefeller MAP Fund, Asian Cultural Council, and Fulbright Senior Specialist. Her
plays are published by Smith & Kraus, Playscripts, Inc., and Vintage. She is a member
of New Dramatists.